Saxony-Anhalt and the Harz Travel Guide
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Saxony-Anhalt (Sachsen-Anhalt) divides into two distinct landscapes: to the east sandy plains are scattered with farms, pastures, pine forests and bogs, and a series of gritty, postindustrial cities; while to the west the land suddenly rises into the gentle Harz mountains where sleepy villages nestle in dark forests. Though the range straddles the old border between East and West Germany and is today divided between Saxony-Anhalt and Lower Saxony, for convenience the entire range is covered in this section.
State capital, Magdeburg is relatively small and parochial, but does have a few interesting sights, particularly its cathedral, as well as some urban distractions and reasonable nightlife. North along the Elbe, the Altmark region is a real backwater, a thinly populated heathland, where a clutch of low-key towns – particularly half-timbered Tangermünde – preserve a very traditional feel.
East of Magdeburg along the Elbe is almost as rural, apart from two towns with heavyweight contributions to world history: Dessau, whose Bauhaus school invented Modernist architecture and design, and Lutherstadt Wittenberg, birthplace of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation which divided the Christian Church. In between the two, the English country gardens of Wörlitz provide an attractive respite.
Southern Saxony-Anhalt is focused on the postindustrial but upbeat university town of Halle, with its own small crop of attractions, and great dining and nightlife. It sits on the Saale river upstream from which lies Naumburg, famous for its grand cathedral and Germany’s most northerly wine region in nearby Freyburg. Meanwhile, just west of Halle, in the foothills of the Harz mountains, lies Lutherstadt Eisleben, the town where Martin Luther was born, died, and is now relentlessly celebrated.
But the key eastern gateway to the Harz mountains is the half-timbered town of Quedlinburg which is pretty enough to deserve a place on anyone’s Germany itinerary. From here it’s a short hop to northern Germany’s premier mountain playground, whose main attractions are outdoorsy: hiking and cycling in summer and tobogganing and skiing – particularly cross-country – in winter. The Harz villages and towns are well equipped for all this, and noteworthy for some excellent spas to help you unwind at the end of the day. Some of the best of these lie on the northern fringes of the Harz in Bad Harzburg, while the nearby town of Goslar is another quintessential half-timbered gem, almost rivalling Quedlinburg in attractiveness.
Road and rail links are good throughout Saxony-Anhalt, with the entire eastern half a reasonable day-trip from Berlin. The Harz needs and rewards more relaxed exploration, ideally on foot, by bike, or on its network of charming old narrow-gauge railways.
Extractive industries and large navigable rivers – particularly the Elbe and Saale – were of foremost importance in settling this region. Forestry, salt, copper, coal and lignite all played their part in shaping it over the centuries. As a rich industrious area, it has regularly been a battleground, with the Thirty Years’ War badly battering the region and World War II levelling its largest cities. The state of Saxony-Anhalt was first formed after World War II when the occupying Russians cobbled together the former Duchy of Anhalt with the old Prussian province of Saxony. The union only lasted a few years before re-division, but was resurrected in the wake of German reunification in 1990, with Magdeburg the state capital. In the decade that followed, heavy industrial production – which the GDR had feverishly built – dropped by more than three-quarters and employment by more than nine-tenths, with high levels of unemployment particularly blighting the south of the state, where mining and chemical works had prevailed. The situation has since stabilized, but the state remains one of Germany’s poorest.
Dessau, 60km southwest of Magdeburg, was once an attractive town at the centre of a patchwork of palaces, parks and gardens. The latter have survived, but war damage, Stalinist rebuilding programmes and years of GDR neglect have made the place rather workaday. But what does justify the journey here are remnants of the Bauhaus movement. Built here in 1925, the Bauhaus design school once made it the hub of Modernism and the first place where many modern designs were implemented – these include the Meisterhäuser, the villas of the most influential thinkers, and the Törten, the first modern housing-estate. All this makes it a place of pilgrimage for architecture students, but it is interesting enough to appeal to anyone inquisitive about the roots of modern design.
