As someone who has grown up in the United States, where our history stops way short of medieval times, a visit to a German castle is like time traveling through a portal to experience the storied history of people who lived, ruled, loved, and fought within the walls of these ancient fortifications.
One of Germany’s most famous fortifications and the first German castle designated a UNESCO World Heritage site is The Wartburg Castle overlooking the town of Eisenach in Thuringia.
My visit to Wartburg is a key stop as I follow in the footsteps of Germany’s famous Reformation theologian Martin Luther, the reformation leader who forever shaped the country, its language, and the world.
Wartburg provided refuge for theologian Martin Luther in 1521, who translated the New Testament from Greek to German. Wartburg Castle played a pivotal role in the Reformation and is arguably the birthplace of a unified German language. “Martin Luther, through his translation of the New Testament, connected the 18 different dialects to one German language, so all people throughout Germany had a common written language, explains Kerstin Bottcher.
Wartburg survived and thrived for thousands of years on a hilltop, standing guard over the town of Eisenach below. The city is the birthplace of composer Johann Sebastian Bach and where Martin Luther attended school as a young boy.
Wartburg castle resides in the former communist East Germany, about a two-hour drive from Frankfurt. Wartburg evolved over eight centuries, starting with the main building constructed in the 12th century. From a lookout point, you can see three distinct architectural styles and phases of construction, including a half-timbered section built in the 15th and 16th centuries and a middle section that houses the museum, constructed in the 19th century.
On May 4, 1521, Martin Luther arrived in Wartburg and spent 300 days hiding in this room to evade arrest for writing his 95 Theses criticizing the Roman Catholic church. Martin Luther hid in the castle from his enemies under the protection of the local duke and disguised himself, answering to the name of Squire George, to conceal his identity. While hiding, Luther translated the New Testament of the Bible into German in ten weeks. History credits this cultural achievement as the cradle of the German language because it united all dialects into a common language.
Luther’s room has the original floor and walls with names and dates etched into the stone by visiting Christian pilgrims since the end of the 16th century. After Martin Luther left Wartburg, he returned to Wittenberg and translated the Old Testament into German.
Over the centuries, the Wartburg castle became lost to history and suffered neglect and deterioration. In the mid-1950s, while Thuringia was part of communist-held East Germany, the communist German Democratic Republic restored the main building to its Romanesque style. In 1991 UNESCO designated Wartburg a World Heritage Site.
A tour of the castle takes you through the Knights Hall, a medieval “man cave” with a giant fireplace that leads to the dining hall. The scene stealer of the castle is the Elizabeth Room, clad from floor-to-ceiling in glimmering mosaics. More than two and a half million glass mosaic pieces cover the walls and ceiling, painting intricate scenes from Saint Elizabeth’s short life as the daughter of the Hungarian King who married the Thuringian Landgrave or Duke. Elizabeth arrived in Wartburg as a child in 1221 and married, at the age of 14, Duke Ludwig IV.
According to lore, while living at Wartburg, princess Elizabeth would sneak out often to feed and clothe the poor. “Princess Elizabeth gave up her countess crown as a symbol of Christian humility.
She died at 24, and the Pope canonized Elizabeth four years after her death,” explains Kerstin. The room served as a ladies’ social room, restored in 1902 in a reimaging of medieval style.
The Hall of Minstrels, built in the 12th century, is famous for hosting the Battle of the Bards, the medieval equivalent of American Idol.
The contest pitted musicians against each other, and you can see the scene play out in this room’s large fresco.
The Hall of Minstrels leads to the Festival Hall, known for its superior acoustics with wood-paneled ceilings.
The Festival Hall stages concerts and events, including the opera Tannhäuser, performed at its site of origin.
“Composer Richard Wagner wrote the opera Tannhäuser based on the Battle of the Bards legend. The castle stages a concert of the Tannhäuser opera in the Festival Hall several times a year. To my knowledge, Tannhäuser is the only opera performed at the place that inspired the story,” says Kerstin.
Wartburg Castle has an impressive art and artifacts collection on view in the private rooms of the family of the grand duke who once lived in the castle.
The highlight here is this German bible with handwritten notes by Martin Luther in 1541.
In my next blog post, we continue the spiritual journey of 15th-century Protestant Theologian Martin Luther as we travel to Erfurt, the state capital of Thuringia, where Luther became a monk.
Join The Design Tourist on a tour of Wartburg Castle in this episode that explores the history, legends and lore of Wartburg.
What to know if you go:
Thuringia is in central Germany, one of the smallest of 16 German states, with a population of 2.1 million. The state offers countless many fascinating encounters with art, music, culture, history, and craft. I suggest spending some time on the Thuringia Tourism website as a trip-planning resource. The site provides historical context and interesting anecdotes to many of Thuringia’s sites and attractions.
I also suggest a day trip to explore the city of Eisenach, the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685.
If you are a Bach fan, time your trip to Thuringia around Easter, when more than 50 concerts occur in the historic places where Bach lived and worked. Eisenach stages a Thurigian Bach Festival to celebrate Thuringinia’s musical claim to fame.