Published: 09/02/2018 11:06 - Updated: 09/02/2018 12:14

On the trail of Johann Sebastian Bach - part 2

Written byRon Smith, travel writer

In part 1 I told you how I was on a Bach mission in central Germany. This region, Theuringen, has more than its fair share of very special, unique, charming towns. Each one is worth going to for just itself, but I was on a tour, and all by train! The Lufthansa flights from Aberdeen to Frankfurt gave great connection by high speed train to Erfurt, the capital of the region. Erfurt has a great shopping area, large market square dominated by the huge cathedral and its twin church alongside it, a massive fortress, and also a bridge. This spans the river on 7 wooden arches, is 125 metres long, and has 32 houses, of 5 stories, crammed along it. It is one of the largest (if not THE largest) medieval bridge still standing.

 

On the trail of Johann Sebastian Bach - part 1

Starting with concerts in Erfurt, I continued to Arnstadt, Mülhausen, and now I was on the train to Weimar.

The ornate tourist office in the square at Weimar
The ornate tourist office in the square at Weimar

Weimar is a town with such cultural importance for Germany. My hotel was the "Hotel Kaiserin Augusta" which is straight opposite the main railway station. Between it and the station is a garden area, well set out with raised beds, so that the area has a light feel to it, and is a good introduction to the town. The hotel can provide you with a Weimar card that covers the local buses and entry to all the museums and places of interest – and there are so many that the card is great value. The historic centre is about a 15 minute walk away, so this ticket is very useful, there are buses every few minutes to and from the railway station to the centre.

At the hotel were Donna Niman and David Rankine. They are from the north west of England and had won the first prize in a competition organised by Thuringia tourism on Classic FM. They had 4 nights all expenses paid to the Bach week – well done them! Together we went to the Musik Gymnasium – the music university here. In the very modern auditorium, the Mandelring Quartet played works by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Another wonderful concert.

In the afternoon I went on a guided walk, two hours, from the most ornate tourist office ever seen, with Mrs. Ehrengard Neuhaus. She is an encyclopaedia of knowledge on Weimar and Germany. There is so much to take in here.

Franz Liszt was tempted to come here. His house is open and you get an audio guide. The upper floor is as it was when he was here. The house was built in 1789 and is fascinating. This upper floor was for him, while the lower floor was still used by the estate gardeners. The gardens are a large park alongside the house. Downstairs you exchange your audio guide for another. This is ingenious. You plug it into sockets on the walls to hear snippets of various music that he composed, or have been used by others and adopted adapted and reworked over the centuries. Expecting to be in and out fairly quickly, I was entranced by the story and the music.

Nearby is a Ginko tree. This is all about the love poem by Goethe – another Weimar resident. He made the Ginko special, and they say that it is a very hardy tree. It was the very first living thing to poke its head above ground after the atomic bomb destroyed Nagasaki. I had, on a previous visit, bought a seed and planted it – it was not hardy enough to grow in Keith! Goethe is one of Germany's most famous authors.

The theatre with the statues of Goethe and Schiller in Weimar
The theatre with the statues of Goethe and Schiller in Weimar

He lived here in a grand house, and also a summer house in the park which is still there. Schiller also came here. It is said that Goethe encouraged Schiller in his writings, and it was Goethe who told him about William Tell. This became so famous in Switzerland, is still so today, and is their national hero. But Schiller never ever went to Switzerland! It is all fiction!

The theatre, a grand building, has a large statue outside it of the two authors side by side. The National Socialists (Hitler's party) disapproved of so much, including the theatre. They turned it into a munitions factory. Towards the end of World War 2 (WW2) we bombed Weimar, and destroyed the theatre – remarkably, the statue just in front of it was unharmed.

Facing this is the Bauhaus museum. This groundbreaking architectural style was founded here in 1919. It too fell victim to the Nazis and was dispersed.

The Duchess Anna Amalia library is also worth a visit. It was the Duke and Duchess who encouraged all these musicians and artists and authors to come to Weimar that created the centre of culture that it still is.

Unfortunately it also attracted the Nazis, who wanted to associate themselves with German culture. The grand Hotel Elefant was a favourite of Hitler. He made them build a balcony out over the entrance so that he could appear on it and wave to the crowds. The balcony is still there, but the hotel does not want to be associated with him and there are other statues that take their place on it, changed often.

