For many visitors – particularly those arriving at Frankfurt airport – Hesse is their first taste of Germany. It can be a disconcerting experience, for at first sight there’s little about Frankfurt’s steel-and-glass modernity or its easy internationalism to summon up childhood notions of a Hansel-and-Gretel Germany. Yet dig a little deeper and you’ll find reminders of the world-famous German figures who were either born here, made their home in Hesse or passed this way: of Goethe in Frankfurt; of the Brothers Grimm in Marburg and Kassel; and of St Boniface – the English bishop who became the patron saint of Germany – in Fritzlar and Fulda. In Darmstadt, meanwhile, there are reminders of Germany’s complex relationship to the British royal family.
The modern Land of Hesse was created by the occupying Americans after World War II, who joined the Prussian province of Hesse-Nassau – itself an amalgamation of the old Electorate of Hesse-Kassel, the comic-opera statelet of Hesse-Homburg and the Duchy of Nassau – to the former Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt.Confusing? Perhaps. But the complexity of its history helps explain the richness and diversity of Hesse’s attractions. If it’s big-city buzz that you crave, then Frankfurt – Germany’s fifth largest city and the financial capital of the Eurozone – has much to offer, from heavyweight museums to evocative reminders of its literary, imperial and Jewish pasts. In the south, laidback Darmstadtis unmissable for fans of Jugendstil, and also a base for visiting a brace of UNESCO World Heritage sites – the Messel fossil site and the monastery at Lorsch. The genteel spa-towns of Wiesbaden and Bad Homburg make the perfect antidote to Frankfurt’s urban stress. Away from the Rhine–Main region, Hesse is archetypal Germany, with a rolling and often forested landscape that reaches near-mountainous heights in the Taunus and Rhön.
Other than Frankfurt, the towns are mostly small, but they’re an appealing bunch, from picture-book cathedral towns such as Fritzlar, Limburg an der Lahn and Wetzlar to the proud university town of Marburg or the handsome former prince-bishopric of Fulda. Smaller than them all, yet well worth a visit, is the tiny ducal seat of Weilburg. In the north, Kassellures visitors for the documenta contemporary art fair, but then surprises with its exceptional Baroque gardens and excellent museums.
North of the Taunus and on Hesse’s western border, the River Lahn – a tributary of the Rhine – meanders its way through a placid landscape of gentle upland beauty, threaded with historic and interesting small towns. The Lahntalradweg cycle route ensures the valley is deservedly popular with cyclists, and many hotels proclaim their cycle-friendliness, while the Lahn’s waters are popular with canoeists. But the valley can be explored just as easily by car or train. Highlights along the way include the delightful small cathedral cities of Limburg an der Lahn and Wetzlar, and the diminutive but pristine Residenzstadt of Weilburg.
Perched on a crag overlooking the River Lahn in full view of traffic speeding along the Frankfurt–Cologne Autobahn, LIMBURG’s impeccably picturesque Dom acts as a sort of billboard-in-stone for the charms of this beguiling little city, for though the attention-grabbing cathedral is undeniably Limburg’s major draw, tucked behind it is a half-timbered Altstadt of modest size but considerable age and beauty. Deservedly popular with day-trippers, Limburg is also an inviting spot for an overnight stay.
Even the landscape genuflects to the feudal authority of WEILBURG’s Schloss, for the River Lahn loops so tightly around the immaculate little town that its Altstadt is almost an island, with the massive Schloss as its heart. Its extraordinary setting aside, Weilburg’s other great curiosity is the Schiffstunnel, a short-cut through the neck of the meander behind the Altstadt, cut between 1844 and 1847 and unique in Germany. You can take a boat trip through it in the summer months – the tourist office has details.
