Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Monday, February 11, 2013

dukes and duchesses, poets and priests

I met an old man.  It was in the former East German city of Weimar.  After a long train ride, I had unpacked my canon rebel, left the train station, greeted the drizzly morning, and started walking without a map.

Have you ever walked over really, really old cobblestones, like thousands of years old?  Let me tell you, unless you are wearing the flattest of shoes, it’s very difficult not to teeter.  Old cobbles are very uneven, with gaps large enough for even the widest of heels to tip and totter.

As I mentioned, I didn’t have a map, but I had a rough idea of where the town centre was; the castle, the major touri sites.  Upon crossing one particular street, I noticed some different looking houses further down from the stream of people I was sort-of following.  I decided to venture off the ‘beaten path’ and have a look.

The buildings began changing, from renovated, clean, freshly-painted, more modern facades to houses slowly going downhill, figuratively and literally.  But also becoming increasingly more interesting, and as I was snapping away, I noticed an elderly gentleman push through a large, wrought-iron, arched gate.  I was, at that point, standing beside a high, graffiti-covered, stone wall, trying to photograph the dilapidated, falling-down structures beyond it. 


I decided to be brave and strike up a conversation about this place.  I asked him if he could tell me where I was.  He proceeded to proudly regale me with the history of this, the oldest part of town, Jakobstadt.  He was enthusiastic, with saggy, tired eyes, and a warm smile.  We were, he pointed out, just downstream from the palace, and in these former factory-type buildings (which looked to me like worn-out, neglected houses of nobility) the ‘dirty work’ was done so as not to smell-up the air around the palace.  Here, hundreds of years ago, the gerbers (tanners) and potters had been busy.  And, in many of these buildings generations of families have lived since; the handwerk (work with the hands) having long ago gone the way of more ‘modern’ technology. What a treat talking to him.  There are often blessings when you stop to talk to a stranger…which maybe I should do more.

Eventually I continued on my way; past houses baring commemorative plaques of Jewish inhabitants pulled from their houses during WWII; past the impressive, white, late-Gothic style, pre 1550, St. Peter & Paul cathedral where Martin Luther often preached; and past the massive palace lying quietly beside the river Ilm. I was already very moved by this place and I had only been here an hour.  That’s when I met the Duchess.

The Duchess Anna Amalia (1739-1807) was a great lover of the arts.  She had the largest book collection for a woman of her time.  Her support for philosophy and research was reflected in the variety of books she collected.  So, when her collection became too large for the palace, she decided in 1766 to renovate the green palace, which stood just above her stables, on a small hill.


I was immediately struck by the rose-coloured riding stables; a large, rectangular building sitting like a block beside the river, and about a hundred yards upstream from the stone sternbr├╝cke (starbridge).  Instantly, I felt a fairy-tale connection; I could picture Anna Amalia riding her steed along the riverbank, past clumps of trees, on a misty spring morning, stopping to sit by a tree and read. 

As I walked past the stables, I caught a glimpse of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s gartenhaus which the duke, Carl August, built for him to encourage him to stay in Weimar longer than his customary short visits.  After the library project began, the already popular poet moved into a spacious, Baroque house in the centre of town, on Frauenplan where he lived from 1782 - 1832.

Finally, I came upon the library.  The Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek.  In the middle of the new library, she commissioned a 3 storey, rokokosaal (rococo hall) which is quite possibly the most impressive room I’ve ever stepped into.  In the rokokosaal, walls filled with the oldest of books, share space with paintings of philosophers and poets of the time, and tall pedestals display white, ceramic busts of the royal family. 


Goethe was commissioned to organize and catalogue the vast collection of the duchess’s books.  The duchess wanted the library to be open to the people of Weimar and Goethe was asked to take over the administration duties.  He was by far the most studious and faithful user of the library, with over 2000 signed out entries.  Back in 1766 one could sign out a book for three months without penalty.  Even then there were so many books that today approximately 50 000 volumes are stored in an underground passage which Anna Amalia had built, joining the palace to the library below ground.  Still today it’s a living and breathing research library, rotating its books regularly through the underground repository, bringing ‘new’ books into circulation.  I’m not sure how long I spent in the library, just staring and wandering and clicking away, but I was in awe of the story of this place; the people who had been here before and whose names I was now learning centuries later.


One of our favourite summer activities is gathering with friends for some grilled Thuringer bratwurst in our garden on the riverbank.  Later, as I walked into the town square, I saw signs screaming ‘Authentic Thuringer Bratwurst!’ I was excited-I hadn’t realized that I was now at their birthplace too!  So, stopping for a lunch break, I bought myself an authentic thuringer bratwurst, sat on a bench outside of hotel elefant and called great guy.  He proceeded to tell me that he had worked at hotel elefant for a few weeks during his architecture studies, designing or measuring or something (I didn’t quite understand the German).  He hadn’t mentioned this piece of great guy trivia before…he sure is a man of few words.  But, what great bratwurst!

With souvenirs of petits fours, and bundles of coriander and thyme from the market, I once again boarded the train for the four-hour ride home.  

If I had to describe the atmosphere of Weimar, I would say that it’s a protective feeling one gets; possibly like a mother hen wanting to show off her proud son and yet worried about exposing him to unkind outsiders. Weimar has, like many cities in Germany, especially in the former East, a recent, horrific past.  But, in Weimar you can sense a need to showcase the incredible, diverse and rich history of all the hundreds of years that came before.  They want to be proud…and I think they should be.
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