The belt of landscaped parks in and around Dessau have been collectively dubbed the Gartenreich (Garden Realm) and offer days of unhurried exploration and picnicking. Their attendant Baroque and Neoclassical mansions are an additional draw. The most extensive and impressive of all the complexes is Wörlitz, but the most convenient is Park Georgium, a short walk from the Meisterhäuser in central Dessau.
Bauhaus, whose literal meaning in German is “building-house”, has become a generic term for the aesthetically functional designs that emerged from the art and design school at Dessau. The Bauhaus movement began with the Novembergruppe, founded in 1918 by Expressionist painter Max Pechstein to utilize art for revolutionary purposes. Members included Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Emil Nolde, Eric Mendelssohn and architect Walter Gropius. In 1919 Gropius was invited by Germany‘s new republican government to oversee the amalgamation of the School of Arts and Crafts and the Academy of Fine Arts in Weimar into the Staatliche Bauhaus Weimar. The new institution was to break down barriers between art and craft, creating a new form of applied art. It attracted over two hundred students who studied typography, furniture design, ceramics, wood-, glass- and metalworking under exponents like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and László Moholy-Nagy.
Financial problems and opposition from the conservative administration in Weimar eventually forced a relocation to Dessau, chosen because, as home to a number of modern industrial concerns, notably an aeroplane factory and a chemical works, it could provide financial and material support. Dessau’s Bauhausgebäude, designed by Gropius and inaugurated on December 4, 1926, is one of the movement’s classic buildings. Towards the end of the 1920s, the staff and students of the Bauhaus school became increasingly embroiled in the political battles of the time. As a result, Gropius was pressurized into resigning by the authorities and replaced by Swiss architect Hannes Meyer. He, in turn, was dismissed in 1930 because of the increasingly left-wing orientation of the school. His successor Ludwig Mies van der Rohe tried to establish an apolitical atmosphere, but throughout the early 1930s Dessau’s Nazi town councillors called for an end to Bauhaus subsidies. Their efforts finally succeeded in 1932, forcing the school to close and relocate to a disused telephone factory in more liberal Berlin. However, after the Nazis came to power, police harassment reached such a pitch that in 1933, Mies van der Rohe decided to shut up shop for good. He and many of the staff and students subsequently went into exile in the USA, where they helped found a successor movement known as the International Style.
The one-time hub of the worldwide Bauhaus movement was Dessau’s Bauhausgebäude, which now houses the Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau (Bauhaus Foundation). The work of Walter Gropius, this white concrete building with its huge plate-glass windows was refurbished on its eightieth anniversary in 2006, making it look tremendously new. The famous Bauhaus logo graces the southern side; the photogenic “swimming pool” balconies its eastern wall.
At the time of its construction the building was an architectural sensation and prototype for several construction techniques. A reinforced concrete skeleton allowed for curtain walling – outer walls designed to carry nothing but their own weight – and introduced wide-span building techniques that opened up more useable floor space by removing the need for supporting columns. These principles really flourished from the 1950s and 1960s and have dominated since – making them less of a spectacle for today’s viewer.
Though still in use as a design school, the public can wander round much of the building, with the audio tour a useful accompaniment, particularly if you can’t make the hour-long tours in German which access otherwise locked areas. Both can be organized at the first-floor front desk, which sells tickets to Dessau’s other Bauhaus attractions and is the entrance to the Ausstellung im Bauhaus (Exhibition in the Bauhaus), which explores the experimental application of Bauhaus theory in just about every sphere of art and design, including ceramics, furniture, theatre and visual art. Finally, the well-stocked basement book and gift shop is also worth a look.
With an imperial past, a palatial prize of European Romanesque architecture and an Altstadt of medieval timber-framed beauties, Goslar is one of Germany’s treasures. A small town of just 48,000 people in the Harz foothills, perhaps, but a rich one figuratively and at one time literally. The area around the Markt is the town’s showpiece and from it a main street, Hoher Weg, drives south to the Kaiserpfalz. Also south of town is the Rammelsberg mine, which produced ores until relatively recently and now offers tours. But the set pieces are only part of Goslar’s attraction: simply rambling around its huddled Altstadt streets and seeking out its many small but diverting museums is a pleasure in itself.
