June 9, 2011
The Drive to Wartburg
Continued on from Cologne, we embarked on a three-hour drive to Eisenach for a brief stop at the city’s famous castle, the Wartburg, before ending our long day in Weimar. Thuringia, the state where these two cities are located, is situated at the geographical centre of Germany and signaled our entry into the former East Germany.
Driving on the autobahn in Germany felt quite similar to driving on American freeway, with a notable exception that even the busiest autobahn was consisted of only four lanes, which led to constant traffic jam around major cities. To remedy the road congestion and to boost domestic consumption, many highway expansion constructions were taking place. These highway expansions would certainly pay dividend in the future, but at the moment they bogged down the traffic even further.
We got lost once we reached Eisenach, thanked to the town’s confusing signage and our not very accurate GPS. Exhausted, we stopped for some food at a supermarket while hoped to reach out to someone for direction. After I placed our orders at the pastry shop next to the entrance, I walked over to the only other customer, a man in his fifties, who was chatting with the lady at the counter.
My question “Would you mind telling me the direction to Wartburg?” was met by an awkward silence. The man, enjoying the last bite of his cake, appeared startled by a random Asian guy suddenly talking to him. Seeing that he had no idea what I just said, I pointed at the map in my hand and tried to say the word “Wartburg” as clearly as I possibly could.
“Ah, Vartbruk!”, the man corrected my pronunciation emphatically.
He took two steps toward me and stood right in my face, then animatedly started to explain to me the direction to the castle.
“First you have to go right”, he spoke as his hand pointed to the right, then he continued, “afterward you go straight.”
So far so good. But his instructions gradually grew longer, and even with his hands as visual aid, I quickly lost track. When he finally finished, which I counted required eight steps to reach Wartburg, I was as lost as ever.
I thanked him and headed back to the car. Just as we were to turn right, the man (I feel sorry to keep referring him to “the man”, but I wasn’t able to catch his name), who I guessed was going home, walked hastily next to our car and signaled to us we were heading in the wrong direction. He looked me in the eyes and knew I didn’t understand a word he said, so he hopped onto the car, took a seat in the back row, and pointed left.
Under his command, we had no difficulty reaching the base of the hill where Wartburg could be spotted at the hilltop. We pulled the car over. He hopped off the car without a second word. We didn’t even have a chance to properly thank him as we watched him marched along the same road we breezed by seconds ago.
Wartburg is believed to be founded in 1068 by the count of Schauenburg, Ludwig der Springer, but most visitors will associate the castle as the place where Martin Luther hid under the name of Junker Jörg and translated the New Testament into German in a mere ten months.
To access the castle’s interior, we had to join a German speaking tour, but fortunately we received an English note about each of the room. After passing through a few bare rooms in early Romanesque style, I wasn’t prepared for the markedly difference in appearance of the Elizabeth Room, the castle’s former women’s quarter. The eye-catching room was renovated in 1902, covered in faux-Byzantine mosaics that shimmered under the dim light.
Another richly furnished room is the Festsaal (Banquet Hall), the finally stop of our tour. In 1817, the first Wartburg Festival was held and 450 students who were members of the newly founded German Fraternities gathered in this hall and celebrated Germany’s victory over Napoleon. These students also condemned the ruling elites while called for a united Germany.
The tour only covered the Palas, the oldest and most architecturally impressive building of the Wartburg. We followed the marked route and crossed a drawbridge to Vogtei (the Bailiff’s Lodge), where the Luther Room is located. When I read stories about Martin Luther’s hiding at Wartburg and worked feverishly in translating the Bible, I never imagined he was living at such a small and modest room during that time. The whole imagery about this historic person suddenly became much more vivid in my mind.
Of all the castles I visited on this trip, I like Wartburg the most. It might not be the most picturesque or dramatically located, but in my opinion it is the most complete, with a rich history and an association with the German national identity.