WETZLAR was once a place of some importance. In the mid-fourteenth century it rivalled Frankfurt in size, while from 1693 until its dissolution in 1806 it was the seat of the Reichskammergericht, the highest court of the Holy Roman Empire. This drew Goethe, who came here in 1772 as a legal trainee and it was here he developed an attachment to Lotte Buff, who was to inspire the character of Lotte in The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Jugendstil, the German version of Art Nouveau, is the reason most people visit DARMSTADT, thanks to Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig (1868–1937), under whose aegis the remarkable Mathildenhöhe artistic colony flourished in the years before World War I. Nowadays it boasts of its scientific as well as its artistic credentials; students at the Technische Universität ensure an easygoing nightlife, while Darmstadt is popular with families downshifting from the hurly-burly of Frankfurt. The laidback ambience is infectious; in summer a day or two here is liable to induce a certain feel-good languor.
Darmstadt lost its Altstadt to a nightmarish 1944 air raid, and its bland central shopping streets can safely be skipped in favour of the cluster of monuments around the Schloss and Herrngarten. The most significant attraction, Mathildenhöhe, is to the east, while south of the centre there are more formal gardens in Bessungen. Away from the main sights, much of Darmstadt – particularly the districts fringing its parks – has a villagey charm.
Darmstadt is a good base for forays into the unspoilt southern Hesse countryside, much of which forms part of the Geo-Naturpark Bergstrasse-Odenwald. To the east, the city gives way to woodland and a remarkable archeological site, the Grube Messel. To the south, the Bergstrasse passes through one of Germany’s mildest climate zones on its way to Heidelberg. Protected from easterly winds by the Odenwald uplands, the region produces almonds, cherries, peaches and apricots, and in spring is a profusion of blossom. The major attraction, however, is Charlemagne’s abbey at Lorsch.
Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hessen und bei Rhein (1868–1937), was a grandchild of Queen Victoria, as was his first wife Princess Victoria of Edinburgh, but the marriage was an unhappy one and ended in divorce. In 1931 Georg Donatus, Ernst Ludwig’s son by his second wife Eleonore, married Cecilia of Greece, a member through the maternal line of the Battenberg family, whose family seat, Schloss Heiligenberg, is just south of the city. Shortly after Ernst Ludwig’s death in 1937, the young couple were killed in a plane crash en route to a wedding in London. But the connection to Britain lived on: the wedding – of Georg Donatus’s brother Ludwig to Margaret Geddes, daughter of the British politician and businessman Auckland Geddes – went ahead; the bride wore black. After the war, Cecilia’s brother Philip married the future Queen Elizabeth II, becoming Duke of Edinburgh. Philip’s uncle Louis Mountbatten was the son of the German-born British admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg – who anglicizsed the family name during World War I – and of his wife Viktoria, Ernst Ludwig’s sister.
The anglophile Hesse-Darmstadts remained close to the British royal family until Margaret’s death in 1997. Yet the family’s dynastic links were not only with Britain. Another of Ernst Ludwig’s sisters married Tsar Nicholas II to become Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna, notorious for her friendship with Rasputin. The dynastic links between Darmstadt, London and Russia explain why, when the Russian royals’ remains were rediscovered in Yekaterinburg in the early 1990s, a DNA sample from the Duke of Edinburgh helped to identify them.
What it lacks in size, the mysterious Torhalle at the former Benedictine abbey of Lorsch – another UNESCO World Heritage Site – more than makes up for in beauty and historical significance. The royal abbey was built between 767 and 880 AD, and the Torhalle dates from the latter part of this period. With its well-preserved, festive red-and-white stone facade rising above three very Roman-looking arches, it certainly looks like a gatehouse, hence its popular name, but it’s actually not at all certain what the original function of the little building was. Archeological investigation suggests, however, that it stood within the main gate of the abbey, whose precincts covered a much greater area than that which you now see. The hall upstairs is a palimpsest of wall paintings, from two layers of Carolingian origin to traces of Romanesque and more substantial, Later Gothic work.
A traffic-free promenade leads up to Mathildenhöhe, the artists’ colony founded by the Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig in 1899. A grove of clipped plane trees, the Platanenhain, stands at the entrance and provides shade for summer boules players. The first building is the tiny, richly decorated Russische Kapelle (Tues–Sun 10am–1pm & 2–4pm; donation requested) built for Ernst Ludwig’s relatives, the Russian royal family.