In the tenth century the discovery of silver transformed this hamlet into one of northern Europe’s leading medieval towns, whose deep coffers were loved by emperors and coveted by popes. By the mid-eleventh century, less than a hundred years after the first miners shouldered their picks, an imperial Diet (conference) of the Holy Roman Empire was held in the Kaiserpfalz, Goslar’s new Romanesque palace. For over three hundred years the “treasury of German Emperors” ruled Germany’s loose confederation of states as the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor and the city spent its wealth on the finery it deserved as a free imperial city (from 1342). Even a collective belt-tightening after the duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel snatched the mine in 1532 had its virtues: as funds dried up, so too did new building schemes, preserving the Altstadt. As a POW camp Goslar was also spared World War II bombing.
Sprawling across a sandy plain on the right bank of the Saale River, 37km northwest of Leipzig, Halle got its name from the pre-Germanic word for salt, the presence of which encouraged settlement and extraction during the Bronze Age. The city continues to be an important industrial and commercial centre, and forms a large part of a regional concentration of industrial plants and cities called the Chemiedreieck (Chemical Triangle). Even if its industrial heyday is long gone and its population – some 232,000 – is waning by some two thousand each year, Halle remains the state’s largest city in its most urbanized region.
The Altstadt centres on the Marktplatz, and its sights include the city’s main church and the Händel-Haus, the mansion where the town’s most famous son, composer George Frideric Handel, was born. The Moritzburg to the northwest now houses an important art collection, while a few attractions outside the Altstadt together provide a picture of Halle’s historical context, including the Technisches Halloren- und Salinenmuseum, which explores the town’s origins and its salt industry, and the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte (Museum of Prehistory).
Halle’s Martin Luther University, founded in 1694 and long a principal seat of Protestant learning, particularly flourished during the German Enlightenment when Christian Wolff and Christian Thomasius both resided here. Today, the university continues to add a youthful energy to this important regional transport hub. The best time to visit is during the Händel Festival (haendelfestspiele.halle.de) in the second week of June.
“My fatherland was Eisleben” – is, like many things Luther said of his own life, not quite true. The reformer was certainly born and also died here, but spent precious little time in the place in between. Nevertheless the small yet sprawling and fairly plain little town is absolutely focused on him. It invented itself as a place of pilgrimage as early as 1689 when it started preserving its Luther-related landmarks and finally renamed itself Lutherstadt Eisleben in 1946.
The Eisleber Wiesenmarkt, a giant Volksfest, takes place at the start of September and is the liveliest event in the annual calendar.
Clinging to a scenic stretch of the Elbe, 84km southeast of Magdeburg, the neat little town of Wittenberg is so inextricably associated with Martin Luther that it renamed itself Lutherstadt Wittenberg. It was here that in 1508 the Augustinian monk arrived to study at the university of a relatively obscure three-thousand-strong town and ended up sparking off one of the most important philosophical debates in world history, catapulting the town to prominence and triggering the Protestant Reformation. Now Wittenberg basks in the glory of its golden era by celebrating the dwellings and graves of the cast of characters who together created the Protestant Rome. Among them were professor and theologian Philipp Melanchthon, who added intellectual clout, and painter and printmaker Lucas Cranach the Elder, who, with his son, created a tangible image for the whole movement, which could be widely disseminated thanks to the recently invented printing press. Elector of Saxony Frederick the Wise, who shielded them all from the Papacy, lies buried in the town’s Schlosskirche.
Fittingly all the main festivals in Wittenberg revolve around Luther: the big events are the celebration of Luther’s marriage in early June and Reformation Tag on October 31, which celebrates the publication of his 95 theses. Collegienstrasse, Wittenberg’s high street, becomes Schlossstrasse at its western end. Together they join virtually every sight in town.
