Thuringia and Weimar

Sunday 13th June 2010, Stadtsteinach, Bavaria
We are back camping tonight for the first time in over a week. The weather has been much cooler, making our travels northwards towards Weimar comfortable and pleasant. The campsite is very agreeable but tonight it is also completely silent. Germany is playing in the World Cup and everyone has disappeared to the beer garden to watch the match on the overhead viewing screen. We have been surprised at just how passionate the Germans are about it all. The German flag, not seen anywhere for many, many years after the war, is on display absolutely everywhere during the World Cup. From reports we have heard, Germany takes winning, not matter what it is, very seriously indeed. As a nation it is unable to contemplate failure and finds it very difficult to accept anything except coming first.

Our route took us through some very green and pleasant countryside of gently rolling hills where arable crops and evergreen woodlands dominate. This part of Germany does not have hedges as we do in England. It may lead to more economic use of land but it is less attractive and does not provide so much cover for wildlife. That said, Germany has more than its full EU quota of squashed hedgehogs on the roads. Our route also passed through many pristine villages, all seeming completely deserted.

We did not stop at Bayreuth, having visited it in 2005 when we found it delightful. This time we continued to Kulmbach, another interesting and attractive little town. Here we discovered that everyone for miles around had come into town for ice creams. Cones, bowls, tall glasses, all piled high with multi-coloured scoops. Some served with fruit, others with sweet sticky sauces tricking down the sides. For good measure, we even saw people drinking beer with it as well! No wonder all the villages had been deserted, they were all in Kulmbach eating ice cream for Germany!

We needed coffee more than ice cream and Ian had his regular treat of a huge wedge of Bavarian Kuchen. Today's choice was called Leopoldtorte, full of oozing, sweet, syrup-soaked dark cake covered with chocolate icing and marzipan flowers. I can vouch for it being delicious as he generously allowed me a small sliver. Sorry kids, Dad's dwindling away your inheritance in the Konditoreis and pastellerias of Europe!

We explored around the town, enclosed by its city walls, where Ian found at least nine different commemorative manhole covers for his collection. Above the town stands a magnificent castle while the town has several interesting historical quarters. Hans von Kulmbach, 1476-1522 was an important painter who worked with Albrecht Dürer. There is an historic walk through the old cobbled streets based on his life in the town.

Kulmbach with the castle on the hill

City defences, Kulmbach

Hans von Kulmbach

Rathaus, Kulmbach

Another illustrious resident of the town was Hans Wilsdorf, founder of the Rolex watch company, born in Kulmbach in 1881.

Birthplace of Hans Wilsdorf, Kulmbach

There is one thing I keep forgetting to mention. There is a huge proliferation of private individuals producing their own electricity using solar panels as there have been government subsidies to assist with their installation. As we understand it, the energy is fed into the national grid and the customer receives a sum of money per kilowatt to offset against future use. In principle it is an excellent arrangement but there seems no control over where these panels can be placed. They are most unsightly attached to the steep red tiled roofs of Bavarian farmhouses and Gasthofs On one occasion I counted fifty two of them covering the entire side of a pretty 17th century public inn. It was completely out of keeping. For long distances across the landscape the bright reflection of the sun flashes out from the glass surface of these angled panels.

Monday 14th June 2010, Hohenfelden, near Kranichfeld, Thuringia
At last we have left Bavaria behind and crossed into Thuringia, an area that was, until 1989, part of the German Democratic Republic. This evening we are camping south of Weimar where our friend Hubert is expecting us tomorrow morning.

We are cold! Really we don't wish to be forever complaining about the weather and we would far sooner have it as it is today, hovering around 12 degrees, than as we had it a couple of days ago when it was in excess of 32 degrees. Such a difference has us permanently rummaging in our small suitcase as we swap shorts for jeans, and tee shirts for sweat shirts.

The village of Stadtsteinach where we camped last night, was tiny. This morning we looked in on the late Baroque church before we left. It certainly merited a visit and no expense had been spared in its construction and decoration. Built in the mid 18th century it was decorated in rococo style with solid marble columns, curling stucco work, painted ceilings and much use of gold leaf decoration. Pews and confessionals were in polished mahogany and we were left wondering just how such a tiny village could ever have built such a lavishly embellished church.

