Road Trip Through Luther Land and the Heart of Germany – Episode 519

categories: europe travel

Road Trip Through Luther Land and the Heart of Germany - Amateur Traveler Episode 519

In preparation for the 2017 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Chris (the Amateur Traveler) took a road trip through “Luther Land” and the heart of Germany.


It started as a trip to see many of the significant sites associated with Luther like Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Erfurt, Eisenach, and Wartburg Castle but then expanded to include other historical sites in the area and a visit to a collection of UNESCO sites including: Bauhaus and its sites in Weimar and Dessau, Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, Classical Weimar, Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz, Luther Memorials in Eisleben and Wittenberg, Museum Island in Berlin, the Ancient Beech Forests of Germany, and Wartburg Castle as well as the Elbe Riverside UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Most of the road trip centered on the states of Saxony-Anhalt (Sachsen-Anhalt) and Thuringia (Thüringen) which were part of the old GDR (East Germany). Many cities in these areas lost a third of their population after the wall came down, but most of the cities boast beautiful medieval centers and are rich with history. Chris explores ancient market squares, monasteries, and churches, canopy walks, castles and palaces, museums, and festivals.

Hear about the children’s parade from the Luther Wedding festival, about where in Germany you can find the gates of ancient Babylon, and about which palace has manmade waterfalls.

Whether you are on a protestant pilgrimage, a fan of German musicians or poets, or connoisseur of beautiful gardens, the heart of Germany will not disappoint. Of course, if you like a good bratwurst, then all the better.

subscribe: rss feed | Apple podcasts

right click here to download (mp3)
right click here to download (iTunes version with pictures)


Select Italy

Sponsored by Select Italy, experts in travel to Italy.

Show Notes

Germany Photo Gallery
Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
John Hus
Martin Luther
Philipp Melanchthon
Lucas Cranach the Elder
Friedrich the Wise
John the Constant
John Frederick the Magnanimous
Duke Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau (Father Franz)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Friedrich Schiller
Johann Sebastian Bach
Franz Liszt
Richard Wagner
Adolf Hitler
95 Thesis
30 Years War
The Enlightenment
Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm
Napoleonic Wars
The Wartburg Festival
German Unification
Weimar Republic
24 Hours in Berlin
Travel to Düsseldorf, Germany – Episode 413
Berlin Podcasts
Germany History Timeline
Context Travel
Map of German States
Holy Roman Empire
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
Classical Weimar (UNESCO)
Buchenwald concentration camp
Faust Food
German Peasants’ War
Sängerkrieg (Wartburg Song Contest)
Hainich National Park
Joachim Neander


Berlin – Hotel Amano Grad Central  reviews
Lutherstadt Wittenberg = Luther Hotel Wittenberg
Dessau – Hotel 7 Säulen
Weimar – Hotel Alt Weimar
Erfurt – Hotel Kaisersaal
Eisenach – Schlosshotel Eisenach
Düsseldorf – Derag Livinghotel De Medici
Düsseldorf – Breidenbacher Hof, A Capella Hotel


Lutherstadt Wittenberg – Wittenberger Brauhaus reviews
Weimar – Restaurant Scharfe Ecke reviews
Erfurt – Faust Food reviews
Erfurt – Köstritzer Zum Güldenen Rade reviews
Eisenach – Brunnenkeller reviews
Düsseldorf – Uerige Brewery reviews
Düsseldorf – Zum Schlüssel reviews
Düsseldorf Airport – Palavrion Urban Grill reviews
Berlin – Chipperfield Kantine

My thanks to the German Tourism Board, airberlin, Visit Berlin, and Context travel for financial support that made this trip possible.

Road Trip Through Luther Land and the Heart of Germany - Amateur Traveler Episode 519


Amateur Traveler, Episode 517. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about castles and gardens, the Reformation, UNESCO World Heritage sites and bratwurst as we go to the heart of Germany on a road trip to Lutherland.

Today’s episode is brought to you by Select Italy. Select Italy can design custom itineraries and book a whole range of products services, including state of the art tours, wedding, honeymoon trips, ticketing services for museum and musical events in Italy. Visit to learn more.

Welcome to The Amateur Traveler, I’m your host Chris Christensen. This is going to be a solo episode today, no guest, just me talking about a recent road trip I did through the heart of Germany. This is a road trip that I did with the German Tourism Board, also with help from Visit Berlin and Air Berlin and Context Travels that all show up in here. But it all started with an email that I got from the German Tourism Board, saying that in 2017, and I’m recording this in July of 2016, for those of you who listening later on. But 2017 is going to be the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and they wanted to get the word out about some of the spots in Germany, especially in the old GDR, which is where a lot of the Reformation-related spots in Germany happened, not all of them, there are some things like Augsburg and Worms that we won’t be talking about today that would be over in the old western side of the country.

The Pitch

And I wrote them and said, “Hey, this might be something that we should work together on because not only do I have Amateur Traveler and also This Week In Travel, the second travel podcast that I do and I sent them numbers and such, but I’m also Lutheran and I’m also half German, and also do another podcast, religious podcast called the Bible Study Podcast, so that might be interesting to that audience as well. And they agreed that this sounded like it could be a good match. And so I’ve been spending the last week and a half so far in Germany. In fact I’m recording this from a lovely hotel room in the Hotel Medici in Dusseldorf. And for those of you who don’t remember that Dusseldorf is one of the most livable cities in the world, you haven’t listened recently to the episode we did on Dusseldorf a couple years ago when I was here for Carnival. But I’ve been spending some time in Germany and I want to tell you about my trip.

