Erfurt, Weimar and Gotha – three cities in Thuringia
Guest feature by Oliver Segal:
What is the capital of Germany? Most people will say Berlin, which is true in a political sense, but Germany is a new country, made up of a huge number of old established principalities, Prince-Bishoprics and Duchies. Frankfurt is the economic capital, Bonn has most of the ministries and civil servants, and hundreds of little towns have a history of being the capital of their own minor state.
In Thuringia I stumbled across three such cities: Erfurt, the dominant city of the state, a mercantile centre with an important place in religious history; stylish Weimar; and aesthetically beautiful Gotha.
Erfurt is dominated by a Disneyesque Catholic cathedral that looks over the monastery where Luther trained and is a magnet for Protestant pilgrims. Europe’s oldest synagogue is here. It suffered a brutal pogrom in 1349 and was then abandoned for hundreds of years, before becoming first a warehouse and then a dance hall (ironically used by the Nazis). Now it’s a museum housing a collection of one of the greatest hauls of medieval Jewish silverware in the world, buried by wealthy merchants. Erfurt is also the birthplace of Max Weber and Bach’s father.
Weimar has had two golden ages. It was where the German interwar constitution was declared and is permeated with that history; it is also the centre of high German culture. For Goethe fans, Weimar is a must. He was a cabinet minister and the city is packed with references to him. We toured a dedicated museum, but I must confess that, as an Anglophone and Francophile, my continental cultural background is limited to dead Frenchman. I haven’t read Goethe, so this Germanic fascination is beyond me.
Lizst lived here as well as Schiller, and it is the town where Wagner premiered ‘Loengrin’. The vast Duchess Anna Amalia Library burnt down a decade ago. Now restored, visitors can pad around it clothed in thick over-shoe protector slippers.
In the 1920s Weimar was the birthplace of the Bauhaus movement and there is an excellent museum of their products. This influence continues with the Bauhaus University, whose entrance boasts an original Rodin.
After years of support by the left-wing SPD, the nationalistic conservative DNVP took over Thuringia in 1924 and ended the funding of the Bauhaus, but far worse was to come. In the graceful way only Germans can manage (please take note Japan, Austria and Russia, who shamefully mix denial with support of their totalitarian pasts), our guides gestured to the building where the Hitler youth was founded, now adorned with a statue of Schiller and Goethe, and the balcony from which Hitler gave speeches.
My group took the bus to Gotha. This is truly the capital of a micro-prince and we toured the great palace of the region Friedenstein . The family seat of the Gotha family, one son became our Prince Albert. His camp grandfather enjoyed shocking visitors by wearing women’s clothing and commissioning ceramics with hidden phalluses.
The Gothas are the ultimate impotent royalty, deserving little grandeur. Their glory comes from two sources: firstly, an award from the Danish royal family of the Order of the Elephant (to give some perspective, imagine Romeo Beckham’s great grandchildren boasting of David’s OBE). The symbolic elephant adorns much of their memorabilia.
On a far more impressive scale is the art collection. Its power lies in its breadth and immensity: artworks from the great cities of Europe are here in abundance. When the Red Army descended in 1945, it was simply beyond them to understand the importance of what they saw to the point where the soldiers, seeing ancient specimens stored in alcohol decided, in the way only Russians can, to get drunk on the preservation fluids! Thankfully most of the treasures were saved, from the mummies and ancient elephant to the many artworks. These include waxworks – which were the only pieces the Guilds allowed women to produce – to beautiful carved nutmegs, fine Chinese antiques, and works of the Old Masters.
Overall, the region offers everything a cultured man may want from art, music, sociology, architecture and history. Culinary-wise, it is deeply German. My first meal involved dumplings at every course, but on a scale the English stomach can handle. It does offer arguably the best chocolate in the world, as well as pints of high -quality beer that now figure in the dreams of your normally Weatherspoons-inhabiting correspondent. Thuringia offers a snapshot of the whole of European culture, unaffected by 40 years of soviet domination.
- Twice-weekly flights from London Gatwick on Monday and Thursday from €95 (£77)
- Erfurt Synagogue website http://juedisches-leben.erfurt.de/jl/en/
- Germany is an EU member so no Visa or health insurance needed
- Thuringia tourist office website http://www.thuringia-tourism.com/travel-hotel-holiday-tour/index.html