Exploring World Heritage Region Wartburg Hainich
Thuringia in the geographic center of Germany is the sixth smallest federal state. Squeezed in-between Bavaria, Hesse, Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Saxony, the state is often overlooked in travel guides. However, if you decide to visit, Thuringia will surprise you with a rich history, welcoming countryside, and rare forest wilderness.
As you drive through Thuringia, you may want to slow down and enjoy the surrounding hilly landscape despite no speed limit on the Autobahn. You never know when a castle might appear on a nearby hilltop. We managed to see four castles in three days, and we didn’t even try very hard.
The most famous Thuringian castle is the Wartburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site close to Eisenach. Wartburg played a scholar, spiritual, and nation-defining role in its 900 years old history. In the 13th century, Saint Elisabeth of Hungary resided there during her short life dedicated to caring for the sick. Martin Luther took refuge in the castle to translate the New Testament into German. At the beginning of the 19th century, 500 Protestant students met at Wartburg and demanded a united national state. The castle also served as the fabled setting for Richard Wagner’s opera the Tannhäuser. Nowadays, visitors can relive history on a self-guided tour through the castle’s mystical chambers.
Tip: Allow at least two hours for a visit to Wartburg. With good visibility, climb one of the courtyard towers for a gorgeous view over the surrounding hilly forests. In the proximity of the castle, there are several short trekking paths.
Unique Ancient Beech Forest
In the past, Germany’s forest areas stood in the way of industrial progress. Only in very few places nature could play by its own rules. However, during the Cold War, the military used some of these virgin forests for drills. That proved to be an unexpected blessing, as the areas remained out of reach for industrial use. In Thuringia, military use preserved one of Germany’s biggest deciduous forests, which in 1997 became Hainich National Park.
Together with other primeval European beech forests, UNESCO awarded Hainich a World Heritage status in the early 2000s. You can explore the park on a forest hike. Depending on your wishes and physical condition, you can choose from shorter loops to trekking paths lasting several days. The national park website provides an overview of the hikes. However, Hainich’s most famous attraction is the treetop walk, where you can enjoy an eagle’s view over the canopy.
The untouched beech forest provides a rare habitat for the shy and nocturnal European wildcat. Although your chances of spotting the little predator in the wild are close to none, you can observe it in the park’s wildcat village Hütschenroda, where four of its kind live in an (almost) natural environment.
Good to know: Try to visit the enclosure during the feeding times, which you’ll find on their website. The wildcat village is also home to a couple of lynxes. However, even in a semi-natural environment, they are notoriously hard to spot.
German automobile history in Eisenach
Sure, the BMW World in Munich or the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart belong to Germany’s well-known automobile museums. However, did you know that in 1928 BMW purchased its first car manufacturing factory in Eisenach, Thuringia? After WWII, the factory fell into Soviet hands until it became property of the German Democratic Republic in 1952. In 1956, the first Wartburg, an East German car legend, rolled from the Eisenach’s assembly lines. In the Automobile Welt Eisenach museum, enthusiasts of the horsepower business can walk through the history of Eisenach’s automotive industry. Of course, the exhibition shows many Wartburg models, which for an average citizen of East Germany remained an unfulfilled dream.
Where to stay: Around Hainich and Wartburg, you’ll find many lovely local accommodation options in the fabulous Thuringian countryside. We opted for Biohotel Stiftsgut Wilhelmsglücksbrunn, an excellent starting point for exploring the Wartburg Hainich region.
German Green Belt
The German-German border used to be a heavily guarded death zone. The 5 kilometers wide and 1200 kilometers long border area was inaccessible for almost 40 years. Where humans can’t go, nature thrives. The border strip became a refuge for endangered species. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the federal government and conservation organizations joined forces to preserve this unique natural habitat as the German Green Belt.
Tip: For timber-framing enthusiasts, the town Treffurt on the border with Hesse is worth a quick detour. In the charming town, you can find beautiful centuries-old restored half-timbered houses. Above the town guards the Normanstein Castle dating back to the 12th century. Its courtyard provides an excellent panoramic view of the surrounding valley.