German History

Before we do that, I’m gonna give you just a little quick lesson in German history. And some of you fell asleep in history class and I apologize, but I found it useful at one point actually to make a timeline of all the different people that I was hearing about in the various places in Germany. And we won’t be talking about them in order, so I’ll actually put this timeline, Excel spreadsheet, up on the website as one of the links in the show notes in case anyone else would find that useful, but I made it for my own sanity sake. But here’s German history in two minutes from the 1500s to the modern age.

In the 1500s, we got the Age of the Reformation. And as I said, the 500th anniversary here is gonna be in 2015. So Martin Luther nails The 95 Theses, his point of contention with the church on a door in Wittenberg or doesn’t, depending on whether you believe that story or not. And here in Germany at least, it’s told as an apocryphal story, that it didn’t really get nailed to a door, which is disappointing. But he does that in 1517, but basically think of the 1500s as the Reformation.

The 1600s has a lot of the counter-Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War for instance happens then. And so for instance, if you like me are part German and you trace back your German ancestry and they can only trace back to the 1600s, it might be because the town records burned down in the 1600s as so much of Germany was on fire.

The 1700s though, a happier period, the Age of Enlightenment, especially from the beginning of the 1700s up to the French Revolution 1789 is generally the Age of Enlightenment, but in Germany it lasts longer up until the Napoleonic Wars, which happened just after the French Revolution.

And then there’s a time of turmoil and this really pushes Germany into the 1800s, which for Germany becomes the Age of Unification. Germany basically coalesces from a number of different complicated things under the Holy Roman Empire, which goes away in the 1800s and becomes the German nation. And then we also get nationalization, which then leads to, you know, World War I and World War II. And then after World War I and World War II, of course we get division and then reunification just about 25 years ago, reunification when the Wall comes down in 1989. So there’s German history in a nutshell. And they’ll come up again as a quiz later.


So I started the trip in Berlin and Berlin is not exactly the part that I’m gonna be talking about. The main part I wanna focus on is a road trip from Wittenberg to Eisenach. But Berlin is where I started, a great place to start. I flew in on Air Berlin, as I said, who sponsored this trip and flew in in part because they wanted to get the word out about a number of direct flights that they have to Germany from U.S. cities. They have direct flights now from Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Fort Myers, Miami and Chicago. And they actually are pretty good low cost alternative. And I flew business class, which is really wonderful if you get that opportunity.

Gates of Ishtar

But I flew in to Dusseldorf and then transferred to Berlin and started out finishing up some of the things we didn’t get to do. If you wanna hear more about Berlin, go back to the episode we did on Berlin, we’ve done two episodes on them, one personal experience and one with guests who lived in Berlin.

Museum Island

But I hadn’t been to Museum Island yet, and if you haven’t been there, that’s the first of the many UNESCO World Heritage sites that I went to on this trip. And specifically, I went to the Pergamon Museum which is fascinating, amazing, they have the Gates of Ishtar there that are one of the entry ways of ancient Babylon reconstructed and then on the back of that, an ancient market gate from a lesser known town in the Roman Empire. And then went over and saw the bust of Nefertiti at the new museum, fascinating, fascinating.

Kreuzberg Walking Tour

And then also spent the afternoon with Context Travel and I mentioned them at the beginning of the show. A lot of you don’t know who they are, but they’re a in depth tour company, walking tours, day tours tend to be what they do. And so for instance, they’ll do tours where if you wanna go tour an archaeology site, you’ll do it with an archaeologist, or if you wanna tour an art museum, you might do it with an art curator or a restorer. I did have a fascinating trip of behind the scenes in the Met with one of their docents who was one of the directors of restoration.

Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin

And so wonderful company, did a tour of the Kreuzberg neighborhood in [Berlin] Germany. And one of the reasons I bring this up is that, remember we talked about the reunification and the division of Germany. And Kreuzberg is one of those places that was right on the border between where the Wall was in Berlin. And it is a neighborhood that’s in a working class neighborhood. I’ve got an article up on the Amateur Traveler talking about this. That is still under transition, as it has a lot of the immigrants. So it was one of the number one immigrant neighborhoods. It’s also a hip neighborhood in Berlin. So it’s an interesting mix of what modern Germany is. Especially has a lot of immigration happens, it has more mosques for instance than any other neighborhood in Berlin, so check out that article.

Road Trip

But then the trip actually started, the road trip started, I rented a car and I’ll write an article about driving in Germany. I’ve got a couple tips coming after this trip (Driving in Germany – 10 Things to Know), not difficult to do, but there’s a few things you probably ought to know and I’ll put that in an article.

Luther Wedding festival

Lutherstadt Wittenberg

And I drove to Lutherstadt Wittenberg. And that’s the official name of what we know of as Wittenberg where by all accounts the Reformation started. Now, there are some reformers that predate Luther that we’ll talk about a little later, but in terms of what turned into the Reformation, that started in Wittenberg.

