Eisenach, Beloved Home of Bach and Luther
A scene from Eisenach’s medieval Luther Festival. Photo Andreas Weise.
German Odyssey, Part 5
By Monique Burns
Fans of composer Johann Sebastian Bach—and admirers of Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer whose hymns inspired him—should carve out a few days to visit the city of Eisenach. A center of countrywide celebrations in 2017 to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and home to a medieval-style Luther Festival in August, Eisenach is a 48-minute ride west of Weimar aboard the high-speed Intercity-Express (ICE) train.
On the Thuringian Forest’s northwestern edge, only 31 miles west of Erfurt, Thuringia’s capital, Eisenach is renowned for historic attractions like the Bach House, Luther House, and Wartburg Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But it’s also known for its high-tech industry, and its century-old automobile industry, celebrated at Automobile World Eisenach, a popular attraction whose shiny vintage cars delight children and adults alike. In eastern Germany, 40-square-mile Eisenach is a small, but nonetheless important, cultural and commercial hub.
Not surprisingly, Eisenach has more than 60 hotels in all categories. One good choice is Göbel’s Sophien Hotel, only a third of a mile from the Hauptbahnhof, or train station, and close to major attractions. The contemporary hotel has 68 well-appointed rooms and apartments, a cozy bar, a spacious, art-filled dining room serving German and international specialties, and a wellness center with a sauna and treatment rooms. Like many hotels in formerly Communist east Germany, the four-star Göbel’s Sophien has remarkably reasonable rates, with double rooms starting at only $70-$80 online.
Armed with the ThüringenCard, offering free museum admission and transportation, walk a few blocks south to the center of Eisenach’s Old Town, the Marktplatz, whose centerpiece is the Güldenmannsbrunnen, a fountain topped by a gilded statue of St. George slaying the dragon. Steps away, enjoy daily organ concerts, July-September, at 12th-century St. George’s Church, where Johann Sebastian Bach was christened in 1685 and where his friend Georg Philipp Telemann later performed. The church also has important connections to Martin Luther. The Protestant reformer, who wrote such well-known hymns as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” attended St. George’s Parochial Latin School and sang in the boy’s choir just as Bach would a century later. On the run after the 1521 Edict of Worms declared him an outlaw for his heretical views, 37-year-old Luther stopped to preach in St. George’s Church before going into hiding in nearby Wartburg Castle.
The Luther House, one of Thuringia’s oldest and largest half-timbered houses, is only a few blocks south of the Marktplatz. Recently restored, its contemporary-style museum features a new permanent exhibit, “Luther and the Bible.” Along with original artifacts, including copies of the Bible, which Martin Luther famously translated into German in 1522, the museum has a splendid collection of 15th and 16th-century paintings and religious statuary. Keep an eye peeled for Luther portraits from the workshop of his friend, Lucas Cranach the Elder. One shows Luther in his prime; another depicts him, years later, in deathly repose. You’ll also see residential areas where the young Martin Luther lived with the family of Lord Mayor Conrad Cotta from 1498 to 1501 while attending St. George’s parochial school. So happy was Luther during his boyhood days in Eisenach that he always referred to the city as “my dear town.”
Follow Lutherstrasse a few blocks southeast until you reach the Bach House. The first museum dedicated to musician and composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born in Eisenach on March 21, 1685, it consists of a 15th-century house, actually two conjoined houses, and a contemporary addition. Small rooms, with crooked wood floors, low, wood-beamed ceilings and 1700s-style furnishings, evoke the era when Bach, his first and second wives, and his surviving brood of 20 children lived. Historians now believe that the musician and his family never lived in the Bach House, but they’re pretty sure that some of his relatives did.
The contemporary museum has a fine collection of Bach memorabilia, including paintings, plaster busts and hand-scored sheet music. Hanging from the ceiling are Plexiglas bubble chairs where visitors can sit and sway while listening to Bach on headphones. The museum’s centerpiece is The Walkable Composition, a circular room where you can see and hear Bach works projected on a 180-degree curved screen. One is the “Christmas Oratorio” performed by the boys’ choir of St. Thomas Church in nearby Leipzig. That’s the same choir that Bach directed more than 200 years ago as cantor of the same church where he now lies buried under a large bronze plaque.
The high point of any visit to the Bach House is the 20-minute concert on period organs, harpsichords and clavichords held, every hour on the hour, in the downstairs Instrument Hall, with its priceless collection of baroque instruments. After the concert, visit the garden, have a snack in the café, and pore over Bach biographies, CDs and other souvenirs in the museum shop.
From the Bach House, you can continue strolling south to the Reuter Wagner Museum, an Italian Neo-Renaissance villa housing a large collection of memorabilia on the famous 19th-century German composer, Richard Wagner. Wagner is more commonly associated with Leipzig, where he was born in 1813; Dresden, where many of his operas premiered, and Bayreuth, where the annual festival of his operas is held. But one of Wagner’s best-known works is connected with Eisenach—the 1845 opera, Tannhäuser, based on the legendary Minstrels’ Contest held in Wartburg Castle in 1207. Visit the villa, then consider heading to Wartburg Castle. The 40-minute walk along the Schlossberg road winds up through the Thuringian Forest until you reach the Eselstation, where children (and lightweight adults) can take a 20-minute donkey ride up to Wartburg Castle.
