Off the Autobahn
Published: June 2009
By Jefferson Chase
The mission: To hunt down five centuries of German history in four days. Armed with a sense of adventure, Jefferson Chase chooses to accept.
The only thing most Germans have seen of Saxony-Anhalt is the A9, the perennially logjammed highway between Berlin and Munich, lined with derelict factories and chemical plants. The bumper-to-bumper traffic usually discourages any further exploration, but last spring my partner, Lara, and I decided to make a detour into this underdeveloped region of eastern Germany. We discovered an amazing, at times surreal, collection of relics from a thousand years of German history: medieval castles, Gothic churches, Renaissance town houses, 19th-century industrial temples, and Communist-era workers' settlements—all standing side by side.
An artificial conglomerate of what were once hundreds of autonomous duchies and territories from other states, the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt was disbanded by the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), then reconstituted after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1990, its inhabitants voted to join the rest of unified Germany, trusting in Chancellor Helmut Kohl's promises of blossoming economic development and new asphalt for the A9. But Saxony-Anhalt still has a patchwork, just-out-of-the-mothballs feel, largely untouched by the organizing hand of commercial tourism.
Starting in Berlin, we first got off the A9 at Dessau to have a look at the Bauhaus Dessau museum. A must for European design enthusiasts, it's the home of the Breuer chair and other Modernist classics. But most of Dessau—like Saxony-Anhalt's other major cities, Magdeburg and Halle—wouldn't win any prizes for design, with gaping holes in its blocks and seemingly endless rows of prefabricated, unwashed-concrete apartment complexes. So we drove four centuries farther into the past, to nearby Wittenberg, the cradle of the Reformation. Although Lara and I are not big churchgoers, we did feel a certain frisson standing before the Schlosskirche, where Martin Luther pinned up his 95 theses on papal fallibility in 1517. And a certain vertigo, after climbing the 289 feet of its spire to inspect the plains where Protestant and Catholic armies did battle during the Thirty Years' War.
If Wittenberg had been an American town, I thought, it would have been colonized long ago by people like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and turned into a religious theme park. Indeed, at dinner that night, we overheard a couple of Americans discussing plans to create a "brand profile" to attract the "devout tourist" to the city. They're going to need a lot of luck—the city center after 9 p.m. is about as exciting as a Comintern meeting. On a nondescript side street, however, we discovered Wittenberg's House of History, with visitor-friendly rooms devoted to the space-age polyester furnishings and quirky lifestyle accessories of East Germany in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Now we were getting somewhere. Our guide, Anke Joachim, encouraged us to "go ahead and rummage—don't be afraid to try things out." She explained how washing machines in the GDR doubled as railway station hot-dog cookers, and insisted we try out a plastic handheld massage gizmo. We took in the strange, though not unpleasant, vibrations and pressed on.
After crossing back over the A9 toward Quedlinburg, we drove farther west, where the flat, marshy landscape of the Lower Fläming region suddenly gives way to the rolling foothills of the Harz Mountains. In German, Burg means "castle," and any place with the word in its name is likely to have one, so we stopped for lunch in Bernburg. The roast pork was tasty, but we were frightened away from the castle courtyard by a troop of costumed knights and blacksmiths celebrating "Medieval Days." Saxony-Anhalt turned out to be quite the place for Dungeons & Dragons—like events, as well as other eclectic pursuits: we passed no fewer than three dog shows that day, plus a convention of anglers fly-casting on an Astroturf soccer field. Perhaps the locals should combine these activities, we thought—"Medieval Dog Fishing" would surely attract tourists.