Rococo church, Stadtsteinach

For much of the day it rained as we drove northwards. As we crossed the former border between East and West Germany a small chapel and a road sign marked the spot. Twenty two years after re-unification we still have a sense of awe at finding ourselves so easily inside an area that in the past has been fraught with anxiety and emotion, taking weeks of planning beforehand. In those days we would cross by train and Hubert would be waiting at the first station inside the GDR to join the train and return with us to Weimar. We would then spend hours waiting at the police station to register our arrival and change the legally controlled amount of money dictated to us. No such fuss these days. Even the money is the same!

At first there was little obvious difference but as we journeyed deeper into the Thuringian countryside architectural styles changed. There are still onion domed Baroque churches but tiles have been replaced by black slates, houses are smaller and less elaborate, and there is extensive use of half-timbering, known as Fachwerk.

Typical slate-hung house, Ilmenau

Gradually the roads have become less well maintained and we have been surrounded by the extensive woodlands of the Thuringian National Park. In Ilmenau we parked to explore the town and found prices are generally considerably less than in West Germany. House prices, displayed in the estate agent's window are very much less and Ian's choice of cake today was only half what we paid yesterday. We have also found though, that even so long after reunification, there are properties in side streets around the towns that have been left in their neglected state and are now beyond repair but would cost too much to pull down. Some of these, to our horror, we discovered are tiled not with slates, but with asbestos!!! As tiles fall off they are piling up at the base of the wall.

Ilmenau is a very pleasant town on the river Ilm. It has strong connections with the German writer, poet, librarian, geologist and all-round genius Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who lived for some time in the town and was involved with the management of the mines in the area during the late 18th century. The town has a Goethe museum, and there are various references to him around the town – the Goethe walk, the Goethe fountain, the house where he spent his last birthday and much more. In the churchyard of the picturesque, but disused, slate-tiled church above the town is the gravestone of the actress who played the leading role in the first performance of Goethe's play Iphigenia auf Tauris.

Goethe museum, Ilmenau

Slate-hung church, Ilmenau

Grave of Corona Schröter, 1802, Ilmenau

Ian and Goethe deep in discussion, Ilmenau

Town Hall, Ilmenau

Ian has fond memories of Pflaumentorte eaten in small cafes in East German towns some forty years ago. He was not disappointed when we stopped at a delightful Konditorei that has been run by the same family since the early 1900s. It was doing a brisk trade and had a very pleasant atmosphere. Three young men at the adjoining table couldn't decide which cake to choose so had two each with their coffee. They were all so cheap and delicious it's a good job we don't live here permanently. Apart from the price, the main difference between the coffee shops of East and West Germany is that in Bavaria we had the feeling everything is smart, new and modern but trying to appear old fashioned and characterful, while in Thuringia everything is old fashioned and full of character but trying to appear smart, new and modern. In both cases though, the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming and the cakes and coffee the very best to be found in Europe. (Austria and Hungary are pretty good too.)

Schindler's Konditorei, Ilmenau

The afternoon passed all too quickly around the streets of Ilmenau. Eventually we continued through a landscape of pine forests, slate-tiled villages and wide, open farmland – a legacy of the co-operative farming methods practised back in Soviet times. Just beyond Kranichfeld we reached a large lake where we have stopped for the night.

Germans love to use English. Their language is peppered with it. It is also very smart to use it in the business world but people do not always understand exactly what they are saying. In Ilmenau this afternoon we were amused to see an attempt by a bathroom design company to mix English and German (known as Denglish) that really did not work!

Lost in translation!! Ilmenau

Tuesday 15th June 2010, Weimar, Thuringia
After a short walk beside the lake this morning we drove the few kilometres to Weimar using country lanes that took us through a very pretty little village of Fachwerk houses. These are typically Thuringian, so very different from Bavaria. Usually the wood is painted red or black with white infill. All the gardens were filled with flowers and there were lovely displays of climbing roses in full bloom. Something we have really appreciated in the countryside is the abundance of wild lupins. They are to this part of Germany what bluebells are to England. They form a blue-pink haze in the long grass by the roadside.

Soon we found ourselves on the familiar roads of Weimar and were quickly reunited with Hubert. Over coffee we exchanged news and bridged the gap since we were last here. Ian and Hubert have been friends for over forty years, right through the difficult years of the GDR. Around midday we all walked down into town for lunch and a nostalgic stroll through the city centre, revisiting the magnificently restored Herderkirche where we were listening to a concert the night the wonderful Anna Amalia Library burned down right nearby. That building too has now been restored and looks magnificent, though we have yet to see inside. We explored hidden gardens behind historic houses where we drank coffee at little tables in rose-covered arbours, and strolled through the World Heritage Stadtpark beside the bubbling river Ilm. Here there is Goethe's Garden House and the Franz Liszt House. We passed the castle, walked through the town centre passing the National Theatre and made our way back to Hubert's flat along streets of elegantly restored, stunning Art Nouveau houses.

