This Valentine’s day, skip the flowers and chocolates — instead, why don’t you travel to a place that will remind you what love is really all about. That place is Annaberg-Buchholz, Germany, and when I visited last fall, I discovered a tale of romance that uplifted my heart. It’s practically a Disney fairytale, and it made me believe in the power of love again.
For the love of bells
St. Anne’s Church Bell Tower, Annaberg-Buchholtz Germany. (Photo: Sherry Ott/Ott’s World)
As a young boy in the village of Annaberg-Buchholz, Matthias was crazy for bells. Every morning at 9:35 a.m., he would stand on the street beneath St. Anne’s Church mesmerized by the bell tower and the sound. He’d still be listening to the bells while his friends tried to pull him along to school. At that time, there was no way to visit the bell tower — Matthias could only stare up at the sky and wonder.
One day Matthias decided to send a letter to the bell ringers and ask all the questions he had swirling in his head; he wanted to know about the bells and about the old couple who lived in the tower with them. He remarked about the new paint on the tower, and how much he’d love to see and ring the bells. He even offered to play the organ for them in exchange. He asked them to look at out their window at 9:35 a.m. to see him waving.
The original note Matthias wrote to the old couple — complete with hand-drawn pictures. (Photo: Sherry Ott/Ott’s World)
His letter was answered. He sent more. The old couple answered again. In 1981 at 12 years old, Matthias was invited by the old couple to come up and meet them — and to ring the bells one Sunday.
Matthias’s love for the bell tower grew as his relationship with the old couple did. The old man was responsible for bell ringing, and his wife took care of the dark little apartment in the tower. Matthias visited them frequently, and instead of dreaming of being a fireman or a doctor, he dreamed of becoming a bell ringer.
As Matthias grew up, his dream stayed with him. His love for bells and his desire to be the town’s next ringer to live in the tower was stronger than ever. And then, six years after his first tower visit, Matthias met Marit, a local teenage girl. There was a little spark. Something else stirred Matthias’ heart besides bells.
People in town told Marit that her new boyfriend was mad for bells and the bell tower; they warned her that she would have to live up there one day. Being young and in love, she just thought people were trying to scare her, and decided to ignore the warnings.
As Matthias and Marit grew closer and closer, he would often talk about the bells and the family in the tower. But when you are in throws of love you don’t always hear and see everything clearly. One day Matthias offered to take Marit up the 211 stairs of the bell tower to meet the old couple. Love-struck Marit agreed; however, when she got to the tower and started climbing the stairs, she became scared. The steps were old and creaky, and the tower was dark and cold. At this time bell towers weren’t a tourist attraction — they were more like a frightening dungeon in the sky.
St. Anne’s entrance (Photo: Sherry Ott/Ott’s World)
She suddenly saw Matthias in a different light; maybe he was mad. Did SHE want to live in a cold, dark tower and ring bells? After all, Marin was 18 and simply dreamt of a normal life in a normal home, and starting a family. Marin secretly hoped the old bell ringer couple lived forever. She told Matthias that his idea to take over the bell ringing and live in the tower was crazy.
Queue the sad music with the bells echoing in the background as a devastated Matthias says goodbye to the old couple and walks down the 211 steps and joins Marin out on the sidewalk.
Luckily Matthias loved one thing more than he loved bells — Marin. He loved her so much that he gave up on his bell tower dream. They were married in 1990 at 20 years old. They had a normal life in Annaberg-Buchholz; were a part of a community in a normal neighborhood; they lived in a normal house; and held normal jobs. The bells rang in the background, but they were never mentioned again.
Matthias still remained friends with the old couple, and when the old man passed in 1995, the old woman lived alone in the tower for a year. But the stairs were too much for her, so she eventually moved out of the tower and gave Matthias the key. By this time in the late 90s, the ringing was semi-automated and Matthias took the key and played the bells only on special occasions when needed for the church. The apartment in the tower that the old couple had lived in started to deteriorate with no life left in it.
As Marit neared her thirties, she had matured and realized (like most of us do) that maybe living the ‘normal’ life that everyone else lives isn’t what she wanted. She never told Matthias, but as she walked by the church, she started thinking about the bells and the tower again; staring up to the sky wondering what it might be like to live there.
The thoughts grew, and suddenly the bell tower didn’t seem so scary, it seemed unique and different.
After eight years of Matthias never bringing up the idea of living in the bell tower, one night in 1998 Marit broached the subject again much to her husband’s surprise. She told Matthias that she had been warming up to the idea of living in the bell tower. Immediately that night Matthias contacted the church, and the wheels were put in motion.
The church had already formed a committee and had started to consider opening the tower for tourism; the bell tower of St. Anne’s church had the best view of the city. When they heard that Matthias was interested in living in the tower, it gave them the push they needed to make it all happen. After all, they had always had faith that Matthias would take over the bells and the bell tower; he was the chosen one.
The old apartment in the tower was not fit to house a family, though, as it had fallen into disrepair. With the input of Matthias and Marit, the church remodeled the entire apartment and rebuilt the tower staircase so that it would be safe and comfortable for tourists to enjoy the climb and the views.
Finally, in 1999, Matthias and Marit moved into the apartment and the tower opened up to the public. The apartment is situated above the balcony viewing area, so the couple was able to maintain a private home, oversee the bells, and welcome the new tower visitors.
In 2000, Matthias and Marit had a son named Toni, and their bell tower family was now complete. Marit, a new mother, didn’t have an easy task carrying a baby up 211 stairs multiple times a day, but she knew it was worth it to live in such a unique place. And to have the love of her life’s dream come true.
Marit, Toni, and Matthias Melzer. (Photo: Uwe Meinhold)
As I mounted the 211 stairs last October, I was touched by the vases of fresh flowers placed at each level of the climb. It felt as if I were entering a home; the longest entryway into a home I had ever experienced! When I reached the top where the bells were, I met Marit, now 45, who was sitting by a little floor heater, taking the tickets and reading a book in the stone tower. Clothes were hanging on lines behind the bells. I had really walked into someone’s home, it felt different than any other church bell tower I had visited before.
This bell tower is unlike any others. It’s a real home, with clothes drying right under the clappers. (Photo: Sherry Ott/Ott’s World)
I was mesmerized as Marit told me the story of how she ended up living in the church bell tower; I hung on her every word asking a million questions as my friend translated. My mind danced with images of how the family grew up here and lived day to day in this unusual setting. Their son, Toni, now a teenager, must have the coolest house in the world, I thought. This was by far the most unusual bell tower I have ever visited, and it hides a beautiful touching story of desire, passion, love, and music.
And the view isn’t bad either…
The view from the bell Tower of Annaberg-Buchholtz. (Photo: Sherry Ott/Ott’s World)
If you are in Germany, make a stop in Annaberg-Buchholz in Saxony to experience St. Anne’s Church yourself. Constructed from 1499 to 1525, it’s one of the most significant late Gothic hall churches in Germany. Take special note of the grand pulpit created by sculptor Frans Maidburg, the Annaberg Mountain Altar by Hans Hesse, and the baptismal font and the carved door by Hans Witten.
And of course don’t miss out on the chance to visit the Melzer family in the bell tower. It’s open May through October, and tickets can be bought in the church.
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