Culturally as much as geographically Thuringia (Thüringen) is the heartland of Germany. When the Iron Curtain pulled back, West Germans were relieved to find the nation’s “green heart” was spared the social realism of which the GDR was so fond. It remains the sort of place Germans have in mind when they talk of Früher, a time past when things were less complicated – a bucolic state where slow travel rules, and no city is over 200,000 people. The surprise, then, is that were there a competition to decide Germany’s cultural big-hitter, flyweight Thuringia would be a finalist. This is a state of Martin Luther, Bach and Schiller. More than anyone else it is the state of Goethe. With nowhere more than a couple of hours’ drive away, Thuringia is touring country par excellence. Factor in scenic backroads that slalom through valleys and you have a bucolic state that is all about a finger on the steering wheel, sunshine-sounds on the stereo and the gentle art of pottering about, whether in small towns or on trails. Slow travel has never been so much fun.
As ever, the reason Thuringia punches far above its weight is historical. As the ruling Saxon House of Wettin bequeathed land equally between male heirs, an area that was far from large to begin with fragmented into a mosaic of small duchies – Saxe-Weimar and Saxe-Gotha, for example, or Saxe-Coburg, better known in Britain as the House of Windsor. An upshot of these tin-pot fiefdoms was an arts race that saw the area’s dukes woo the finest musicians, painters, poets and philosophers to their courts as testament to their learning and magnificence.
Nowhere expresses this better than Weimar, a Thuringia-in-microcosm that lobbed the intellectual atom-bomb of the German Enlightenment, whose shockwaves were felt throughout Europe. Most cities would struggle to make such an impact, let alone a small, courtly town. Adjacent Jena has maintained its academic tradition and the student nightlife that goes with it, while Gotha and especially Eisenach have a cultural weight far above their modest size. The state capital is Erfurt, Luther’s university city and perhaps the most underrated capital in Germany thanks to its marriage of historic looks and university dynamism.
The Thuringian Forest to the south could not be more different. This is the state’s rural core, whose sleepy villages are tucked into the folds of an upland blessed by good walking and cycling trails. You can lose a happy week crisscrossing the area by bike on labelled routes or journey through its heart on the well-marked 168km Rennsteig, which traverses it. The state’s many green landscapes also include the Saale Valley at the eastern fringe of the forest region, and the Kyffhäuser uplands to the north, site of the sixteenth-century Peasants’ War sparked in the overlooked historic town of Mühlhausen.
Top image © Pele61/Shutterstock
Few towns in Thuringia have suffered from reunification like ALTENBURG at Thuringia’s eastern limits. Once drip-fed by GDR finances, the town has slipped into stagnation as its population and wealth is sucked out by West Saxony’s dynamic duo Leipzig and Zwickau. Only the architecture and art attest to its former status as the once-glorious Residenzstadt of the Saxe-Altenburg duchy. It was during that period that Altenburg achieved its secondary boast as the cradle of Skat, Germany’s favourite card game whose rules were honed by court intellectuals in the early 1800s. “My five months’ stay in Altenburg gave me more mental and social experience than that gained by many a human being during the whole span of life,” one F.A. Brockhaus exclaimed, though he also enthused about editing dictionaries. Today Altenburg is the home of the Skatgericht, court of arbitration on all things Skat, and Germany’s largest manufacturer of playing cards, ASS Altenburger. All very nice, yet it’s the ducal Schloss and an art museum that make it a worthwhile pause en route to other destinations.
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.
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 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.
"Erfurt is a honeypot. A town would have to stand here even if the city had just been razed to the ground." So mused Martin Luther, the most famous resident of Thuringia’s state capital. While the father of the Reformation could also have acclaimed it as a fine little city bursting with character, ever the pragmatist, he got to the nub because a location at the heart of Germany – and Europe – was the making of ERFURT. While profits from woad helped fill coffers, its drip-feeds of finance were trade routes east–west from Paris to Russian city Novgorod, and north–south from the Baltic to Italy. Such was its wealth that the medieval city was hailed as “Efurtia turrita” because of its ninety spires.
