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Some small towns make a great mark on the imagination. Think Versailles, Potsdam, Guernica or Srebrenica. One major peace treaty or one awful atrocity inscribes the name of a place into European psychogeography. And thus it is with Weimar, a city of only modest proportions in the Ilm Valley in the German State of Thuringia.
Weimar had an entire republic named after it. The fact that the Weimar Republic of the 1920s was ultimately unsuccessful—eventually eclipsed by the Nazis—might have been too heavy a burden for Weimar to bear. But Weimar has a knack of bouncing back.
Few places the size of Weimar can boast such lavish assets as the town in Thuringia. Links with Lucas Cranach the Elder, Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt and Friedrich Nietzsche would have been enough to secure for Weimar a revered position in the tourist canon.
But Weimar can boast far more, for the entire Germanistik enterprise relies on two Weimar men: Goethe and Schiller. With such literary heavyweights in the Weimar team, it’s no surprise that the town cuts a dash on the tourist circuit. When Weimar secured coveted European Capital of Culture status in 1999, it was the smallest community ever to receive the accolade.
With a population of just 60,000 and a compact layout, Weimar is eminently walkable. The main railway station, just to the north of the town center, gives a hint of what’s to come. It is a striking neo-classical building. And Weimar mainstreams on classical allusion. There is even a mock Roman villa in the city’s Ilm Park.
The Goethe brand
Schiller and Goethe are compulsory. There is no getting away from them. There is hardly a hotel in town that does not have a Goethe function room or Schiller suite. In the cafés, there are Schiller schnaps and Goethe teas. During a few days in Weimar last month, we discovered Goethe pralines and Schiller pancakes.
But even if you cannot abide Goethe and know no odes of Schiller, there are still many good reasons to go to Weimar. For travelers making a wider tour of Europe, Weimar is the ideal small-town stopover.
Perfectly positioned on the routes from Paris to Prague, from Munich to Berlin, it’s hard to miss Weimar. It is right by the E40—one of Europe’s main east-west road routes. It has direct trains from Düsseldorf, Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg and even from Zürich. The nearby airport (called Erfurt-Weimar) has direct flights from London Gatwick with Germania.
Exploring the Ilm Park
The narrative peddled by most guidebooks (and indeed the local tourist authorities) mainstreams on high culture. So expect an overdose of dead poets, painters and philosophers.
The real trump card is however something much less sophisticated: it is Weimar’s small-town charm. The River Ilm, skirting the east side of the city center, gives texture to the townscape. Wander through the park along the Ilm Valley to get a feel for Weimar. It’s not compulsory to visit Goethe’s gartenhaus in the park—a building that is much too lavishly proportioned to be a mere garden house. But don’t miss the Russian cemetery in Ilm Park. It is a quiet retreat of poignant beauty, one that hardly gets a mention in the tourist guides.
At one edge of the Ilm Park is the sole surviving piece of real Bauhaus architecture in Weimar—the Haus am Horn. It’s a reminder that classical Weimar has not always been sympathetic to the avant-garde. The Bauhaus movement was founded in Weimar in 1919, but was nudged out of town six years later.
Staying in Weimar
The people of Weimar have endured a takeover from investors from the west. The city’s premier hotel is the Elephant. It’s worth a look for the building is a fine piece of Nazi architecture (dating from 1938)—neo-classicism morphing into art deco. But, as too often with smart hotels, it is owned and managed by a big corporation that has few local connections.
If you want to support a local Weimar venture, head round the corner from the Elephant to the Hotel-Pension am Goethehaus (ah, yes, Goethe again) where Hendrik Rauch has restored a stylish old building to create a comfortable mid-range hotel which opened in 2012. It’s been a labor of love, but the result is a homely hotel, oozing minimalist chic at very fair prices. Room rates are from €55 including breakfast.
Relax at the Resi
As a town that pulls so many visitors, Weimar is full of cafés. Head away from the main market square for the best deals. Our favorite is the Residenz-Café on Grüner Markt. To the locals it’s just ‘the Resi’—and it’s a real Weimar institution, open daily from 8 in the morning right through to late evening. Naturally it has a room dedicated to Goethe, but the Resi is the perfect place to relax and plot a Goethe-free itinerary through Weimar. For there really is another Weimar, a more radical city, waiting to be discovered.
Nicky and Susanne have explored other aspects of Weimar in two recent issues of Letter from Europe. The articles, both available online, are Reclaiming Weimar and Sounds of a City. The writers paid their own way, travelling by train to Weimar and staying at the Hotel-Pension am Goethehaus.