Behind the Platanenhain soars the 48.5m Hochzeitsturm or Wedding Tower designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich as the city’s wedding present to the Grand Duke on the occasion of his second marriage in 1905 and completed in 1908. It remains the colony’s most prominent landmark. It’s an impressive work of architecture, reflecting the eclectic roots of the style: daringly modern for its time yet with copper-clad gables that recall North German brick Gothic.
Take the lift to the top to enjoy views which extend to Frankfurt and the Taunus on a clear day, then descend via two richly decorated rooms: the Hochzeitszimmer or Wedding Room and the opulent Fürstenzimmer. The tower still functions as Darmstadt’s registry office; renovation work at the time of writing meant parts of the building could not be seen. Alongside the Hochzeitsturm the Austellungsgebäude was built for the colony’s 1908 exhibition and is now the venue for major touring art and design exhibitions.
Much smaller than the Hochzeitsturm but more richly decorated, nearby Ernst-Ludwig-Haus was built for the colony’s 1901 exhibition and functioned as the artists’ ateliers. It now houses the Museum Künstlerkolonie, a fascinating exhibition on the history and work of the colony. There’s a model of the area in the foyer, while the displays document the four great exhibitions and the work of individual members of the colony. Highlights include the dining room Peter Behrens created for the Berlin department store Wertheim in 1902. Afterwards, stroll among the villas to the south of the main complex, many of which have been taken over for institutional purposes. Particularly noteworthy are the Kleines Glückerthaus at Alexandraweg 25, Haus Olbrich at no. 28 and Haus Behrens at no. 17.
East of Mathildenhöhe, the Expressionist, brick-built 1924 Löwentor is topped by the lions from the 1914 exhibition and marks the entrance to Rosenhöhe, a former vineyard reworked as an English-style park in the early nineteenth century. The grounds are peppered with buildings, from the 1950s artists’ ateliers to a pretty Biedermeier tea house and the Neoclassical mausoleum in which many of the Hesse-Darmstadts are buried. The highlight is the formal rose garden created for Ernst Ludwig. West of Rosenhöhe on Landgraf-Georg-Strasse, the Familienbad Grosser Woog offers open-air swimming at the lake of the same name.
A few kilometres east of Darmstadt is the GRUBE MESSEL, a redundant oil-shale pit on the site of an ancient volcanic crater-lake which has yielded such rich fossil finds that it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fossils date from the Eocene period around 49 million years ago, when the climate in what is now Hesse was subtropical; the present-day descendants of many of the species found here – including opossum, anteaters, flightless birds and crocodiles – are now only found far from Germany.
The fossils are in exceptionally good condition, often preserving food residue in their stomachs: the macrocranion – a relative of the modern hedgehog – has been found with fish bones in its stomach, while the stomachs of the world’s oldest-known bats preserve the scales of moths and butterflies. One theory for the unusual richness of the finds is that poisonous gas from the crater-lake – a so-called maar volcano – killed the bats. Messel is particularly famous for its fossils of ancient horses, which were tiny compared with their modern descendants.
The impressive new Besucherzentrum (visitor centre) has displays relating to the origins and history of the site, from vulcanicity and the evolution of the landscape to its later industrial heritage. Between April and October it organizes regular daily guided tours of the pit itself; it’s advisable to book in advance, since demand is heavy. The centre has a café.
There’s also a small museum, the Fossilien und Heimatmusem Messel, in the old centre of Messel north of the train station, with lots of fossils on display; it’s worth visiting this and the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt as well as seeing the pit.
The Matildenhöhe artists’ colony in Darmstadt was founded by Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig with the aim of making the city a cultural centre unique in Germany. The artists who joined it built their own houses and lived and worked here, in a district that covered a cluster of streets. The Grand Duke was a passionate art lover, inspired by the English Arts and Crafts movement, one of whose members, Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, refashioned two rooms of the Grand Duke’s residence in 1898. Shortly afterwards, the Grand Duke’s office was designed by the German Jugendstil artist Otto Eckmann, and Jugendstil – literally the “style of youth” – became the colony’s trademark style. Of the seven founding members, the best known are the Austrian architect Joseph Maria Olbrich, who as leader of the colony was responsible for the concept of the first two big exhibitions, and the pioneering modernist Peter Behrens.