With the merchants came progressive ideas and liberal attitudes. Luther’s free thinking was nurtured at Erfurt’s prestigious university, renowned as a cradle of humanism. Centuries later, in 1970, open-minded Erfurt hosted ice-breaker Ostpolitik talks between West and East Germany. Though the largest city in Thuringia, Erfurt is pocket-sized, its easygoing Altstadt a traditional German townscape of the sort largely obliterated elsewhere by bombs and developers, and with a dynamo university that adds a sheen of modern style and passable nightlife. Put the two together and what’s not to like? Few honeypots taste sweeter.
Erfurt has few set pieces; it’s as an ensemble that the city impresses, with any street in the centre worth exploring, especially as you can walk from one side to the other in about twenty minutes. The axes of Erfurt’s central Altstadt are the Episcopal powerbase Domplatz; Fischmarkt, the civic heart; and Anger, a broad plaza at the head of the shopping streets. North of the centre in the studenty Andreasviertel and around the Augustinerkloster are especially photogenic quarters. Drop the map and explore by instinct.
Vintage travel books acclaim GOTHA as the richest and most attractive town in Thuringia. Leaving aside the question of whether their authors had visited Weimar or Erfurt 25km east, it remains a handsome if low-key small town whose looks were buffed in the eighteenth century as the courtly residence of the House of Saxe-Coburg, the dynasty better known in Britain as the House of Windsor – the British royals sensed the public mood during war with Germany and rebranded itself in 1917. The legacy of that glorious heyday is Schloss Friedenstein, the main reason to visit just as it was for Voltaire or Goethe and pals during the Enlightenment, its collections just as erudite. However, the town also serves as a handy gateway to the Thuringian Forest – and if first impressions count there are few better ways to arrive than by historic tram, the Thüringerwaldbahn, which departs from Gotha’s Bahnhof.
JENA, the next stop east from Weimar, is another university town that hothoused Classicism under Goethe and Schiller. Thereafter the similarities end. If Weimar is all about arts and culture, Jena is a centre of science nurtured over a long history of university research – the town has 23,000 students and one in four of the population is connected with the university. Jena is also less precious about its looks than Weimar – the Altstadt was pounded by the Allies, then GDR urban-planners embarked on some architectural vandalism of their own. Restoration has returned pockets of charm and the setting in a bowl of wooded hills appeals, but neither is the point. Anyone of a scientific mindset will enjoy its museums while the nightlife is only bettered in Thuringia by Erfurt. All Jena’s sights are within easy walking distance from the centre. To attempt the lot in a day, however, you’re best off renting bikes.
Greatness nipped in the bud characterizes MÜHLHAUSEN. A former medieval free imperial city visited by kings and emperors, it is now bypassed by tourists on a pilgrimage to the Eisenach–Erfurt–Weimar holy trinity, although a lack of visitors only adds to the atmosphere of the Altstadt, a mazey oval of cobbled alleys ringed by one of the few extant medieval city walls in Germany. Its place in history books is as the hotbed of the Peasants’ War of 1525, sparked by its renegade priest Thomas Müntzer. A social radical who despised Lutheran doctrine with the same passion as Catholicism, he led eight thousand farmers into battle against the princes at Frankenhausen with the rallying cry that God was on their side. Apparently not. Utterly defeated then tortured, Müntzer was decapitated in his home town, something which saw him held up as a proto-Marxist hero by GDR authorities and placed on the 5 Mark note. They conveniently overlooked the fact that Müntzer interpreted the defeat as God’s judgement on an unworthy populace. Mühlhausen may have quietly dropped the “Thomas-Müntzer-Stadt” label, but its early hero remains the star.
