Small in stature, EISENACH, 30km west of Gotha, abounds with the big hitters of German culture. It is the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach and the refuge from which Martin Luther shaped German Protestantism. Goethe and – with a bit of poetic licence – Wagner get a look in, too, thanks to the Wartburg, not just a UNESCO-listed castle whose thirteenth-century court inspired an opera, Tannhäuser, but a cradle of culture that’s hard-wired into the national psyche. Indeed, such is the heavyweight punch of the small town that everyone rather overlooks the fact that Eisenach is also an amiable place which wears its cultural legacy lightly, not to mention a good launch-pad from which to explore the Thuringian Forest just south. Its compact Altstadt is best enjoyed at walking pace – and as the town is on every coach-tour itinerary in Thuringia you may not have any choice about it.
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Few German cities possess so potent an icon as the UNESCO-listed Wartburg, which commands a hill top south of the Altstadt. The story goes that founder Ludwig der Springer, impressed by the landscape on a hunt, cried, “Wait, mountain [Wart’ Burg!], you shall have my castle!”, a good yarn that overlooks an early watchtower (Warte). First mentioned in 1080, the castle was beefed up after Landgrave Ludwig II married into the family of mighty Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and was then tinkered with by members of the dynasty thereafter. Consequently it peels back along its ridge like a picture-book composite of German castles, best appreciated from a lookout uphill from the Torhaus gatehouse. Laid over this architectural encyclopedia is the revivalist fetishizing of the past in vogue during its renovation in the 1840s. Indeed, it is only Goethe’s perception that the site was significant to German identity that stopped the complex being left to collapse. You’re free to wander about the twin courtyards or ascend the Südturm, the only watchtower preserved from the medieval castle, for views over the complex and the Thuringian Forest beyond. It’s a stiff forty-minute walk from the Altstadt to the Wartburg, much of it uphill: southeast of the Predigerkirche, is the most direct route, a woodland path off Reuterweg, near Reuter-Villa, the most atmospheric. And word of warning: crowds are heavy on high-summer weekends.
The Palas, the oldest and most architecturally impressive building of the Wartburg, is accessed on tours. Its early Romanesque rooms are canopied by vaults that umbrella from a single column capped with inventive (if reproduction) capitals. Those that most catch the eye are the quarters that have been rather over zealously restored as a paean to medieval roots: former women’s quarters the Elisabeth Room, which shimmers in a skin of faux-Byzantine mosaics (1902), or the Elisabeth Gallery and Hall of Minstrels that inspired Wagner, both frescoed with rich medieval-esque images by Romantic painter Moritz von Schwind. Then there’s the gloriously over-the-top Festsaal, the venue in which student fraternities laid down a gauntlet to the ruling elite in 1817 (see The Wartburg: cradle of culture). So impressed was “Mad” Bavarian king Ludwig II by this coffered banqueting hall that he commissioned a replica for Schloss Neuschwanstein.
It was Goethe’s idea to turn the Schloss into a museum of medieval exhibits at a time when Germany was redisovering its heritage. Today the small museum in women’s quarters the Neu Kemenate displays a small hoard of Wartburg treasure and Reformation-era art, notably portraits by Cranach, including one of Martin Luther, and a cabinet carved with intricate scenes inspired by the prints of Albrecht Dürer.
From the museum, tours continue to the Lutherstube. It was in this simple room that Martin Luther, then excommunicated and in hiding as squire Junker Jörg, toiled over a German translation of the New Testament. They say he hurled his inkpot at a devil that appeared to prevent his labours, which is why there is a patch of bare masonry in one corner – the wood panels have been chipped away by centuries of souvenir-hunters.
The Wartburg: cradle of culture
The Wartburg: cradle of culture
The Wartburg dominates German culture as much as it commands Eisenach’s skyline. It has its own saint for a start, St Elisabeth, a thirteenth-century Hungarian princess, betrothed to Landgrave Ludwig IV, who renounced courtly splendour to pursue an ascetic life caring for the sick. It was some court to snub, too. At the time Wartburg was considered to be one of the richest arts centres in Europe. The finest troubadour of his generation, Walther von der Vogelweide, clashed with Parsifal author Wolfram von Eschenbach in the celebrated Contest of Minstrels sing-offs; the winner of the six-strong Battle of the Bards met with princely favour, the loser the hangman’s noose.
Arguably, the most significant moment in the Wartburg’s history, though, was the arrival of Martin Luther in May 1521. Excommunicated and declared a heretic for refusing to renounce his doctrine at the Diet of Worms, the renegade priest was kidnapped by order of Saxony Elector Frederick the Wise and protected within the Wartburg’s mighty walls. The former cleanly shaven, tonsured monk remained incognito as bearded, tousle-haired Junker Jörg (Squire George) while he toiled for fourteen months over the first translation of the New Testament from Greek into the vernacular. For German Protestants that makes the Wartburg a holy of holies. For everyone else, Luther simultaneously propelled German into a modern language.
On October 18, 1817, five hundred students from eleven German universities met to celebrate a Wartburgfest. The jollies morphed into a rallying call for unity delivered to a nation of petty fiefdoms, and the first demand for democratic rights delivered to its ducal rulers. And when students of Jena university hoisted their fraternity flag above the fireplace, Germany found the black, red and gold colours for its future national flag. A darker upshot was that the Nazis cited as an inspiration their book-burning of Napoleonic works.