I had long wanted to see why so much European Culture flourished in a place the size of Godalming. The answer, I discovered, lies partly in Weimar's old aristocracy. Like all small German city states ("pumpernickel principalities", historian Simon Schama calls them), Weimar once had its own court. A castle was built by a 16th-century elector which grew into the vast neo-classical edifice seen today. The court's great wealth attracted Cranach, Bach, Goethe and many others.
Located right in the middle of Germany, Weimar gave its name to a republic in 1919 which offered Germans a chance to establish democratic credentials after decades of militarism. The experiment failed; the Weimar Republic collapsed in 1933. After the war, the town lay in tatters inside the former East Germany. Since the early 1990s, it has been struggling to come alive again.
Next year, Weimar becomes European Capital of Culture. A race to smarten up its evocative old centre is now on. Narrow, traffic-free streets, crammed with boutiques unimaginable in East German times bustle with tour groups and shoppers. Cafes spill out on to pavements.
At the Hotel Elephant, you are close to Germany's soul. The 300-year- old inn's list of visitors is a rollcall of German greats: Bach, Goethe, Schiller; also Felix Mendelssohn, Richard Wagner, even Leo Tolstoy. Thomas Mann immortalised the place in his 1939 novel, Lotte in Weimar, though little of the hotel he knew in the 1920s remains.
This is due to the attentions of an embarrassing guest: Adolf Hitler. Guidebooks mention Hitler, but say little about his fondness for the Elephant. I felt a stiff drink in the hotel's Franz Liszt bar was needed to dig deeper. Christina, the Elephant's rooms manager, joined me.
"AH", as Christina referred to him, liked the hotel so much that he personally oversaw a total rebuilding in 1937. I suggested to her that Hitler had a dictator's fondness for balconies. She confirmed that the Elephant's balcony over the main entrance today was indeed his idea: in a photo taken in 1900, it's a plain window. Just as I was about to ask her whether any records of Hitler's visits remained, she said: "We do get weird people coming in to ask about him - can they see pictures of him, waving...?" I dropped my inquiry and headed for the sights.
A stone's throw from the hotel is the Anna Amalia Library. Anna Amalia was an influential Weimar dowager in the early 19th century, counting Goethe amongst her circle of friends. The library named after her is based in the Green Palace, on the Platz der Demokratie, next to the market-place. It contains nearly a million books. A few thousand of them are still stacked in what is known as the Rococo Room, where Goethe spent many hours.
An oval-shaped, multi-levelled sanctuary of antique volumes, the room can be viewed only through a glass screen. The atmosphere is sepulchral: a German intellectual holy of holies. So perfectly preserved is the Rococo room, you can almost see a tail-coated Goethe peering through an eye-glass at the rows of bound leather.
Three minutes walk away is Weimar's castle. Inside, the walls are lined with old-master paintings. More stunning are the building's superbly restored 18th- and 19th-century rooms, and one room in particular: the Festsaal, an immense dancehall with an ornamental painted ceiling and mirror-smooth parquet flooring.
I had the place to myself. Like seeing Goethe in the Rococo Room, I could almost hear the whoosh of dancers, the powdered musicians playing and the hum of cultivated chatter. This Weimar of old plays seductively on the imagination.
I decided to go to church: two churches, in fact; one that contains a Cranach, the other where Goethe got married in 1806. The first, the Stadtkirche SS Peter und Paul, has tricky opening times (a couple of hours in mid- morning, one hour in the afternoon), so you have to plan a visit carefully. It's worth the effort: the Cranach triptych above the altar is a 16th- century masterpiece.
Ten minutes to the north is Goethe's marriage-site, the Jakobskirche. Pinned to the wall of the narrow porch were several dozen rectangles of white paper, framed by black lines, which had nothing to do with Goethe. Each contained a message. I began to copy one down: "18.3.92. Buxtehude: 53-year-old Captain Schneeclaus was beaten up by two Nazi-Skins because he called Hitler a criminal. Three days later he died of his injuries..."
A frizzy-haired man in his thirties came out into the porch. He was Hardy Rylke, the pastor. I asked him about the bits of paper. He sighed. "You know, we have problems in the new Germany. When neo-Nazi attacks began after reunification, we felt it important to make a record of them. The church can help, but see here" - we stepped outside and Hardy pointed at a scrubbed-out swastika on the church wall - "even we come under fire from these people. I have to lock the church."
Hardy was unequivocal about Weimar's significance. "We have to be sensitive to this here. Weimar is Goethe, Schiller, civilisation. Weimar is also Buchenwald."
The name chilled me to the bone. Of course: the site of the Nazi concentration camp is just outside Weimar. I shook Hardy's hand and left the Jakobskirche.