East Germany

East Germany  

Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt

July 19th - 26th, 2020

Since I grew up in West Germany and moved abroad as a student shortly after the German re-unification in 1990, I never had the time to see much of East Germany. So, this year, while being stuck during the worldwide Corona travel restrictions, I decided to start exploring the newest federal states of Germany. This is a blog post about my week-long road trip through the southern parts of East Germany, specifically the states of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. One of my goals was to visit all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in this region, but I also saw many other amazing things. 

I started in Munich, were I am currently based, and after a brief stop-over in the northern Bavarian towns of Bayreuth and Coburg (which I wrote about in a separate blog post), I made my way to Weimar.  

Weimar is a small town of about 65,000 in the state of Thuringia. Despite its small size, the city has played an outsized role in German culture, arts and politics. It was the center of the German Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century, and attracted many artists, writers, musicians and architects. It was home to the two most famous German authors and poets, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, as well as the composers Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Liszt. Weimar is also the birthplace of the Bauhaus School of architecture, which was founded here by Walter Gropius in 1919. And following WWI Germany's first experiment with democracy started right here - the Weimar Republic, which lasted from 1919 to 1933.

Weimar is home to two Unesco World Heritage dedications.The first is Classical Weimar, which includes many of the classical buildings from the 17th and 18th century, including Goethe's and Schiller's residences, 

as well as the Stadtschloss, a 18th century neo-classical building, which replaced an earlier Baroque palace that was damaged in a fire in 1774. 

This is the German National Theater, where in 1919 the Germany National Assembly met and drew up a new constitution, which created the Weimar Republic. 

The second Unesco World Heritage site in Weimar is called Bauhaus and its Sites, which honors the enormous influence the Bauhaus School had on 20th century architecture. The two main examples of the Bauhaus architecture in Weimar, are the Art School at Weimar University and the Haus am Horn. The Haus am Horn looks like a rather unremarkable little bungalow, with a flat roof and an unassuming square layout, the type of which hundreds of thousands were built in the 1960s and 70s across the world. But this Haus am Horn was built in 1923, and was nothing short of a revolution in residential architecture. 

It was one of the newest German UNESCO World Heritage sites (awarded in 2018) that brought me to the city of Naumburg, located about an hour's drive north-east of Weimar. Among the thousands of cathedrals, basilicas and churches in Germany, there are only 6 that have been deemed of such outstanding artistic value and historical importance to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. One of those is Naumburg Cathedral.

The cathedral was constructed in stages starting in the early 11th century and shows the stylistic changes from late Romanesque to early Gothic. 

Naumburg Cathedral is particularly famous for the life-sized sculptures of its founders surrounding the choir. These sculptures were created by an unnamed artist in the region in the middle of the 13th century, and are very unusual for early Gothic sculptures due to their life-like features and expressive faces, like the smirking Gräfin Reglindis on the left here.

Underneath the cloisters sits the ancient crypt with its huge Romanesque vault ceiling. It now houses a very impressive Schatzkammer. 

The city of Naumburg, with its medieval city center is also worth seeing. 

Dresden, the capital city of the state of Saxony, is one of the most visited cities in Germany. It used to be the royal residence of the Kings of Saxony.

Although heavily damaged during allied bombing raids in WWII, the city's Baroque and Renaissance center has been beautifully restored. Among the many architectural jewels in the city, the Zwinger and the Semper Opera stand out in particular.  

I came here once before on a school trip in 1986, when Dresden was still part of the communist German Democratic Republic. It was fascinating to see how much the city had been transformed since. This was nowhere more visible than in the famous Frauenkirche. Originally built in the 18th century, the building was completely destroyed during the WWII bombings of Dresden. It was left a ruin as a war memorial in East Germany (on the left is the view I had in 1986). After German re-unification the decision was made to rebuild it in its old glory, which took more than 10 years and was completed in 2005. 

Less than an hour's drive to the south of Dresden lies one of Germany's most dramatic landscapes. The spectacular Elbe Sandstone Mountains are a mountain range along the river Elbe straddling the border between Saxony and the Czech Republic. The area is also known as the Saxon Switzerland.

The range is particularly known for its variety of landscapes within a small area. You could easily spend a week or more exploring all of the different terrains. 

Since I only had one day here, I decided to check out the most famous part of the national park. The so-called Bastei (or bastion in English) is a dramatic rock formation made up of a set of 200 meter high sandstone pillars nestled right along the edge of the river.

The Bastei was already a popular tourist destination in the early 19th century. In order to attract even more visitors, a wooden bridge was built in 1824 linking the rocks. It was replaced by this picturesque stone bridge in 1851. 

It clearly still is a very popular destination, since there were thousands of people here today. It was a bit too crowded on and near the bridge for my liking. But the crowds thinned out quickly when I went on a beautiful hike from the Bastei through a narrow valley back to the car park near the village of Rathewald.

After two nights in Dresden, I made my way further east to the small town of Bautzen. The well preserved medieval town center was built on a hill top above the river Spree. Due to the many ancient towers and church steeples, Bautzen reminded me of some of the ancient hill-top towns in Tuscany. 

Before 1989, Bautzen was infamous for its prison, where East Germany kept its political prisoners. Luckily, today the town is better known for its beauty and its mustard - ''Bautzner Senf'' is one of the best known and most popular brands of mustard across Germany. They even have a mustard museum here.  

This is the main square with the beautiful town hall. The building was first constructed in the early 13th century, but damaged and rebuilt many times since that, until it received its current form in the early 18th century.  