Otherwise, head back to the center of town and walk a few blocks north to the Steigenberger Hotel Thüringer Hof. Perhaps Eisenach’s most elegant hotel, the four-star Thüringer Hof has 127 spacious, contemporary rooms, a fitness area with exercise machines and a Finnish sauna, and a parking garage. There also are two restaurants: Galerie for elegant lunches and dinners, and Leander, a casual-chic wine bar that serves à la carte meals, and weekday business lunches, from 11:30 till 3 p.m. The business-lunch menu, which changes frequently, features innovative Mediterranean fare like roast chicken with couscous, and penne with chorizo and cherry tomatoes, for about 10 euros, including a glass of wine or beer, a soft drink or a cup of coffee.
Steps from the Steigenberger Hotel Thüringer Hof, pick up the No.10 bus outside the train station for the 18-minute ride to clifftop Wartburg Castle. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999, The Wartburg, as it’s known, is one of Germany’s largest, most beautiful and most historic castles. Consider taking the 45-minute guided tour. Given in English at 1:30 p.m., April-October, it allows you to see many rooms that you would not be able to see on your own. Afterward, spend another hour or so exploring the castle and grounds.
It was at Wartburg Castle that the Minstrels’ Contest, immortalized in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, was held in medieval times, an apocryphal event celebrated in the castle’s stunning 19th-century frescoes. Recounting the life of 13th-century St. Elisabeth, gilded mosaics, created in the early 1900s, decorate the Elisabeth Bower, and splendid frescoes adorn the Elisabeth Gallery. Daughter of the King of Hungary, Elisabeth married Thuringian ruler Ludwig IV and became known for charitable acts like starting a hospital for paupers and spinning wool to clothe them. Her husband once chided her for hiding bread under her cloak to feed the poor. But when Elisabeth opened her cloak, out fell red and white roses. After Elisabeth’s death, a number of healing miracles occurred, and the Roman Catholic Church soon canonized her.
In more modern times, Wartburg Castle was the site of the 1817 Wartburg Assembly when students from the nearby University of Jena, now world-renowned for high-tech research, met to lobby Germany to become a united country under a liberal constitution. Though another century would pass until a democratic constitution was signed in 1919, establishing the so-called Weimar Republic, the colors of the students’ flags—red, black and gold—first adorned Germany’s flag in 1949.
Of all The Wartburg’s historical associations, its connection with Protestant reformer Martin Luther is certainly one of the most compelling. After Luther was declared an outlaw on May 25, 1521, Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, had masked men intercept him in the forest and bring him to safety in Wartburg Castle. Disguising himself as itinerant squire Junker Jörg, Luther grew a beard and hid in Wartburg Castle for 10 months. There he translated the Bible from ancient Greek into German, completing the New Testament in only 10 weeks. Though there had been other German translations of the Bible, Luther’s New Testament proved to be the most readable. It also proved most timely. Arriving just as Luther and other reform-minded preachers were making common folk rethink their Roman Catholic faith, the New Testament’s widespread dissemination helped propel the Protestant Reformation forward.
Today, you still can see the room in Wartburg Castle where Luther completed his remarkable translation. Paneled with wooden boards, the large room is simply furnished with a rough-hewn, trestle-style desk, a wooden chair and a green tiled stove. Not far from the Luther Room is the Wartburg Castle museum. Created at the suggestion of Weimar poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, it contains a wealth of precious artworks, including Lucas Cranach the Elder’s 1527 portraits of Martin Luther’s parents: his father Hans, a copper miner and smelter from Eisleben, and his mother Margarethe, who, interestingly enough, was born in her son’s “dear town” of Eisenach.
Spend several days soaking up history and culture in Eisenach, then bid a fond farewell to eastern Germany, and catch a high-speed Intercity-Express (ICE) train for the two-hour trip west to Frankfurt Airport and your transatlantic flight home.
IF YOU GO
In Eisenach, overnight at centrally located:
Göbel’s Sophien Hotel. Sophienstrasse 41, 99817 Eisenach, Germany. (49) 3691-251-0. www.sophienhotel.de
Steigenberger Hotel Thüringer Hof. Karlsplatz 11, 99817 Eisenach, Germany. (49) 3691-28-0. www.steigenberger.com
Try the business lunch at:
Leander. Steigenberger Hotel Thüringer Hof. Karlsplatz 11, 99817 Eisenach, Germany. (49) 3691-28-0. www.steigenberger.com
Don’t miss these Eisenach attractions:
St. George’s Church. Marktplatz. 99817 Eisenach, Germany. (49) 3691-21-31-26. www.kirchenkreis-eisenach.de
Bach House. Frauenplan 21, 99817 Eisenach, Germany. (49) 3691-79-340. www.bachhaus.de
Luther House. Lutherplatz 8, 99817 Eisenach, Germany. (49) 3691-29-83-0. www.lutherhaus-eisenach.de
Wartburg Castle. Auf der Wartburg. 99817 Eisenach, Germany. (49) 3691-25-00. www.wartburg-eisenach.de
Reuter Wagner Museum. Reuterweg 2. 99817 Eisenach, Germany. (49) 3691-743-293. www.eisenach.de
Automobile World Eisenach. Friedrich-Naumann-Strasse 10, 99817 Eisenach, Germany. (49) 3691-77-212. www.awe-stiftung.de
For general information, visit www.germany.travel.