As we enter the fall and approach the anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses, I thought now would be the perfect time to share our trip along the Luther Trail, or “Lutherweg,” in Germany. We took this trip almost a year ago, just a couple of weeks before Reformation Day 2020. Over the course of two days, we ventured from Weimar, to Erfurt, to Eisenach, and finally to Wittenberg, sleeping each night in the back of our Volvo.
Day 1 – A monk’s life
We drove up most of the way to Weimar the night before and got an early start, hoping to see the famous Cranach altarpiece. The City Church of Saints Peter and Paul was not yet open when we arrived; so we snooped around the town, finding some bakery goodies to munch on, as well as the prison where Bach (yes, Johann Sebastian Bach himself!) was held for a few weeks. We also stumbled upon a beautiful park and bridge, where we watched ducks bob about and the reflection of fall-colored leaves dance on the river. These unexpected discoveries actually made Weimar a gem of our trip. After a quick dash back to the church to see the altarpiece, we hit the road for Erfurt.
Our first stop in Erfurt was the Augustinian monastery where Martin Luther became a monk. The monastery, once Catholic in the times of Luther, is still functioning, but now as a Protestant monastery. In the monastery’s chapel lies the gravestone of Johannes Zachariae– the zealous Catholic who condemned Luther’s predecessor Jan Hus to death–where Luther would lay and spend many prayerful hours. Our favorite part was seeing the Luther Cell, where he studied Scripture and worked meticulously as a young monk.
While we were in Erfurt, we walked over to the Merchant’s Bridge, which is the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. Erfurt was once famous for their production of woad, a blue plant-based dye. And one of the shops on this bridge continues to sell woad goods, honoring the centuries-old tradition.
Next, we drove over to the town of Eisenach to tour Wartburg Castle and experience some fine dining, Luther-style. Wartburg Castle was Luther’s hideout after he escaped capture at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Or I should say: his supporters “captured” him so that he would not be taken prisoner by the Pope. During his ten-month stay at Wartburg, Luther took on the pseudonym “Junker Jörg” (Knight George), translated the New Testament into German, and famously tossed his inkwell at the Devil. The castle itself was interesting to peruse, but we were honestly a bit underwhelmed.
As an aside, the castle we would most recommend for anyone interested in Luther history (or just an amazing castle in general) is the Veste Coburg. We visited this castle a couple of times on day-trips, prior to our Luther Trail adventure. And it spoiled us. The castle itself is authentic, boasting a luxurious hunting gallery, medieval ramparts and guard towers, a room walled with elaborate wood intarsia scenes, and a full collection of armor and weapons that left Tex with a dropped jaw. Additionally, the Luther section of the castle is much more visitor-friendly than Luther’s room at Wartburg. This was yet another place where he hid out from his Catholic pursuers for a few months.
Okay, back to the Luther Trail… After we finished at Wartburg, we headed down into the town of Eisenach to the Hotel Eisenacher Hof for a Lutherschmaus, or Luther meal. This turned out to be one of the most delicious and most memorable meals that we had during our time in Europe. And since we had saved money on sleeping arrangements by snoozing in the car, we felt justified in spending 30 Euro per meal. Ha!
As soon as we walked into the restaurant, we knew we were in for something special– the room was quite dim, lit only by massive candles, and the sound of medieval songs drifted through the air. Our multi-course meal began with a dark, crusty loaf of bread spread with schmalz (lard flavored with bits of pork crackling), mustard, and krauter yogurt. At the prompting of our waitress, we then drank our soups, one meat and one potato, from our bowls, since people in Luther’s day would not have used spoons. The main course included a true smorgasbord of German meats and sides, from a wonderful Thuringian sausage and meat skewer to spitzkohl (creamy cabbage), knödel (potato dumpling), and Katharina bread (some combination of Thanksgiving dressing and fruitcake, named after Luther’s industrious wife). Those are only three of the ten side dishes they served us; and every single one was certainly worth trying! The finale was a flaming fruit skewer, which brought our evening to an impressive close. Needless to say, we were not hungry for days after that.
Day 2- The work of the Reformation
We spent our second day in Wittenberg, which is famously known as the birthplace of the Reformation. It was in this town that Martin Luther lived with his family, taught, and worked for most of the rest of his life. First, we visited the Luther House Museum, which is a massive former monastery where Luther lived with his wife and children. Here we learned so much about Luther, both as a person and a Reformer. It was mind-boggling to see the amount of writing that this one man produced in his lifetime. I also enjoyed learning a bit about Katharina von Bora, the nun who married Martin Luther. Their household was always abuzz, between Luther’s Table Talks with students, Katharina’s many home-making endeavors (including beer-brewing, managing farmland and animals, bookkeeping…), and their dining table full of children, boarders, and reforming collaborators. I loved finding this quote from Luther in a letter about gardening: “No matter how much Satan is raging, meanwhile I will laugh at him and watch the gardens, that is the Creator’s blessings, and enjoy them to His praise… Just get me even more seeds for my garden, if ever possible many different varieties: If I am going to stay alive, I would want to become a gardener!”
Next, we stopped by the Cranach House and Workshop, where we enjoyed studying an old printing press like what the Reformers would have used to reproduce Luther’s and others’ writings. Lucas Cranach and his son were renowned painters who helped propagate the Reformation. The most famous portraits of Luther were Cranach masterpieces.
We then ambled over to St. Mary’s City Church, where Luther preached over 2,000 sermons. At St. Mary’s, we discovered a painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger called The Reformers in the Vineyard of the Lord… This work of art really struck me, with its stark contrast between those working for the Lord and those working selfishly against Him. Especially after seeing just how much the Reformers labored to bring about change in the Church, I was so encouraged by this idea: Working unto the Lord out of gratitude for the Life He gives, rather than working unto salvation which will always result in death.
Our final stop in Wittenberg was the famous Castle Church, where Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on October 31, 1517. After admiring the commemorative doors in the same place where Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation, we ventured into the church to find his grave, along with the grave of Philip Melanchthon. The church interior was simple, yet grand, and almost other-worldly as tranquil organ melodies echoed throughout.