Picturesque German towns

Friday 18th June 2010, Near Eisenach, Thuringia
Tonight we are back camping again, this time beside a small lake surrounded by Thuringian forest. We moved on from Weimar this morning. Our visit has been all too brief. Since German reunification Weimar has become such a charming city that it is one of our favourite towns for its size that we have visited anywhere with Modestine. Three days is just insufficient time to even see everything the town has to offer, let alone absorb its charms, explore its museums and galleries or attend any of its evening concerts.

Our route today took us back through the centre of Erfurt and on to Gotha where we stopped to explore. Queen Victoria's consort Prince Albert was from the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty, as were their descendants until the British Royal Family changed its name to Windsor during the First World War. The town is very pleasant. It has a population of around 54,000 and the old town is set around a couple of cobbled squares and a butter market. It seems to have been rather badly damaged in the war but the infill buildings have been sympathetically done. A special charm about the shops in small German towns is that they are very often individually owned rather than being bought out by a chain as so often happens in England.

At the bottom of the main square stands the old town hall dating from 1567–77. Above this, at the far end of the square there is an elaborate series of small cascades as water is pumped up to an ornate basin from where it falls in a series of pools. Above that stands the castle built in 1643 as the ducal residence. It now houses a museum and art galleries. The town has been well endowed by its ducal leaders with public buildings. They include a library, public gardens, a school and a theatre.

Old Town Hall, Gotha

Town Hall from the other side, Gotha

Water feature with the castle above, Gotha

Castle and the fountain that feeds the waterfall, Gotha

Looking down on the town from the castle, Gotha

Street scene with cafes, Gotha

When Ian was attending his course in Weimar, so many years ago, he visited the Wartburg castle. Today he visited it once more as we passed near Eisenach. It is an impressive building sitting on a rocky outcrop of land towering above the surrounding Thuringian forest. It is also now on the Unesco world heritage list. It was in the Wartburg palace from 1521- 22 that Martin Luther hid away, protected by the elector Frederick III of Saxony, to avoid religious persecution for his radical views that paved the way for Protestantism. Here he wrote his German translation of the New Testament from the Greek.

Part of the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach

A different style of architecture at the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach

In the courtyard of the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach

Tower at the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach

Wartburg Castle near Eisenach showing mediaeval building techniques

The castle is open for viewing but has been heavily restored and little of the furniture is original. Instead we visited the art gallery, with portraits painted by Lucas Cranach during the Reformation. It was interesting to note that he painted portraits for both the Lutheran followers and those who violently opposed the movement. There were paintings, amongst many others, of Luther's parents, Luther himself and Luther and his wife when they first married - Luther had been a monk and his wife a former nun. There were also exquisite furnishings including an armoire known as the Durer cupboard, incorporating carved copies of some of his engravings, and a large collection of knives and forks with decorated handles, turning a functional implement into a stunning work of art. Strange that they all date from around the time of the Reformation when some would not look out of place in a modern art gallery.

We also visited the room in which Luther lived and worked on his Bible translation. The panelled walls have been carved with initials over the years and pieces of plaster from around the ceramic heating stove have completely disappeared, taken by souvenir hunters who were familiar with the legend that Luther looked up and saw the devil watching him. In fury, he hurled his ink bottle at the devil who disappeared, leaving a dark, inky stain on the plaster beside the heating stove.

Luther's room at the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach. Souvenir hunter have broken away bits around the stove where they imagine they have seen ink stains!

Finally, we descended the steep, rutted and cobbled hillside and parked on the edge of the town of Eisenach. Here the two points of pilgrimage were the house where Johann Sebastian Bach was born and the house where Luther lodged at the time he was a student in Eisenach. That done, we spent a very enjoyable hour strolling the streets and admiring the buildings. Thuringia certainly has some delightful domestic architecture. Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau all rub shoulders with each other. On the edge of the town are pleasant, tree-lined streets of attractive late 19th century houses set in their own gardens.

House where Johann Sebastian Bach is reputed to have been born, Eisenach

Johann Sebastian Bach, Eisenach

House where Martin Luther lodged as a student, Eisenach

Town gate, Eisenach

Sunday 20th June 2010, Marburg
I have been suffering from complete exhaustion over the past couple of days. I put it down to reacting to hay fever tablets and a lot of driving in hot weather. It may also have something to do with the busy pace of our lives. Travelling can be quite exhausting. We will be home in a few weeks though and there is still so much we want to see before then. We had planned to go north into Denmark to visit Copenhagen. That will have to wait for another time now. There are so few ferries across the North Sea these days it would have been too complicated and too much driving.

In any case, Germany has so much to offer – not least in the culinary department with its cakes, rolls, sausages, beer and ice cream. Is it any wonder there are so many large people here?