On the border of the Harz Mountains was Quedlinburg, one of Germany's best-preserved villages—it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once we penetrated the outer ring of Stalin-era housing projects, it didn't disappoint. The concierge at Hotel Theophano, located in a restored 18th-century building on the central square, told us we were lucky to find a room: the town was celebrating Walpurgisnacht, the witches' Sabbath famously depicted in Goethe's Faust. Our interest in witchcraft being nonexistent, Lara and I spent the day wandering amid Quedlinburg's 1,200-odd beam-and-mortar houses, checking out antiques shops, poking our heads into churches, and visiting the Lyonel Feininger Gallery. That night, we found a number of restaurants with menus listing local trout, boar, pheasant, and, of course, pork. There's no such thing as East German haute cuisine, but even the simplest establishments buy from local producers, so we hung our dietary scruples on the coatrack and dug into such delights as a Schlachterplatte (butcher's platter) and Eisbein (cured pig's leg). The natives had survived on the stuff for a thousand years, and, having made the treacherous climb up cobblestoned streets to see Quedlinburg's Renaissance palace, we felt that nothing short of a really big plate of meat would be our just reward.
The same goes for the beer. In western Germany, most breweries have been swallowed up by huge conglomerates; in the east, a number of excellent local brands—including the pilsner Ur-Krostitzer, and the similarly named but Guinness-colored Köstritzer—have managed to evade both state socialization and corporate takeover. Winding our way south on riverside roads from Quedlinburg toward Naumburg, we stopped at Zum Reformator to investigate one of the region's new trends: independent brewpubs. Despite being named after Luther, this cellar bar in the town of Eisleben looked more like a stateside knockoff of a traditional German pub than the real thing, especially with the attached bowling alley and Internet café. The manager, Wilfried Werner, showed us around the brewery. "Just try to start a small business here," he complained. "The chamber of commerce refuses to meet with potential investors on weekends or during its long lunch hours." Werner's home brews, though, were none the worse for the town's indifference. Leave it to an imitation American theme restaurant to revive what is most German about Germany: beer.
Naumburg, at the southern end of our pork-stuffed sojourn, was less quaint but more true-to-life than Quedlinburg. We joined a gaggle of unemployed residents watching a televised soccer match in an outdoor café on the main square, which featured a handsome Gothic Rathaus and a number of tastefully restored, early bourgeois town houses. Strolling the side streets, we got a sense of how the old city must have looked in the final days of the GDR, when erecting cost-efficient prefab housing units, or Plattenbauten, took precedence over historical preservation. Our walk demonstrated one reason that Communism went under, although we both agreed that the dilapidated streets also had the decrepit charm of alleyways in Vienna or Venice. It was on one such cul-de-sac that we stumbled across the Friedrich-Nietzsche Haus, the humble boyhood home where the philosopher developed his adolescent will to power.
Nietzsche was a teetotaler; we had no such qualms. Naumburg lies in the middle of the Saale-Unstrut wine region, and a 10-minute drive took us past the 13th-century Naumburg cathedral and the Schulpforta Cloister—the elite academy that was the Saxon equivalent of Eton or Exeter—out to the vineyards in neighboring Freyburg. Suddenly, we could have been on the Rhine. At any of 20 family-owned Freyburg vineyards, visitors can sample a number of whites and (unusual for Germany) reds. Both were refreshingly dry and quaffable. We decided the wine was the reason Naumburgers seemed content with their lot. Throughout Saxony-Anhalt, the natives had echoed brewer Wilfried Werner's complaint that the tourist boom had yet to take off, but the staff of the Pawis Vineyard merely shrugged, as if to say, "We know what we've got, and we're happy not to share it with the masses." That would have made Nietzsche, if not Marx, proud.
With our last stop, the landscape gardens at Wörlitz Park, we left Rhine Romanticism for the Age of Enlightenment. Constructed between 1764 and 1800, mostly by Prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz of Anhalt-Dessau, an enlightened despot with time and money to burn, the 301-acre Wörlitz gardens are an 18th-century version of Epcot Center. Leopold filled the park not only with harmoniously planted flora, but also (to enrich the masses) with replicas of great architectural and sculptural achievements from various cultures and epochs. Our room at the Landhaus Wörlitzer Hof had a balcony with a park view, and we fell asleep that night with tired legs, edified spirits, and the cries of peacocks and swans in our ears.