Art Nouveau house, Weimar

Weimar is on the Unesco World Heritage list, and justifiably so. With a population of around 60,000 the town is small but perfectly formed. It has an illustrious past, having played a major role during the age of German enlightenment with such literary giants as Johann von Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller and Wieland; such composers as Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Liszt; such Renaissance painters as Lucas Cranach; such philosophers as Friedrich Nietzsche; such architects as Walter Gropius and Henry van der Velde who together created the Bauhaus movement, and such patrons as the Duchess Anna Amalia and Herzog Carl August. It was here too that the first meeting of the Weimar Republic was held in1919.

Weimar really is one of the most interesting and attractive small European towns we have visited. Hubert has lived here for much of his life and he complains that it lacks the excitement of other European cities. This though is natural when before German reunification all those cities were beyond reach. Now he is forever flitting from Paris to Prague and Frankfurt to Florence, eagerly trying to make up for thirty years of travel restrictions.

Our earlier accounts of Weimar, with photos can be seen on 16th to 19th September 2005 and 8th June 2008

We are not actually staying with Hubert this time but renting a small flat on the far side of the Stadtpark. After supper with him we walked back through the darkness across the park, following the winding paths along the banks of the river, finding our way by the pale outline of Goethe's house on the far side of the park near our lodging. We will walk back again in the morning to join Hubert for breakfast. Meanwhile Modestine is making excellent progress with her German as she stands in the parking area surrounded by Audis and BMWs.

Wednesday 16th June 2010, Weimar, Thuringia
We have returned to our flat, hot and sticky after another brisk walk across the park in the darkness having spent so long drinking white wine while Hubert unburdened his soul to us concerning his highly complex personal life, that we missed the last bus across town.

It has been a very enjoyable day. Hubert had prepared breakfast in his flat using the pretty blue and white china that is characteristic of Thuringia, including egg cups, muesli bowls and even a candle.

Breakfast table in Hubert's flat

After coffee and fresh rolls we walked to the station for the train to Bad Közen. There are numerous spa centres in the area where German people are routinely sent for a Kur on their health insurance. Bad Közen has salt baths and the vapours are eagerly inhaled as a cure for lung complaints.

The countryside of Thuringia is very pleasant with meadows of bright flowers, fields of wheat sprinkled with poppies and riverside bushes and trees that include blossoming elderflower, sloes, crab-apples and rambling pink roses. Our walk through the countryside took us for several kilometres along beside the river Saale with vineyards on the steep slopes of the far bank. On the river were small pleasure boats and canoes as well as herons and swans.

At the fishermen's pub we stopped for lunch at tables set beside the water. The food was not for the faint hearted, our meal being Bauernfrühstuck (farmer's breakfast) a massive, multi-egg omelette filled with fried potatoes, onions and chopped bacon served with salad, melon, ham and sliced gherkins!

We walked off the excess calories though, turning away from the river to visit a monastery, now used as a boarding school. Here students were having music lessons in the cloisters as we passed through to visit the monastery church, a large, gothic building with a high, black slate roof and some outstanding carved tombstones around the inside walls dating from the 14th to 18th centuries. The external walls of the church were badly pock-marked by shrapnel which Hubert explained was from the American troops when they captured this area in 1945. Initial relief that the war had ended though, was short-lived when Germany was divided up and Thuringia was handed to the Russians.

Monastery church, Pforta, Thuringia

Cloisters, Pforta, Thuringia

Hubert always wants to do ten times more than is possible when we visit. Every few moments as we walked he wanted to change our plans to take us to different villages, churches or cafes he was eager for us to see. He led us across fields of new mown hay, along cycle routes and footpaths, over wooden bridges and through allotments and flower gardens until we reached the little town of Naumberg. Here we collapsed with beers and ice creams as we waited for the train back to Weimar, followed by supper back at his flat and a therapeutic counselling session in the twilight on his balcony. So much warm sunshine and fresh air has quite exhausted us.

Hubert and Jill walking in the Thuringian countryside

Ian and Hubert, Weimar

Ian rang Eva, the daughter of the family friend we mentioned had died while we were in Corté in Corsica. We had thought to call on her in Salzgitter on our way home to England. It seems though that she is now living way down south in Konstanz, back where we have come from, so we will not now need to head directly northwards. Now we must decide which direction we take when we move on from here on Friday.

