YOU may not have noticed but Germany has been making a big deal of its World Heritage Sites this year. It has a total of 38 officially recognised sites (only China, France, Italy and Spain can boast more) and of these, 16 are concentrated in the small, former East German city of Weimar.
'The plush Hotel Elephant saw Hitler sign its guestbook on more than 30 occasions'
It’s a city that for centuries has been firmly established on the German cultural map, yet if mentioned anywhere else the name Weimar will probably be met with a blank stare, or at best mumblings on “something to do with the Weimar Republic?”
Yet monumental shifts in culture and world history took place here. Not only was modern Germany born in Weimar, it can claim to be the birthplace of the Bauhaus movement and spiritual home to both National Socialism and the German Enlightenment. At its 19th-century ‘Golden Age’ peak, such was its cultural magnetism, Franz Liszt, JS Bach and the writers Goethe and Schiller were all drawn here to take homes for a spell.
Yet despite coming out from behind the Iron Curtain 25 years ago, this former East Germany city gets few British visitors. Partly because few know about it and perhaps because it’s not that easy to spot – locate Frankfurt on the map, trace a diagonal line north-east to Leipzig and about half way along you come to Weimar.
Once found, this trim and prosperous little city is easily explored on foot along cobbled streets packed with handsome Baroque palaces, gardens and museums celebrating star names of literature, art, architecture and music.
Just off the Market Square, the most popular attraction is the preserved home of poet and best-selling playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. For 50 years, the reputed wild-boy and town gadabout lived in the spacious grandeur of his Baroque home, penning some his most famous works, including the epic two-part poem, Faust.
Except for the creaking, polished-wood floorboards, there’s a hallowed hush as visitors and parties of school kids move from room to room lingering over his preserved furniture and manuscript displays.
Offering a similar, reverent ambiance, the nearby The Duchess Anna Amalia Library is a Rococo masterpiece of such importance that you have to wear felt-slippers to shuffle through its venerable collection of books, artworks and musical manuscripts.
The nearby handsome palaces of Belvedere and Ettersburg, with their formal gardens and parklands, offer a taste of aristocratic, 18th-century Germany, while the museum and art gallery found in the City Palace puts Weimar’s ‘Golden Age’ into a historical context.
For fans of modernism and clean-lines, The Bauhaus Museum in Theaterplatz explores the iconic movement formed here that went onto shape the world of art, architecture and design during the 20th century. Opposite the museum’s main entrance is a statue of Goethe and his fellow polymath, friend, and writer of William Tell, Johann Schiller. They were both part of the German Enlightenment, an 18th-century movement broadly based on individual identities expressed in proud indigenous folk languages and cultures.
It was a philosophy that partially shaped the dark days to come and their bronze memorial couldn’t be placed in a more fitting site. Behind their statue is the National Theatre, the very auditorium that in 1919 saw the declaration of the Weimar Republic and the subsequent rise of German Nationalism.
With its strong ties to the Enlightenment, Weimar became the cultural heart of Germany and no other place was to more support the country’s rising tide of National Socialism during the 1920s & 30s.
There are dedicated trails through the city centre highlighting the remnants of Weimar’s Nazi past, including the Gestapo’s basement detention centre and Old Town market square where the plush Hotel Elephant saw Hitler sign its guestbook on more than 30 occasions.
For a harrowing and full-sensory assault of Hitler’s legacy, a 10km journey north to Ettersberg Hill, reveals the huge Buchenwald concentration camp, SS training centre and munitions factory. It doesn’t matter that the accommodation huts have been removed; the beautifully put together museum and memorials housed in the original storage, disinfection and crematorium buildings gets the point across.
For one so small Weimar packs a big emotional, historical and cultural punch.
Germania flies directly from London Gatwick to Erfurt-Weimar Airport. It’s then a 30 minute journey to the centre of Weimar.
Lufthansa operates daily services from Manchester to Frankfurt. From Frankfurt Airport station there is a regular and direct train service to the heart of Weimar.
Where to stay
The Hotel Elephant (Markt 19, 99423 Weimar, tel. +49 (0) 3643 802 631. www.hotelelephantweimar.com) offers historic, art deco and Bauhaus-influenced elegance in the heart of the city.
www.visit-thuringia.com (who kindly supplied the images for the piece) and www.weimar.de
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