And the German Tourism Board really wanted me to get there in time for a particular festival. And they do a festival every year and it’s this time of year, it’s in the middle of June. Oh I said it was July, it was actually June. And it’s in the middle of June and that festival is remembering Luther’s wedding. So Luther was a monk but after the Reformation, they will go back in the New Testament and they see that the Apostles weren’t all celibate. And so they decide that it’s okay not to be, basically. And so he marries an ex-nun and they have a festival here in Wittenberg which celebrates that. There’s a big parade on Saturday, which I didn’t get there for, but there’s a children’s parade on Sunday, which they really wanted me to be for, which is adorable and I think I’ll have some video up on that.

Luther Wedding festival

And so the whole town though is turned into this medieval village. And if you don’t care anything for Luther and you don’t care anything for history, you still will probably enjoy this festival unless of course you hate Renaissance Fairs because this is what it’s very much like. So there’s, you know, all sorts of people in costume, there’s musicians, there’s of course lots of good things cooking and beer and spiced wine available and all those sorts of things. But a wonderful festival and one of three that I ran into on this particular trip. So it seems like there’s a lotta things like this going on in these small cities in this area.

Luther House

So when I say “this area”, I was in two states predominantly. Once I left Berlin, I spent most of my time in Saxony-Anhalt and in Thuringia. And I apologize for my German pronunciation which will be decent but not great. So the main sites to see in Wittenberg especially relative to the Reformation are the Luther House, which was an old monastery that he then lived in as a house with his large family because they had six kids of his own as well as he and his wife were raising I think children from two different sisters who died. So they had just a whole house full of people there. And then there’s also the house of Philip Melanchthon, which is right near there, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Melanchthon's House

Both are actually very well presented. Luther House probably did the best job of having more English available for tourists, in terms of the whole history of the Reformation. It’s not a bad starting point from that place if you don’t know that story. And the Melanchthon House, he is a contemporary of Luther’s, a younger man than him who writes things like the Augsburg Confession that basically says what Lutherans believe, or evangelisch if you’re in Germany, what this new church believed. Probably a more diplomatic man than Luther was. But his house is really well set up for visiting with kids. Kids get this old key and as you walk around the house, you get to open up these secret compartments where you get clothes that you can put on that would be like that time period or where you can see what they would have had in their cupboards or whatever. And so as a experience of traveling with kids, that’s I thought one of the best set up things that I’ve seen on this particular trip.

The other interesting site of course, is the Castle Church where the door no longer is, whether Luther nailed things to it or not, but there’s a commemorative door there. Although when I was here in 2016, that was covered with scaffolding as was the Chapel Church. They’re trying to get everything ready for 2017, including a new museum will open in 2017 with 95 treasures of the Reformation. And “treasures” is used here in a liberal term, not necessarily 95 things of financial value, but check that out.

Probably the three other big names that will come up when you’re in Wittenberg are the Electors. And that’s Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony and then his brother who succeeds him, John the Constant, I love the names. And they’re the ones who protect Luther when he has this reformation. Remember, this isn’t the first time these ideas that the church needs to get back to the way it was before come up and that there’s something wrong here. And of course, it all starts with the sale of indulgences. And these are these get out of purgatory free cards that the Pope starts selling to build St. Peter’s in Rome. In the local area, in here in Wittenberg, they were used more to pay off the Bishop’s debt. So they really didn’t even do anything for helping build St. Peter’s in Rome, but the idea was that people were buying these get out of purgatory free cards and it was actually affecting people coming to church because I don’t have to worry about what I do anymore, because I’ve got this free card here. And unlike ones in the past which had only affected what you had done previously, these were more like carte blanche that in the future you were okay too.


So Luther posts his 95 Theses, says, “Hey, let’s debate this,” and of course that turns into him being eventually condemned by the church. But he’s protected by Frederick the Wise and so he’ll come up here in this story here. And there’s all sorts of reasons for this, both political as well as religious reasons. But one of the things that affects this, is that Germany is not a country. Remember we talked about unification doesn’t happen until the 1800s. Germany at the time of Luther is 365 different independent city states. And go look at a map if you don’t have this in your mind because they’re not even contiguous. Frederick the Wise will control this town here and that town over there, but not the ones in between. And it’s a fascinating history and in terms of how this all comes together and it changes over time as different families die out and get replaced with other families or they merge or…so it’s a complicated political thing. And Frederick the Wise is an Elector, one of the people at the top of the Holy Roman Empire who helps elect the Emperor. So he has a lotta power, but not as much power as the Emperor does. So when the Emperor condemns Luther, he will then hide him and we’ll talk about that story later on. But he is the one who founds the university in Wittenberg, it’s a very new university at the time Luther comes to teach here.

Martin Luther

And then the other name that will come up is Lucas Cranach, especially Lucas Cranach the Elder, there’s two of them who if you have seen a painting or a picture of Luther and it’s from his time, this is probably who created it. He’s an artist who becomes involved in the Reformation. And even in Luther’s time, every school kid knew what he looked like because of the printing press and because of wood cuts that were in these publications, everybody knew what these leaders of the Reformation looked like, which actually then becomes a problem when he becomes an outlaw. So we’ll talk about that again later on in the story.

One interesting thing about the Castle Church, which I mentioned, is the tower you can notice from all over town, it’s a very tall tower. And right on it, it says, “Ein feste Burg” which for those of you who don’t speak German, “A Mighty Fortress”, and that of course is one of Luther’s hymns, A Mighty Fortress is our God, that’s reminder to everybody in town. But that’s kind of the highlights of Wittenberg, beautiful old town. And one of the things that surprised me here in what was East Germany is, I had traveled through the old GDR a year after the Wall fell, and remembered a lot of those areas that I drove through like Magdeburg as being kind of colorless drab, square block communist-style buildings. And every place that I’m gonna name, maybe with the exception of one in this particular road trip, where these beautiful old towns either preserved or rebuilt. Some of them did not get that damaged and some of them had to do major reconstruction after World War II. Definitely an interesting place.



