Thuringia & Saxony, Germany: Land of Luther and Bach

Our journey continues back into Germany, and into both Martin Luther’s and Johann Bach’s old stomping grounds. We started with Erfurt, where Luther decided to become a monk, and where Bach’s parents were married.  Our next day was in Leipzig, where Bach spent much of his adult life and which hosts a lot of Cold War era history (all these cities are in former East Germany).  Then we continued to Wittenburg, where Luther posted his 95 theses that led to the Reformation movement.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Our morning began with a long drive from Kitzbühel, Austria to Erfurt, Germany. Jeremy thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of the stretches with crossed-out speed limit signs, meaning no official speed limit. That said, there was plenty of road maintenance and traffic along the way, so the warp-speed parts were only a fraction of the time. Driving 100+ mph (160kph) feels surprisingly safe when the roads are straight and smooth, and the drivers are relatively disciplined. The Ford that we rented (it was supposed to be a VW) was somewhat underpowered compared with the Audi’s, BMW’s and Mercedes flying by in the fast lane, but Jeremy did briefly get us up to 200 km/h (about 125 mph).

We thought about stopping at Wartberg Castle, but decided that the time required for the detour would make the other stuff we wanted to see too rushed.  It was a good decision since we didn’t arrive at our apartment in Erfurt until 3:30. Fortunately, I had packed all of our essentials into one suitcase, so rather than carrying two bags up the endless flights of stairs, we only had to carry one.

Once in town, we did the Rick Steves book recommended walking tour, starting at “Anger” Square which doesn’t mean what you think. It simply means “Commons,” and while it used to be a market square, it is now mostly shopping and restaurants and is fun to wander around.

We continued on to the statue of Martin Luther and read up on his history in this town. This is his college town, and all his parents wanted was for him to be a lawyer. While in a lightning storm (the location is supposed to be 10km from Erfurt), he became so frightened that he prayed to God and vowed to become a monk if he survived. His word was good and he became a monk.


Luther’s statue is in front of the Kaufmannskirche, which is where he did some of his preaching later in his priestly career. It is also the church where Johann Sebastian Bach’s parents were married.

We continued down the Merchants’ Bridge, past the University of Erfurt and Michaeliskirche, where Luther went to college and attended church while there. The doors were locked, so we passed by fairly quickly.


The Fischmarkt was next, but it must have been a fish market a long time ago since there were no signs (or smells) that fish were sold anywhere near there. Again, it was mostly shops and restaurants and was fun to walk by. There was a statue of Bernd das Brot, a Sponge Bob impersonator that got his fame when he was stolen by squatters who were being evicted.


Domplatz, or Cathedral Square, was next. They were getting ready for a festival, so the front entrance had bleacher seating being set up and the main entrance was blocked off. We were able to enter from the side. John really liked the door knocker, which had a lion eating a human. Odd. The Cathedral of St. Mary had some construction going on the altar, so it wasn’t as nice as it could have been, but was still beautiful. This is also the church where Martin Luther was ordained as a priest. Next door was the Church of St. Severus, which we took a quick walk around.


There was less than an hour before the Augustinian Monastery and Church were supposed to close, so we headed over there, enjoying the walk.


On arrival, we discovered that we were too late for the required tour to visit the Monastery. Since the next tour wasn’t until 11 tomorrow morning, we knew this was going to be something we were going to miss.


We were able to wander through the church, which had some beautiful stained glass.


We also saw the guest house, the place we think Luther slept while he was a monk, from the outside. The flowers around the grounds were quite beautiful.


Wandering back to town, we walked by the Georgenburse, where Luther lived as a university student. We also walked by the back side of the Merchants’ Bridge, which had some very beautiful buildings.


At this point, we decided to get dinner and stopped at a döner kebab and pizza place, where I had a very delicious döner salad.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Our morning started with breakfast at a nice bakery.  I think when I get home I am going to try to master the art of German baking.  It is so delicious.  We checked out of our apartment and started driving to Leipzig.

It was still early when we arrived, so we found a parking garage at Augustusplatz, which was called Karl-Marx-Platz in East German times.  It’s a major square in the city, and it is next to the Leipzig University.  Curiously, there’s a very modern University Church there which apparently replaced a 1300’s cathedral that was blown up by the East Germans in the 1960’s.

We continued through some shopping streets to St. Nicholas Church, which is where there were prayer vigils/demonstrations in the late 80’s protesting the Cold War.  There was an interesting exhibit inside the church that showed some photos of various events from WWII forward, although some of it was inappropriate for the boys, so we left before looking at it in a lot of detail.


Our wandering took us through more of the town until we reached St. Thomas Church, which is where Bach spent much of his adult life as the organist and director of the boys’ choir.


On his death, he was buried in a regular gravesite, but later, they decided to move his body into a tomb in the church.  Unfortunately, they were uncertain of which of three bodies might be his, so after looking at various evidence, they picked the most likely candidate and moved the bones into a very beautiful room of the church.


The old part of the city is quite beautiful and not stark like you might expect from East Germany.