Four major exhibitions – in 1901, 1904, 1908 and 1914 – spread the fame of the colony and its innovative work, which embraced architecture, interior design, furniture and applied arts. Olbrich left for Düsseldorf in 1907, where he designed the Tietz department store; he died shortly afterwards. His role as leader of the colony was taken by Albin Müller, but the 1914 exhibition was cut short by the outbreak of World War I, which brought the colony’s brief heyday to an end.
Half-timbered old towns aren’t unusual in Hesse, yet even by the standards of the region, FRITZLAR’s Altstadt is magical, surrounded by its medieval defences and with a central Marktplatz of such theme-park quaintness you pinch yourself to believe that the houses – which are perfectly genuine – weren’t built that way merely to attract tourists. The most eye-catching is the crooked Gildehaus, or Kaufhäuschen, which was built around 1475 and was the guildhouse of the Michaelsbruderschaft, one of the first German trade guilds, which survived into the mid-nineteenth century.
With the uplands of the Vogelsberg to the west and the impressive sweep of the ancient, volcanic Rhön mountains rising to over 900m in the east, there’s a touch of wild grandeur to the spacious landscape around FULDA. And there’s more than a hint of pomp about the old prince-bishops’ Residenzstadt itself, with a stately official Barockviertel, or Baroque quarter, crowning a low-rise hill, adding a stately flourish to the fringes of its attractive, walkable Altstadt, immediately to the south. Relatively remote from Hesse’s other major cities, Fulda has never grown especially large, but it has a bustling, self-sufficient air that makes it an enjoyable place to spend a few days. On the city’s fringe Schloss Fasanerie, the summer residence of the prince-bishops, makes a worthwhile excursion if you have your own transport, while further afield the beautiful uplands of the Rhön Biosphere reserve can be reached easily from Fulda by bus.
East of Fulda and accessible by bus, the 950m Wasserkuppe is the highest mountain of the Rhön and the highest point in Hesse. The landscape was formed by volcanic activity in the Tertiary period. The Rhön region – which stretches into Thuringia and Bavaria – has been declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve to safeguard its pristine upland landscapes, so it comes as a surprise to find the summit of the Wasserkuppe so cluttered. The Deutsches Segelflugmuseum is packed with full-size and model gliders: the summit has been the main centre for gliding in Germany since the 1930s.
Beyond the cluster of buildings, you’ll see paragliders launching themselves off the grassy summit – there’s a school (06654 75 48,
wasserkuppe.com) should you want to join them. A circular walk around the summit offers breathtaking views south over neighbouring peaks and west towards Fulda. On the northwest side at Märchenwiesenhütte there’s a summer toboggan run (€2.50) and, in winter, blue, red and black ski runs. You can rent ski gear on site and there’s a ski and snowboarding school. The Rhön is splendid hiking country: the 89km Rhön Rennsteig Weg – which links the Rhön and Thüringer Wald – starts here, while the 180km Hochrhöner, which passes over the Wasserkuppe, is a sort of “greatest hits” of Rhön hiking, rated among Germany’s most beautiful walks. Unsurprisingly, the Wasserkuppe is also a popular destination for bikers.
KASSEL is the largest city in northern Hesse. Internationally, it’s renowned for the documenta contemporary art exhibition, which rolls in every five years, taking over the city and leaving a legacy of public sculpture unique in Germany. Between times Kassel falls off the radar. True, the centre is dull – as single-mindedly devoted to shopping as any in Germany – but the city’s interesting museums include one devoted to the Brothers Grimm, the parks are among the most extraordinary eighteenth-century garden landscapes in Europe, and the setting, fringed by wooded hills, is lovely. And for those who don’t relish hanging out in shopping centres, the leafy, attractive Vordere Westen quarter – between the city centre and Wilhelmshöhe – has all the elegant Jugendstil architectural details and relaxed café life you could wish for.
For visitors, Kassel is a linear city, with most of the sights at either end of Wilhelmshöher Allee – in the east are the city centre’s museums and a beautiful park, Karlsaue; in the west there’s the exceptional landscape and art collection of Wilhelmshöhe. Hotels and places to eat and drink are scattered between the two.