Thuringia heaps up unexpectedly in its northern reaches as the Kyffhäuser. While it requires an optimist to describe these wooded sandstone uplands as mountains – no peak in a sixty-square-kilometre extension of the Harz range is above 480m – their low-lying nature and lack of development make for pleasant walking country. The range also holds a special place in the nation’s psyche as the resting place of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Possibly. Fact – or at least historical chronicles – record that the mighty twelfth-century German king and Holy Roman Emperor challenged papal authority to establish German predominance in Western Europe before he drowned in the Holy Land in 1190. Legend, however, counters that “Red Beard” slumbers deep within a Kyffhäuser mountain and will one day awaken to lead the united German people to victory against their enemies. It is, as the marketing board never tires of saying, where Barbarossa dreams. In more recent history Thomas Müntzer’s peasants’ revolution was swatted aside on the flanks of the Kyffhäuser in 1525.
Steep wooded slopes channel the meadows of the Saale Valley, which runs to the cultured, former ducal town of Rudolstadt, 37km southwest of Jena. That it’s largely flat makes this one of the easiest sections of the long-distance Saale Cycle Route (saale-radwanderweg.de), which slaloms along the valley for 200km from Kaatschen-Weichau to Sparnberg on the border of Bavaria. The E3 long-distance hiking route also traverses the area, taking in the Schwarza Valley. Slower but more adventurous is to canoe the lazy meanders of the thickly wooded river valley. Source tourism booklet Wasserwandern auf der Saale for itineraries of the trip – the full route will take around ten days – plus details of boat hire, slipways and campsites en route.
Trains run from Jena to Saalfeld, while as regards information, the valley is covered by the regional tourism board of the Thuringian Forest even though it lies outside the official boundaries.
Much of Thuringia’s acclaim as the green heart of Germany is due to the THURINGIAN FOREST (Thüringer Wald). Around two-thirds of the upland region of the state’s southwest – 135km from Eisenach west to the A9 east, 35km north to south and 982m at its highest point – is thickly cloaked in pines interspersed with mixed forest or highland meadow, and irrigated by countless streams. Germans have celebrated its landscapes at least since Goethe rambled around Ilmenau, and its romantic villages with cottage workshops do little to dispel the illusion of an area that’s a timewarp back a few decades. Indeed, the ambience is more of a draw than sights in the few towns: modest spa-town Friedrichroda, sleepy Schmalkalden, its Altstadt a fairytale of half-timbered buildings, or former courtly town Meiningen, repository of the area’s high culture, such as it is.
With your own transport this is touring country, a place to potter around pretty villages. Without, getting around is best by the Süd Thüringen Bahn (sued-thueringen-bahn.de), which loops from Eisenach to Erfurt via Meiningen, with branch-lines to Schmalkaden. However, the region is superb to explore by foot and bike. With five or six days spare you could take to one of Germany’s most famous long-distance paths, the Rennsteig, along the highlands’ spine. Regional tourism website www.thueringer-wald.com is handy for planning if your German’s up to it.
Germany’s most popular trail is the Rennsteig ridgeway that slices west–east through the Thuringian Forest. Its 168km path along the region’s uplands, from Hörschel near Eisenach to Blankenstein on the River Saale, was a messenger route in the Middle Ages, and in the nineteenth century acquired a cachet as a symbol of national unity because it both formed the border of, and ran through, a patchwork of petty principalities. It still forms a border of sorts – Thuringians argue over whether the state’s best sausages are produced north or south of it. If fit, you could do “Der Runst”, as the Rennsteig is colloquially known, in five days’ hiking, stopping at villages overnight and dodging the wild boar that root in the woods. It’s more enjoyable if you take six. Sections of it make good day-hikes – the route ascends over Grosser Inselberg near Friedrichroda – and the 30km and 15km at either end with the greatest altitude differences, are favoured by cyclists on a parallel mountain-bike trail. Kompass’s 1:50,000 Rennsteig map (no. 118) covers both routes and is available from tourist offices throughout the region. An alternative if cycling is to follow part of the north–south 300km Werratal-Radweg (werratal.de) that tracks the Werra River west of Eisenach to Meiningen and beyond.
