Published: 24/02/2017 11:48 - Updated: 24/02/2017 12:18

On the trail of Martin Luther through Germany

Written byRon Smith, travel writer

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther, as well as Calvin, Zwingli, and our very own John Knox, changed the world for ever. These men not only over-threw the power, wealth and stranglehold of the Catholic Church, their Reformation changed society totally. No longer was the “man in the street” a mere pawn, he became empowered and ennobled.

Markt Square, Wittenburg
Markt Square, Wittenburg

Martin Luther came from the Thuringia region of Germany, and the capital is the beautiful city of Erfurt. This is 300 kms, 185 miles, south east of Berlin, and is easily reached by super fast train on a new railway line (they put us to shame) or by fast direct train from Frankfurt Airport, which has direct flights from Aberdeen. This part of Germany is within easy reach, and well worth visiting! 

Erfurt is busy, bustling friendly and beautiful. Luther lived here from 1501 to 1511 and said “Erfurt is situated in the best location. It is the perfect place for a city”. He is quite right too! Surrounded by dark green wooded hills, it is protected from the wind and weather. Its strategic position encouraged convents, monasteries, and a massive fortress. This enormous stronghold squats on a hill in the city. It is shaped like a many pointed star, so that attackers will always be caught in a cross fire. Each bastion is named after a saint (the site was originally an Augustinian monastery) and is known as St. Petersberg. Inside you walk up onto the flat top, with its great long barracks, which is empty and awaiting a new use. There is a church, an ultra modern restaurant (quite a contrast in style!!!) and from up here views of all the surrounding countryside and the city.

Dominating the skyline are the towers of the Cathedral of St. Mary and the church of St. Severus, both of them just below the fortress. These two, equally splendid, churches are next to each other in a “V” form. Between them a flight of stone steps descends to the main cobbled market place, the steps getting wider and wider. This has created a spectacular setting, and is prominent in all the photos and publicity for Erfurt. The steps are used for wedding photos, First Communion photos, countless tourist photos, and as a setting for world class performances. While I was there, a grandstand had been erected in a semi circle in front of the steps, and I was just blown away by a performance of “Tosca”. The acoustics, the subtle lighting on the two churches, the steps forming the “stage”, and all backed by a gradually darkening evening sky with stars slowly appearing in the cobalt sky was absolutely magical.

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Luther denkmal, Erfurt
Luther denkmal, Erfurt

Culture in Erfurt is everywhere and world renowned. Apart from the concerts, operas and so on, at the steps, there is a modern theatre, art galleries, museums, Bach festivals, and much more. The big market square is still used for a traditional market (as well as a renowned Christmas market that has been held here for 160 years) and shopping is a big thing with pedestrian streets - which means that the quiet trams and bicycles are allowed, so watch out! One centre of shopping, where tram lines cross, is Anger. This is an old German word for market, and there is a large statue of Martin Luther here.

“Furt” is an old German pronunciation of “Ford”, and Erfurt is the ford of the river. This ford is still there in the centre of the city, alongside is the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. The buildings on it are four stories high, lining both sides. The narrow roadway between is pedestrianised now of course, and very popular. The shops are small, selling craft and art items, and delicious ice cream and coffee too. The whole bridge is a co-operative, and their offices can be visited, with the history of the bridge, (initially wood, stone from 1325) the Association, and views along the bridge from their quaint lead lined windows.

Luther's house, Eisenach
Luther's house, Eisenach

Just a little further is the fish market square surrounded on all sides by ancient rich merchant’s houses, and dominated by the intricate stonework of the imposing town hall. On the front are two large empty niches. These used to contain the statues of Barbarossa (who started the 1st Reich) and Kaiser Wilhelm 1, who created the 2nd Reich. In 1945 the Americans were stationed in Erfurt, and they ordered local tradesmen to remove the two statues, and the Americans took them away – effectively stole them. The walking tour guide said that when she has American groups she tells them about this and asks them to look out for the statues, they may come up for auction. They would like the statues back please!  I have come across this elsewhere in Germany, in one town their precious jewel encrusted sacred box was returned on the death of the American soldier who “liberated” it during the war.

There are so many other interesting places to explore in Erfurt, which you will just have to go there and see for yourself! There is a full range of hotels available, I stayed in the splendid hotel Arcadia, see www.arcadia-hotel.de/erfurt. This 5 star very modern hotel is discreetly and tastefully situated across the water fountains in front of the Theatre. It is easily reached from the railway station by tram no. 1, and is close to the centre, cathedral, fortress and market square. Everything is good about this hotel, and the breakfast buffet is enormous.

Using this as my base, I set off to explore some more Luther towns. Tram no. 1 took me to the station, and the regular smooth trains took me to Eisenach. The railway station is charming and ornate warm red stone building, turn right outside and you will see St. Nicholas’ church tower and a wall. This is the entrance to the town, you pass through the archway into an irregular shaped square, dominated by a huge statue of Luther. From here a bus leaves every hour to go up to Wartburg Castle. I had thought of walking to it, but seeing it in the distance, it is a good walk-in and then the climb, so I opted for the bus. The fare is cheap and tickets can be bought from the machine at the bus stop (all well signed in English too) or from the driver.

