German Odyssey, Part 4: Weimar, Thuringia’s Cultural Capital
By Monique Burns
Bid farewell to Dresden, capital of Saxony, and head to the neighboring state of Thuringia and its cultural capital, Weimar, about 2 ½ hours west via the high-speed Intercity-Express (ICE) train. Leafy cobblestone streets, pastel-colored houses and fountain-dappled squares are reason enough to visit this graceful city on the River Ilm. But travelers also come for the thrill of following in the footsteps of Germany’s greatest poets, dramatists, philosophers and composers.
The 16th-century monk Martin Luther—focus of 500th-anniversary celebrations of Germany’s Protestant Reformation in 2017—stopped in Weimar to visit Lucas Cranach the Elder, who often painted the reformer. Two centuries later, in 1703, Johann Sebastian Bach became Weimar’s Court Musician, composing three-quarters of his organ works there, many based on Luther’s hymns. Poets and dramatists Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller founded the cultural movement, Weimar Classicism, in the 1790s. A century later, Hungarian virtuoso Franz Liszt became Weimar’s Court Musician, 140 years after Bach. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spent his last three years in Weimar until his death in 1900. Architect Walter Gropius established the Bauhaus Movement in Weimar in 1919, shortly after Germany’s first democratic constitution established the so-called Weimar Republic. Even the Nazis came to Weimar. Touting Weimar as a symbol of Teutonic intellectualism, Hitler and his henchmen built the Buchenwald concentration camp there in 1937, on a hilltop only six miles from the center-city.
To experience 19th-century Weimar’s romance, book a room at the Hotel Amalienhof in the historic center-city, steps from the Goethe National Museum. The hotel is named after the Duchess Anna Amalia, the illustrious patron of the arts who established Weimar as a 19th-century cultural center just as Saxony’s August the Strong established Dresden as an 18th-century artistic center. With 123 antique-filled rooms, an elegant breakfast room and a flower-bedecked terrace, the Amalienhof spirits you back to Weimar’s glorious Golden Age. Yet, incredibly, double-room rates start at under $100, including free breakfast, WiFi and parking.
If you’re traveling with kids, consider the recently opened Familienhotel Weimar, also in the center-city. The contemporary-style, four-star hotel has one, two and three-bedroom suites, some with living rooms, and all with kitchenettes and balconies. Gretchens Restaurant & Café serves both adult fare and kid-friendly dishes. It’s adjacent to the children’s playroom, handy when little ones become bored with adult conversation. There’s also a rooftop garden where kids can root around in a sandbox while adults relax. Rates are about $80-$160.
The five-star Hotel Elephant is where Adolf Hitler stayed whenever he visited Weimar. Remodeled in 1937 by Hermann Giesler, the Third Reich’s second-most celebrated architect after Albert Speer, its facade still features the wrought-iron Führer Balcony where Hitler spoke. A century earlier, poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe patronized the hotel tavern, Gasthaus Zum Weissen Schwan, which still serves Thuringian specialties. Now part of the U.S.-based Starwood group, the hotel has two additional restaurants, Elephantenkeller and Restaurant Anna Amalia, a clubby bar, and spacious Art Deco-style rooms for as little as $150 a night.
On Markt square, the hotel is steps from the Weimar tourist office—which sells the ThüringenCard, offering free museum admission and transportation—and the Lucas Cranach House, home of the 16th-century painter. Though the house isn’t open to the public, look for the family crest above the door. In Weimar’s City Palace museum, works by the two Lucas Cranachs, elder and younger, include portraits of Martin Luther and his wife. But the dazzling Cranach Altar is in the City Church of St. Peter and Paul in Weimar’s north end. Begun by the father and completed by the son in 1555, the triptych depicts Lucas Cranach the Elder and Martin Luther at the foot of the cross.
Virtually all attractions in Weimar’s center-city are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. On the Frauenplan, a stone’s throw from the Hotel Amalienhof, is the Goethe National Museum, the sprawling yellow mansion where poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lived and worked for nearly 50 years. With grandeur befitting not only a celebrated man of letters but a local government official, the Goethe house is filled with Classical-style plaster busts, paintings and fine furnishings. Among the highlights: Goethe’s spacious study, with its burnished wood tables and bookcases, and his large tree-shaded garden.
Goethe took time warming up to the younger poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller. But, around 1794, the pair became close friends. Eventually, they established the cultural movement called Weimar Classicism with philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, and writer and professor Christoph Martin Wieland, who tutored the Duchess Anna Amalia’s son, Karl August, later Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach.
Steps from the Goethe house, along the leafy pedestrian street, Schillerstrasse, is the Schiller Residence. In the three-story house, with its pale yellow facade and gray shutters, the poet wrote several important works, including the 1804 play “Wilhelm Tell,” celebrating the Swiss archer and freedom fighter. Frau Schiller, the former Charlotte von Lengefeld, was one of Weimar’s coterie of creative women, along with the Duchess Anna Amalia, who composed an opera based on a Goethe text; her lady-in-waiting Charlotte von Stein, who influenced both Goethe and Schiller, and writer Charlotte von Kalb, who carried on a long affair with Schiller before his marriage.
Not nearly as lavish as the Goethe house, the Schiller house, with large, airy rooms, parquet floors and period furniture, is still quite impressive. Alas, Schiller lived there only three years, from 1802 until his death in 1805. Be sure to see his study, adorned with an etching based on the famous oil painting, “The Battle of Bunker’s Hill,” by 18th-century American artist John Trumbull, and his wooden desk topped with a manuscript, quill pen and small globe.
