If we’re being honest, the Martin Luther Trail in Germany at first blush doesn’t sound like the most exciting travel experience on the planet. Religious history and the tedious life of a man who lived 500-years ago do tend to pale in comparison with the overwater bungalows of Bora Bora or even the bright lights of cities like Berlin or Munich. That’s one of the many things I love about visiting Germany, I’m always surprised by what I find and, so far, I haven’t once been disappointed. On the contrary, the experiences I’ve enjoyed while visiting Germany over the years have been amongst the best I’ve experienced anywhere in the world, and that was certainly true a few months ago while covering the Martin Luther Trial in this, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. To help convince the naysayers, I thought I’d share just some of the many reasons why tackling this route in Germany is not only fun, but about much more than just Martin Luther.
Wittenberg is gorgeous
The first stop on my Luther experience was an appropriate one, Wittenberg. 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, making it a great time to visit what are some gorgeous cities, starting with the one that is arguably the most important in the Luther story. It was here in Wittenberg where Luther famously nailed his 95 theses to the church door, an event that sparked the Protestant Reformation. I’ve always wanted to visit for the city’s historical value, but I honestly had no idea that it’s so beautiful as well. A warm sunny day helped and the vibrant old town exploded in color, packed with folks out enjoying the weather. At the heart of Wittenberg is this, the Marktplatz. For centuries this is where the most important events in town took place, anchored by the town hall and the towers of the City Church where Martin Luther gave more than 2,000 sermons and even where the first Protestant church service took place. I’m not religious per se, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to attend services in this remarkable building, taking advantage of a special Saturday English service. It’s a unique experience regardless of your beliefs, it’s very much living the history instead of just admiring it. It was also the perfect way to start my Luther adventure.
One of my deviations from the path of Luther was an afternoon visit to Dessau and one of Germany’s most modern UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Bauhaus. This revolutionary school of art, architecture and design operated between 1919-1933 and included a total education in building and design. It also was arguably the most important movement of its kind in the 20th century, going on to influence architecture around the world for decades. “One has to walk around this building to grasp its corporeality and the function of its elements,” said the school’s founder and architect of the Bauhaus Building Walter Gropius. So that’s exactly what I did, many, many times this afternoon admiring it from all angles, both inside and out. What now looks like a classic example of early 20th century design, namely arts and crafts, was in its day completely and totally revolutionary. There was nothing like this before and that’s a concept that I think is hard for us in 2017 to fully grasp. This wasn’t in the style of anything, it turned centuries of design on its head and in the process defined a century really. That’s incredible, that’s something to admire and ultimately, I suppose, that’s why it made its way onto that oh so important UNESCO World Heritage list. While it was a diversion from my main Luther mission, it was a worthy one and I’m so glad I spent the afternoon exploring it.
Museums of Eisenach
While I enjoyed nearly every stop during my week in Germany, I was especially looking forward to the final city on the Luther Trail – Eisenach. The city has certainly played an important role throughout history, whether as Bach’s birthplace or where a Saint got her start. But at the heart of the story is Martin Luther, not only because he studied here, but because later in life it was here, in Wartburg Castle where he hid away from danger and translated the Bible into German. Today the castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a variety of reasons, including Luther, but it’s just an inherently fun place to visit in its own right. I was very impressed by the quality of museums in Eisenach and the castle is no exception. With expertly curated exhibits about both Luther’s influence and the history of the castle, I spent hours here, learning, exploring and just having a great time.
I didn’t know what a Luther Dinner was before traveling to Germany, but while spending the week exploring so-called Luther Country, I enjoyed this rustic meal a couple of times, but nowhere better than at the Wartburg. In general, a Luther Dinner is a meal that is inspired by what was popular to eat and drink in the 16th century. So, imagine lots of meat, stews, gravies and an absence of now-iconic ingredients like potatoes and sugar. At the Wartburg Castle Hotel, the chef took the concept and added a fine dining spin to it, creating one of the best meals I’ve ever enjoyed. Still paying homage to Luther, the locally sourced ingredients were creatively reimagined from baked saddle and belly of pork to an incredible honey ice cream, each course was also paired with regional beers and wines inspired by Luther. Food is an important part of the experience at the Wartburg Castle Hotel and after enjoying a meal I know I’ll never forget, I quickly understood why.
