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Off the Autobahn

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.

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