Germany's land of poets and thinkers
Goethe House, built to his specifications by his patron, is an exact reflection of his mind and the most perfect writer’s house ever conceived. The house feels like the centre of sacred German culture and the full embodiment of his fecund collector’s mind. Here is a naked Luther in an allegory, leading Conscience in chains to Christ. A simple blue room, containing a six-foot head of Roman goddess Minerva, leads to an Italian room, the Urbinozimmer. The style is ducal, devoted to high-minded pleasure and hardly interested in religion other than in an aesthetic sense. What else is there? Stones, crystals and a library which, like Goethe’s mind, goes further than you can see. The study is beautifully sealed away with ante-rooms, corridors and book stores. No-one could unexpectedly open the door to his writing apartments, where he laboured not at a desk but at a dining table (which I understand) or at a lectern (which I don’t).
‘Goethe wrote quite undisturbed,’ Bettina tells me. ‘There was only one servant underneath. And no-one could come up without sending a card or being specifically invited.’ Not even the Duke? ‘Well, I guess the Duke could come,’ she concedes. To her side, there is a majolica cabinet with 66 drawers. What could be in it? Objects relating to any of Goethe’s many interests. He must have been a very happy man, living in a house with so many little drawers in it. Through the doors ahead lie, in succession, a blue, yellow and salmon-pink interior, the final end wall a magical shade of green.
The city of Weimar was first on the list for reconstruction and restoration after the fall of the Berlin wall; its exquisite treasures, such as the rococo Duchess Anna Amalia Library, are now of world standard.
Visitors might find that the food in Weimar is more to their taste – or at least offers more possibilities – than that found in much of Thuringia. The state is famous throughout Germany for its sausages. You can find these anywhere you go, and you might sometimes feel that the commitment to eating pork three times a day is beyond unavoidable in certain parts of the state. Still, there is a popular ‘Wurst-trail’ which the committed can follow, and there are some signs of culinary ambition elsewhere in the state.
In Schmalkalden, an extraordinary, half-timbered town, a kind lady turns around in her path in the snow and leads us to what she promises us, with honesty, is ‘the second-best restaurant in Schmalkalden’ – a Ratskeller (basement bar or restaurant) of antique, unbudging commitment to various combinations of pork, beer and sentimental porcelain statuettes of ladies in ballgowns. I very much hope nothing in the whole ensemble will ever change.
If Weimar is the obvious treasure of the region, the town that speaks to me is the little capital of Thuringia, Erfurt, which still possesses some of that DDR approach to historic towns, somehow both dusty and garish. At the Si-Ju café-restaurant in the cloisters of the town hall, you are placed in DDR-orange leather armchairs and served bratwurst with unlikely garnishes such as dragon-fruit stuck somewhat hopefully in mashed potato.
In Erfurt, there are imposing twin churches, the cathedral’s stately promontory alongside a triple-spired sober associate, layered with finials; next to them is the citadel, forming an overwhelming ensemble. Inside the church of St Severin, a devout workman labours. By him, a glorious baptismal font, all dragons and holly-leaf effects. The citadel is a chilling witness to other, less admirable moments of German history, with a prison for Third Reich political prisoners and the DDR Stasi document centre completing one of those oppressive 19th-century barracks that kept German architects so busy.