Erfurt is amazing
Erfurt surprised me in every way, but mostly because I had somehow never heard of it before. That’s fine with small towns, but Erfurt is no small town. This city of more than 200,000 people also has an impressive history, the details of which can be found on a fun and easy exploration around town. From the cathedral to churches and those gingerbread houses we all love, Erfurt doesn’t lack in urban beauty, but there’s one spot in the city that for me was just a little bit more special than the rest – the Merchant’s Bridge. In Medieval times many bridges also had thriving businesses on them, although only a few around Europe still exist. This is actually one of the more notable ones because it includes the longest series of inhabited buildings on any bridge in Europe. The city owns most of the shops on the bridge and only allows merchants selling traditional items or arts to take up residence, reflecting the heritage of the city and region. On top of the shops are apartments and, yes, people really still do live there. The bridge was built in the 1300s and today just 32 buildings are left, flanked on the end by the Church of St. Aegidius, the tower of which I also climbed. I had a great time exploring all of Erfurt, but I think my time on and around this colorful bridge was the highlight of my day.
Romantic city of Weimar
Although my time in Weimar was incredibly brief, it didn’t take me long to fall in love with this classical and remarkable city. I say remarkable for many reasons because, as it turns out, throughout the centuries everyone who was anyone walked along these city streets at some point. In fact, there’s so much in Weimar that UNESCO recognized Classical Weimar as a World Heritage Site, in large part due to the incredible cultural flowering of the 18th and 19th centuries that attracted scholars, artists and writers from around the world. Thankfully you can still see their influence just about everywhere, as well as more modern thought-leaders, like the designers behind the Bauhaus movement. After spending the afternoon just wandering, I find it hard for anyone not to fall in love with Weimar the same way I did.
Luxurious accommodations like the Wartburg Castle Hotel
One of Germany’s great luxury hotels, the Wartburg Castle Hotel – officially named the Romantic Hotel at the Wartburg – isn’t just a nice place to spend the night, but is an experience unto itself. There’s no better place from which to launch your own exploration of Wartburg Castle than the Romantik Hotel. Sitting literally in the shadows of the massive building, most people think the hotel is part of the main structure itself. Guests stay at the Romantik Hotel to either relax in what is truly a peaceful and bucolic setting or to visit the castle and nearby Eisenach, also home to many wonderful museums and historical treasures. This is a place to rest and relax but also to use one’s time wisely. The same level of comfort and luxury extends to the rooms, each unique and exuding the friendly country atmosphere found in every corner of the property. Whether you decide to relax on the sofa in your room or in the downstairs library, peace and quiet is almost guaranteed.
Turns out Martin Luther is interesting after all
Oh Martin Luther, you rebellious monk you. Even as someone who loves learning about history, I wasn’t sure an entire week could be made out of the life and times of this admittedly important figure. But it can. From following his footsteps around Germany, I gained a much better appreciation not just for the man, but for the incredible ways in which he forever changed the world. The Protestant Reformation was one of the most violent social upheavels Western Civilization has ever experienced, and we’re still feeling the reverberations of that paradigm shift today. And it all started with one man, in one small German town 500 years ago. Those kind of historical facts fascinate me, but what’s even better is reliving the life and times of Luther by spending a week touring those places and towns most important to him and his work. Whether it was hearing a sermon in the same church where he preached, or just mimicking his favorite food choices, it was an immersive way to learn about history and one that I’ll remember far longer than just by reading a book or pamphlet. Add in the bonus of seeing some of Germany’s most beautiful towns and cities and you have yet another reason to visit the country and explore more of what makes it so very special.