The area usually receives a good dump of snow in winter. The focus for skiing is a 2km piste on Grosser Inselberg. For ski rental and lessons go to Sport Hellmann (036259 508 52, sport-hellmann.de) at Lauchagrundstr. 13, Tabarz. In the east Thuringian Forest, skiing is at Steinach at the Skiarena Siblersattel (silbersattel.de). In summer, this renames itself Bikepark (May–Oct Sat 10.30am–5pm, Sun 11am–4pm; 4hr €15, day-card €18;
silbersattel-bikepark.de) and reinvents the pistes as downhill cycle trails for kamikaze mountain-bikers.
Though modest in size, WEIMAR is the spiritual capital of German culture. A young Robert Schumann noted in his diary, “Germans are powerfully drawn to Weimar”, and like those to Stratford in England they are not idle tourists so much as aesthete pilgrims come to revere a pantheon of intellectual and artistic saints. Saxe-Weimar dukes were patrons of Lucas Cranach and Johann Sebastian Bach as an overture to the town’s finest hour in the late eighteenth century. During the rule of aesthete duke Carl August (1757–1828), the court capital was an intellectual hothouse of rare talents such as dramatist Friedrich Schiller, poet Christoph-Martin Wieland, theologian Johann Gottfried Herder and, more than anyone else, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The city flowered as the home of the German Enlightenment whose beauty and ideas astounded Europe. Later names in the roll call of honour include Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Friedrich Nietzsche and Bauhaus founders Walter Gropius, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. The town’s name is also synonymous with the ill-fated Weimar Republic of post-imperial Germany.
Weimar is the museum city par excellence whose every street is steeped in a revered past. Thankfully it is charming, too, thanks to frantic efforts to buff up its looks as European City of Culture in 1999. Definitively small-scale, notwithstanding the handsome Park an der Ilm south and the odd gallery, almost everything worth seeing lies within a ten-minute radius of the Markt in the lattice of streets bound to the north by Graben, track of a medieval moat, and to the south by Steubenstrasse. Here you’ll find first-rate art in the ducal Schloss, a gorgeous Rococo library, the Herzogin-Anna-Amalia-Bibliothek, and Goethe’s house. Erudite stuff and proof that Weimar most rewards those who apply their minds – others may find it rather provincial.
No figure commands German culture like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1748–1832). A lazy comparison is often made to Shakespeare, which underplays the achievements of the last great Renaissance man of European culture. Not content with producing some of the most insightful drama in the German language, Goethe penned poetry, novels, travelogues and short stories, as well as philosophical essays and treatises on theology, humanism and science. His influence on German philosophy is incalculable. Indeed, he didn’t see himself as a writer and proposed near his death that he would be remembered for his Theory of Colours treatise. “As to what I have done as a poet … I take no pride in it,” he said, “but that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours – of that I am not a little proud.” Misguidedly so as it turned out: the hypothesis suggested that darkness is not an absence of light but a polar opposite that interacts with it, with colour arising where the two flow together. Modern science has rebuffed his theory, but the idea was popular with artists such as Turner and Kandinsky.
The Frankfurt-born son of a wealthy family, Goethe trained as a lawyer but found fame in 1774 as the 26-year-old novelist of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Its semi-autobiographical tale of obsessive love not only became the best seller of the proto-Romantic Sturm und Drang movement, it so wowed 18-year-old Carl August that the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach took on Goethe as a court adviser in 1775. Goethe would remain there until his death, though paradoxically he was so wrapped up in official duties and science that literature went onto the back burner for that first decade. It was an Italian holiday from 1786 that rekindled his creative spark (and also sent countless young Germans who read his Italian Journey mooning around Italy). On his return two years later he teamed up with Schiller to continue his major prose achievement, Wilhelm Meister, a six-novel cycle. He also began the work on the two-part lyric drama, Faust, which he would tinker with until his death. Ostensibly a narrative of the classic legend, his dramatic masterpiece strives to lay bare the soul of Western society. Small wonder that when Berlin erected its “Walk of Ideas”, a 12m-high stack of books on Bebelplatz in 2006, all the illustrious names of German literature rested on a single giant tome of Goethe’s.