One of the world’s most important exhibitions of contemporary art and often known as the “one hundred days museum”, documenta (documenta.de) was founded in 1955 by the artist and art educator Arnold Bode to reconcile the German public to international Modernism after the Nazi years, when the official artistic policy had been reactionary and anti-Modern. It became an unparalleled success, and takes place every five years under a new director, with the most recent one attracting 750,000 visitors. documenta 13 runs from 9 June to 16 September 2012.
The exuberance of the palace and parks of Wilhelmshöhe is visible even from the city centre, for the flamboyant Baroque Bergpark climbs the hill in front of you along arrow-straight Wilhelmshöher Allee, which is aligned with the park. The steepness of the incline foreshortens the view, and it’s only once inside it that you realize Wilhelmshöhe is as vast as it is spectacular. Pick up a map from the Besucherzentrum Bergpark at the foot of the park, as the one at the Herkules charges for maps.
Created on the whim of Landgrave Karl in the first decade of the eighteenth century by the Italian Francesco Guerniero, Wilhelmshöhe is dominated by the Herkules-Oktagon, an enormous fantasy castle topped by a pyramid on which stands an 8.25m-tall figure of Hercules, the work of the Augsburg coppersmith Jacob Anthoni. The choice of subject reflected Karl’s not-so-modest view of his own qualities.
From the foot of the Oktagon, the stepped Kaskaden (cascades) descend for 400m; from May to early October, this is the scene of the best free show in Hesse, the Wasserkünste, as water is released at the top and slowly flows downhill. It takes around ten minutes to descend the Kaskaden, then disappears, reappearing over the Steinhöfer waterfall and under the picturesque Teufelsbrücke before finally re-emerging in front of Schloss Wilhelmshöhe to power a spectacular 52-metre-high water jet. The entire performance takes an hour, so that you can comfortably follow its progress downhill. From June to September, there’s an illuminated evening performance on the first Saturday of the month.
The lower reaches of the park are dominated by Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, a massive Neoclassical pile built between 1786 and 1801 to plans by Simon du Roy for Landgrave Wilhelm IX. The central Corps de Logis houses the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, a heavyweight collection of old masters originally amassed by the Landgrave Wilhelm VIII of Hesse-Kassel and ranking with the best in Germany. Laid out over three floors, it is particularly strong in Flemish and Dutch works. The third floor of the museum is a treasure-trove of works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens and Rembrandt, with highlights including Rembrandt’s tender Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh from 1656 and Rubens’ Flight into Egypt, a delicate and modest-sized panel painting that lacks the theatrical swagger of his altarpieces.
The second floor displays Dutch painting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while German works on the first floor include a small Cranach portrait of a rather stout Martin Luther, dated 1543, Dürer’s 1499 Portrait of Elsbeth Tucher and a number of works by Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder, court painter to the Hesse-Kassels, including a portrait of Wilhelm VIII himself. The first floor also displays Italian, Spanish and French art, including canvasses by Titian and Tintoretto. The ground floor and basement of the Corps de Logis are occupied by the Antikensammlung of Classical antiquities, as well as a series of cork models of the monuments of ancient Rome created at the end of the eighteenth century by Antonio Chichi.
The only part of Schloss Wilhelmshöhe that preserves its original Neoclassical interiors is the Weissensteinflügel in the palace’s south wing. At the end of the eighteenth century the Louis XVI and English styles were influential at the Kassel court, but the wing also displays the influence of the French Empire style dating from the time of Jérôme Bonaparte, youngest brother of the Emperor Napoleon, who ruled the short-lived Kingdom of Westphalia from Kassel between 1807 and 1813. During this period, Wilhelmshöhe was renamed Napoléonshöhe.
In a secluded setting southwest of Schloss Wilhelmshöhe is the Löwenburg, a picturesque mock-medieval castle containing the Hesse-Kassel armoury, a chapel and a number of rooms furnished in mock-antiquarian styles.
