Culturally as much as geographically Thuringia (Thüringen) is the heartland of Germany. When the Iron Curtain pulled back, West Germans were relieved to find the nation’s “green heart” was spared the social realism of which the GDR was so fond. It remains the sort of place Germans have in mind when they talk of Früher, a time past when things were less complicated – a bucolic state where slow travel rules, and no city is over 200,000 people. The surprise, then, is that were there a competition to decide Germany’s cultural big-hitter, flyweight Thuringia would be a finalist. This is a state of Martin Luther, Bach and Schiller. More than anyone else it is the state of Goethe. With nowhere more than a couple of hours’ drive away, Thuringia is touring country par excellence. Factor in scenic backroads that slalom through valleys and you have a bucolic state that is all about a finger on the steering wheel, sunshine-sounds on the stereo and the gentle art of pottering about, whether in small towns or on trails. Slow travel has never been so much fun.
As ever, the reason Thuringia punches far above its weight is historical. As the ruling Saxon House of Wettin bequeathed land equally between male heirs, an area that was far from large to begin with fragmented into a mosaic of small duchies – Saxe-Weimar and Saxe-Gotha, for example, or Saxe-Coburg, better known in Britain as the House of Windsor. An upshot of these tin-pot fiefdoms was an arts race that saw the area’s dukes woo the finest musicians, painters, poets and philosophers to their courts as testament to their learning and magnificence.
Nowhere expresses this better than Weimar, a Thuringia-in-microcosm that lobbed the intellectual atom-bomb of the German Enlightenment, whose shockwaves were felt throughout Europe. Most cities would struggle to make such an impact, let alone a small, courtly town. Adjacent Jena has maintained its academic tradition and the student nightlife that goes with it, while Gotha and especially Eisenach have a cultural weight far above their modest size. The state capital is Erfurt, Luther’s university city and perhaps the most underrated capital in Germany thanks to its marriage of historic looks and university dynamism.
The Thuringian Forest to the south could not be more different. This is the state’s rural core, whose sleepy villages are tucked into the folds of an upland blessed by good walking and cycling trails. You can lose a happy week crisscrossing the area by bike on labelled routes or journey through its heart on the well-marked 168km Rennsteig, which traverses it. The state’s many green landscapes also include the Saale Valley at the eastern fringe of the forest region, and the Kyffhäuser uplands to the north, site of the sixteenth-century Peasants’ War sparked in the overlooked historic town of Mühlhausen.