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Poetry and Sausages in Weimar

Jill Knight Weinberger is a freelance writer based in Connecticut

It wasn’t only the prospect of paying homage to the great German writers Goethe and Schiller that prompted my husband and me to make our second visit in three years to Weimar--it was also the delectable local sausage called Thuringerwurst. Poetry and sausage. Weimar’s small-town pleasures blend harmoniously with its legacy as one of Europe’s leading centers of art and culture.

Last August, G.J. and I loitered away the noon hours in Weimar’s medieval Market Square, eating some of the famed Thuringer sausages sold hot off the grill from occasionally cranky vendors. Plunked into a chewy roll and squirted with mustard, this regional specialty is hands down our favorite cheap lunch (about $1.80) in all of Europe.

As we surveyed the splendid array of historic buildings lining the square, we concocted a Thuringerwurst fantasy involving some of Weimar’s famous citizens. Since both Lucas Cranach the Elder, the Renaissance artist, and composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) once lived right on Market Square, it was easy to imagine them stepping out their front doors and heading for the nearest sausage stand. Around them gather composer Franz Liszt, writers Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller and Christoph Wieland, philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Johann Gottfried von Herder, and architect Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of design. Even the holiest of Weimar’s holies, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, we decide, turns up for a midday snack.

And it is Goethe’s image that still dominates this small city (population 65,000) in the former East German state of Thuringia, about 140 miles equidistant from both Frankfurt and Berlin. Whether on postcards, tote bags or coffee cups, it was the somber visage of Goethe, Germany’s master poet, novelist and playwright, that we saw in Weimar. It was Goethe and a supporting cast of artists and philosophers who through the centuries made Weimar synonymous with European intellectual achievement. Weimar’s fortunes turned in the 20th century, however, as the turbulent Weimar Republic gave way to the horrors of the Nazi era, when the city was forever blemished by the construction of the Buchenwald concentration camp on a hillside a few miles outside the city.

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Few cities its size anywhere in Europe can claim a past so glorious and yet so paradoxical. G.J. and I were charmed by the architecture of Weimar’s classical period--and by its small-town atmosphere. This is a wonderful city to walk in; there are virtually no high-rises, so there is an airy feel to the city, while its historic core is largely intact. We saw no damage remaining from World War II bombings.

During our visit, Weimar was in in a flurry of preparation for its stint as Europe’s Cultural Capital of 1999. Officials exect about 4 million visitors to crowd its village-like streets this year. The celebration coincides with several significant anniversaries: Goethe’s 250th birthday, Schiller’s 240th birthday, the 80th anniversary of the Bauhaus movement in modern architecture, the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Weimar Republic and the 10th anniversary of German unification.

Still, there is no doubt that Goethe (pronounced Gerr-ta) will be the star of Weimar’s 1999 show.

Early one morning we visited Goethe’s three-story house on the small square called Frauenplan. Goethe devotees from all over the world come here, and we saw tourists from Japan, the United States, the Netherlands, France and Italy awaiting admittance into the large yellow house with the plain facade where Goethe lived from 1792 until his death in 1832. It was in this home where he wrote such masterpieces as “Faust,” conducted scientific research and fulfilled his duties as a court-appointed bureaucrat.

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The Goethe House, however, is not a museum but a Wohnhaus, a residence, and it is treated with the reverence of a shrine. There are no informational placards on the furnishings or artworks, although docents posted throughout the house will, when prompted, provide some commentary in German. Non-German-speaking visitors should pick up an English-language brochure on their way in.

Born in Frankfurt, Goethe had already achieved some notoriety as the author of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” (1774), a novel of unrequited love, when Charles Augustus, the young Duke of Saxe-Weimar, invited him to join his court in 1775.

As one would expect, Goethe’s house provides glimpses into both the vibrant social life he constructed around himself and his solitary world as writer and philosopher-scientist. Goethe spent much of his working life in a series of small second-floor rooms to which he rarely admitted anyone.

On the tour we couldn’t step very far into his private library; it’s gated off and has a fragile look to it, with more than 6,000 books arranged on sagging wooden shelves. We also saw a tiny antechamber to his spartan study, which contains multi-drawered specimen cabinets that hold more than 18,000 rocks and minerals. Goethe’s work spaces contrast with the elegant salons in which he entertained the leading intellectuals of his day, rooms displaying his collection of paintings and objets d’art. The yellow salon, the blue Juno room dominated by its large bust of the goddess, the pink stucco-work room and the majolica room reflect the writer’s classical tastes, largely cultivated during his travels to Italy.

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From here it is just a 10-minute walk to the Schiller House. It stands not far from Theater Square, site of the German National Theater, where a new production of Goethe’s “Faust” will premiere this year.

Schiller lived in this comfortable middle-class residence only for the last few years before his death in 1805 at 46. Here he wrote some of his most famous plays, including “William Tell” and his Joan of Arc drama, “The Maid of Orleans.” While the Schiller house is more modest than Goethe’s, it has a compelling side quite apart from its literary associations. During our visit we were told that some of the furnishings in Schiller’s study--period reproductions--were made by prisoners at Buchenwald. But our questions about this clearly flustered the first docent we approached, and a second docent claimed she could not provide precise information. Later we learned from the Weimar Classics Foundation, a semiprivate organization that administers several of the city’s cultural sites, that most of the furniture in Schiller’s study was made in Buchenwald, providing an almost incomprehensible link between Weimar’s golden age and its 20th century fall from grace.

