‘What does this place mean to you?’ I ask the lady at the Wartburg – the immense castle that crouches over the crest of the mountain above the town of Eisenach. She doesn’t hesitate: ‘To me? To Germans? One thousand years of positive German history.’

The stress she put on it is understandable. Against her statement, the cacophony and catastrophe of a couple of decades can seem much more urgent. In the foreground, Hitler, the Third Reich, the brutality of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) and Erich Honecker’s Stasi. Yet centuries behind that, there is a more idealistic Germany of student brotherhood, Nobel Prize laureate Thomas Mann, German theologist Martin Luther, literary figurehead Goethe and composer Johann Sebastian Bach. To return to the warm heart of thinking, Romantic Germany, there’s no richer or more evocative journey to take than into the quiet landscapes of Thuringia.

Thinking ahead
Germany contributed an enormous amount to philosophy, learning, music, literature and independent thought. Almost all of this can be found in this small-scale land. Why here? The princes and rulers of Germany’s tiny city states were often resistant to authority and liked to support great minds. In the early 16th century, Luther was sheltered in the Wartburg when most of Europe was up in arms about his Protestant Reformation, and he worked there on the first translation of the Bible into German. The princely state of Weimar became, at the end of the 18th century, a place where great writers of the day were treated as heroes; Schiller and Goethe are forever associated with the city. Bach passed through the region in his early career, moving from one place to another as an adornment to churches and courts. There are famous universities, including the FSU in the city of Jena, where modern philosophy was forged and independent thinking nurtured.

The roots of idealism are here: the idea that through literature, writing, thinking and scientific inquiry, the human race can improve itself and individual human beings can create lives for themselves through ceaseless self-questioning and independent thought. And if that seems like an elevated reason to travel, Thuringia’s also home to the most famous sausage in Germany – a spiced Rostbratwurst that’s now protected under EU law.

This small state rests in the centre of the old East Germany. None of its cities have more than 200,000 inhabitants, and it was largely spared the ravages of war and the brutalising planning of DDR architects. To venture into Thuringia is to go into a world of enchanted forests, mysteriously folding hills and small, quiet towns with, perhaps, a grand decaying Schloss (fortress) up on the hill behind. Very few foreign tourists find their way to this part of the country, which holds a special place in the hearts of German people. Only seven of every 100 visitors are non-German – the other 93 come for a break from their busy lives, and to ask if the hands of the Schloss clock remain at 10 minutes to three, and if there will be bratwurst for tea.

Go at dead of winter, when the trees are rimmed with frost and, hanging in the sky, the snow crystals turn the light an unearthly pink, and the only noise in the remote corners is of your boots crunching through the untouched snow on the forest paths. Walk up into the hills above Ilmenau, where Goethe walked, and relish the utter stillness. Start, perhaps, with the Wartburg itself, a massive Romantic-era construction above the handsome town of Eisenach. Created by a prince called Ludwig the Leaper in the 12th century, almost everybody who matters has been through its grand halls and courtyards since. It is where the medieval guilds of singers, the Minnesingers, held competitions, and Luther took refuge under the pseudonym Junker Jorg in order to make his translation of the Bible. The study, where he contemplated a whale’s vertebra and worked, is still here, as is the ink stain on the wall where one afternoon he saw the devil and threw an ink pot at him. And also, in the magical great hall, the first vow to create a united Germany was taken by students in 1817.

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.

Past masters
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.

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.

State expectation
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.

There are more unambiguous delights, too. Unexpectedly, Erfurt contains the longest inhabited medieval bridge in the world, the Kramerbrücke, which is considerably longer than the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Here, among a line of small craft shops, you will find the wood carver and puppet maker Martin Gobsch, happily at work at his long-established craft. ‘I make them for the theatre,’ he tells me. ‘I was in a puppet theatre when I was young. I’ve been here for thirty years.’

And it’s still going? With delight, Martin shows me an extraordinary construction – a puppet machine account of the essentials of the Snow White story. He’s a happy man with his limewood, his tools, and his shop on the most beautiful bridge in Germany. The most mesmerising treasure in Erfurt, however, is a recently discovered one. In 1998, builders found a chest of gold while digging a new car park. This turned out to be medieval Jewish jewellery, buried in 1349 after a pogrom (antisemitic riot), to await the owner’s return. The treasure led historians to identify a nearby building as an ancient synagogue. The city’s Jews fled in the 14th century and were absent for 300 years. In the meantime, the building became a warehouse, then, in the 19th century, a café. Then a dance hall, patronised by Nazis. The original function of the building had been forgotten for centuries, but it is now fascinatingly restored and offers a tragic insight into the darker side of German history. On the upper floors, the provincial Paris-style café is tattered, torn and peeling. Down below, there is the grave simplicity of the medieval synagogue and, shining in the dark, the wedding jewels of a medieval money lender’s pretty daughter.

History has gone over Thuringia from top to bottom. Some remarkable minds have swept through here, and some acts of great darkness have taken place here, too. In this magical, undisturbed corner of the most fascinating of European countries, you encounter the national spirit at its most private and authentic.

The article 'The land of poets and thinkers' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.