My flight to the geographical centre of Germany and certainly its cultural heart has not only extended my knowledge of one of my favorite pieces of classical music, but also of its literature and wider social history.
I had known that Schiller had written the words to what Beethoven later used in the famous ‘Ode to Joy’ section in the masterpiece choral 9th symphony.
What I had not known was really anything about the man himself, Schiller, who, where, when, etc.?
This gap in my knowledge is now at an end following a four-day trip to the UNESCO world heritage town Weimar that is the centre of culture for the German people.
It was behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in the former Communist East Germany but its cultural heart continued to beat for its divided nation and it is now pumping out literary, music and drama heritage to an international tourism audience.
According to a German tourism department spokesman, cultural visitors to the country are on the up and its one of the most visited countries in the European Union for culture according to them, British tourism visitor numbers for example were up 8.5% last year.
WEIMAR HOME OF GOETHE AND SCHILLER
Weimar and the region of Thuringia were blessed in history as being home to intellectual giants such at Goethe and Schiller. Add to that Herder with nearby, the man who started the reformation Martin Luther, plus the Bach musical family, Franz Liszt, reformation artist Cranach the Elder and then come into the 20th century you have the start of Bauhaus movement with the likes of Walter Gropius and the town just seems to have that historic cultural draw.
Something else that Weimar has that perhaps its wishes it did not but history cannot alter that now, the remains of Buchenwald the former Nazi work and death camp! However I have to say both their tourism officers and townsfolk do talk about and recommend visitors to tour it quite openly.
For instance, I got into a casual conversation with a resident in the Market Square who when they found out I had not yet been they even offered to take me there in their own car straight away, they felt that connected and keen that I should visit there. I have to say I thought that perhaps it would be the opposite but I was wrong.
The giant memorial on the hillside nearby is hard to miss and it is the most visited of tourist sites in the area and I can see why.
At the time of my visit to the area it was covered in snow and temperatures as low as minus 8C with wind chill one can only guess at the hardships endured there in a bitter mid-winter, with little food, shredded clothes and no heating! My colleagues were wrapped up in thermals, fleeces etc. Do see the pictures showing then and now!
Returning to Weimar itself it seems that the whole town is buzzing with history, as towns all over the world are, but here it seems its focused into a very small area.
The homes of Johann von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller are now both extensive museums in the town centre and in easy walking distance of each other. Johann Gottfried von Herder philosopher, literary critic, poet and theologian has a memorial that stands outside the main church of St Peter and St Paul that is often referred to as the ‘Herder Church’. Inside and displayed in prime position over the altar is a great work of the reformation period by the artist Cranach the Elder.
In that same church in the 16th century Martin Luther preached during the key times of the reformation. Enter too in the 18th century; Johann Sebastian Bach where he played the organ in the very same church and even had two of his sons baptized there.
Following some year’s later composer Franz Liszt who was director of the Weimar Court Orchestra gave refuge to fellow composer Richard Wagner who had fled arrest en route to Zurich, on returning Wagner’s opera ‘Lohengrin’ was premiered in Weimar.
Some years earlier Wagner had premiered his opera “Tannhäuser and the Battle of the Bards at Wartburg Castle” in nearby Dresden and the mountain top castle of Wartburg featured in it and this is a short journey from Weimar and yet another great cultural reason to visit this area of the state of Thuringia.
The castle is within the town of Eisenach, which is in fact J.S.Bach’s hometown, and where today there is a museum dedicated to his life and works. His former family home has been turned into and extended with a contemporary construction to his former residence with many artifacts related to Bach and of that musical period.
Not happy with one museum to a musical giant Eisenach has another to Richard Wagner too, housed in a building constructed in Roman villa style at the foot of Wartburg Castle, the museum has been open since 1897 and houses the second largest collection of Wagner exhibits.
Eisenach also boasts a connection to Martin Luther who lived and was educated in the town and later returned to preach in St George’s church where years later that other famous son of the town Johann Sebastian Bach was baptized and where his family had been organists over many years.
Whether famous or infamous Eisenach is famous for a 20thcentury motoring marvel the ‘Wartburg’ car made during the communist period and exported in small numbers outside the then Iron Curtain.
The car which was one of the cheapest on the market was either loved or hated by those that owned one, quite noisy inside and tended to run and steer better when loaded with passengers had a box like look about it.
However according to some experts they were produced in factories that were massively under funded so what they did produce was regarded as a miracle, that factory has now been taken over and its now produces the Opel Adam!
With flights now available to Erfurt, just a few miles from Weimar flying from Gatwick with Germania makes this area of Germany very accessible and certainly puts it into the long weekend city break market.
A tram from the airport and a short train ride will get you to the centre of Weimar easily. I stayed at the Hotel Elephant that overlooks the market square at the very heart of the city, and this is very much a walking city, certainly for the majority of the tourist sites.
Street food and of course the famous bratwurst eaten in a tiny roll is a bit of an art but I opted for what I thought was the more appealing, the marinated in beer and onions pork shoulder slice very tender and tasty indeed!
This was an area of Germany I k little about but I suppose its rather like visiting Britain and not going to Stratford On Avon and learning of Shakespeare.
However in Weimar and the area of Thuringia you get the equivalent of a county’s cultural top ten all in one small district!