When we reached Marburg last night I was so tired I couldn't face writing up the events of the day. Then we discovered there was free wifi. Gathering my energy I sent off an earlier blog that had been waiting ages for transmission before taking an early night and sleeping solidly until 8am today. Ian too has felt weary so it is not just the driving. Navigating too can be stressful.

We have decided to stay an extra day here, simply to relax, catch up on emails and snooze on the banks of the river Lahn below the historic old town of Marburg with its castle perched on the top of the hill upon which the town sits. The campsite hires canoes which could be fun but I suspect it is not Ian's scene at all.

Yesterday we made our way westwards across Germany, passing back across the former frontier between East and West. Our first halt, for a reviving coffee was in Bad Hersfeld, a bustling attractive little walled town, the centre crowded with families on a Saturday morning.

Saturday shoppers, Bad Hersfeld

Several groups of street entertainers were busy giving concerts .There were performances by young musicians from the town, and children's games with clowns and accordions. We stopped for a coffee where we could listen to the local jazz band with their clarinets and saxophones. An enthusiastic crowd were cheering and dancing around them.

Bad Hersfeld is a town that seems to express the two extremes of German intellect. One of the first things we saw were sculptured statues commemorating the naivety of the peasant population in the 17th century, unable to distinguish between a swarm of midges around the church tower and smoke from a fire. So dense was the swarm that they all rushed with buckets of water hoping to help save the church from burning.

Firefighters, Bad Hersfeld

Not far away stand two statues of distinguished 20th century residents who have influenced the world. The first is Konrad Zuse (1910-1995), pioneer of the modern computer who was the first to work in binary and also invented computer programming, thus transforming a calculator into a basic computer and the second is Konrad Duden (1829-1911), who was for many years the director of the school in Bad Hersfeld. He was also fascinated by orthography and was responsible for Duden's dictionary of the German language. Thanks to him the same written language and spelling is used throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland. His dictionary of the German language is a standard work familiar throughout the world. Ian still has a dog-eared copy from his student days somewhere at home.

Konrad Zuse and Konrad Duden, Bad Hersfeld

Duden's dictionaries are still standard works today

The town has an interesting tower of 6,552 wooden bricks, each with the name of one of the languages of the world written on it.

A real tower of Babel! Bad Hersfeld

Still within the city walls we discovered the ruins of the Stiftskirche, a huge church that had been destroyed by fire in 1761 having been sacked by the French and never rebuilt. It had though been stabilised and turned into a very attractive theatre where concerts and plays are regularly performed.

Stiftskirche ruins, Bad Hersfeld

As we were leaving Bad Hersfeld we joined a queue to purchase a couple of fish rolls for our lunch at Nordsee. This is a German restaurant chain we has seen and used in several cities. We have even found them in Austria. They are excellent, no frills fish restaurants serving only fish found in northern waters. They provide restaurant facilities as well as take-away food. Our rolls were delicious and ample with fried fish fillet, tartar sauce and salad in fresh brown rolls for a couple of euros each.

During the afternoon we reached Alsfeld which according to our guidebook merited a visit. It certainly did, being almost entirely constructed in Fachwerk or half timbering.

Side street in Alsfeld

We wandered through a maze of beautiful houses, each individually built to suit the taste of their owners. Some dated right back to the 15th century while one was dated 2002. Because the building materials and styles were relatively unchanged everything blended well leading us from street to street in delight. Some were built with a heavy timber framework, infilled with wattle and daub, plastered over but leaving the framework exposed, painted in red or black. Often there were carvings on the uprights or gable ends, painted in bright colours. Across the facade too there was frequently carved writing picked out in gold, usually a blessing or date of construction or ownership. Other buildings, still wooden framed, were tile hung with small wooden, overlapping shingles, while others were hung with decoratively arranged slates. All were beautiful.

Modern wall decorated with animals, and the goose fountain, Alsfeld

The streets were cobbled and there were the usual long benches in the central square where people sat with their beers while a nearby stall cooked Bratwurst served hot and fatty, covered in sweet German mustard in a crusty white roll. We were led to wonder yet again how many kilometres of sausages are eaten every day throughout Germany!

Main square, Alsfeld

The oldest half timbered house in Alsfeld, dating in part from the 14th century

Carved and decorated frame and doorway, Alsfeld

A mixture of houses of different styles and periods, Alsfeld

When do we stop? Typical street, Alsfeld

Of course there was far more to the town than our initial impression but we were both feeling weary and eager to reach Marburg where we knew we could camp and relax. We reached here late afternoon but were too weary to do more than sit beside the river with mugs of tea until it was time to replace them with glasses of wine! Now though, we are sufficiently recovered to venture off to explore the town and seek out some lunch. After staying with several friends recently we have not had time to replenish Modestine's fridge and our diet is becoming increasingly odd as open our last remaining tins.