Day-Tripping in Thüringen

in which Daniel and I hike through a forest, see a whale bone that sat in Martin Luther’s room, sample a hot cherry beer, and spend all together between 9 and 10 hours on regional trains. All in a day’s work.

Originally, when Daniel made his plans to come here, I had in mind a fabulous weekend of exploring Thüringen (officially that’s Thuringia in English, I believe, but I reject that). I had grand ideas of going to Weimar, Eisenach, Erfurt, and maybe even a couple other smaller cities. But between Marina being in Nuremberg on Saturday and limited funds (particularly for Daniel), the whole multi-day trip seemed a little out of the question. Alas, enter absurdity!

As we figured out what to do with the weekend, a new solution came to me: why not do it anyway, but cram everything into one absurd day. And this is how I came to enter my 14th German state (2 more to go!).

After looking up trains, the plan was this: leave Nuremberg on a train at 5:52, transferring three times (yes, three!) to get us to Eisenach, the city where Martin Luther enjoyed an involuntary stay in a fortress while he translated the New Testament into German. From there, plans were flexible–we’d go to Weimar if we could get there (an hour from Eisenach) with enough time before dark (already between 4 and 4:30); otherwise, we’d just go to Erfurt, since the connections from there were a lot easier. If we liked Weimar, we’d come back to Nuremberg directly from there, otherwise, we’d stop briefly in Erfurt.

The day began uneventfully. It was painful to leave the house by 5:25, but soon enough, we were peacefully asleep on our first train. I set a phone alarm to wake me up a few minutes before arrival at each of our stops–first at Lichtenfels (in Bavaria), then at Saalfeld (in Thüringen), and finally at some place a stop or two short of Erfurt, before arriving at our first destination: Eisenach. From the minute we disembarked, I was struck at how different the place felt. That we had crossed into former East Germany was immediately recognizable. Although the state wasn’t particularly Stalinized, the buildings felt significantly more worn down, and though there were still plenty of Fachwerk buildings, the style and shape of them was quite different to what I was accustomed to in Northern Bavaria. The first, most obvious sign, however, was the traffic signal.

The Ampelmännchen ("little traffic signal man") has long been a classic symbol of East Berlin and of East Germany more broadly. And as we stepped out of the Eisenach train station, he was there to greet us.

Before we made our way out to our main destination, the Wartburg, set on a hill about an hour’s walk from town, we wandered through the main city, enjoying the peace and quiet of a Sunday morning. I was pleasantly surprised by Eisenach–it was very cute. Perhaps slightly run down (shall we call it well-loved?), but generally in good condition.

In Eisenach.

We continued on, meandering through the city, then through a neighborhood, and suddenly we found ourselves in the midst of the beautiful winter wonderland of the Thüringen Forest, on a well worn path up to the fortress. The forest was stunning, and the walk was beautiful. And fortunately, we walked quickly enough as to not be much affected by the cold.

The Thüringen Forest, in black and white.

As we made the final ascent, we were treated to a nice view over the city, which would have been admittedly more striking on a clear (and warm) day. But certainly the location is undeniably wonderful.

After surrendering our 2€ entrance fee for the fortress and its Christmas Market (considering normal admission to the fortress is more than that, it was hardly a problem). We spent the next few hours wandering the museum there, sampling the wares of the Christmas market, and generally enjoying ourselves.  The museum had a collection of artifacts and art collected by the nobility that had lived there, as well as many early editions of the New Testament. The supposed highlight was the Luther-Stube, the room where Luther translated the New Testament. We were disappointed, however, to discover that the room was largely with non-original furniture. Sigh. There was, however, a whale vertebrae that dated from Luther’s time there.

There you have it, Luther's whale vertebrae. Awesome.

Probably one of the better aspects of visiting is the possibility of having a tour led by a person dressed up as Martin Luther. Who wouldn’t want that?!?

I wonder if this man is satisfied with his career as a Martin Luther reenactor/impersonator. How do you even prepare for that sort of career?!?

We finished up our time there with a bratwurst that is specific to the region, which was washed down with hot mead and a hot cherry beer. The latter of these two drinks was delicious, and Daniel had the good graces to drink most of the mead and let me have most of the beer. Not that it tasted much like beer. We went out to get a final look of the fortress before we caught a bus back down to the train station. We felt like we had maximized our time there, and it was time to move on:

Die Wartburg. Not my favourite picture, but when we tried to get someone else to take a new one, the result was an utter disaster of poor photography skills.

So, we headed back to the train station and caught the next train on to Weimar, the center of German romanticism/classicism, once home to Goethe, Schiller, and a host of others. It was also where the German constitution for the short-lived interwar German republic was drafted (thus the “Weimar Republic”). We were once again confronted with reminders of being in the former GDR (East Germany). First up was a statue of Ernst Thälmann, leader of the German communist party during the Weimar Republic who died in Buchenwald. His name is known to most people for its association with the Pioneer organization, the communist youth movement in East Germany, which was named in his honor.

Ernst Thälmann's position is clearly begging for the standard imitation picture.

Another museum entry (I believe it was the Bauhaus Museum (a movement that also has its roots in Weimar) begged for another imitation picture. Daniel rose admirably to the challenge:

And of course, we tipped our proverbial hats (well, I left mine on and Daniel didn’t have one) to Goethe and Schiller.

This was a suprisingly difficult picture to get. Why are people so incompetent at taking pictures?!? Would it have been too much to cut off a bit more of the ground and include the tip of the building?

We wandered around, but I can’t say I was overwhelmed by Weimar. I certainly don’t have any particular interest in going back and giving it a closer look. I mean, I realize a couple hours there are not enough to say that I really came to understand and appreciate the city, but still, it made no great impression (in contrast to Eisenach and Erfurt to come).

So, as it grew dark, we returned yet again to the train station and took the train 15 minutes in the direction we had just come from and found ourselves in Erfurt. Erfurt was an absolutely brilliant surprise. I had zero expectations for the city, but I found it overwhelmingly pleasant. The old town was absolutely adorable, and the cathedral was stunning, with this particularly striking staircase running up the side. Daniel and I both wished we had been able to get in–there is zero doubt in my mind that I would like to return to Erfurt. And I consider that very useful information to have gathered on the trip.

The Erfurt Cathedral. Better in person than on digital film.

As was true everywhere in Germany in December, the city had been overtaken by its Christmas Market (I have seriously seen some 12 or 13 different Christmas markets in the last few weeks, I believe). And as a general rule, I would say they tend to be tackier in former East Germany than in former West Germany (cases in point: all the markets I have seen in Bavaria vs. those in Erfurt, Eisenach (in the town, not at the fortress), Weimar, and Marina’s pictures of some of the markets in Berlin).

Erfurt's Christmas Market, with the cathedral behind.

We scavenged for food (I ate a garlic bread of sorts, Daniel another bratwurst), and then caught a train back to Nuremberg. It has been an excellent day, and an excellent use of the 37€ Schönes Wochenede Ticket (good for up to 5 people on all regional trains in Germany for either Saturday or Sunday). Total value of our tickets: 138.90. Not bad, not bad. Needless to say, however, we were exhausted upon our return.

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