“Other towns have a university; MARBURG is a university” – so runs the saying, and there’s a grain of truth to it, for the prestigious Philipps University dominates the life of the town. It’s the oldest Protestant university in the world, founded in 1527 by Landgrave Philipp the Magnanimous without imperial or papal recognition. Notable figures associated with it include Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Emil von Behring, the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the political theorist Hannah Arendt.
Physically, the town is dominated by the splendid hilltop Landgrafenschloss, a reminder of Marburg’s former status as the seat of the Hessian Landgraves, visible from all over town and a handy navigation aid. Below, the perfectly preserved medieval Oberstadt (upper town), which centres on the steeply sloping Markt, tumbles downhill towards the River Lahn. The lower town, the Unterstadt, curves around Oberstadt following the course of the Lahn, its chief glory being the Gothic hall church dedicated to St Elisabeth of Hungary.
North of Frankfurt, skyscrapers and Autobahns swiftly give way to the unspoilt, wooded hills of the Taunus. Tantalizingly close to the city, the Taunus range is never very high, but it offers a refreshing foretaste of what much of rural Hesse away from the Rhine–Main conurbation is like. The affluent spa-town of Bad Homburg – at the foot of the Taunus yet within sight of the Frankfurt skyline – is the region’s gateway, with easy access to the heights of the Hochtaunus range and to the reconstructed Roman fort at Saalburg.
BAD HOMBURG disputes with Wiesbaden and Baden-Baden the dubious distinction of being the spa where Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky frittered away his fortune at the roulette wheel and thus found inspiration for The Gambler. Literary associations aside, the town has a certain genteel quality and a rather longer history than its Wilhelmine airs and graces would suggest: from 1622 to 1806 it was the seat of the Lilliputian landgraviate of Hesse-Homburg, and it has the Schloss to prove it. In the nineteenth century Kaiser Wilhelm II was a regular visitor and the Prince of Wales – the future British king Edward VII – popularized the Homburg hat.
With its grand hotels, opulent villas and antique shops, few places in Germany exude the style of Kaisers Zeiten – the age of the Kaisers – quite as strongly as WIESBADEN, 40km west of Frankfurt. The Romans had a fort here, the hot springs have been popular for centuries and the city was capital of the Duchy of Nassau from 1815 until it was subsumed into Prussia after the 1866 Austro-Prussian war. But it was after German unification in 1871 that Wiesbaden experienced its fashionable heyday, favoured by Kaiser Wilhelm II himself, and it’s from this period that its grandiose architecture dates. It came through two world wars in good shape, its status growing post-1945 as capital of the new Land of Hesse and as the European headquarters of the US Air Force: the Berlin airlift was coordinated from here. It’s also a centre for the Sekt – or German champagne – industry.
Idyllically situated at the foot of the rolling Taunus and with lavish parks and greenery, Wiesbaden combines the attractions of a health resort with those of a city. The traffic-free Altstadt is easily explored on foot and is fringed to the east by Wilhelmstrasse – the kilometre-long avenue known as the “Rue” – with the Kurhaus on its eastern side. Within easy reach to the north, the Neroberg is popular for fresh air and views, while south of the centre the suburb of Biebrich boasts a Baroque Schloss and park. Offering everything from bracing walks and spa facilities to good restaurants, luxurious shopping and high culture – all of it overlaid with an atmosphere of faded glamour and genteel convalescence – the “Nice of the North” is unique among major German cities.
Wilhelmstrasse – the so-called “Rue” – runs north–south through the city, its western side a flâneur’s paradise of upmarket boutiques, elegant cafés and hotels, many of them long established behind florid, late nineteenth-century facades.
On the eastern side of Rue, the gardens and the central pond Warmer Damm provide a verdant setting for the Hessisches Staatstheater, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century pile built at the behest of Kaiser Wilhelm II by the renowned Viennese theatre architects Fellner and Helmer, and a rarity in a large German city for preserving its graceful auditorium in its original neo-Baroque style. The extravagant neo-Rococo foyer, built in 1902, now functions as a breathtakingly opulent bar. Even if you don’t go to a performance, it’s worth asking whether any of the tourist office’s themed guided tours is due to visit. The theatre’s relatively inconspicuous main entrance is in the colonnaded group of buildings surrounding the Bowling Green to the north.