Next up was the Stasi Museum, which was an interesting museum on the Cold War – the Stasi were the East German secret police.  Unfortunately most of the material was in German, but we were able to get the main gist and get some of the horror of having your family and friends spying on you.  If we really wanted to explore it in detail, we should have gotten the audio guides, but the boys lose patience with the audio guides fairly quickly, so we skipped that particular feature.


After stopping for lunch, we continued to the Contemporary History Forum.  The main hall was closed, but since it is a free museum, we went ahead and saw the special exhibits.  There were a lot of East German artifacts (i.e. dishes, home furnishings, etc. – basically how life was in East Germany) . There was also an interesting exhibits on comics.  The museum probably would have been better if there was more English, but it was a fun stop.

We continued to the Bach Museum, which I highly recommend.  Almost all of the signs are translated into English, it is well organized, and there are tons of interactive displays.  I had a lot of fun reading about his life.  Everyone enjoyed the headphones that allowed us to listen to a variety of his music.  The boys particularly enjoyed a room that played music and allowed us to amplify different instrument sounds so you could hear what the instrument sounded like.  They also liked a room that allowed us to play on a clavichord and listen to more music on headphones.

We wandered through the city a bit more, spotting a castle-like building that from Google maps, appeared to be part of the city buildings.


We were fairly tired in the late afternoon, so we picked up the car and moved it to our apartment-hotel.  The rooms are huge and quite comfortable, but they definitely have a East German flair (reminds us a bit of some hotels we’ve stayed at in Russia) with 70’s themed colors.

After a light dinner, Jeremy took the boys to a nearby playground.  Playgrounds in Europe are so much better than the playgrounds at home. This one also had a trampoline.


Saturday, July 21, 2018

We started our morning with a 90 minute drive to Wittenberg, the town where Luther spent most of his adult life, and where he hammered his 95 Theses onto a church door, starting the Reformation movement.

Our first stop was a playground across the street from the train station parking lot.  After the kids had burned off some energy, we started on the real sites.

The Wittenberg Castle Church was first.  The front of it was quite castle-like, but the back looked like it was partially rebuilt in the 70’s and was less impressive.  We were also disappointed that the main entrance was not the door on which he nailed his Theses, but rather a visitor’s center.


We toured the church, which was quite beautiful.  Both Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon (Luther’s right-hand man) have raised tombs inside the church.  I always find it a bit odd to think about worshiping in a place that has dead bodies everywhere, and think I prefer the ones that are flush with the floor to the raised ones.


There was a small museum across from the church that we also ducked into for a few minutes.  Reading through some of the Theses were interesting, some were very thought provoking and gave a lot of insight into what was going on in the Catholic church during Luther’s days.  It’s odd to think about the fact that most people did not own a Bible, and even if they did, it was unlikely that they would be able to read it.  Things that are common sense for us, were a bit more difficult during that time period.


On our way out, we stopped by the door that Luther nailed his Theses to.  As it turns out, at some point there was a fire and the door burned down, so they replaced it with a bronze door.  I wonder where he would have placed his Theses if that had been the case in his day.  Post-it notes probably wouldn’t have been an option.


Other interesting thoughts we pondered: first, the Theses were posted in Latin, which means they were likely intended for the religious and academic leaders to discuss first before discussing them among the regular people.  Second, they were posted on the Castle Church door, not St. Mary’s Church, where most of the regular people attended.  It is interesting to think about his students getting excited by the ideas, translating them, distributing them, and the commotion it caused.  Luther intended to cause a bit of a commotion in the academic world, so I wonder what his first thoughts were when things quickly spiraled out of his control and he was accused of being a heretic and fled for his life.

We continued to the Town Church of St. Mary, where Luther did most of his preaching.  This is also the church where he was married and you can see the baptismal font where Luther’s six children were baptized.


Our last major stop was the Luther House museum.  This is where Luther lived and was much larger than I was expecting.  Apparently in addition to housing his wife and kids, he hosted his many students as well as reformation refugees.  He would often have as many as 40 people dine with him, which makes the size of the house make a lot more sense.  It is now a fairly well done museum.

An oddity at the ticket window: the family ticket covering two adults and kids cost slightly less two adult admissions.

We wandered back to the main town and stopped at a good Italian restaurant for lunch.  I thoroughly enjoyed my gnocchi gorgonzola.  We thought about the Vietnamese place, near to it, but for whatever reason, chose to get more of the same food we have been having for weeks.  Given the close relationship between East Germany and Vietnam, the Vietnamese food is supposed to be fairly good in this part of Germany.

After lunch, we wandered through the square again, then took the kids back to the park, where they were delighted to find a family from Kentucky in the playground.  Other than a couple of Sunday School classes, it has been a while since they have interacted with English speaking kids.  We let them stay until the other family left, then we got on the road again.  I was very pleased with my tour exploring my Lutheran heritage.


We took a 3.5 hour drive to Soltau, which is where John will spend his 10th birthday.  We told him that we are going to take him to an art museum for his birthday, but he doesn’t believe us.  Hopefully, he will be pleasantly surprised with what we picked out for him instead.

Keep reading our travel blog for more posts from our Gap Year!

Here are some more posts from this trip to Europe:

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