My next stop was Dessau. And Dessau and nearby Worlitz, between them have three different UNESCO World Heritage sites, none of which have anything to do with the Reformation. So while the theme of this trip was the Reformation, it then turned into a scavenger hunt for Germany UNESCO World Heritage sites. And in Dessau there are three as I mentioned, the Bauhaus, which is an architectural school which started in Weimar and then was forced to move, this is in the pre-war years. It starts in 1919, after World War I and its modern architecture, when you see the Bauhaus duilding and you’d think, “Oh that just looks like an building from the 1950s,” a very modern style architecture, except that it was built in the 1920s. So this is where some of those ideas came from as well as in design, interior design also. So you can tour the Bauhaus. They have an anniversary coming up, the 100th anniversary in 2019 and are opening up a new museum then. Not everybody’s gonna appreciate the Bauhaus, but if you are somebody who is interested in architecture and design especially, that might be an interesting place to stop, which is why it is a UNESCO site. And there’re sites for that in both Weimar, where it started and then also in Dessau.

Then there’s also UNESCO bio preserve on the Elbe River there in Dessau, preserving that whole area along the Elbe. And if you had extra time, this would be a great place to get out on a canoe in the river into the wetlands there, just a very nice natural setting. I had just a little bit of time to see that.


After that, I went to the town of Würlitz. And Würlitz is right near Dessau, in fact I stayed in Dessau and went to Würlitz. And Würlitz is in between Wittenberg and Dessau. And so you could even do these in the other order than I did. But there you will find the Garden Kingdom. And the Garden Kingdom is a collection of seven different gardens, built during the Age of Enlightenment. Remember, that’s the 1700s. So built during that time period, going into the early 1800s. And they are when English Gardens come to Germany and I feel like I’ve made that sound boring, but these were beautiful, really wonderful gardens built by people who clearly had way too much money. There’s a palace in Würlitz which is the first of what Germans would called Classicism, what Americans would call Neoclassics. So if you’re familiar with the style of the White House, this house is built in the same style, so it’s reflecting the Greek styles.

Garden Kingdom

And then behind it is this amazing garden, that again keeps bringing up, you know, here’s a statue of Venus here and here’s a fake volcano with grottos underneath that you can go through. So again, my second site for family…so my second site again for families with kids, there’s gonna be three sites that I think are wonderful for kids of all ages, including me. And this would be the gardens here in Worlitz or the Garden Kingdom, again a UNESCO World Heritage site. And just take at least half a day to walk through these gardens, there’s seven different ones, I only did the ones at Würlitz. You can take multiple days if you really want to do outdoor activities and then a bike pass around them, not through them, that I understand are also wonderful to take.

As you go walking through here, there’s little garden houses that you can actually even stay in. I understand it’s not all that cheap, but it’s an amazing beautiful place and I was even there on a rainy-ish day and still amazing. Every once in a while, they take the theater out on the stone island that has the fake volcano and they have a fake volcano eruption. They don’t do it every year, they’re gonna do one later on this year 2016. And they’ll take people out on boats to this island and they’ll be doing a concert or a play, it’s a perfect setting for, like, Midsummer Night’s Dream in terms of if you’re staging a play. But they’re doing something sort of concert there and oh no, now the volcano’s going to erupt and they’ll evacuate people from the island and water will flow down the volcano with red lights and things like that. It’s incredibly hokey, it’s incredibly amazing, really enjoyed the Garden Kingdom in Dessau.

Dessau itself is probably the one town I’d say that’s not quite as picturesque as the other towns that I visited. But again, it has three UNESCO World Heritage sites in the neighborhood and that’s not too shabby. One of the reasons that Dessau doesn’t have as much left, it was heavily damaged in World War II. It’s where the Junkers factory was, where they built the Junkers bombers. And so as you can imagine, it was targeted by a bombing itself in World War II. And that’s actually one of the reasons why the Bauhaus Movement moved there, is this fusion of design and technology. And then it was forced to leave Dessau because as the government became more conservative, it got kicked out of the Dessau region too, went to Berlin and then finally was shut down by Hitler.

One other thing to note and this is one of the places where they were talking about it when I was there is Dessau lost about a third of its population in the reunification. And that was true with a lot of these German cities. When I was in one of the later cities in Eisenach for instance, they had built cars there for 100 years, but at the time of the reunification, that factory gets shut down because it’s obsolete, it really can’t compete with the factories in the West and that was true of a lot of the industry in the East. So there’s a number of these cities and small towns that the population is old because the young people have gone off to where there are jobs either down in Bavaria or over here to the Dusseldorf area for instance or up to Berlin. So that’s definitely an issue that people are dealing with in what used to be the GDR. Although some of these cities are now on the rise again as there are less expensive places to live in as some jobs have moved in. But it’s still something that they’re dealing with even now 25 years after reunification.

I mentioned the Gardens, the Worlitz Gardens built in 1774 by an old man they call Father Franz. I’ll have a link to him and more information in the show notes, we won’t go into the details, not that interesting historically except for the building of the Gardens.