Wartburg Castle, Eisenach
Wartburg Castle, Eisenach

The castle is clamped onto its rocky summit; it has been described as “the most German of German castles” and is very popular with Germans. From the bus turning circle it is a stiff walk up a footpath (shuttle minibuses are there for folk who might have difficulty) to the entrance. Passing through the ticket office and the portcullis tower, the roadway continues upwards past half timbered black and white buildings, towers and battlements. It really IS the most Germanic castle! It is no wonder that it is classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. There are guided tours every 10 minutes, some of them in English. I joined one and this would not be possible in a wheelchair. The castle builders did not cater for that – you have to be fit to climb the stone stairs between rooms and floors. This inside is also magnificent with a great many treasures and paintings.

We were guided through Luther’s room. He lived here for 10 months. In this room he translated the Bible from Greek to German in May 1521. Having the Bible available in the vernacular, and a population capable of reading it, is one of the founding principles of the Reformation. As I came out of the tour into the courtyard, the heavens opened and a gale force wind sprung up to drench us tourists. I darted into one of the cafes there for a coffee and apple cake until it died down, then took the bus back into Eisenach.  The tourist office provides audio visual hand sets, with English, so that you can go round the town at your own pace.

Luther went to school until 1501 at St. George’s, here, in the town square (also surrounded by ancient buildings, town hall, city palace with museum and tourist office) He sung in the boy’s choir, and later also preached here. Just up the hill is Luther’s house. It looks like it is slowly settling into the ground; the lower half of the black and white timbered building is spreading outwards. Johan Sebastian Bach comes from here too! His house, and adjacent modern study centre, is located not far from Luther’s house – more about Bach in a subsequent article!!

While I was there, a medieval Luther fair was on. In the old “Friedhof” (cemetery) stalls were set out, people in medieval costume were playing music on old instruments, cooking food, performing plays, playing old games, using old carousels made from rough wood, and selling all manner of hand made goods from clothing to honey and jams. There was a natural good will feel to the festival, and to the town.

The smallest house in Eisenach.
The smallest house in Eisenach.

This was a good day, and then back to Erfurt. The next day I set off again on the swish quiet German railways ICE (Inter City Express) trains that eat up the miles smoothly, to Wittenberg. On the way we paused and reversed direction in Leipzig. This was the biggest railway station in the world until the Chinese built a new one. It is a magnificent steel and glass cathedral of a station, covering 26 platforms. At Wittenberg I made a mistake. The station is being rebuilt, so there were no signs that I could see. My map had a station marked, and so I set off walking to the centre. Unfortunately the station on the map is just a local halt; the main station is off the map! I was heading off towards Berlin! After some time, with no-one about, the residential streets clean, tidy and deserted, I met a lady of a certain age coming towards me. I stopped her and asked where I was. Now I have very little German, she had no English, but it was clear that I was totally going in the wrong direction. She then took me along to the road that goes into the centre – this was a walk of a good mile or so, and I felt sorry for her, it was warm and the perspiration was running down her face, but she was determined to see me right. This is typical of the friendly people that I came across, and dare I say it, the people in this eastern side of Germany seem friendlier than those in the West!

In the town square, dominated by the ornate white town hall, fronted by two great big statues, of Luther and Melanchthon (another reformer) there are the houses of Cranach the younger and elder, and the whole square is overshadowed by the huge twin towers of St. Mary’s Church. Further on is the famous Castle Church. It was here on 31.10.1517 that Martin Luther proclaimed his 95 theses, setting out the new order of the Reformed Church. There is some doubt about whether he actually nailed them to the door. This has often been claimed, but there is no evidence. However, at that time, everyone went to church, so any notices, official or just about local events would be stuck to the church door for everyone to read, so it is possible that he did nail his theses to the door.  The whole church front was shrouded in scaffolding when I was there, maybe being prepared for October 2017 – so no photographs to show you I’m afraid!

Lutheran church, Geneva
Lutheran church, Geneva

 

Wittenberg was officially renamed “Lutherstadt Wittenberg” in 1938, and has become rather commercialised. Every shop has statues of Luther for sale, in all sizes from a key ring to full size! There were several bus parties going around with their guides as well, and somehow Wittenberg seemed a little crowded. Having explored this charming town, I took the train back to Erfurt.

Unfortunately I had run out of time. I would like to visit Weimar, Altenburg, Eisleben, Schmalkalden, Torgau, and some of the other Luther connected towns in this great part of Germany. Everywhere you will see ancient houses, cobbled town squares, green and pleasant countryside, friendly people, clean and efficient public transport, and prices are generally good too. (I even bought a good pair of German made walking boots at a saving of over £80 compared to UK prices for the same thing) The fact that the Reformation started here, and was immediately taken on board by the people, is typical of their attitude that all men are equal. As the guide book says “The Reformation’s impact was not limited to religion and theology; it also encompassed music and art, the economy and social order, language and law. Almost no aspect of our lives has remained unaffected by the Reformation.” It is good to go and explore.

I will have to go again to Erfurt, the Cathedral has two huge organs, and despite being at opposite ends of the building, they are capable of both being played at the same time. I was told by a local that the resulting tempest of sound makes your hair stand on end – I would love to hear that! Then there is the Bach festival, and all those other towns to explore…….


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