In step through Germany with Martin Luther

Martin Luther's castle room

Martin Luther’s castle room

A tour of Germany’s Schloss Wartburg ends for some visitors with a bit of an anticlimax. The small, spartan room before them has only a ceramic heater and wooden desk. The visual behind the desk evokes questions and speculation but not much more: a ripped up wooden wall and exposed bare masonry.

For others who step into that space, it’s holy ground.

When the pope excommunicated Martin Luther for heresy in 1521, the former monk disguised himself and hid in the castle for 10 months from those who would harm him. It was there he created a seminal gift to the world – a German translation of the New Testament – so ordinary people, not just church prelates, could read and understand Scripture.

While at work in his castle room, legend claims Luther got angry at the devil and threw an inkpot at the wall when he felt attacked. The big black stain on the wall has been carried off in pieces by generations of souvenir seekers, leaving the gaping hole that remains.

Begun in the 11th century, romantic Wartburg Castle looks like an image out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Located on a hill outside Eisenach, it is one of Europe’s best preserved fortresses.  Wartburg holds art and architecture from Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance styles as well as the stories of noblemen and their ladies who lived there. Yet those patrician lives are obscured by that of the untitled refugee who hung out in that humble castle room less than a year.

The castle on the UNESCO list is just one of the Luther Trail sites in the adjacent states of Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia that course through the great reformer’s life and work. Along the way, there are charming medieval town centers, fortresses, woodlands, and mountains that comprise some of the most beautiful scenery in Germany. Travelers may join group trail tours (see a tour operator list) or elect an independent driving tour.

Why Martin Luther?

In 2017, the world will mark 500 years since Luther struck his “match” that lit the Protestant Reformation – a post of 95 theses or grievances against the church – on a Wittenberg cathedral door.

Following Luther’s October 31, 1517 post and subsequent theological teachings, Europe experienced wars and widespread persecutions which spawned cultural upheaval and diaspora. Many Europeans fled to America and elsewhere in search of religious freedom. The changes he put in motion are still affecting religion and culture today. Luther tops several lists of influential people in the last millennium.

Christians everywhere harbor strong opinions about Martin Luther. Some revere him for standing firm against church theology and corruption of his day, and for translating the Bible into a modern language that made Scripture accessible to the common man, not just church prelates. He often tops lists of influential people from the last millennium.

There are people among those of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic faith who loathe Luther for the theology he espoused that eventually splintered the church into many pieces, denominations, or expressions. Also, Luther was anti-Semitic and contributed to German anti-Semitism with his writings.

Whatever one’s personal beliefs, most agree Luther rocked the world especially western culture. Even his detractors acknowledge the importance of the shattering cultural changes he launched. His ideas brought change to music, art, architecture, politics, and social responsibility.

A journey through his life and story meanders through the states of Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia where some of Germany’s most beautiful scenery – such as the wooded Hartz Mountains, wildlife sanctuary, farmlands, and charming medieval city centers with modern amenities – add to the experience. This eastern side of Germany has emerged anew for today tourists, following many decades of obscurity behind the post-WWII Iron Curtain.

The Trail

Besides Castle Wartburg and the surrounding town of Eisenach, essential Luther Trail stops are Lutherstadt Wittenberg and Erfurt. For a comprehensive sites and events guide, visit visit-luther.com.

Eisenach: Visit the castle – and maybe sleep at the hilltop hotel that’s adjacent to it – then descend into the town and visit Luther House where Martin lived as a young student at the local Latin school. Luther’s music in church services inspired many composers after him, including Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s birthplace museum in Eisenach is worthy of a visit, and the centerpiece item is live demonstrations on the collection of historic organs and other instruments dating to the 17th century.

Lutherstadt Wittenberg:  Known as the “Cradle of the Lutheran Reformation,” Luther spent most of his life here, first as a monk and student, then a professor and priest. It’s where he displayed his 95 Theses on the wooden doors of Castle Church (rebuilt in the 18th century after the original was destroyed in a war). Luther’s complaints against the church are now represented by a massive bronze memorial door. Luther is buried inside the church.