And then Weimar is the next place I went. And this was one of the places that I knew the name of not from Reformation history, but from the Weimar Republic. So in the same time period, that interwar period that I was talking about for Bauhaus, Germany was governed by a Republic out of Weimar. And that government eventually included Hitler, as he didn’t get a majority of the vote, but he was brought in in a coalition government, of course, then took over power. That all happens here in Weimar. But what happens first is, remember those Electors, Frederick the Wise and his brother John the Constant, again, great names. John the Constant has a son who takes over as Elector from him and in those wars after the Reformation, not The Thirty Years’ War, but before that, he gets defeated, loses his Electorship, manages not to be executed. We don’t know how he talked his way out of that, and comes to Weimar. And so the same family that was in Wittenberg comes to Weimar and is responsible for building up Weimar. And eventually Weimar becomes the center for the German Enlightenment in the 1700s.

And so there’s a UNESCO World Heritage site in Weimar about the German Classicism movement. And so this is again, the 1700s into the early 1800s and it’s people like the poet Goethe, who I have heard referred to on this trip as the “German Shakespeare”, who writes things like Faust. And Johann Sebastian Bach writes a lot of his work here in Weimar, as well as Schiller, as well as Liszt. And so Weimar is interestingly enough, both this city of arts and enlightenment and then also becomes the city where Hitler rises to power. So just a fascinating place in terms of the history of the place. The Weimar for instance is gonna build a new museum also to the Bauhaus movement here to open in 2019 with that 100th anniversary. And they’re gonna build it in a building next to the building where Hitler who kicked Bauhaus out of Weimar, had his office, just to kind of thumb their noses at him.

Just north of Weimar, I didn’t get a chance to visit on this trip, would be Buchenwald. I believe the first of the concentration camps. So it’s both a city of great art as well as history, as well as tragic history as well. And the duke I mentioned who was the son of John the Constant, another great name, John Frederick the Magnanimous. Yeah, you just have to love that. Now he also happened to be a little corpulent, so we’re not sure if Magnanimous is someone related to that, but he was well regarded here in Weimar. And Weimar is a beautiful city. I think Weimar, even more than Wittenberg and it’s even a bit larger than Wittenberg, and I should say, Weimar, I noticed I’m pronouncing always in the German way, where the “W” becomes a “V”. And Wittenberg, I’m not consistent because I learned this as a child, as Wittenberg, so I apologize for my inconsistency. But in the German pronunciation, that “W” is always a “V” sound. It’s Worlitz and Weimar and Wittenberg.


But Weimar, I started to say, is a beautiful city. I really enjoyed walking around Weimar. And a lot of Weimar had been rebuilt, it had been heavily damaged in the war, because it was politically significant, if not industrially significant city. But a lot of money had gone into Weimar because of its significance. In fact, it was a capital of culture a few years back and that brought a lot of money into Weimar for rebuilding some of this. And beautiful cobblestones, streets, cafes, along the sidewalks, it really changed my picture as…one of the first cities that really changed my picture of what I expected here and what was the old GDR, the old East Germany. A beautiful city, even if you don’t care about history, even if you don’t know your Goethe, from your Bach, I think it’s worth seeing. And especially, if you’re interested in that Age of Enlightenment arts and culture sort of thing, Weimar is your place.

Erfurt Market Bridge


From there I went to Erfurt. Erfurt, the German word, means muddy ford, muddy ford of the river. A kind of ugly name, but another beautiful city, a larger city. Again, I say it lost about a third of its population in reunification, but a city that was not heavily damaged in World War II. Ninety percent of the city was undamaged in World War II. And so again, a beautiful old town core and then around that thriving city, it’s about a 200,000 people in Erfurt, so a big shopping city. If you’re a big shopper and you’re in the area, this is where you would go.

But that is true in old times as well, and so where we started our tour in Erfurt, say “our tour” because quite often I was doing a walking tour with people from the Tourism Board and I should mention that that is available for you as well in every town that I’m talking about here. If you go to the tourism office or contact them ahead of time, there are often walking tours. For instance available in Erfurt, there’s also a tourist train tour and then there’s actually, and this the first time I’ve ever seen this, a tram that goes around the city that is a tour tram. The whole tram is decorated as, you know, “Visit Erfurt” or whatever the branding was on it and it is just tourists, but it is a regular tram. So again, the tourism office is a great resource and I was going on a tour with a guide and two members of the tourism office, one of whom happened to be, interestingly enough, a Luther, a Luther of course having had a number of kids. This person traces back to one of those kids probably. She needs to trace her family tree and find out if that’s really the case, but that’s what her family told her. And this is the area where Luther comes both as a law student and then when he is caught out in a thunderstorm, promises to become a monk. And so this is also where he becomes a monk.

Luther Monastery

And so I toured the monastery, where he was a monk, you can go into his little niche where he would study or pray. It’s very barren as you would expect. And you can also see a lot of the old town. I say it was mostly preserved in World War II. And so we started on the market bridge, this being a big market town. It has been a market town for some time, they were actually setting up for the market bridge Festival, which also happens in June, but I missed that by one day, another medieval festival in one of these towns. The market bridge is like the old London Bridge in the sense that along this old stone bridge, now you can’t even tell you’re on a bridge because there are shops on either side, modern shops now, originally just little booths. But another very pretty city, it has two churches up on promontory over the city. Ironically enough, in this region Catholic churches, twin churches, why they needed churches side by side I don’t know, although I understand that the second church was built when they got the relics of some saint, some saint’s bones and built a church around it there.

