Thuringia is firmly off the tourist trek as a North American traveler in the heart of Germany. You won’t recognize any of the city names around here, though history buffs might perk up at Weimar. Other than that, traveling in Thuringia is a fresh experience that’ll give you an arsenal of stories unique to those of other travelers who see Berlin or Munich and call it a day for Germany.
Within Thuringia is Lutherland. Of course, Lutherland isn’t a marked area in and of itself. It’s a compilation of German cities, towns, and other sights relevant to Martin Luther — the 16th Century monk who started the Reformation, modernized the German language, and more uncomfortably, was used as propaganda by the Nazis owing to some of his anti-Semitic writings.
Lutherland isn’t just about Martin Luther. This region is also home to German Enlightenment and much of its literary and musical history. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe of Faust fame spent considerable time in Weimar and buddied up with Napoleon in Erfurt. Musically there’s Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born and launched his musical career in Eisenach.
Best of all, Germany has connected all of these interesting walks through history with the Lutherweg — a 250-mile (400-kilometer) long cycling and hiking trail, and it’s all come together just in time for Germany’s celebration of 500 years since the Reformation. In all a
In all, a Thuringia-Lutherland trip combines a wonderful mix of history, culture, and the outdoors.
WHERE TO GO
The medieval Krämerbrücke or Merchant’s Bridge is the architectural highlight of Erfurt. Come for a quick stroll and see what it basically looked like 500 years ago when the bridge was constructed to link Rome to the Baltic Sea.The half-timbered buildings are unique in Europe and are still inhabited today, though she shops below are mostly of the souvenir variety.
Kaufmannskirche is one of the more significant churches in the area, right at Anger Square. It dates back to the 14th Century and is where Bach’s parents got married. For something more Luther-specific, there’s St. Augustine’s Monastery with roots in the 13th Century. Luther lived and studied there as a monk between 1505 and 1511.
The Erfurter Dom, however, is clearly Catholic with its decadent touches obvious from the moment you see it towering over the Domplatz. An easy walk from there is up to Petersberg for a panoramic view of the city below and lunch at Glashütte. Here you can grab some traditional German cuisine, most notably the Thüringer Bratwurst. Locals proudly claim this take on the bratwurst is the original bratwurst. For something faster during the day, try Faustfood. Here you’ll get a brat on a bun the size of your fist. (While this is clearly a play on Erfurt’s connections to Goethe and Faust, the word “faust” in German means “fist.”)
Tip: I stayed at Hotel am Kaisersaal in Erfurt — easy walking distance to everything listed above.
Just a 30-minute train ride west of Erfurt, Eisenach is noticeably smaller and quieter. Its communist roots from the DDR days are also more noticeable with streets like Karl-Marx Straße and the stained glass window design at the main station commemorating the city’s auto workers. (Car manufacturing being a typical job during Soviet influence.)
The Bachhaus is a natural stop for Bach fans and for a look at the eponymous statue. Another museum worth a quick stroll is the Lutherhaus where you’ll get both the good and bad of Luther, the latter being his anti-Semitic writings and how they were later used in Nazi propaganda. These are both just a short walk outside of Der Markt, the central European-style square of Eisenach. This is where you’ll find the busiest activity, but never too busy to find a patio seat on a warm summer day to enjoy a coffee or perhaps some ice cream. (The Germans love their ice cream from 11 a.m. through the rest of the day.)
Tip: I stayed nearby at Business & Stadthotel am Bachhaus, a great three-star hotel starting reasonably at €46 per night with deals the longer you stay.
With Eisenach, you can truly get on the Lutherweg (or Luther Trail) by walking up backroads or forest trail up to the Wartburg Castle. If you thought the Krämerbrücke was old, this castle dates back to the 12th Century. Given its age, there’s no shortage of history to talk about. If that’s your interest, then sign up for a tour in your language of choice at the castle. (Warning, this is the most tourist-crowded activity between Eisenach and Erfurt.)
The main point of interest for Luther travelers is that the monk hid here under the name Junker Jörg (the Knight George) following his excommunication by Pope Leo X when he refused to recant at the Diet of Worms. (No, the “Diet of Worms” isn’t the latest in new-aged dietary trends. I was confused, too.)
Over 10 weeks in the castle, Luther translated the New Testament from Ancient Greek into German. This wasn’t the first German translation of the Bibe, but Luther modernized the language by using German spoken most broadly by the lower classes. The high German spoken today through Germanic Europe is the result of Luther’s work.
Tip: Have dinner atWeinbar & Restaurant Baron. During my visit, they had started experimenting with large, outdoor patio dining over a parking lot. As drivers do, they complained and wondered what to do with their poison-farting machine. Alas, it appeared the restaurant’s decision was a success with a full restaurant enjoying the summer breeze and live piano music.)
HAINICH NATIONAL PARK
Wartburg offers a taste of the Lutherweg in nature, but a visit to Hainich National Park really gets you into the thick of it. Forty-eight of Thuringia’s 900 kilometers of the Lutherweg cut through the park. Follow the green “L” with a white background on sign posts.
Prior to its designation as a national park on December 31, 1997, it had been a restricted military zone. This is the only national park in Thuringia and was essentially created to protect its native beech forest. Anecdotally, it’s much better off as a national park with plenty to explore as a hiker and cyclist. First, you might want to check out the Baumkronenpfad — a walking canopy alongside the crown of the beech tree forest.
Tip: Cyclists can sign up with Travel Butler for a two-wheeled trip through the national park complete with shuttle transfers and lunch at Graues Schloss.
Berlin and Frankfurt will be the primary options for overseas travelers followed by a 2.5 – 3 hour ICE train ride to Erfurt. European travelers, naturally, will have more options. Erfurt has the Erfurt-Weimar Airport and Leipzig is nearby as well. Deutsche Bahn connects cities within Thuringia.
Weimar is home to the well-intentioned but the short-lived Weimar Republic, Germany’s experiment with democracy following defeat in World War I. The Thuringian Forest has hundreds of trails, including the Lutherweg.
BEFORE YOU GO
English is spoken less here compared to the larger cities of Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt. You’ll be fine at the hotels, but a bit of German will help you at restaurants and might even impress some folks. (Germans are very pessimistic about their language, so are generally impressed when an English-speaker gives it a shot.) Here are some language learning tips that work for German.
For German history, dig into Neil MacGregor’s mammoth history of the country, Germany: Memories of a Nation.
Disclosure: I traveled as a guest of the German National Tourist Board and Thüringen Entdecken. As always, all opinions are my own.