As the founder of Protestantism and modern written German – a side effect German society has equalled anyone’s. Yet Luther’s personality remains one of history’s more elusive, in part because both he and generations of historians ever since have sought to manipulate his image.
Though born Martin Luder into the well-to-do family of Magarete and Hans Luder in Eisleben in 1483, Luther liked to talk of humble origins. He would talk of his father’s hard mining life and how his mother carried wood home on her back. In fact his father owned a mine and smelting business and so his mother would rarely have needed to collect wood herself. Certainly, though, his upbringing was hard: “My parents always punished me severely and in a frightening way. My mother beat me for the sake of a single nut until blood flowed.” His early life was governed by his father’s ambition that he should become a lawyer. Luther began to study at the University of Erfurt until 1505, when, after a near miss from a lightning bolt, he swore he would become a monk if he survived the thunderstorm. He followed this up and became a model Augustinian monk in Erfurt, following the order’s rules so strictly that he became a priest in just over eighteen months. He left to study in Wittenberg in 1508 and by 1512 had become a Doctor of Theology; by all accounts he was an excellent teacher and charismatic preacher.
In 1517 he wrote his famous 95 theses, a document in which he attacked the issue of indulgences by the Church. These certificates could be bought from the papacy to give the purchaser less time in Purgatory, while the funds were used to raise revenues, to fund Vatican building projects, great cathedrals and, ironically, Wittenberg’s university. Martin Luther blew the whistle on all this and found widespread support, in part because the latest round of indulgence selling was part of a high-profile campaign to raise funds for rebuilding St Peter’s in Rome, which struck a nationalist chord against foreigners bleeding Germanic states of their wealth. This principled stand against authority and injustice has later been celebrated with vigorous embellishments: Luther probably didn’t nail his 95 theses on the door of the Schlosskirche but rather circulated them like a memorandum. Nor is there historical evidence that he boldly stated at the Diet of Worms “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders.” (Here I stand. I can’t do anything else.), a slogan now on souvenir socks and T-shirts. He did, however, change his name to Luther, inspired by a Greek word for liberated.
Luther was clearly pious and principled and courageously ventured into territory that had cost other would-be reformers, notably Jan Huss a century earlier, their lives. Yet his defiant and stubborn actions – such as openly burning the papal bull that called for his excommunication – were born out of a sort of academic pedantry, that the Bible and not the papacy was the only source of truth, rather than a desire for rebellion, as shown in his opposition to the Peasants’ War (1524–25), which made him a hard figure for the GDR to swallow. Certainly Luther should be seen more as a conservative whose aim was to return to the original Church values, rather than someone who wanted to create a revolutionary new order. However the same cannot always be said of those who adopted the Reformation, who often had self-interest in change: his protector Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, for one, must have been tired of emptying his coffers to the Catholic Church – he’d personally hoarded around five thousand indulgences to shorten his time in Purgatory by a reputed 1443 years.
At the eastern end of Collegienstrasse, beside a small park, lies the Lutherhaus, the Augustinian monastery into which Luther entered, which was then dissolved during the Reformation with one wing becoming the Luther family residence. Today the reformer’s quarters contain an extraordinary collection of items relating to him in a well-executed multimedia museum that’s easily the best in town, particularly thanks to excellent signage in both German and English.
The museum is entered via the Katharinenportal, a gift to Luther from his wife in 1540. Among the collection’s treasures are Luther’s desk, pulpit and first editions of many of his books, along with some priceless oils by Cranach the Elder, particularly his much-celebrated painting of the Commandments.
Viewing a room apparently left bare as Luther had it in 1535 is another attraction, and one visited by Tsar Peter the Great in 1702, as his graffiti on the doorframe attests. Others have also left their mark on Luther’s legacy: one quirky section of the museum looks at the various biopic films of Luther’s life and how they dramatized key events through the looking glass of their own times.