Erfurt Fortress

And then actually off when you’re staring at the old churches, up over to the right is an old fortress, which I visited as well, a beautiful view of the town, little bit of a walk up to there, but a fortress I wanna say from the 1700s, an old star fortress. So if you’re a military history buff, you might enjoy that.

If you’re a food fan, I would suggest the bratwurst. We ate at a place called Faustfood, which I just love the name of, it’s a Faust food restaurant. And this is not talking about selling your soul for food, but faust as in the German word for fist, food you can hold in your hand, and so it’s German fast food. And so in here, in Thuringia, which is where we are now, it’s a bratwurst, that’s the fast food of this part of Germany. There’s a bratwurst museum nearby, although I didn’t go there and a mustard museum here in Erfurt, kind of like a hotdog, except that the bun is only the size of your fist and the wurst sticks out in both ends, but very good sausages here.

Luther's Cell

As you’re visiting the monastery in Erfurt, and you should if you’re interested in that Reformation history, a couple things to notice besides, you know, Luther’s cell, Luther slept here, well, Luther shouldn’t have slept here because he was supposed to be studying. One is the Luther rose, the claim in Erfurt is that some of the stained glass windows in the chapel here of the monastery are what inspired Luther’s symbol of a cross and a heart in a white rose. And they’ll point out to you in the stained glass something that looks similar to that and say, “This is where he got this idea,” and that could be. He certainly spent a number of years there, I think he spent six years in the monastery as I recall. Being trained as a pastor is one of the things that he did here. A lot of his religious education would have started here as well. And so it’s very important toward the later story.

Luther Rose?

The other thing that I thought was ironic, is one of the last things that he would do before he becomes a monk, is he would spend a night lying prostrate before the altar to make sure that this is something he wants to do. He spend the night in prayer. But the interesting thing is that in this sanctuary, in the monastery, just in front of the altar there is a grave, there’s a stone marker here for a famous churchman. Well it happens to be the churchman who got this honor because he was the accuser of an earlier reformer 100 years before Luther was in Prague, John Huss. And Huss was burned at the stake for coming up with a lot of the same ideas that Luther had, but, you know, 100 years before him, but in an age before printing press and outside of the complex politics of the Holy Roman Empire that helps Luther survive basically because the complex politics of that gave the Reformation some breathing room to take root.

And then also Luther had the advantage that at that time that he’s publishing his theses that he’s…that they’re going back into the Bible and reinterpreting this and deciding that the church should be different, the Holy Roman Emperor is busy fighting the Turks. The Turks are invading, this is the time of the Turkish invasion that culminates in Vienna. And he is also busy with the French. And the French are very anti-Reformation, unless the Reformation is in the Holy Roman Empire. They’re completely willing to support people inside the Holy Roman Empire and will for some decades after the beginning of the Reformation. They won’t allow it inside of France, but they’re completely willing to help it undermine the authority of the Holy Roman Empire. And so that’s one of the things that’s the difference between Luther and Huss, who’s eventually asked as part of his trial, “Well, it sounds like you’re saying Huss was right.” And he has to say, “Yes, I think he was,” then it’s pretty much determined at that point he’s going to be condemned, he’s going to be excommunicated and then also he’s gonna be found guilty in the political realm as well.

Hainich National Park

Hainich National Park

And after I left Erfurt, I went to the third of the places I would really recommend for families with kids and that’s Hainich National Park. There’s also a UNESCO bio preserve inside this national park that preserves the beech tree forests in Europe. And this is one of the places where they’re preserving that. But the national park, the spot that you’re really gonna enjoy is an observation tower and a canopy walk that has been built in the canopy of this deciduous forest. It is beech trees and elm trees, maple trees, those sort of things. And you’re walking up in the canopy and it is very, very well presented, beautiful views from the tower, but also wonderful activities for kids because there are rope bridges that go across from one of these metal walkways to another one, there are a little rope ladders that kids can climb down in that I don’t even think adults would fit in, as well as educational information.

Hainich National Park

Now there’s also some great presentations in the museum there at that entrance that has the walkways in the tower, this viewing tower. Although that information right now is still only in German in the exhibits there. If you happen to have a German speaking kid, they will really enjoy it, it is very much targeted towards kids in school groups, but it is not in English. And so unless you can translate that, you won’t get quite as much out of it. But up in the walkways, there’s information in German and English. There are models of, you know, Die Fledermaus bats, as well as the other animals in the area like foxes and wildcats. Wildcats is an interesting one to me because it just looks like a fat house cat, but it is a wild animal, but it looks like the nearest relative to your house cat, doesn’t look like a lynx or a mountain lion for sure, much smaller than that.

By the way in terms of hiking, Hainich National Park, a great place if you want to hike. There’s also some hiking trails for my next stop, which is nearby Eisenach. There’s including a hiking trail that goes all the way from Eisenach down into Hungary, a multi-day hiking trail. There’s a number of interesting trails, long distance hiking and biking trails in Germany. If you’re interested in outdoor activity, that’s something that’s available there that might be very interesting.