In the splendid gold-and-white Rococo Hall of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library on Platz der Demokratie, you’ll find portraits of Schiller and Goethe, along with a treasury of rare books. Owing to the library’s precious contents and small size, visits must be booked well in advance. Afterward, stroll around the square where a small bust commemorates Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived in Weimar almost continuously for 15 years, from 1703 until 1717, as Court Musician and, later, Concert Master. The square is also home to the University of Music Franz Liszt whose students frequently give concerts throughout the city. The Liszt House, featuring the composer’s Beckstein piano, is in Weimar’s south end, east of the Nietzsche Archive, where the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche died after late-stage syphilis triggered his tragic descent into madness.
West of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library, a handsome bronze statue on Theaterplatz shows Goethe passing the laurel wreath of fame to the younger Schiller. The German National Theater, which still stages dramatic works, concerts and dance performances, is where Germany’s first democratic constitution was signed in 1919. Though little over a decade passed before the 1933 Nazi takeover, a bronze plaque designed by disciples of the Bauhaus Movement commemorates the historic signing.
Aiming to unify all the arts—including architecture, crafts and design, fine arts and photography—German architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus Movement in Weimar in 1919, attracting celebrated collaborators like German-American architect Mies van der Rohe, Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, Swiss painter Paul Klee, German-American painter Lyonel Feininger, and Hungarian painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy. Across from the National Theater, the Bauhaus Museum traces the history of the movement, which spread to such far-flung locales as Israel’s Tel Aviv. From the Bauhaus University, students lead 1 ½ and 2 ½- hour Bauhaus Walks, visiting Weimar’s three Bauhaus buildings: the University, Haus am Horn and Knights Templar House.
From Weimar, consider taking a couple of day trips into the Thuringian countryside. In “Germany’s green heart,” the vast Thuringian Forest unfurls along with farmlands, vineyards and even porcelain factories. One popular day-trip takes visitors to the high-tech Leuchtenburg Porcelain Worlds. After an hour-long train trip from Weimar to the town of Kahla, take a short taxi ride or 60-minute hike to the village of Seitenroda, home of the 13th-century hilltop Castle Leuchtenburg. There, the recently opened Leuchtenburg Porcelain Worlds explores the history of porcelain-making through more than 350 high-tech exhibits, including an interactive baroque-style dinner table. At the final exhibit, write your fondest wishes in invisible ink on porcelain crockery, then toss it over the 12-foot-long, glass-and-steel Skywalk of Wishes for good luck.
Porcelain was invented in Thuringia in the 1750s, about four decades after the Meissen porcelain works opened in Saxony. Adorned with traditional country scenes, wildlife or flowers, or with striking contemporary patterns, Thuringian porcelain is sold in Leuchtenburg Porcelain Worlds’ shop and at nearby factories along the Thuringian Porcelain Road. Leuchtenburg Porcelain Worlds also offers combination tours of the castle with nearby porcelain manufacturers or vineyards. Or embark on your own winery tour at rustic Thüringer Weingut Bad Sulza, and enjoy tastings of superb red, white, rosé and sparkling wines, some costing as little as 10 euros a bottle. From Weimar, ride the sleek Abellio regional train 19 minutes northeast to Bad Sulza, then take a short taxi ride or trek 30 minutes to the winery.
When it’s time to leave Weimar, hop an Intercity-Express (ICE) train for the final leg of your German odyssey, a 48-minute journey to Eisenach, birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach and beloved second home of Martin Luther.
IF YOU GO:
In Weimar’s center-city, book these excellent hotels:
Hotel Amalienhof. Amalienstrasse 2, 99423 Weimar, Germany. (49) 3643-54-90. www.amalienhof-weimar.de
Hotel Elephant. Markt 19, 99423 Weimar, Germany. (49) 3643-802-0. www.hotelelephantweimar.com
Familienhotel Weimar and Gretchens Restaurant & Café. Seifengasse 8, 99423 Weimar, Germany. (49) 3643-4579-888. www.familienhotel-weimar.de
For stylish German cuisine, try this superb contemporary-style restaurant:
Erbenhof. Brauhausgasse 10, 99423 Weimar, Germany. (49) 3643-4576-715. www.erbenhof.de
Don’t miss Weimar’s top historic sights:
Classical Weimar Foundation. Weimar Tourist Information, Markt 10, 99423 Weimar, Germany. (49) 3643-545-400. www.klassik-stiftung.de/en
Oversees major cultural institutions, including the Bauhaus Museum, City Church of St. Peter and Paul (Herder Church), Duchess Anna Amalia Library, Goethe National Museum & Residence, Liszt House, Nietzsche Archive and Schiller Museum & Residence.
Bauhaus University. Geschwister-Scholl-Strasse 6a, 99423 Weimar, Germany. (49) 3643-58-30-00. www.uniweimar.de/en/university/profile/bauhausatelier/bauhaus-walk/walk-times-and-prices For student-led Bauhaus Walks in English, book well in advance.
To see Weimar’s notorious Nazi concentration camp, take Bus no. 6 from Goetheplatz or the Hauptbahnhof (train station) to:
Buchenwald Memorial. 99427 Weimar-Buchenwald, Germany. (49) 3643-430-0. www.buchenwald.de
Consider day-trips from Weimar to:
Leuchtenburg Porcelain Worlds. Schloss Leuchtenburg, Dorfstrasse 100, 07768 Seitenroda, Germany. (49) 36424-7133-00. www.leuchtenburg.de
Thuringian Porcelain Road. Landratsamt Schwarzburger Chaussee 12, 07407 Rudolstadt, Germany. (49) 3672-823-455. www.thueringerporzellanstrasse.de
Thüringer Weingut Bad Sulza. Ortsteil Sonnendorf 17, 99518 Bad Sulza, Germany. (49) 3646-120-600. www.thueringer-wein.de
For Weimar information, visit www.weimar.de and www.visit-thuringia.com.
For general information, log on to www.germany.travel.