TRAVEL: Crucible of Germany

Thuringia, one of the five new Bundeslnder made accessible by unification, was home to Goethe, Liszt, Schiller and Bach. Bauhaus and the Weimar Republic flowered there. Celina Fox is charmed
Click to follow
A GERMAN friend of mine started to cry when she reached the outskirts of Weimar for the first time in 1990. She was not returning to ancestral lands, nor suffering from an overwhelming sense of Goethelust. But when she took the exit off the autobahn and drove through the tiny village of Gelmeroda, she saw the distinctive spire of the church which Lyonel Feininger, the Bauhaus artist, used as a leitmotiv throughout his career. She only knew the paintings: now, at last, she could see the reality.

Weimar lies in Thuringia, traditionally the heartland of Germany and one of the five new Bundeslnder made accessible since reunification. It is a day's drive from the English Channel, yet those bent on exploring the new Europe usually zip through to Dresden or the fashionable Czech lands. As a result, Thuringia is generally overlooked and retains many of the more agreeable characteristics of old Germany which have been blotted out by allied bombing and post-war affluence further west.

In Weimar it is still possible to recover the atmosphere of the small town on the river Ilm where Goethe spent most of his adult life as adviser to the court of Duke Carl August. An 18th-century park creeps gently up to its boundary, unimpeded by any railings. Vistas of woods and water- meadows frame the Duke's classical Rmanisches Haus and Goethe's modest Gartenhaus, enhancing the illusion of a Rousseau-esque idyll. Nor has the centre been much disturbed over the years. The sights are on an accommodating scale. The houses once occupied by Goethe, Schiller and Liszt have an unassumingly studious simplicity, swagged net curtains filtering the light on to warm wooden floorboards, leather-bound volumes and potted plants.

The town's Schloss (palace) was gutted by fire in 1774 and slowly reconstructed behind its baroque faade, as ducal coffers permitted, to create imposing neo-classical interiors. These are now being restored in stages so that most, embellished with Weimar's rich art collections, are visible at any one time. In the Grnes Schloss, the Anna Amalia library is open to visitors in the mornings. This rococo gem is named after Carl August's mother, who moved the books and manuscripts here from the cramped main Schloss less than 15 years before the great fire.

The Grand Duchy's reputation as a centre for enlightenment lived on into the present century. In 1902, Henry van de Velde was appointed adviser for industry and crafts. He started a School of Applied Arts in 1907 and his unorthodox teaching methods culminated in the founding of the Bauhaus in 1919, under his successor Walter Gropius. If you ask, you can see inside the original building - designed by van de Velde and completed in 1911 - which still functions as the School of Architecture. On the stairs are Constructivist murals, buried until recently under layers of white paint. High up on Humboldtstrasse is the Nietzsche Archive, housed in the villa where the philosopher spent his last years. After his death in 1900, his sister Elisabeth Frster Nietzsche commissioned van de Velde to design a library and archive room for lectures, readings and concerts. It remains almost exactly as it was, from the piano and sofas to the door handles and stoves.

These are not the only memorials to the 20th century. The old Elephant Hotel overlooking the marketplace, a famous meeting place in Goethe's time, was refurbished in the fascist era and became a favourite haunt for Hitler and his cronies. Rather appealingly run-down in GDR days, it has now been done up in Hercule Poirot/art deco mode and adorned with contemporary art works. But the Elefantenkeller restaurant, with its square- cut travertine pillars, still recalls the ponderous classicism adopted by the Nazis as a national style. It also serves typical Thuringian food - strong on game and dumplings, weak on nouvelle cuisine.

Weimar makes a good base for exploring the neighbouring countryside. You can walk from the town up the avenue alongside the park to Schloss Belvedere, a frothy concoction embraced by neat pavilions, built in the 1720s as the Duke's summer residence. It is now used to display the decorative arts, while its Orangerie houses a carriage museum. Beyond, another English- style park full of follies runs down a deep valley to the Ilm. Schloss Tiefurt, Anna Amalia's small summer residence where she frequently entertained Goethe and Schiller, is a few minutes out of town to the north-east. It does not look much from the outside but the interiors are as pretty as those in her town residence, Wittumspalais, with the added attraction of views on to a broad stretch of parkland on the Ilm. Further to the east, on a steep cliff overlooking the river Saal, lies Schloss Dornburg, possibly the most covetable residence in Thuringia. There are three castles lined up on the cliff edge, but the star is this rococo villa, chinoiserie curves billowing out over the river thousands of feet below, as if frivolously tempting fate. The formal gardens with their meticulously pruned vines, clipped parterres and impeccably weeded borders are tended by a team of women gardeners.

Thuringia has always been agricultural, a fertile breeding ground for reactionary attitudes which enabled the Nazis to win the local government elections in 1930, the first province to fan to them. The monumental Soviet- style tower of the Buchenwald concentration camp memorial is visible from Weimar, silhouetted against the hills to the north. An exhibition highlighting the suffering of German Communists during the war has just closed and will be replaced, presumably, by a more politically correct account, which covers the fate of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, as well as the use to which the Russians put the camp after the war.