The last place I stopped at is Eisenach, including the Wartburg Castle. So Eisenach is the home for a couple interesting historical people. This is where the Bach family basically gets their start as the musical directors. Johann Sebastian Bach is born in Eisenach, his father is the musical director of the local church there. And both he and Luther go to the same school, although in different time periods, and it’s a school dedicated to St. Elizabeth. In some ways, a reformer herself, someone who basically even as a princess is wanting to get back to some of the ministry to the poor that she feels the church should be doing and so she does, builds a hospital in Eisenach, builds a hospital later on after she is no longer a princess or after her husband dies. She dies at 24 because she’s worked herself to death and becomes a saint shortly at thereafter. And her brother-in-law, who has kinda forced her out and hasn’t paid her what he owes her as her widow’s dowry when his brother dies, feels guilty at this point because now he’s in trouble because he was mean to a saint. And so he forms a school and the school is the school that Luther as a young man before he goes off to college goes to and it’s a monastery school and it’s also the school where Johann Sebastian Bach goes as well.

So the couple interesting sites within Eisenach. And Eisenach has the Luther House for instance where he lived when he was there as a young man and supported himself by being a cantor, by singing in the church was how he supported himself. And then also has the Bach House where he lived. And there’s a museum I didn’t get to that has concerts. I believe it’s on the hour there in a modern museum that is next to the Bach House. There’s also a museum there to Wagner, because Wagner has connections to the city as well. So the composer from the 1800s if I recall Wagner’s dates correctly.

By the way, they were doing yet another festival in the town square when I was there.

Wartburg Castle

Above the city is Wartburg Castle and Wartburg Castle is this incredibly historic castle, castle where St. Elizabeth stayed when she was a young woman but also a castle where Luther stayed when he was found guilty by the Emperor at the Diet of Worms, basically Diet of Worms, if you’re in English. Now he is an outlaw, he is “kidnapped” by the Elector Frederick the Wise and he is brought in hiding to Wartburg Castle, under the disguise of his being a knight in training. But he spends time in the castle and this is where the translation of the New Testament into German happens. And this is significant for religious reasons obviously towards the Reformation.

But as different periods have looked back at Luther from a non-religious point of views, this becomes one of the significant achievements that even was celebrated in the GDR time. So the 500th anniversary of the Reformation here is in 2017, but during the 450th anniversary, even the GDR got in part of that celebration. And in fact the head of the GDR was in charge of the celebration of Luther. But the difference was that they remember him differently as you can imagine. And the things that they remember is that he starts, in some ways, German unification, because when he writes in German, he writes apparently very good German with a knowledge of different dialects and there are at his time 18 different Germans, German languages. And so the German language is in many ways the High German is unified by the translation of the Bible into German, starting here in Wartburg with the New Testament, which happens only over the course of 11 weeks. Of course he’s building on work that other people have done before.

Wartburg Castle

So the Luther Bible becomes for German what the King James Bible for instance becomes for English, a centralizing, standardizing document that everyone knows. And so as the GDR looked back at Luther, first they remembered him being on the wrong side of the Peasants’ Revolt, something that happened shortly after the Reformation, where one branch of the Reformation starts revolting against the authorities and Luther says, “No, no, authorities are put there in place in a purpose,” so the GDR remembers him being on the wrong side of that. But later on, during that anniversary, they consider him important enough. And of course they also need hard cash, they were hoping to get people to come visit. And so all is forgiven, let’s remember all the things that they thought he did that were good.

Melanchthon actually is remembered also well by non-church people because he begins a lot of the reforms in what becomes the German education system, not kindergarten, that comes later on interestingly enough. But so this castle in Wartburg has another significance, which is on the 300th anniversary of Luther translating the Bible, of him being there, the day that he came, there is in the 1800s just after the Napoleonic Wars, 1817, a group of students from all over Germany, remember Germany is not one country, it’s a number of different countries at this point. In fact, if you were to go from Wartburg, which is really in the center, the heart of Germany, just almost dead center and were to travel just down to Munich, you would have crossed six different national boundaries at that time, which is a lot less than it was even just, you know, 100 years before that. But still, not one country. These students come and they form the student fraternity movement, which says that we should be one country, in part responding to, “We just fought off Napoleon and if we were one German speaking people, we would be more powerful and we would be safer. We’ve got problems here because we’re divided and we should be united.” And this is the beginning of the German unification movement. Again, starting on the 300th anniversary of Luther coming to Wartburg because looking at him as the beginning of not the reformers in this case, but of the uniters. So it’s interesting how these play together, these themes.

Wartburg Castle

The castle itself is interesting just to tour through. I did an English speaking tour and you can see the parts of it were redone in the Age of Enlightenment or the Romanticism period and so, you know, these amazing, beautiful, very stylized romantic rooms with paintings on them and such. There’s also a concert hall that was…the ceiling acoustics were designed in part with the help of Franz Liszt. Wagner wrote an opera about Wartburg Castle, Tannhäuser or at least in part of it’s about the Wartburg song contest. And this may or may not have happened, it seems like there may be some historical basis for this. But the idea is that a group of minstrels are gathered together to see, not who is the best minstrel, but who is the worst. And the worst one is going to be executed. And so there’s some pressure on this story. But this is included in Wagners’ opera, this story of this song contest. And one of the things you can do periodically in Wartburg Castle is they will stage that opera in this concert hall where the roof is designed by Franz Liszt. So it really all does come back together.

