Exploring Thuringia: the green heart of Germany

The geographical centre of Germany lies close to Erfurt, the capital city of the Free State of Thuringia. If you chat to informed inhabitants, they may well present the case as to why the state that’s affectionately known as ‘the green heart of Germany’ is also central to the nation’s cultural psyche.

Over the past quarter of a century – since Germany re-united and the defenses that once prevented movement across Thuringia’s western border were stripped away – this region has become a popular destination with Germans keen to explore their heritage.

There’s even an argument that the modern German language was invented at Wartburg Castle, a medieval fortress on a rocky outcrop that throughout the Cold War was ideally situated for observing the dense, rolling woodland straddling the heavily guarded frontier dividing East and West Germany.

One of Germany’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Today Wartburg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Between 1521 and 1522 Martin Luther completed his translation of the Bible’s New Testament into German within an austere room at the castle. The man who instigated the Protestant Reformation was then an outlawed fugitive and grew a beard to disguise himself as ‘Junker Jörg’.

Luther faced a tricky challenge in selecting words that could be widely understood. The land we now know as Germany was then divided into hundreds of kingdoms and principalities with markedly varied dialects. The vocabulary chosen by Luther became a basis for standardized German thanks to its popularization in printed books, then a relatively new invention.

A portrait of Martin Luther, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
A portrait of Martin Luther, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Goethe and Schiller in Weimar

Two of the language’s most celebrated writers – Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller – lived and worked in Weimar. A statue of the two men stands on Theaterplatz, the square in front of the theatre in which Germany’s National Assembly met, in the wake of World War One, to discuss and agree the constitution of the new republic.

The Thuringian city today draws many visitors because of its palaces and parks, which are collectively celebrated as the Classical Weimar world heritage site. Goethe wrote his celebrated poem Der Erlkönig (‘The Erlking’) in one of those historic buildings, his garden house within the attractively landscaped Park an der Ilm.

The Enlightenment in Weimar

Weimar was an important centre during Europe’s Age of Enlightenment. A number of the continent’s great thinkers and creative minds were attracted to the royal court in the 18th century, the beginning of the period now seen as the city’s golden age. Goethe, one of those figures, resided in Weimar for more than 50 years. The story of the polymath’s life is told in his former residence, now the Goethe National Museum.

Another of Weimar’s highlights is the Duchess Anna Amalia Library. The Baroque building was badly damaged by fire in 2004 but impeccably restored. Thorough research ensured its original color scheme was recreated. The climate controlled library holds a valuable collection of rare manuscripts and books, including an original Luther Bible.

The Tourist Information office and former house of Lucas Cranach the Elder on the Market Place (Marktplatz) in Weimar, Germany.
The Tourist Information office and former house of Lucas Cranach the Elder on the Market Place (Marktplatz) in Weimar, Germany.

Music at Weimar’s annual Zweibelmarkt

October 9 to 11 2015 saw the 362nd Zweibelmarkt (meaning ‘onion market’), one of the most colourful events in Weimar’s calendar. Stalls do indeed sell onions and onion cake, a Thuringian delicacy, but it’s also a celebration. Bands perform live on stages around the cobbled marketplace, which is surrounded by buildings with Gothic facades dating from the Middle Ages.

At Erfurt, 26 kilometres from Weimar, you can see one of medieval Europe’s most important secular structures. Half-timbered houses stand on both sides of the Krämerbrücke – meaning the Merchants’ Bridge – which, locals say with pride, is longer and even older than the famous Ponte Vecchio in Florence.

Buildings around Domplatz (Cathedral Square) in Erfurt, Germany.
Buildings around Domplatz (Cathedral Square) in Erfurt, Germany.

One of Europe’s great trade routes

On it stands homes built for merchants who made their fortunes by buying and selling goods for transport along the Via Regia trade route, which ran between Moscow and northern Spain. By 1500, Erfurt’s strategic location helped it grow into the fourth largest city in the Holy Roman Empire.

Many of Erfurt’s historic buildings remain intact. The city’s 11th century synagogue was recently restored and hosts an impressive hoard of jewelry and silver in its cellar treasury. One of the towers of Erfurt’s cathedral is the home to the world’s largest medieval free-swinging bell, the 11-tonne Gloriosa, cast in 1497.

Pavilions by the ornamental pond in Kofuku No Niwa (The Garden of Bliss), the Japanese Garden in Bad Langensalza, Germany.
Pavilions by the ornamental pond in Kofuku No Niwa (The Garden of Bliss), the Japanese Garden in Bad Langensalza, Germany.

The gardens of Bad Langensalza

You can also see a number of half-timbered buildings at Bad Langensalza, the attractive spa town that’s known as Germany’s ‘Town of Roses’ because its growers have cultivated more than 90 rose varieties. Consequently, there’s a museum dedicated to roses. Many visitors head to the town to view its 13 landscaped gardens, including Kofuku No Niwa, the Garden of Bliss. The Japanese style garden features a pavilion plus a tea room which is open throughout the year.

So too is the Baumkronenpfad, the canopy walkway zigzagging through the treetops of Hainich National Park. Two inter-linked wooden trails run for more than 500 metres, providing views over Germany’s largest protected area of deciduous forest plus opportunities to spot the birds and animals that live within, including wildcats, rare bats and raccoons.

The top of the walkway’s 44-metre high central tower is the best place to gain impressions of the density and expanse of the surrounding beech forest, which forms part of a UNESCO natural heritage site. Interestingly, the regeneration of Hainich’s woodland and wildlife owed much to the fact the forest was a militarised zone and off-limits to civilians for the four decades prior to German re-unification on 3 October 1990.

The cultural heritage, historic cities and natural attractions of Thuringia help make ‘the green heart of Germany’ a rewarding region to explore.

A traditional Thuringian 'Brotzeit' meal, featuring seasonal fruit plus cheese and sausage.
A traditional Thuringian ‘Brotzeit’ meal, featuring seasonal fruit plus cheese and sausage.

Where to stay

The Hotel Elephant (Markt 19, 99423 Weimar, tel. +49 3643 8020) traces its history to 1696 and overlooks Weimar’s cobbled market place. The luxury hotel has 99 rooms and suites, in six categories. The Hotel Elephant’s Michelin-starred Anna Amalia restaurant serves Italian and Thuringian cuisine. Local dishes are also served under the vaulted arches of the Elephantenkeller.

Further information

To learn more about the region, visit the Weimar, Bad Langensalza and Erfurt websites. The Thuringia Tourism, Cultural Heart of Germany and Germany Travel websites are also a good source of travel and tourism related information.

Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.

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