The central part of Germany, which was in the “East” or behind the “iron curtain”, is not visited much, which is a shame as it is very bonny, and not spoiled by mass tourism.
It is quite easy for us to go there. Lufthansa flights from Aberdeen to Frankfurt connect with smart high speed trains of Deutsche Bahn to Erfurt. This is the capital of the Thuringia region. This region of Germany has a great history of culture; everywhere you go you will come across Johan Sebastian Bach, Martin Luther, Goethe, Schiller and so many more great literary and music master figures.
It used to take over 4 hours by train from Frankfurt to Erfurt, today, with their high speed trains and new lines (put us to shame, we are so far behind) it takes just over 2 hours. From Erfurt’s smart, bright modern station a local train will take you to Arnstadt in 22 minutes. There are 2 stations in Arnstadt, the main one has the bus station outside it (of course – again, put us to shame) but continue to the “Sud” station which is nearer to the town centre.
Coming out of the station the first thing that caught my eye was a red brick wall that is a monument to the Holocaust, and the appalling death marches. In fact, every town I went to had at least one monument to this dark time in human history. The next monument is a model, in brick, of one of the old town wall towers that stood there for centuries. This model is around 7 feet high. Arnstadt was an important town centuries ago, with high walls and towers to protect it. Two other towers are still in existence, one cleverly converted into a house, and the other still guards one entrance to the town square.
The first recorded mention of Arnstadt is in 704, and it is the oldest town in all Thuringia. It has been inhabited at least since 4,000 BC, according to the archaeologists. It was an important town, on trading routes. The main route, from Erfurt to Nuremberg came through here, and the travellers would need to change horses, stay the night, sell their wares, and buy supplies for the journey. It was, and still is, on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, which brings more travellers to the town. The town square (which is anything but square!) has ancient inns and houses all round it.Strolling on you will come across another wee market place, selling flowers and plants when I was there, and in the middle of the stalls is a life size statue of J.S.Bach. The Bach family, which was quite large and extended, appear all over Thuringia, and there are many statues to the most famous one, Johan Sebastian, but this statue is controversial. When he came to Arnstadt in 1703, he was just 18. He came to test the new organ and was given the post of organist. The statue shows him without a wig, as a young man, lounging against a pillar, with his right hand outstretched as if about to play the organ, while his left hand points away towards Mühlhausen, where he was to go next in 1707. All other statues that I have seen show him as a stout older man with a fierce wig.
The Bach church is an unusual church. It sits to one side of the market place, unassuming and sturdy. Inside it is totally different. There is light, bright paintwork, plain (as you would expect post Reformation) with two tiers of seating in a “U” shape facing the pulpit, and a barrel shaped roof. There is a modern organ, and the famous one used by Bach, although, of course, it has had to be rebuilt and repaired over the years.
Here I met the current organist, Jürg Reddin, a man with immense talent and skill. To start with he played the modern organ, which was impressive, the acoustics of the church are fine, and the music filled the space. Then we climbed up to the old organ – and what a difference. The sound flowed all around you, with a depth and volume that made you tingle. Jürg played some music that Bach had composed while he was there. Then he played some that Bach composed later, after he had been exposed to other teachers and musicians. Even to someone unknowledgeable as me, the difference was immediately noticeable. The later music was much deeper, complex and fulfilling.
Jürg really is a master of that ancient organ. The original keyboard is in the town museum, the current one is a replica. The stops are huge. He played a piece that he made up on the spot, and also suddenly played a Nightingale singing. We plunged into the back of the massive organ and he showed me the small metal bath with three different small pipes in it. The pipes play into the water in the bath and this gives the trilling of the Nightingale! He also brought out an original pipe from Bach’s time – from the time of construction of the organ!
It was a great privilege to have this private concert and to actually go into the actual organ. Because of the strong links with Bach (many of the extended family of Bach lived here as well) there are frequent concerts, and I recommend going to one, especially in the Bach Church.
It was now time to eat, and next to the church is an excellent restaurant, Tanya Harding. Tanya is Canadian, so you can get a good cup of tea with cold milk, and the food is prepared by her and is freshly made to order. The speciality of Thuringia is the Bratwurst. These sausages are about 1 foot – 30 cms – long. They are served everywhere, usually in a bun, with the bratwurst hanging out of both sides. Many places claim them as their own, but the first written evidence is an invoice from the Benedictine Convent in Arnstadt, so they can rightly claim to have invented it. There is also a brewery in Arnstadt, continuing their tradition of beer making that goes back 600 years. It is the oldest wheat beer brewery in Germany.
Refreshed, it was time to continue exploring. The tourist office organise walking tours at 11 a.m. on Saturdays. My guide, Oliver Bötefür, is an expert in the town. There is so much to discover that you really need such a guide. There is the Rathaus (town hall) which is ornate and lovely, the Church of Our Lady that dates from 1220, and the Oberkirche. This started out around 1246 as a Franciscan monastery. The Reformation resulted in them having to go in 1538, when it was converted into a school. It suffered, like most of the town, in the great fire of 1581. It is currently under repair, due to be completed in October 2017. Inside it is the most Catholic of Protestant churches. There are massive ornate altars; the baptismal font is huge, full of figures, crucifixes, pictures, icons, and a riot of images. The nobility, not wanting to mix with the peasants, had glass window encased cabins built above the ordinary benches, on both sides of the front of the church. One special grave stone was awaiting renovation. It dates from 1505. It is remarkable because it is very large, and carved into it and coloured, is a scene of the resurrection, many figures and images that give a whole story. The perspective is so accurate, and together with the colour, make it extremely rare.
Continuing, there is the Schlossmuseum, which contains, amongst many things, over 400 dolls and over 80 dolls houses. Further on is the Brunnenkunst. Across the road is a building that was a convent. The nuns had this building where there were springs, and used the water for washing, themselves and clothes, the latter being a business. Then there is the Theatre in the Palace Gardens, and the art gallery, and just about every building within the circle of the old walls is worth a look at, and many will have blue plaques on them to say that some member of the Bach family lived there at some time.
There is also a very attractive monument to Eugenie John, a famous German writer. She wrote under the pen name of Marlitt, and came from here.
The town, with its population of 25,000 people, has so much to discover, and it is in the shadow of so many other larger Thuringian towns and cities that it does not receive the recognition it deserves – which is great for us, as it is an unspoilt town with loads of character. Accommodation here is cheaper too, so it would be a great base to explore the region, by car, train, or bicycle. It is surrounded by the Thuringian forest too.
My only disappointment was that when I was leaving, the train called a the main station, and then set off again running past a railway museum, with lots of old coaches, wagons and locomotives awaiting renovation – they didn’t tell me about this! Yet another attraction of the town – I shall definitely have to go back there.