What do we think of as soon as we hear the word Germany? In most cases, we think of the two world wars and beer, frankfurters, and soccer. Some of the more sophisticated might think of Europe’s best economy, others about the difficult German language, and still others about Rammstein, the heavy metal band.
But few will picture “another” Germany, quiet and peaceful, with a light air of provincialism. This is perhaps how the residents of Galicia in Ukraine imagine their land in the 19th century. You can find this kind of Germany in Thuringia (Der Freistaat Thüringen), a state in the very center of the country. Tucked away cozily from the large industrial districts of Berlin and its suburbs, these cities of Thuringia have a unique identity: their own non-Bavarian tradition with the essence and history of the entire country reflected in one state. Take a stroll down the medieval streets of its capital, Erfurt, the picturesque Jena, or the classical Weimar.
ERFURT, THE CAPITAL
Once in Erfurt, you immediately feel what the capital of a tiny medieval monarchy must have been like. Grand architecture, palaces, majestic cathedrals, and a stronghold, all packed into a city the size of Ternopil.
Local travel guides say Der Petersberg is Europe’s best preserved citadel. Next to it are the medieval St. Mary’s Cathedral (Mariendom), and St. Severy’ Church (Severikirche). The founding of the Erfurt diocese in the 8th century became the first step in the spread of Christianity in Thuringia. Later, Martin Luther worked here on his translation of the Bible into German.
Another curious spot is Krämerbrücke (“grocers’ bridge”) across the Gera River, lined on both sides with medieval half-timbered houses. In the Middle Ages this bridge was a part of Via Regia (“the king’s road”), the oldest and longest trade route between Eastern and Western Europe. Walking down Krämerbrücke, you don't even realize you are actually on a bridge.
Roaming the streets of Erfurt, you will encounter numerous fountains, both big and small. Shaped like monsters, fancy birds, little girls and so on, they augment Erfurt’s unique charm and atmosphere. Especially amazing is the water fountain in the square next to Ägidienkirche (St. Egidius’ Church). The spire of this church is worth a climb — the view from the top provides a magnificent view of Mariendom and is perhaps one of Germany’s most picturesque sights.
THE MERRY JENA
In a sense, Jena is Erfurt’s opposite. It may have less spectacular architecture (some buildings from the East German period have a distinctly “Soviet” look about them), but the surrounding landscapes compensate generously for this downside. Jen Tower, a skyscraper built in 1972, is the city’s most famous landmark and looks out onto a panorama of the Ore Mountains.
Jena, a relatively small city with a population of about 105,000, is safely sheltered by the surrounding mountains and is also famous for Friedrich Schiller’s summer residence, the university named after him, and the plant of the famous optics manufacturer, Carl Zeiss (today Jenoptik GmbH).
In 1934, the director of the laboratory at this plant was a Ukrainian — Oleksandr Smakula. Smakula (born in 1900 in the village of Dobryvody near Ternopil, then Austria-Hungary) invented anti-reflective coating for lenses.
Jena may look quiet and peaceful, but one in five residents is a student and so it is never dull. You can hear a lot of foreign languages spoken by university students in Jena. Unlike other European cities, smoking in public is allowed and consequently, it seems that almost everyone smokes. Furthermore, you can freely drink beer and liquor in the street.
The Germans here are quite uninhibited. Legalized pornography is a disagreeable side; but on the bright side, one can see crowds of pregnant students riding their bikes to class and back. The locals say that Schiller University in Jena is among the 10 most “baby-friendly” universities in Germany. It even has a special room for young mothers, where both students and teachers can drop off their children when they have class. Cafeterias and university buildings are equipped with special elevators and facilities for young parents. Ukrainian is also heard here — Schiller University cooperates closely with Ukraine's Kyiv Mohyla Academy.
WEIMAR, THE CENTER OF CULTURE
Weimar can be called Thuringia’s cultural capital, living from festival to festival, with the nine Muses fluttering about in the air, and the city park ringing with song. This is also the city were the Weimar Republic was declared.
Germany leaves the impression of a land of continuous holidays. Almost every Sunday nearly every town or village has a fair, beer fest, or concert. To our surprise, on the first Sunday of October in Weimar we found ourselves at the Zwiebelmarkt, or Onion Fair. Countertops at every shop were decorated with onions (what else, of course?) and every imaginable kind of pie with onion stuffing was being sold, while visitors relished beer with sausages in nearby pubs.
A beautiful park, the golden autumn, and the deep blue sky all created an atmosphere quite inducing to writing. Perhaps this is why Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote his best works here in his summer residence (Goethes Gartenhaus), and another famous German, Friedrich Schiller, visited for tea. A monument to both poets stands in front of the opera house.
The opera, by the way, is an absolute must-see. Modern German art may surprise, strike, or even shock. But the German combination of classics and modernity is something out of this world, and worth a story on its own.
You must not miss the opera house if you visit Weimar, especially if the Magic Flute is playing. The local house offers two productions of the Flute, classical and modern. Of course, the latter is much more interesting, with saucy scenes, intriguing acting, and of course, Mozart’s charm.
In general, despite our global age, the cities of Thuringia still keep their romantic atmosphere, complete with the air of the 19th century. After walking their streets and having a few cups of delicious coffee with milk at the local cafes, you cannot but feel like grabbing a pen and paper to write a poem or a song just like Goethe and Schiller.
Jena: Optical Museum, Planetarium, Schiller’s Garden House, Observatory.
Erfurt: University, Cathedral Hill Domberg, Mariendom, Severikirche.
Weimar: Palace, Friedrich Schiller’s house, Herder Church
There is regular bus service from Kyiv both to Jena and Erfurt, with busses leaving almost on a daily basis. The average price of a return ticket is about €100, but it is more comfortable and much faster to fly to Berlin or Frankfurt and take a train or bus to your destination in Thuringia.
Traveling in Germany is quite easy and comfortable, though it can sometimes be pricey. The country has an efficient system of “fellow passengers” (Die Mitfahrgelegenheit). On this community site you can find individuals travelling on a specific day to a specific destination with their own car or by train (with a group ticket), with a price three to five times lower than a normal train or plane ticket. You can also buy a weekend train ticket, which is valid for five persons for 24 hours. The only inconvenience is that it is normally used for electric commuter trains which travel at a rather slow pace.
The famous German roast frankfurters (Die Thüringer Bratwurst) at €1-2 per serving; coffee with milk (Der Milchkaffee), which the locals drink from big mugs (450-500 ml), at €2-3.