The War years are not forgotten. Nearby is Buchenwald concentration camp. It is on town bus route 2. I was told that all school children, no matter what religion and so on, go to the camp, or another one, as part of the national curriculum. It is still, to me, unbelievable, that mankind could do such a thing. I did not want to go and visit the camp. Something I didn't know was that the Americans came her and liberated the town. After just a few weeks it was handed over to the Russians, who did not close down Buchenwald, they kept it going for another 5 years and also killed thousands of people in it. Terrible times.

Wartburg Castle
Wartburg Castle

There are many, many more things to see and explore here. It is also a University town, so there is vibrancy about it, and many cheap eating places too, to suit a student's budget, as well as upper class restaurants and hotels.

After a good night's sleep, I was off on the train again to one of my favourite places, Eisenach. This is a one hour journey, as usual on time, comfortable and efficient. Eisenach railway station is a beautiful building in warm red stone. It has magnificent stained glass windows. One shows cars and machinery. The very first BMW car was made here in 1928. Under the Communist regime's planned economy, they made Wartburg cars here from 1953. The Trabant car was for the workers (and you could wait up to 16 years to get one!) but the Wartburg, with the Wankel rotary engine, was for the more privileged. It is a good car and there are still several running around here. Cars have been produced here since 1899. Car production stopped in 1991 and the plant is now a car museum.

Overlooking the town is the 1,000 year old castle of Wartburg (from where the car gets it name) This is a fairytale castle, and it is where Martin Luther translated the Bible into German. The Luther connection is everywhere, including a massive statue of him in the town square where you can catch a bus up to the castle. His house is also here, black and white, and looking like it is slowly sinking into the ground.

The reason I came to Eisenach was to visit Bach's House. This is one of the most visited places in Germany. The ancient house sits to one side of a small square. Next to it is a modern grey block of a building. I guess that it would not be possible to build something similar to the original house, so something quite different had to be built, and something which does not detract from the old original house, and they have succeeded in this.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born here on the 21st of March 1685, to a very musical family. He lived here until he was 10 years old. I went in and joined a guided tour. There is so much here. Bach lived in Leipzig for 27 years, and not much remains of where he lived, apart from the wooden door – which is here in the Bach House! You pass through it to go into the old part from the modern entrance area.

The old bridge at Erfurt
The old bridge at Erfurt
There are many old musical instruments from his time. As part of the tour a very talented young man plays Bach's music on four venerable instruments. There are two "house" organs, a spinet, clavichord and a harpsichord. There is also a trumpet – violin from 1717 on display. This is a remarkable piece of work. It looks like a violin, with a mouthpiece at the top! An x-ray picture shows the coils of the trumpet inside the violin. There is also a glass harmonica from 1775. In total there are over 400 musical instruments here.

There is a 14 station listening point, where you can try to grasp some of the complexities of Bach's music. Of all the musical Bach family, it is Johann Sebastian Bach who has captured the imagination and fascination of generations of musicians and music lovers.

At the end of the tour, the shop and café are welcome. There is an association, the New Bach Society. The original Bach Society was formed in 1850 in Leipzig. Its aim was to collect and publish all Bach's work. They achieved this in 1900. Or so they thought – Bach was a compulsive composer and some of his works have still not been found, others have been discovered as late as 2005! The New Bach Society was formed in 1900 to carry on the work. Today they still do so, as a not for profit organisation, open to everyone. See www.neue-bachgesellschaft.de

There is much more to see in Eisenach. For example there is the important Richard Wagner collection, many old buildings, the magnificent St. George's church with its monumental statue of Luther in it, (and the font where Bach was baptised) and so many attractive buildings. Martin Luther called Eisenach "meine liebe stadt", my dear town, and I can see why.

Bach’s house in Weimar
Bach’s house in Weimar

 

This was the last place on my tour. I had listened to and been moved by a great many great concerts in great places. I caught the train from Eisenach back to Frankfurt airport and the plane to Aberdeen. It was a wonderful experience and the whole Thuringia region has so much to offer the traveller. It is easy for us to get there, not expensive, good quality everywhere, and friendly people.

See also:

Visit Thuringia

 

Look out for the 2018 Bach festival. There are many offers for combined tickets and so on. There are several offers, for example, the "Luther Ticket",which makes getting around cheap, local regional tickets, and hotels usually give you a ticket for the public transport in their town free. 

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