Germany's very own local hero

Sarah Gracie follows in the footsteps of Goethe and discovers a genius who loved to drink, and whose hunting was not confined to the forest

Astern, forbidding father and a passionate, romantic mother must be a good recipe for creating literary genius. Well, male Teutonic genius. It worked for Thomas Mann. And it worked for Johann Wolfgang Goethe too. He wrote:

"From father came life's earnest poise,

A bearing strict and stable;

From mother dear, my sense of joys

And will to spin a fable."

Goethe, whose 250th anniversary falls this year, was born in Frankfurt in 1749. The "bearing strict and stable" and the "will to spin a fable" battled it out all through his long life. He was a poet, song-writer, playwright, and lover of fine wines, dancing and clothes. But he also served as minister at the court of Carl August in Weimar, with responsibility for everything from roads and bridges to the state treasury.

He spent his life in a series of passionate affairs from which he took flight whenever they threatened to inhibit his freedom. And his first proposal of marriage was made at 74 to Christiane Vulpius, with whom he had been living for 17 years - to the consternation of Weimar society.

Any pilgrimage in his footsteps must begin in Frankfurt. Here he was born on Hirschengrabenstrasse near the city centre. His father was a lawyer and his mother the daughter of the local mayor, 20 years her husband's junior. Not much remains of the Frankfurt that Goethe grew up in because the Allies flattened everything apart from the cathedral in the Second World War. The narrow medieval streets, with the traffic of merchants bringing porcelain from China and spices from Arabia, have all gone.

But the house has been lovingly restored. With its fine panelled rooms, collections of classical engravings and books, and mullioned windows opening on to shaded courtyards, you can catch the atmosphere of lettered privilege in which Goethe grew up.

You can take a drive out to the barley mill on the banks of the river Main, where Goethe had the first of his multitudinous love affairs. It is now a restaurant serving Frankfurt specialities. From a terrace shaded by linden trees you look back at the skyscrapers of the city's commercial centre: Germany's own Manhattan.

The second big city on the Goethe trail is Leipzig. He was sent here at 16 to study law. He was master of many subjects - literature, philosophy, botany, anatomy, geology, optometry - but the one subject in which he never showed any interest was law. His grasp of it never passed beyond a small primer he used to mug up the night before exams. Instead he studied fashion and fine manners. Leipzig at the time was an elegant city famous for music and literature. Bach had lived here for many years as Kantor of the Thomaskirche and Mendelssohn was soon to arrive. It was the centre of a thriving publishing industry and in its drawing rooms only zierlichste Deutsch, the most refined German, was spoken.

Although Leipzig too was flattened in the war, you can still catch some of the atmosphere of Goethe's day in the Renaissance and Baroque courtyards of the Altstadt, where its great trade fairs took place. Leipzig was the starting point of East Germany's Wende (peaceful revolution) in 1989, when two-thirds of the city poured on to the streets and managed to topple the communist government with candles and prayers. Money is now pouring into the city to renovate the dilapidated buildings.

Despite the continuing eyesore of some of communism's most brutalist architecture, the centre is now recapturing some of the old grandeur. The opera house and concert hall are full every evening. And the centre once again has many coffee bars and Weinstuben (wine bars).

One unmissable site is Auerbachs Keller, where Goethe went to drink. Its vaulted stone chambers are decorated with paintings of the legendary Faust, a 16th-century theologian turned alchemist who performed acts of magic and was said to have had a pact with the devil. Here among the gloom and fitful light of the Bierkeller Goethe drank too much one evening and is said to have had a vision of Mephistopheles. This was to provide the kernel of the scene in his play Faust, in which Mephistopheles appears before the town topers and gives them their favourite drink before vanishing on a flying barrel.

Goethe's ceaseless round of flirtations, parties, drinking, and drawing lessons caught up with him: at 19 he returned to Frankfurt with damaged kidneys. After a period of recuperation, which he used to initiate himself into the mysteries of alchemy, his father became worried, and packed off "the weakling" to Strasbourg to resume his law studies.

But Strasbourg was the opportunity for more love affairs and another change of clothes. He dons chamois stockings to protect him from the "Rhine gnats" and cuts his hair - grown wild in months of cabbalistic mysticism - in favour of a wig and pony tail. He courts the daughters of the local merchants and falls in love with Strasbourg's magnificent cathedral.

