This wasn't the first time I'd been to Eisenach you know. Not a bit of it. I'd stopped there on route to Poland a couple of years ago. However, on that occasion, I didn't do much more than sink a couple of beers and get my head down in my hotel and consequently, all I saw of the town was what was visible from the autobahn.
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All that was about to change in September when we were touring Germany.
Eisenach is situated in the state of Thuringia, pretty much slap-bang in the centre of Germany (although until 'the wall' came a-tumbling down, it was fairly close to the frontier with the West.) It lies on the A4 autobahn, which is the main route from Frankfurt-am-Main to Dresden (and on to Krakow), making it a perfect spot to break a journey.
But there's more to Eisenach than a convenient stopover...much more.
The town has been around for nearly 1,000 years and in all that time has been dominated by the brooding presence of Wartburg Castle which towers menacingly above. Actually, it doesn't really look all that threatening. It appears that the castle is perched on a gentle hill just to the south of the old town. A lesson in not trusting first appearances!
We arrived there mid-afternoon which gave us plenty of time to check in to our hotel, freshen-up a little, then head for the picturesque Old Town for a look around and a bite to eat.
On approaching the old town, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd made a horrendous mistake in choosing Eisenach as a destination. Some of the surroundings are a little 'past their best', to say the least. There's a great deal of derelict industrial land, especially towards the Railway station. but I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that much of the DDR industry wasn't really efficient and many changes have taken place since re-unification, not least working practices.
All that changes though when you finally arrive in the Altstadt.
We entered through the St. Nicholas Gate which immediately brings you into Karlplatz, a wide market-place lined with bars and restaurants, the centre-piece of which is a statue of a certain Martin Luther who lived here as a child and later, while staying in Wartburg Castle, translated the bible into vernacular German.
The main shopping street, Karlstrasse, leads off from here and is pedestrianised although when we were there, work was in progress re-laying the cobble setts. This made it a little awkward getting around in some parts, but it looked like work was near completion, so that shouldn't be an issue now.
I wouldn't describe the shopping as tourist-orientated, which is surprising, as I'm sure Wartburg is one of Germany's premier attractions (although don't quote me on that). Having said that, there were plenty of unusual little shops and it certainly wasn't confined just to run-of-the-mill chains.
At the far end of Karlstrasse is the impressive Marktplatz which is lined with administrative buildings and intricately adorned patrician houses. This is also where you'll find the Rathaus (town hall) which was a tavern until its conversion in 1596. It was thoroughly renovated in 1996 and now, with it's salmon-pink rendered walls and beautiful, golden stone lintels topped by a bold, black clock-tower, it's amazingly photogenic.
It's not the most impressive building in the square though. Some would say that honour goes to the baroque Ducal Palace which houses the Museum of Thuringia, others would point to St George's church (although I can't comment on that because it was covered in scaffolding and wasn't open to the public at the time).
Me? I though the most impressive building was one that was just slightly off the Markplatz, Luther House which is thought to be oldest of Eisenach's many half-timbered houses. I thought it was an absolute belter of a building, and what's more, for a paltry 2.50, you can go inside where you can view exhibitions about Martin Luther and a history of the Protestant Vicarage. Nice building, boring exhibition.
Incidentally, although there are plenty of cafe/bars/restaurants around Markplatz, there are two between the church and Luther House that I would say were the best. These were old, authentic Bierkellers and as so, were very atmospheric.
There are many more museums in Eisenach worth investigating, after all, this is also the birthplace of JS Bach and his house is now a memorial to him. It costs 4 to visit, and as well as exhibits there are concerts and lectures. Being more of a Debussy-type, I gave this a miss.
There's also the Reuter-Wagner Museum ( 3) which apparently has the second most important exhibition (after Bayreuth) devoted to Wagner - the opera, Tannhäuser, has connections with Wartburg.
On a more modern note, is the World of Automobiles. Eisenach produced the Wartburg before its demise in 1989 when the factory was taken over by Opel. BMW also manufacture diesel engines and parts in the town. Entrance is a very reasonable 2, but even that desultory sum couldn't tempt me to look at a bunch of old motors.
Speaking of old industry, the Old Malt Factory ( 2.50) is now an industrial museum which also houses jazz festivals (I don't know what the connection is either).
There are other buildings worth visiting too, although they can't be all that worth it as we never visited them! We didn't actually venture into many of the museums for two reasons: firstly, we weren't all that interested in the thematic content; and secondly, the weather was absolutely glorious and it seemed a shame not make the most of it.
Besides, we only really spent late afternoon/early evening in the town both days we were there.
On the second day, very early in the morning, we visited Wartburg Castle. The castle opens for business at 8.30 and I'd advise anyone going there to be 'chappin' at the door' by that time. It gets very busy.
Parking costs 3, and from the car park it's but a short stroll up the hill to the castle entrance. I used the term 'short stroll up the hill' in much the same way that assailing the North Face of the Eiger is a pleasant scramble.
Remember how I said, "the castle is perched on a gentle hill..."? And then I went on to say, "A lesson in not trusting first appearances!"
Apparently, it's only 500 feet from the car park to the entrance. The trouble is, it's 500 feet vertically! I kid you not. It's not even a gentle slope, but fairly steep steps all the way. I was well and truly 'cream-crackered' by the time we gasped our way to the top. And what doesn't help, not one teensy-weensy little bit, are all the employees in medieval dress - hurdy-gurdy-men, jugglers, flautists and generally people with long, pointy shoes, giving it, "Not far now...it's just around the corner...a few steps more..."
To be fair, they lay on a shuttle bus for the elderly and infirm (which is what I was by the time I got to the top). There are also donkey rides to the top for the kiddies...bless.
However, I have to say the climb was worth it. Magnificent, splendid, amazing, stupendous. None of these words do justice. Wartburg is, for me, the epitome of a castle. It has everything - a precarious perch atop a steep, craggy hill, a drawbridge leading to a portcullis and on into various internal courtyards, and all manner of lopsided and ricketty buildings inside. Of course, it's no' Edinburgh Castle, but it was still pretty good.
Entrance to the castle is free, but there is a guided tour through the place and entry to the museum for a very reasonable 6.50. Or, you could just do what we did.
before realising how the price structure worked, we mistakenly entered the museum through the exit (in through the out door, as it were). We wondered why we were getting strange looks from all the staff but it all became clear when we finished our tour of the museum at the entrance, and ticket kiosk. Needless to say, in a fit of guilt, we donated the entrance fee...actually, the museum was hugely unimpressive and we were well satisfied that we hadn't paid for it!
There's a hotel inside the castle, and when we were there, a wedding party had taken over and the bride and groom were posing for photos in some of the more scenic corners (they were spoiled for choice) - an unforgettable wedding album, I would imagine.
As well as the hotel, there's a bar and a few restaurants in the castle grounds, not to mention a few souvenir shops which were quite tasteful - there's nothing tacky here at all.
Later that day, we drove to an attraction called Mini-Thur - a park set in a wooded valley with all the major landmarks of Thuringia displayed in model form around a series of pools and waterfalls cascading down the valley. Here, among other things, we got to see a miniature version of Wartburg Castle on a slightly less inclined hill!
There are various other things to do and see in the surrounding area, but I think I've covered more than enough for now.
More reviews on the proxy '04 tour:
BW L'Amandier - Libramont
Comfort Hotel - Eisenach
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