Thursday 17th June 2010, Weimar, Thuringia
This has been our last full day with Hubert. Over breakfast together in his flat he told us he would like to show us the nearby Thuringian town of Erfurt which he finds more stimulating than Weimar. It is certainly far larger having a population in excess of 200,000. During the 15th century it became a member of the Hanseatic league of German towns while in the 16th century it was an importance centre for the manufacture of woad – a blue dye used for colouring cloth.

The day has been hot and we have done a lot of walking, around both Erfurt and Weimar. During the morning in Erfurt we visited several churches, a couple of synagogues and the open square known as the Fischmarkt with its renaissance buildings and neo-gothic town hall. We then made our way to the ancient bridge – the Krämerbrücke built in1325 - that leads into the heart of the old town. The bridge dates back to mediaeval times and is lined with houses and small shops on either side so that one could quite easily walk the street and be unaware that the bridge even existed! Of course from the far side, standing beside the river, it becomes obvious. The uneven wooden houses are tall and crowded together on the bridge, with tall slate roofs pierced by tiny windows. Most have Fachwerk timbering and wooden balconies.

Predigerkirche, Erfurt

Mediaeval Synagogue, Erfurt

On the Krämerbrücke, Erfurt

Krämerbrücke seen from the river, Erfurt

Attractive Renaissance doorway, Erfurt

A short walk along beside the river brought us to the Augustinian monastery where, from 1505 to 1508, Martin Luther studied theology. There are statues to him around the town.

After a brief stop for lunch we crossed the city and climbed the Domberg topped by the Cathedral and the church of St. Severus standing side by side.

Domberg with the Cathedral and the church of St. Severus, Erfurt

Unfortunately I got mislaid in the church while Ian and Hubert were looking for me in the Cathedral! By the time we found each other I'd had my fill of gothic architecture and climbing flights of steps in the hot sunshine. Deciding to meet later at the station, I returned down into the busy streets below while Ian and Hubert climbed up to the castle for an overview of the town and a beer.

View over the town from the citadel, Erfurt

Hubert at the citadel, Erfurt

Baroque building of the Landessitz, Erfurt

Meanwhile I discovered corners we'd somehow missed earlier including the Amplonian library of pre-1400 scientific literature and the Anger Museum of Art and History housed in a former merchant's house dating from the early 18th century. I also discovered a large square flanked on a couple of sides by buildings from the 1890s, one containing the Post Office with a gothic arched ceiling painted with flowers and tendrils, the other being the facade to a smart shopping complex with a mosaic pool and fountain. On the third side was a heavy but intriguing example of fascist architecture dating from the early 1930s. Faced in a heavy grey stone it had signs of the zodiac across the top but it was the heavy caryatids that intrigued me. They were men wearing suits and ties while the ladies were fashionably dressed with floppy hats, typical of the period.

The adjoining street, leading from the Art gallery was called Anger. We'd passed the end of the street earlier and noted that it had many Art Nouveau facades above the bustling shopping street beneath. So, to quote a phrase, I went to "look back in Anger". Every facade was different and all where a wonderful expression of the Art Nouveau style, from the columns, balconies and windows to the elaborate entrances and coloured mouldings of fruits, flowers and even animals. Of special note was the Bismark House where he stayed for a brief time –now a trendy fashion store with the remains of abbey cloisters inside where the shops mannequins are on display! Further down the street was an earlier building where Goethe, Schiller and also the explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt stayed. Regrettably the camera was with Ian so no photos.

The return to the railway station took me through the Willy Brandt Platz. Hubert tells us it was so named because the West German Chancellor had a meeting with the then president of the GDR in a building overlooking the square. Attempts to keep the citizens of Erfurt away failed so when Willy Brandt was seen at the window people unanimously and spontaneously cried out for him to help them to have more freedom. It was one of the earliest appeals to the West for help, open evidence that matters in East Europe were not as perfect as Communist leaders would have the rest of the world believe.

Willy Brandt Platz, Erfurt

Once back in Weimar we went our separate ways. We move on tomorrow morning and Hubert is occupied with giving his guided tours. We always hate parting but it is not the same now as thirty years ago. Now there are no restrictions on travel and we hope very much that it will not be too long before we meet again, this time in Exeter where Hubert has promised to visit us in the very near future.