Bautzen is also the cultural center of the Sorbs, which are an ethnically Slavic minority in Germany. Most Germans (including myself until recently) don't know that Sorbic is one of Germany's official languages. The Sorbian minority in this part of Germany numbers about 80,000 people and makes up around 10% of Bautzen's population. I visited the very interesting Sorbian Museum, where you can learn about the history, customs and cultures of the Sorbs. 

I stayed in Bautzen for two nights, and on my second day I went on a day trip further east to see the city of Görlitz, located right next to the border with Poland.

Görlitz is the largest German city that remained almost unharmed in WWII. As a result the city's architecture is a beautifully preserved mix of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque buildings, such as the 16th century old town hall (left) and the new town hall from 1903 (right). 

The city has been extensively renovated since the German unification. Interestingly much of the funds for the renovation of the old city center have come from an anonymous donor, who starting in 1995 has been sending more than 500,000 Euros every year. 

A few kilometers to the south of Görlitz is a lake with a very short but interesting history. The Berzdorfer See is one of the largest lakes in Saxony (with a surface area of around 10 square kilometer), yet it has only existed for a few years. 

The lake covers a former open pit coal mine, that was closed in 1997 after being in operation for more than 150 years. It was decided to flood the giant hole in the ground and turn it into a recreational area and nature resort. The flooding took more than 10 years, but in 2013 the lake with its remarkably clear water was opened to the public, and is has since become a popular destination for swimming, sailing and many other water sports. 

Another 30 minute drive further south is the town of Zittau. I had never heard of Zittau before, but I saw some pictures and decided to check it out. The city is located in the very south-eastern corner of Germany near the point where the borders with Poland and the Czech Republic meet. It is a beautiful little town with a historical center that was extensively restored after 1990, since most buildings had fallen badly into disrepair during GDR times.

The city hall was built in the style of an Italian palazzo in the 1840's

Muskauer Park
After leaving Bautzen in the morning, I headed north-east to my next UNESCO World Heritage site. Muskauer Park is a large landscaped garden, created in the years 1815 to 1844. It was designed as a "painting with plants", and became one of the largest and most prominent English Gardens in Europe.

Built around the bright red Neo-Renaissance castle, Muskauer Park had a significant influence on the developments in landscape architecture in the 19th century. Owing to its importance, it became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2004.

Today, the park is located in Germany and Poland, as the national border between the two countries is formed by the river Neisse, which runs straight through the park. In this photo Germany is on the left and Poland of the right, and since both countries are part of the Schengen agreement, there are no border controls to be found anywhere.

From Muskauer Park I drove straight west to the town of Wittenberg in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. However, along the way I had a minor disappointment, when I did a small detour just to take a picture of the famous Rakotzbrücke, one of Germany's most romantic view points. My picture didn't quite turn out as I had hoped. On the left is a Google image of what I expected to see, and on the right is the picture I took:

This is a picture of a door. But it is not just any door. It may in fact be the most consequential and important door in all of European history. 

It is the entrance door to the All Saints' Church in Wittenberg. On October 31st, 1517, a local monk and scholar named Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper with his 95 Theses to this door. This launched the Reformation in Europe, and led to the split of the Catholic Church only 4 years later.

Wittenberg is all about Martin Luther, in fact the town's full official name is Lutherstadt Wittenberg. The key sights of Luther's life in Wittenberg were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996. They include the Lutherhaus, where he lived, the town church, where he preached, and the castle church, where he posted his theses. (The world heritage site also includes the houses in the nearby town of Eisleben, where he was born and died.)

St Mary's parish church seen here behind the town houses at the market square is not only famous, because Martin Luther preached there, but also for the outstanding high altar paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The All Saints' Church, usually just referred to as the Schlosskirche, was originally built in 1496 - 1506, but extensively rebuilt after a fire in the 18th century

The Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz
About a 30 minute drive to the west of Wittenberg lies another of Germany's UNESCO World Heritage sites - the Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz. Similar to Muskauer Park this is another large and beautifully landscaped park, but it is at least 50 years older. Dessau-Wörlitz was in fact the first landscaped garden in continental Europe.

Prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz of Anhalt-Dessau (1740-1817) decided to create his own park after studying landscaped gardens on several trips through England. 

After spending a couple of hours walking around the beautiful gardens, I then drove another 1.5 hours west to Quedlinburg.

The ancient town of Quedlinburg, located at the edge of the Harz mountains in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, is one of the best preserved medieval/Renaissance towns in all of Europe. The old town together with the castle and church became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. 

Quedlinburg has the highest number and concentration of half timbered houses you will ever see anywhere. There are an estimated 1,300 half-timbered houses, some as old as the 16th century. Walking through Quedlinburg feels like you've been transported back hundreds of years.

Quedlingburg's history goes back to at least the 9th centuy. The castle was founded by King Henry I and built out by Emperor Otto the first in the early 10th century. 

Among all the beautiful things I saw on this trip, Quedlinburg was my personal highlight. I have visited many medieval towns across all of Europe in my life, but Quedlinburg still blew me away. It is an absolute jewel. 

The Wartburg
The following day, on my way back to Munich, I made one last stop in East Germany. Wartburg Castle, which sits on a hill high above the small town of Eisenach in Thuringia was the first German castle to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The main palace was built in the 12th century, but much of what we see today are 19th century reconstructions.

Wartburg Castle has played an important role in German history and culture. In 1521 Martin Luther spent a year living in the castle, and it was here that he translated the bible into German. In the 19th century Wartburg castle became a symbol of German national identity. In 1817 it was the site of the first Wartburg Festival, a large gathering of students protesting reactionary politics and demanding a unified German national state.

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