Today it is difficult to comprehend its association with the town that witnessed the brilliant flowering of the German Enlightenment and inspired the National Assembly to meet there in 1919 to proclaim the most liberal constitution the world had known. The countryside gives an air of peaceful contentment. The wooded hills descend into the towns; women sit at upper windows watching the world go by; the church bells clang the hours away. Martens dart out across alleys and back into the shadows: so fond have they evidently become of feeding on car tyres, that they are now an uninsurable risk in Germany.

While many of the town and village streets retain their cobbles - a better speed deterrent than sleeping policemen - the country roads are smooth, wending their way between gnarled guards of wild plum and cherry trees. A monster chimney still heralds the approach to any town of note, followed by concrete blocks of workers' flats, but the old marketplaces in the centre now appear as bustling and prosperous as any in the west.

Germany's massive investment in the eastern Lnder still guarantees that half the sights of a locality are closed for restoration, but there is plenty to compensate. The museums of Eisenach on the border with Hessen may be shut, but its market is as good a spot as any to sample Thuringian bratwurst. The Georgenkirche in the middle of the square witnessed the baptism of JS Bach in 1685. Succeeding generations of Bachs were organists in residence here until the end of the 18th century.

The main reason for visiting Eisenach is to climb the steep hill overlooking the town to Wartburg castle, where Martin Luther stayed under the protection of the Elector Frederick the Wise after being excommunicated and outlawed at the Diet of Worms. Disguised as Junker Jrg, he translated the New Testament from Erasmus's Greek into the German vernacular, working at a frenzied pace and keeping the devil at bay by tossing ink-pots after him. This achievement, the castle's medieval association with St Elisabeth (she of the bread which turned to roses) and with the Minnesnger (troubadours) made it a natural focus for 19th-century patriotic sentiment, and the perfect brandname for the best car the GDR could produce.

Now, a guided tour round the Wartburg castle takes you through a succession of heavily restored Romanesque chambers. They are decorated with stencilled walls in the manner of Pugin and frescoes by Moritz von Schwind, recalling episodes from its glorious past.

Arnstadt's Neue Palais is, inevitably, largely closed for restoration but you can see the large doll collection, Mon Plaisir, formed by Princess Augusta Dorothea in the first half of the 18th century. It illustrates the costumes, manners and work undertaken by the various social classes of the day.

Gotha was once part of Prince Albert's patrimony but at the end of the last war it was split from Coburg, further south, which opted to join Bavaria. Its massive pile, Friedrichstein, contains acres of impressive baroque and neo-classical salons filled with paintings and sculpture, besides a 17th-century theatre which is still in use.

Rudolstadt's Schloss Heidecksburg is almost as vast, perched high above the town. I went round on a guided tour with a school party which gasped appreciatively as the elderly guide threw open the double doors to reveal one extravagantly stuccoed room after another.

Mhlhausen has no Schloss but is famed for being the headquarters of the ill-fated Peasants' Revolt of 1525, led by Thomas Mntzer until his defeat at Frankenhausen by Luther's princely supporters. The Marienkirche has a display devoted to its charismatic pastor, but the narrow streets enclosed by the medieval town wall are more intriguing. I came across a courtyard where stonemasons were working as they had for centuries, underneath old apple trees heavy with blossom. The ancient hospital of St Antony next door was being used as a carpenter's workshop.

At the church of St Blasius, a student unlocked the doors and played Bach on the organ for me - Bach was organist at the church from 1707 to 1708. Erfurt, Thuringia's attractively dynamic capital, also survived the war relatively unscathed and is rich in medieval church buildings and Renaissance town houses, now being restored and conserved in ped- estrian zones. The towers and spires of the Catholic Dom and Protestant Severikirche soar above the city alongside each other, up a steep hill reached by a flight of steps from the Domplatz, like a Schinkel painting.

It is easy to dip into the great Thuringian forest, a holiday playground for many GDR workers before the Wende. Now that they can all go to Majorca instead, its attractions are possibly less popular. But there are plenty of "Zimmer Frei" (rooms available) signs to indicate that private enterprise is on the increase here.

With a little bit of luck, you might find yourself staying somewhere with a newly installed state-of-the-art Ideal Standard shower. The downside of such rapid economic change is that outside the towns, "miracle miles" of shopping malls, DIY stores and supermarkets are beginning to blight the landscape, flouting the strict planning regulations that apply in west Germany.

Even in the historic centres of Thuringia, the old wooden signboards and shop interiors are being torn out to make way for garish logos, advertisements, shiny shelves and counters. One chemist I met despaired of holding on to his antique apothecary jars: "People equate them with old medicine, and they want new cures". But sometimes the old medicine still works. !