The love affairs were later to provide the material for Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Written when Goethe was 25 and in three headlong months, Werther burst upon the world stage in 1774 with the thunderclaps of Romanticism. Its hero, who falls in love with his friend's fiancee and ends up shooting his brains out, became the archetypal Ubermensch (superman), the man not bound by bourgeois constraints.

Goethe followed his extraordinary success with a 10-year literary moratorium. He took up a position as minister at the court of Duke Carl August in Weimar, then a tiny backwater of the Holy Roman Empire. The city's name is irrevocably bound up with the tragic failure of democracy after the First World War. But as home to Lucas Cranach, Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Nietzsche, it is hard to overestimate its significance as a cultural capital. As this year's European City of Culture, Weimar is undergoing a facelift so far-reaching as to put it in danger of Kapputszanierung (restoration to death).

The city's neo-classical facades and Baroque townhouses are being re-plastered and painted; its roofs

reslated and boulevards recobbled. It is a relief to wander up a dusty side street which has not yet received the treatment and wonder about Bach as a young musician, who left in fury because he was passed over for the job of conductor of the court orchestra. Or to spare a thought for the poet Schiller, who struggled on an income one-tenth of Goethe's and lived always in the great man's shadow.

In Weimar he would accompany Carl August on his hunting trips into the Thuringian mountains, but while the duke chased boar, he would make sketches of flowers. It is here - among these rolling hills with their steep forests and swift-flowing rivers - that Goethe drew inspiration for some of his most famous lyrics. You can see the hunting lodge they used and the remains of the silver mines he spent years trying to recommission to provide an income for the peasants. The mines eventually flooded. It was one of Goethe's biggest disappointments.

Weimar itself has a compact centre which is easy to explore. Next to the Schloss, the centre of court life, is the Belvedere Park, where Goethe had a summerhouse. He landscaped the gardens in the English style and they are now full of beech and cherry trees,with grassy swards stretching down to the river. Above the duke's stables lived Charlotte von Stein with whom Goethe had a long affair.

After 10 years as chief minister, Goethe had had a bellyful of court intrigue. He'd also had enough of Charlotte. He took off for Italy, where he spent several months living in a community of artists, with a Roman servant girl, and had his portrait painted by Tischbein. When he came back he was determined to dedicate his life to literature and scientific research. Carl August gave him a grand house and provided generously for him. This fine townhouse now bears the imprint of Goethe's personality. Each of its handsome rooms is painted a different colour, according to the theory of colours he was developing. It was in this house that he drew a line under his life as a philanderer and finally married Christiane.

It is in this house too that, in his final years, he reaches a state of creative resolution between the opposite pulls of his father and mother. While music, card-playing and dancing go on, Goethe withdraws to his study. Here he writes Faust I and Faust II, the great volumes of poetry, the classical plays, The Evolution of Plants and The Theory of Colours. He writes standing up, at a tall desk, because comfortable furniture brought him into an "easy passive condition" that was inimical to good work. But every now and again he likes to emerge from his study and lift the lid of the piano. He beckons the teenage Mendelssohn, who spent a lot of time in the house, with the words: "I haven't heard you today - come and make some noise for me!" Then he takes up a position in the armchair at the other end of the room and listens with "gleaming flashes in his aged eyes".

GETTING THERE Sarah Gracie travelled courtesy of the German National Tourist Office (tel: 0171-317 0908). DER Travel Service (tel: 0171-290 1111) offers tours to Germany. A weekend return to Leipzig costs from pounds 309, including return flights and two nights' three-star accommodation. A weekend return to Weimar costs from pounds 331. Moswyn Tours (tel: 0116 271 9922) also specialises in tours to Germany. Weekend returns to Leipzig cost from pounds 309. A five-day trip, including Leipzig and Weimar, costs from pounds 429, based on two sharing. Lufthansa (tel: 0345 737747) offers return flights to Frankfurt and Leipzig from pounds 155 and pounds 207 respectively. Hotels and private rooms can be booked from the local tourist offices in Frankfurt (tel: 069 2123 8849), Weimar (tel: 03643 202173) and Leipzig (tel: 0341 7104322).

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