Town-Hopping in Eastern Germany

The sun sets behind Castle Schönburg, which overlooks the lush wine-growing region of Salle-Unstrut.
The sun sets behind Castle Schönburg, which overlooks the lush wine-growing region of Salle-Unstrut

When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, it opened many opportunities for the East German people, and it reintroduced the world to Eastern Germany.

During the decades when borders and barbed wire cut off this country from the west, many forgot about the beautiful things behind the Wall — vibrant towns, world-class vineyards, important pieces of musical and religious heritage, and a thriving, rich culture.

Now, these communities, once closed to western visitors, are eager for the world to rediscover them.

The years under communism admittedly took their toll. Without money for development, many regions fell into disrepair. But there was a silver lining: while Western Germany modernized, knocking down old buildings to build newer ones, Eastern Germany had to make do with what it had.

The result? Eastern Germany has preserved more of its architectural heritage. Buildings from centuries ago still line the streets, and with the German government’s aggressive restoration program now in place, these structures are being brought back to original condition.

Ironically, Eastern Germany has leapt ahead of its western counterpart in many other areas. The latest in digital technology has been installed, chic new hotels are springing up, and town planners are busy revitalizing their communities.

And Eastern Germany is often more affordable than the usual draws in the western part of the country.

Unfortunately, unemployment is a constant reality in Eastern Germany; some towns fight 25 percent unemployment rates. But small businesses are bubbling up all across the region, and vendors here seem eager to please.

There is much to see in Eastern Germany, but here are a few special towns that are well worth the visit. These communities are within hours of each other by train, making it simple to town-hop across this vibrant part of Germany.

Eisenach

It’s 90 minutes by train from the Frankfurt airport, but it’s a world apart. Founded in the 12th century, this slow-paced town has a population of just 44,000, yet its residents have made a huge impact on the world.

It was here that Martin Luther preached and translated the New Testament while living at Wartburg Castle, which was founded in 1067. Even today, the castle remains the town’s showpiece, sitting atop a hill.

Those interested in Luther’s life and work will be pleased with the comprehensive Luther House, located in one of the oldest half-timbered homes in town.

Not content with helping change the course of Christianity, Eisenach produced another master, Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born here in 1685. The Bachs were well-known about town, as Johann and other members of the family sang in St. George’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The family home, The Bach House, has an impressive collection of instruments and Bach history. But the most enjoyable experience at Bach House is listening to Herr Meissner, a local musician who was not allowed to study music until after the wall fell, play Bach’s work on the original instruments. Meissner’s passion for Bach’s work is contagious.

Eisenach is by no means stuck in the past, however. For the last century, the town has carried a proud automotive manufacturing tradition, and recently it became home to one of the most modern car factories in Europe — Opel, now owned by General Motors.

For those who enjoy the outdoors, Eisenach has built more than 150 miles (240 km) of hiking paths. One high-level path, the Rennsteig, starts in Eisenach and runs through the Thuringian Forest Mountain range.

Weimar

It is hard to fall from prominence, and even harder to claw your way back up to it.

Back in 1775, Weimar gave birth to German Intellectualism, with the likes of Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche and Liszt calling the small city home. It was an exciting time for this region. In 1919, the Weimar Republic and constitution were formed here.

But the decades that followed were filled with evil and sorrow. Nazi Germany dug its claws into the community, building Buchenwald, a concentration camp, just a short walk from the homes of poets and writers. The Russians later turned Buchenwald into a prison camp, and during the Communist years that followed, little was done to help Weimar up from its knees.

But when the wall fell, Weimar seemed to find itself once again. Gradually, intellectual and artistic expression seeped back into its rightful place in the city.

Weimar, once home of Goethe, Schiller and Nietzsche, fell on hard times during the reign of Hitler’s National Socialist Party in the 1930s and communism after the end of WWII. Today, the town is again an attractive cultural center.

