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The town's oldest—and Germany's second oldest—half-timbered house, the Ständerbau, lies at the base of the Schlossberg. Built in 1310, its austere Gothic structure contains the Fachwerkmuseum, devoted to the evolution of the half-timbered construction style which is depicted in a wealth of maps, photographs and models. (Descriptions in German.)

Quedlinburg's concentration of half-timbered houses makes it easy to put your new-found knowledge to quick use. Even a short walk through the city's narrow streets (wear sturdy shoes due to the omnipresent cobblestones) becomes an architectural primer of half-timbered styles.

For example, most streets feature several late Gothic houses with only a hint of decorative devices, while the many Renaissance houses are more intricate, with rows of hexagrams or carved, double-rope helices thought to protect inhabitants against demons and sickness. During this period, the more upscale homes featured enclosed balconies that jutted into the street, so women could sit and watch the goings-on. The Latin inscription on one reads: "Mind Your Own Business." (Don't be surprised to see elderly women, elbows propped on pillows, watching every passerby.)

By the 17th century, bricks filled the spaces between the timbers in baroque houses, and builders used brickwork and timbers to create designs and figures—symbols to fend off illness and increase crop fertility. Through the early 1800s, styles became increasingly ornate and the half-timbered style became more decoration than construction scheme.

Since Quedlinburg is an historical work in progress, visitors can see houses in various stages of restoration—or lack thereof. Some fallen walls reveal layers of stone, brick and plaster (mixed with straw, horsehair and mud) framed by wooden beams.

Some walls have come down completely, revealing inner courtyards and farm yards. As early as the 12th century, farmers brought their families and animals to the relative safety of the town, and built houses around grazing areas, stables and barns. Today, these structures are distinguished by the large gateways that allowed for the passage of carriages, and by the overhead pulleys used to lift grain and crops to the top floors.

Despite moving to town, many lost stored crops in fires and wars. As insurance, each farmer stashed a bag of seed in one of the honeycomb of cubbyholes in the tower of St. Benedict's, the market church. That way, regardless of what might befall the town, the "urban farmers" could always fall back on the stored seed to start planting again the next spring.

A walk through town reveals many interesting sights and curiosities. The only entrance to the windowless medieval treasury is from inside the Rathaus through a secret door leading from the council chamber. Unfortunately, the location of the button that opens the door was forgotten generations ago.

If you ask directions, don't be offended if a resident tells you to go to Hell. That's simply the name of an intersection. In medieval times, an alchemist's oven belched smoke through a hole in his roof. It wasn't the smoke or fire, but the "devils work" being conducted that led to the name.

The town's narrowest alley—a tunnel almost—opens into the Schuhhof, where shoemakers set up shop and home in the 16th century. Like the alley, its houses are tiny. Since interior space was at a premium, shutters were built to open up and down so that the bottom one would become a counter, enabling the shoemaker to sell his wares without customers crowding inside his house.

The Schuhhof leads to Quedlinburg's bright, expansive Marktplatz. The best view of it is from the northern end; across the length of the cobblestone plaza to the Gothic Town Hall with its Renaissance façade (almost fully covered by vines and flowers) and the steeple of St. Benedict's rising behind it. As it has been for centuries, the marketplace is the center of commerce, surrounded by restaurants and hotels, with farmers' markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It's also the perfect place to finish one's explorations—or take a well-deserved break.

Plan on at least two days to do Quedlinburg justice.