Although Goethe and Schiller still loom large in Weimar, it is not a one-themed city. There are enough palaces, churches and small museums to keep the most dedicated cultural tourist happy for days. G.J. and I found it all too easy during our visit to loaf in one of the city’s many coffeehouses or to stroll in the vast Ilm Park, through which the Ilm River runs. Looking into the park from our window at the Weimar Hilton one afternoon, I spotted a flock of sheep being herded into an adjoining pasture. There are farms at the fringes of the city, and this proximity of rural and urban, of high culture and agrarian life is a great part of Weimar’s charm.

Two attractions that we were sure not to miss were the Royal Palace (Residenzschloss) and the Anna Amalia Library in the Green Palace (Grune Schloss). Both are associated with the remarkable Duchess Anna Amalia (1739-1807), a niece of Frederick the Great of Prussia, who ruled the duchy of Saxe-Weimar as regent until her son Charles Augustus--Goethe’s patron--came of age. Her appointment of the writer Christoph Wieland as tutor to her son in 1772 helped usher in Weimar’s golden age. Wieland’s long-running literary journal, Der Teutsche Merkur, formed the basis of Weimar’s growth as an intellectual center.

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Anna Amalia converted the Green Palace, near Market Square, into a baroque-style library. Its unusual oval-shaped Rococo Hall is my idea of a dream library, with its creamy white, gilt-accented bookcases spanning two stories and with prints and sculptures decorating nooks and niches.

Nearby is Anna Amalia’s town palace, the Residenzschloss, which overlooks the Ilm River. Its fortress-like exterior is a little unwelcoming, but it contains treasures, especially a collection of paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder. As we wandered among these finely detailed and none-too-flattering portraits of prosperous burghers and minor royals, we were able to step right back into the 16th century.

The Royal Palace also boasts recently restored apartments, ballrooms and salons characterized by the warm colors and restrained decoration of the 18th century. My husband and I have been jaded by years of visiting dark, somber palaces, so we were delighted by the elegant grandeur of the Royal Palace’s light-washed rooms, which we were free to wander at our own pace, unhindered by an obligatory tour.

We also made a few culinary stops during our stay, and the highlight was a delightful meal at the Restaurant Anna Amalia in the Kempinski Hotel Elephant in the heart of the city. The hotel claims this site has served as either a guest house or a hotel for 300 years, and the restaurant’s elegant, formal service was exquisite. For about $80 we had fish and veal for our main courses, with two fantastic desserts, fresh figs with ice cream and cake soaked in rum.

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And we visited the Bauhaus Museum, which provides an effective antidote to any surfeit of “Weimar classic” stops. Located opposite the German National Theater in a building that once served as a storehouse for the theater, the museum documents the avant-garde design blended with functional craftsmanship that brought the Bauhaus style worldwide renown. G.J. and I could see that Bauhaus University still thrives in Weimar, as we daily walked past ground-floor studios where summer students were hunched over their drawing boards.

The day before leaving Weimar, we paid a visit to Buchenwald. On our first visit, two years earlier, it had been emotionally wrenching. The concentration camp is high on a wind-swept hill overlooking the city, and the remains of the camp occupy a barren patch of ground surrounded by barbed wire and deep woods. Despite the many visitors, it is a silent place. We walked the site, looking again at the few remaining mechanisms of terror and mass extermination, and left shaken.

As Weimar celebrates its past during 1999, it will not ignore Buchenwald. The camp will serve as the venue for an exhibition of original Goethe drawings, and plans are underway for an exhibition at the Schiller House of artworks by Buchenwald prisoners.

Although at times G.J. and I found Weimar’s pleasures bittersweet, I recalled what Goethe once wrote to a friend, that after being away he always returned to Weimar with pleasure. “Where can you find so much good on such a small spot?” Goethe asked.

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It is still a valid question.

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GUIDEBOOK

Weimar Wanderings

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Getting there: Lufthansa and Air New Zealand fly nonstop LAX to Frankfurt; Delta flies with one stop. Round trips start at $487. From Frankfurt’s Hauptbahnhof (main train station), take the train to Weimar, a three-hour trip; one-way tickets cost $73 first class, $51 second class.

Where to stay: Weimar Hilton, Belvederer Allee 25, telephone 011-49-3643- 7220, $110-$195 double. Kempinski Hotel Elephant, Markt 19, tel. 011-49- 3643-8020, $175-$220 double. Hotel Liszt, Lisztstrasse 1-3, tel. 011-49-3643-54080, $80 double.

Where to eat: Restaurant Anna Amalia, Hotel Elephant, local tel. 3643-8020; dinner for two, about $80. Ratskeller Weimar, Markt 10, local tel. 3643-850573; regional dishes, dinner for two, about $30.

What to see: Goethe House, Frauenplan 1, $5, closed Mondays. Schiller House, Schillerstrasse 12, $3, closed Tuesdays. Goethe’s Garden House, Ilm Park, $3, closed Tuesdays. Anna Amalia Library, Platz der Demokratie 1, $2, closed holidays. Palace Museum and Art Collection (Residenzschloss), Burgplatz, $4, closed Mondays.

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For more information: German National Tourist Office, 122 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10168; tel. (212) 661-7200, Internet https:// www.germany-tourism.de.


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