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Why the abbess was served spinach pizza at the cloister

Surprises at the cloisters on Lueneburg Heide

There are six inhabited convents on Lueneburg Heath, each a day's ride away from the others. From Luene convent at the heart of Lueneburg to Wienhausen near Celle, from Walsrode in the west to Medingen near Bad Bevensen in the east: these cultural sites surprise their visitors time and again.

The summer season in particular is enticing for many visitors due to the varied cultural programmes and because they can travel by bicycle on one of the flat and therefore popular cycle paths on the heath. It is a journey from one treasure to the next.

Three of the convents are connected by a cycle path named the "Convent Route".

"The high concentration of convents is not unusual," explains abbess Erika Krueger of Ebstorf Cloister to the west of Uelzen, "but the fact that they are all protestant convents for women is really quite unique".

Landed gentry funded the convents until the late Middle Ages as they wanted to send their daughters there. After the Reformation, the duke promised to fund the maintenance of the convents. "The promise still exists today", explains the abbess. "We would be unable to survive on the money generated by guided tours and concerts". Each convent manages its own economic affairs.

Ebstorf has the famous world map

These is a lot to experience: visitors to Ebstorf can marvel at the copy of the large mappa mundi dating from the 13th century. The "Paradise Gardens", small tablets probably used as praying aids, are cultural and historical treasures. The same applies to the medieval statue of Madonna from the period when Ebstorf was a pilgrimage cloister.

The textile museum at Luene Convent is considered a special treasure. It depicts the altar cloths and Lenten veils produced by Benedictine nuns the ladies of the protestant foundation. "Many date from the years 1250 to 1350", as one of the ladies reports. Eucharistic cloths and bench covers as well as large woven carpets and a weaving mill also count among the sights worth seeing. The café reflects the Renaissance style of the 17th century. "We are a haven of tranquility at the heart of the historic town buildings", as a conventual enthusiastically proclaims.

Medingen is currently the largest cloister

Medingen Cloister near Bad Bevensen that became a protestant ladies' foundation after the Reformation of 1559, was once the most powerful in the region and home to more than 100 conventuals. Unmarried daughters from Lueneburg's patrician families entered the cloister with wealthy households, thus increasing its wealth. Numerous hymns were penned at the cloister.

Today, it is home to 18 conventuals - the largest convent in Lower Saxony. The hooked staff dating from 1494 that once belonged to the first ever abbess to take office in Medingen is carefully guarded by the current incumbent. Visitors can marvel at rare items of furniture, paintings and tapestries in the castle-like structure and its impressive circular church. Even freshwater pearls count among the treasures. The music events held in the old walls are very popular, especially in autumn.

Walsrode: social tradition

Walsrode is home to the oldest heath cloister and was first mentioned in the year 986. Napoleon's soldiers occupied the cloister in 1812, threw out the nuns and sold the furniture. Citizens of the 19th century would remember it as a social welfare facility. 

The first girls school for the poor in Walsrode opened its doors in 1842. The cloister subsequently made a name for itself as a hospital and, sometime later, as a pre-school for young children. Abbess Sigrid Vierck is happy to welcome visitors. The cloister grounds are open daily until 6 p.m.; guided tours are available until the end of October.

Wienhausen offers guided tours in the Low German dialect

Wienhausen Cloister to the east of Celle can only be visited on guided tours. They are even offered in English, French and Spanish. "Low German on request", says one of the 15 conventuals in pointing out the options. In 1587, the first protestant abbess took over the management of the former Cistercian cloister that had received a wealth of donations from the Duchy of Celle and the bishops of Hildesheim.

Even though the idea may be tempting, tourists cannot stay overnight at the convents on Lueneburg Heath. "We don't take in interim conventuals", says a lady of the foundation. "But you should come back - as often as you can."

Questions to abbess Erika Krueger, provost of Ebstorf Cloister in Lueneburg Heath

Your Reverence, what do you actually do all day long at the cloister apart from praying?

As the provost of a cloister, I have numerous tasks - a kind of manager, so to speak. Concerts and other events need to be organised; in the summer we conduct interesting guided tours; building repairs are always on the agenda or I may have to answer the question: How can we reduce energy consumption? Gardens need tending, or I may recruit interested young women to join us.

Would you like to have a few more?

Yes. Currently there are eight women living at the convent. Theoretically, we could take on 16. What we need are young women with commitment. That is what we want. And it's so lovely here at the convent. Free space and obligations are well-balanced, everyone does their bit, conducts guided tours, etc. The women don't need to bring anything with them, just themselves. That said, we are not a loosely connected, we live closer together. In other words: our convent - the our community of women - judges very carefully whether or not a candidate is suitable. Everyone needs to find her space and community. Each one of our members has her own two-room apartment with a kitchen, a bathroom and a small garden.

Really? Individual kitchens? So you don't eat together?

Only rarely. Tastes are too different. I, for instance, do not like fish, it makes me run a mile.

What do you like to eat most of all?

I am passionate about spinach pizza. But it's not everyone's cup of tea.

I see. How long have you been here at Ebstorf Cloister and how exactly did you come to be here?

Eight years. I read a classified advert: women with personality wanted, and so I applied. During discussions with my predecessor, I was asked time and again whether I could imagine running this kind of facility. I became acquainted with the convent. There was a vote – the abbess is elected by the convent - and I was elected abbess. Today, I know it was the right step for me and that I have a wonderful task.

So your not a career nun? Are you even catholic?

No, you are obviously not up to date. The six cloisters on Lueneburg Heath have all been protestant convents since the Reformation in the 16th century. We live in accordance with Christian principles, as could be expected of conventuals, don't you think? We convene for morning prayers at 9 a.m. Our ladies can leave the cloister at any time, they just have to let us know. Everyone is entitled to eight weeks' holiday per year. We have very different educational backgrounds. For instance, I trained as a teacher of German and history, underwent training in Public Relations and Management, worked in the social sector and as a home manager, etc.

Respect. In that case you know all about life. But what does Ebstorf Cloister have that others don't?

The world map from the 13th century that is at home at Ebstorf Cloister is even mentioned in Australian encyclopaedias. Many visitors come to marvel at the 13-square-metre treasure. To the top of the map is the east. At its centre lies the golden Jerusalem of the future. Christ is holding the world. Head, hands and feet can be seen on the map. It is to this day unclear who designed the map. Hence the frequent speculations and reports. Things remain interesting. What we have on display, however, is a copy. The original was destroyed by fire in Hanover during the Second World War. But we have much more to offer, such as a beautiful church, a medieval covered walk with 15 windows full of valuable glass paintings and other treasures. We organise concerts and exhibitions and sing by candlelight in the covered walk. You really should pay us a visit!

By Jan Bluecher