That lively spirit is felt on the streets of the city. The attractive Schiller Street, a pedestrian shopping zone, and the market in the town square bustle with activity. The local theater, which was used by the Nazis as an armament factory, has been reclaimed for the town’s 400-year-old orchestra. Art galleries and museums now dot the avenues, as do restaurants and pubs. (The microbrewery Kostritzer Schwarzbierhaus is excellent.)

All of this dedicated work has paid off: In 1999, Weimar was named the European City of Culture.

Naumburg

The tiny town of Naumburg claims it once was “where the heart of Germany beats in the Middle Ages.” Perhaps that assertion is true. The 1,000-year-old village is comfortable mixing today’s world of the Internet and cable TV with buildings that once housed knights and princesses.

It’s easy to imagine those knights at The Burgschänke Tavern at the Castle Schönburg, which sits high above the Saale River overlooking the lush wine-growing region of Salle-Unstrut. Dinner here is often served “medieval” style, using no utensils and roughly hewn plates. Best of all, the food is served with the region’s excellent wines — dry whites, hearty reds and even a local sparkling wine.

The surrounding regions have produced wines for more than 900 years (several vineyards have been in the same family for more than a century). However, during Communist times, most vineyards were forced to sell to government cooperatives. Fast forward 12 years, and the area wineries are back on their own again, building up a small but thriving industry. Many wineries welcome visitors.

Leipzig

Just arriving at Leipzig train station is an experience. The new facility, designed after Paddington Station in London, is the biggest rail station in Europe. Not only that, it’s a huge shopping mall.

It’s no surprise that Leipzig offers such a modern welcome. More than 25 percent of the town was destroyed in World War II, and much of it is just now being rebuilt. It’s not uncommon to see empty buildings with broken windows standing next to expensively restored structures.

The city’s current renaissance is summed up in the town’s slogan: “Leipzig kommt!” which means “Leipzig is coming.” Given another few years, Leipzig’s current renaissance should have restored the city to top condition.

The current atmosphere is lively and upbeat, and busy coffeehouses, bars and a thriving nightlife help entertain the city’s youthful population. “This is a young town,” says Romy Simon, one of the many residents who are not old enough to remember much of Leipzig during Communist days.

Back then, the city was gray and dirty, due to pollution from open cast mining and other factories. Those industries have all been shut down now. Downtown Leipzig is not hard to traverse by foot, and one could easily spend days exploring all it has to offer.

But the one thing that stands out most about Leipzig is its role in the “Peaceful Revolution.” With a population of 500,000, this is where some committed souls began to pray for the fall of East German government.

In 1982, a small group of people began gathering at St. Nikolas Cchurch to pray for peace. The group began to grow, with non-Christians and Christians alike attending and pushing for change in East Germany. By 1989, peaceful protests had sprung up all across the country. Thousands came to pray at the church. Police tried shutting down services, but the numbers grew.

Finally, on Oct. 9, 1989, some 1,000 Communist party members and Secret Police were ordered to fill up the church, hoping to keep others out. But the church service was held as usual.

That night, thousands of marchers walked through the city carrying candles, singing songs and calling for change. They stopped at the headquarters of the Secret Police, which they were able to take over peacefully.

Weeks later, the government crumbled. And not one shot was fired.

Leipzig has dozens of top museums, including the Mendelssohn House, but by far the most interesting is the Stasi Museum, located in the former headquarters of the secret police. Much of the former police headquarters has been left as it was in October 1989, with rooms showing how secret police spied on others, interrogated and held dissenters, went through mail, eavesdropped on phone conversations and recruited followers.

The museum provides a fascinating look at the East Germany that once was.

If You Go

Germany Tourism

www.germany-tourism.de

Tourism Eisenach

www.eisenach-tourist.de

City of Weimar

www.weimar.de

City of Leipzig

www.leipzig.de

City of Naumburg

www.naumburg-tourismus.de

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