In 2017, there will be a new temporary exhibit, again about the Reformation and the 500 years of the Reformation in Wartburg Castle. Won’t be there if you get there in 2018. But there is a museum there that is wonderful now and will be wonderful again in 2018, but a special exhibit next year in 2017. And that will start in May, the date of Luther’s arrival and end in November. And there’ll be special events happening in May, when he arrived in Wartburg Castle as well as in November for the publication of The 95 Theses, which happened in November.

While I was talking to the curator of that exhibit, that museum in the Wartburg Castle, Mark Hoffner, he was saying that Luther’s view within Germany changed a lot. A lotta the Luther statues that you’d see around Germany didn’t go up until 1880 and again, looking at him as not the reformer, but as a national myth, more as the common language being the start of unification. And so 1880, right around the time of unification.



That was the heart of my road trip. I did make one other stop in…a brief stop in Kassel, which has yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. You can hardly throw a stone without hitting one in Germany, although they do not recommend that. But I didn’t get to see this in its totality, this is a palace in Kassel, that’s K-A-S-S-E-L, that is best known for its waterworks, its series of artificial cascades and waterfalls and fountains that are gravity driven from a hill from the Hercules monument on the top of that. And I did get a chance to see the inside of the castle, which is now probably one of the better collections of Dutch masters paintings and such in Germany, but I didn’t get a chance to stay a couple extra hours to see this waterworks, here at the Schloss in Kassel.


And then from there I drove here to Dusseldorf. And I’m touring the city of Dusseldorf as part of this press trip with Air Berlin, again celebrating their new routes, especially to Boston and San Francisco that just opened. And again, I’m gonna encourage you that if you’re interested in learning more about Dusseldorf, check out the episode we did on Dusseldorf. But I will add two things that I learned this time.

One is, that somersaults cartwheels are really big in the city. After the victory over the Bishop of Koln in 1288, the city gets its charter because the duke is appreciative that they have fought alongside him in this battle. And he says, “How are you going to celebrate it?” And the kids celebrated with somersaults cartwheels. And so if you’re in the city, you can see that there are somersaults cartwheels on each of the manhole covers, there’s a somersault cartwheels statue in one of the major parks where the palace used to be. And the Mayor of the town even did a somersault for us while we were talking to him. There’s somersault cartwheels competition with the kids in the city every year as well.

And then the second fact actually ties this all up into the Reformation because when we were in the city, we visited one of the Catholic church because it’s a predominantly Catholic city in San Andreas. But then right near there in a little hidden plaza, there is a Protestant church, and this Protestant church is called the Neander Church. It’s named after the greatest German hymnist after the Reformation and this is from the 1600s. And this is Joachim Neander. And you may not have ever heard the name, but he wrote a well known hymn, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty King of Creation, which some of you will know.

And also even those of you who are not religious will have heard the name but in a different way. He gets some of his inspiration for his sermons and for his hymns by going out into a nearby valley. And this nearby valley eventually in the early 1800s gets named after him, Neandertal, Neander Valley or Neander’s Valley. Neander, which actually means “New Man” by the way. And later on in that century, some old bones are found in the Neandertal and they’re called “Neanderthals”. And so these basically, these bones of the Neanderthals get named after this hymn writer from shortly after the Reformation, Joachim Neander. See, it all ties together. With that, I’m gonna start winding this down.


German Food

Couple things you should know, one of the things I noticed this time in Germany is, that the variety of the food has continues to increase in Germany. It used to be that you could only get very heavy meat and potatoes food and there is definitely still that available. I remember having for instance a Knockwurst in the Wittenberg Brauhaus, the brewery house there in Wittenberg. Lovely brewery and restaurant, and I’ll put a picture in the enhanced version of, you know, this Knockwurst that came. It was really good, but boy, you know, big and very hearty.

But also had a chance to eat more of the fusion food. For instance, when I was in a restaurant in Weimar, the restaurant Scharfe Ecke or Sharp Corner, served me a salad that had potato dumplings wrapped with bacon or whatever. So still a touch of the German in there, but some lighter food available as well now. So that’s increasing. The other thing I noticed in this part of Germany is not as many people spoke English, even in the hotels. There were times that I was getting by with my high school German or with charades. So not as much as you’d find for instance in Dusseldorf or Berlin that anchored my trips on either end.

Driving in Germany

And driving in Germany, let’s just say, if you’ve heard stories about how fast people go on the Autobahn, that certainly can be true, but if you stay out of the left lane, unless you’re trying to pass somebody or you look twice move before you get in that lane because they’re coming awfully fast, it’s really not that hard to drive, it’s really not that difficult to drive. The only times I ran into problems is when I would be going along and right in the middle of downtown, there would be construction and there would be no detour, they would just say, “Road Closed” and you’d have to figure out your way around it, so you need some sort of navigation there. But again, if you got a navigation app, you’ve got a translation app, this is definitely a region that is ready for tourism that is charming, is wonderful, is historic, it was just a really terrific trip and something that I would recommend whether or not you care about the Reformation, but certainly for those of you who do, 2017 promises to be a pretty wonderful time to go there as well.

Luther on a bus

With that, we’re gonna end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, send an email to host at or better yet, leave a comment on this episode at You can also follow me on Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram as Chris2x. And as always, thanks so much from listening.

Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.

Share this:
Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

Leave a Reply

Tags: , , , , , ,