Wörlitz was unlike anything else we'd seen on our drive, but then again there was no rhyme or reason to Saxony-Anhalt as a whole. It's a potential tourist attraction that has yet to get its act together. Which, of course, makes it a good place for travelers like us who hate tourist attractions and appreciate the randomness of a checkered history. We found ourselves hoping that the A9 would never be repaved, so that Saxony-Anhalt might remain the intriguingly miscellaneous agglomeration it is today: a place where the bumps in the road have yet to be smoothed over.
Jefferson Chase is a journalist and translator living in Berlin.
DAY 1 Take the A9 to Coswig from Berlin (45 minutes) or Munich (four hours), then follow Route 187 east (20 minutes) to Wittenberg. DAY 2 On Route 187, head west toward Dessau, then take 185 west through Bernburg and Aschersleben, followed by Route 6 west to Quedlinburg (11/2 hours). DAY 3 Jump on Route 6 east back to Aschersleben, and drive on 180 south through Eisleben, Querfurt, and Freyburg. Take 176 south to Naumburg (three hours). DAY 4 Follow Route 180 to the A9, and continue north to Dessau. Take 185 east to Oranienbaum and Wörlitz; in Oranienbaum turn onto 107 north to Wörlitz (four hours).
Where to Stay
Brauhaus Wittenberg Im Beyerhof 6 Markt, Wittenberg; 49-3491/433-130, fax 49-3491/433-131; doubles from $63, including breakfast. Hotel Theophano 13—14 Markt, Quedlinburg; 49-3946/96300, fax 49-3946/963-036; doubles from $84, including breakfast. Hotel zum Bär 8—9 Markt, Quedlinburg; 49-3946/7770, fax 49-3946/700-268; doubles from $72, including breakfast. Hotel Stadt Aachen 11 Markt, Naumburg; 49-3445/2470, fax 49-3445/247-130; doubles from $85, including breakfast. Landhaus Wörlitzer Hof 96 Markt, Wörlitz; 49-3490/54110, fax 49-3490/541-122; park-view suite $85, including breakfast.
Where to Eat
Lindenhof 6 Lindenplatz, Bernburg; 49-3471/370-043; dinner for two $30. A rustic 100-year-old family restaurant with traditional home cooking (read: lots of pork). Gasthausbrauerei "zum Reformator" 12 Friedenstrasse, Eisleben; 49-3475/680-511; dinner for two $40. Home brews, bowling, and Internet chats all in one place. Weingut und Weinausschank Familie Pawis 12 Ehrauberge, Freyburg; 49-3446/427-433; dinner for two $35. Wine-tasting on a terrace, with a fantastic view of the Unstrut River valley. Gasthausbrauerei "zum Schad" 10 Reilstrasse, Halle; 49-3455/230-366; dinner for two $50. Excellent pub outside the city center, offering its own microbrews and a good assortment of game and fish.
What to See
Bauhaus Dessau 38 Gropiusallee, Dessau; 49-3406/5080; www.bauhaus-dessau.de. Schlosskirche Schlossplatz, Wittenberg; 49-3491/402-585. Open Monday 2—5 p.m., Tuesday—Saturday 10—5 p.m., and Sunday 11:30—5 p.m. Wittenberg's House of History 6 Schlossstrasse, Wittenberg; 49-3491/611-607. Lyonel Feininger Galerie Hellgegeiststrasse, Quedlinburg; 49-3946/2238. Friedrich-Nietzsche Haus 18 Weingarten, Naumburg; 49-3445/201-638. Landesweingut Cloisterforte Saalhäuser, Bad Küsen; 49-3446/330-023. Wörlitz Park Wörlitz; 49-3490/521-704; www.woerlitz-information.de.