Germany's land of poets and thinkers
The Wartburg may be very old, but the prevailing impression is of a wonderfully 19-century confection, as operatic and romantic as its apotheosis in Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. Here, you can find some great Cranachs of Luther and Herzog Georg – a man called by Luther ‘the pig of Dresden’. You can also find yourself, charmingly, in the Egloffstein Historical Cutlery Collection. It is all very grand, and slightly mad and lovable in all of its serious intent.
Many of the small towns are much less discovered than the Wartburg, but are just as fascinating. Eisenach, beneath the castle, has suffered from the mass evacuation of old East Germany after the Berlin Wall came down; its often grand streets and palatial town square are empty on a Saturday night, and a glance in an estate agent’s window shows that you could buy a nice house in the centre for €60,000 – around £50,000 – and what looks like a magnificent small castle for €300,000. Some of the historic towns are genuinely a little bit grim now with neglect: Gotha, where a strand of the British Royal Family originated, is in sad need of investment. Yet the historic strands will take you to some very charming places.
There are three central figures to lead you through this landscape. The first is Luther, whose parish house in Eisenach is a glorious remnant of DDR museum technology; his church was, interestingly, one of the few places where DDR and Western thinkers could meet freely and exchange ideas in the years before 1990 – and further to that, the 1990 revolution was sparked off by Leipzig pastors. The second is Bach, whose career you can follow from a lovely new museum in his birth house in Eisenach, through to Weimar, where he had a brief and unsuccessful stay at the court of his patron, the grand duke Karl August, to the delightful small town of Arnstadt. Here, we hear of him intimidating locals, insulting incompetent bassoonists and inviting girls up into the organ loft. Outside the church in the tree-lined square is a statue of a young Bach sprawling backwards, very unlike the periwigged dignitary we usually think of. Inside, the church is clean and as white as the inside of an egg, much as Bach left it; a lady in the house tells me that there are still direct descendants of the composer living in the village of Wechmar. The past seems very close in this part of the world.
The third figure who presides over the spirit of Thuringia, and Germany as a whole, is one of the most remarkable men who ever lived. No writer has ever stamped his mind on a city as Goethe did on Weimar. ‘What,’ I say to Bettina Werche, the director of the Goethe National Museum, ‘do Germans think of Goethe today?’ ‘He’s never been out of fashion, never gone unread,’ she says. ‘The thing that makes him so modern is, partly, those interests in nature and ecology that chime so well with our green concerns. Perhaps, too, those interests about the East ought to be ours as well. He was so interested in the Orient, in bringing it and us together,’ she says, and I surprise her a little by quoting the first lines of his beautiful ode to his oriental tree, Ginkgo Biloba: ‘Dieses baums blatt, der von osten, meinem garten anvertraut…’
Goethe is the most fascinating combination of private feeling and public display – a very modern combination. Inside the Gartenhaus, his private retreat in the ducal park, a house both domestic in scale and very conspicuous in its setting, the private and the public Goethe combine. Classical art and a bust of the phrenologist Johann Lavater are mixed indiscriminately with intimate portraits of Goethe’s parents, his sister, and love interest, Charlotte Buff.