Luther on Reformation Day in Wittenberg

St. Mary’s Church (Marienskirche) or Town Church, is where Luther preached and married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, in 1525. The baptismal font where he baptized his six children remains today, as does a 1547 altarpiece painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder – the great Reformation painter. Its message that Christ cares about ordinary people reflects the new thinking and Christian art of the day.Luther House is the former Augustinian monastery that was Luther’s home and now a comprehensive museum of the Reformation. Luther’s living room is the centerpiece with its 500 year-old furnishings. You can almost hear the heated theology debates he had there with students and others.  Other rooms hold a unique priceless collection of Reformation books, coins, medals, and woodcuts that can absorb some visitors for a full day. Don’t misses: a 1534 Lutheran Bible; letter of indulgence; and a 1520 portrait of Luther.

Wittenberg festivals in 2013 include Luther500 in June with concerts, cycling, canoeing and running contests and annual Reformation Day October 31st – anniversary of Luther’s theses post on the church doors.

Erfurt: Nicknamed the Rome of the North for all its spires and steeples, this is location of the Augustinian monastery where Luther lived and studied for six years as a young man. It dates to the 14th century, and contains a modern church with stunning stained glass windows depicting scenes from the life of Christ and confessions of St. Augustine, conference center, museum and library, as well as guest rooms for those who wish to linger for more than a tour. Recreated monks’ cells suggest something about the lifestyle and piety Luther and his contemporaries practiced in the 16th century.

Erfurt’s 14th century Gothic St. Mary’s Cathedral where Luther was ordained a priest overlooks the city’s charming medieval core of half-timbered houses and other preserved buildings that escaped destruction in WWII. The cathedral’s famous free-swinging bell, “Gloriosa” is the largest of its kind in the world and escaped meltdown by the Nazis.

Take a leisurely stroll along the Kramer (Merchants) Bridge, which has 32 houses and shops attached to both sides, making it Europe’s longest inhabited bridge.

A more comprehensive tour of Luther trail sites may include Eisleben, Schmalkalden and Torgau.

Luther Country Map

The Luther Trail – Click to Enlarge

Eisleben: Luther was born here in 1483 died here in 1546. In between, he visited many times. Luder (the original name) families still live in the area.

Luther tourism in the town dates to 1693 when visitors paid money to see the bed where Luther was born, the glasses from which his family drank, and even soot from the family chimney. Today’s exhibits are based on historical records, and include modern technology that brings history to life – such as the medieval cradle which emits a baby’s cry and Luther’s chat with a modern architect on the audio guide. The house where Luther died is actually a medieval stand-in with a museum of exhibits about Luther and the Reformation. The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul holds the font where Luther was baptized, and St. Andrew’s Church and the pulput he used is site of Luther’s last sermon in 1546.

Schmalkalden: Often overlooked, this picturesque medieval town and its surroundings of peaceful rolling terrain, is worthy of at least part of one tour day, including a meal in the City Hall (Rathaus) where Luther met with the Schmalkaldic League in 1537. The league of Protestant princes met to affirm their Catholic opposition, and drew up the Book of Concord of the Evangelical Church which are still used in ordinations today.

Half-timbered buildings – including the house where Luther stayed during the league meeting – surround the still-active St. George’s Church where Luther preached.

Step into Wilhelmsburg Castle and its beautiful Protestant church for a visual treat that includes a Renaissance organ, one of the oldest in central Europe that is still playable. It was first played in 1590 when the castle church was consecrated.

Torgau: This city’s riveting 16th century town center has 500 Renaissance and late-Gothic style architectural edifices, including the Hartenfels Palace, the best preserved early Renaissance palace in Germany. Its chapel was consecreated in 1544 by Luther and is generally regarded as the first purpose-built Protestant church. Torgau was the political center of the Reformation movement, and it is the burial place (Town Church of St. Mary) of Luther’s wife, Katarina, who died there in 1552.

Luther Trail takers with interest in an even larger tour of Germany’s important cities don’t have far to go off the trail into Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin to experience those formidable centers of political, music and religious heritage that span many era. To begin the planning, go here.

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