Magdeburg is sometimes described as Berlin in miniature and there’s some truth in this, even if it’s not much larger than one of the national capital’s neighbourhoods. Certainly Magdeburg was destroyed to a similar extent, with World War II bombs levelling four-fifths of the city. Then, postwar rebuilding projects blighted it with large socialist buildings, soulless boulevards, loveless plazas and windswept parks. Yet tiny pockets of cobbled streets with nineteenth-century tenements did survive, notably at the southern end of the city around Hasselbachplatz, where a buoyant bar and club scene has taken hold. Magdeburg has also struggled economically and is propped up by generous federal funding – in this case thanks to the town’s role as capital of Saxony-Anhalt. With this economic boost has come a major makeover of many parts of town: bold new architecture has been welcomed around town and a large building by Friedensreich Hundertwasser has become a major landmark, offsetting the angular bleakness elsewhere.
All this modernity aside, Magdeburg is not without reminders of its lengthy history. Established as a trading post by Charlemagne in the tenth century, it became great under Emperor Otto I who chose it as his main residence, making it a significant political and cultural centre in medieval times and giving it Germany’s oldest cathedral. It was badly hammered by siege and fires in the Thirty Years’ War when two-thirds of the population – around 20,000 people – lost their lives; some heavyweight city defences still stem from this time. In the seventeenth century Magdeburg slowly resurfaced thanks in part to the work of Otto von Guericke, who was famous for his physics experiments, and though it lost most of its political importance with the abolition of the city’s bishopric in 1680, it continued to be a major port on the Elbe.
With lanes of tidy half-timbered houses fanning out from a central Marktplatz, Naumburg is a modest and attractive market-town that would certainly be worth a visit even without the spectacle of the four-spired Naumburger Dom, which rears up on the town’s northwestern side. Another reason to visit is the Kirschfest, a big shindig that breaks Naumburg’s usual sleepy peace on the last weekend of June. A parade, fireworks and a fair celebrate its history, in particular an incident when the town’s children confronted a Czech army that was laying siege to the place, and politely requested that the army depart so that the townsfolk could eat again, which, to everyone’s delight, they did. With Naumburg’s attractions quickly enjoyed, the nearby wine-growing town of Freyburg makes a good side-trip.
If Disney were to mock up a small, medieval German town, it would probably resemble Quedlinburg, which lines the Bode River on the gently rolling Harz foothills, 59km southwest of Magdeburg. With well over a thousand crooked half-timbered houses crowding cobblestone streets, and much of its medieval fortifications and churches well preserved, the town is deservedly popular and often bustles with visitors, but it’s still large enough to escape the strolling masses at even the busiest times.
Quedlinburg’s foundation dates back to a fortress built by Henry I (the Fowler) in 922, after which it quickly became a favourite residence of Saxon emperors; in 968 Otto I founded an imperial abbey there. The town flourished in the Middle Ages as a Hanseatic League member and centre for dyes, paper production and engineering. Even today, plastic production and agricultural research are important, giving the town a purpose beyond simply being a living museum.
North of Magdeburg, the Elbe flows into the secluded and gently rolling Altmark region where little disturbs the peace and seemingly hasn’t for centuries, with all its most significant towns beautifully preserved medieval gems. The most atmospheric and interesting are the small fortified towns of Tangermünde on the banks of the Elbe and, 40km downstream at its confluence with the Havel, Havelberg.
The region is only lightly visited, with few services and little going on. The exception to this is Havelberg’s Pferdemarkt on the first weekend in September, one of eastern Germany’s largest festivals, with thousands of visitors descending on the town for the one-time horse market that’s since become a flea market and giant fair with beer tents, fairground rides and handicrafts.
The easy gradients of the fine riverside cycle-paths that join all its most rewarding towns have made Saxony-Anhalt popular for exploration by bike. The 980km Elberadweg (Elbe cycle path; elberadweg.de) is excellent for a long-distance tour of the state, while the 65km Gartenreichtour Fürst-Franz and the Unstrut Radweg between Freyburg and Naumburg are both ideal for a leisurely, long weekend. The government-run website radtouren-sachsen-anhalt.de, is the best place for information and tips – though all in German.
Top image: Quedlinburg © lunamarina/Shutterstock