Germany is revving up for the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing 95 complaints about Catholic Church practices to the front door of Wittenberg's cathedral. Many feel this event marked the practical start of Christianity's Catholic-Protestant divide. But visitors don't have to wait for 2017, when crowding and prices will be at their highest in places where Luther lived and worked. Right now is a great time to go.
Several of these towns in Germany are small and easily viewed via day trips. Almost all are within easy reach of major centers, particularly Leipzig. By using the superb German rail system, a Luther visit can be accomplished efficiently and comfortably without multiple hotel changes.
Typical is Lutherstadt Wittenberg, where Luther — who lived from 1483 to 1546 — taught, preached and was based throughout most of the last half of his life. A university center from the 14th through the 19th centuries, Wittenberg today is a compact country commuter community that's a 29-minute high-speed train ride from Leipzig or 41 minutes from Berlin. During summer it can be comfortably accessed via Elbe River cruise vessels.
Within a beautifully preserved, UNESCO-protected medieval area there are three must-sees. Most important, a mile's walk from the rail station is the former Augustinian monastery Luther called home from his arrival as a monk until his death. Onsite are Luther's study, dining room, lecture hall, desk, a pulpit from St. Mary's Church that he frequently used, a teaching robe and first editions of his books. Also here are many Luther portraits by Lucas Cranach (both elder and younger) along with many other Reformation manuscripts and treasures.
A walk toward central Wittenberg leads to St. Mary's, whose towers soar above the city. This is Wittenberg's oldest building, dating to 1280, and where Luther and Katharina von Bora, a former nun, were married in 1525. St. Mary's is also where Luther delivered an estimated 2,000 sermons. Inside, it is possible to examine Lucas Cranach the Elder's 1547 Reformation altar.
West beyond the market square is the Castle Church, which today bears little resemblance to the structure where Luther nailed his famous 95 theses. Though the original door stood until a 1718 fire, subsequent 19th-century renovations gave the church a decidedly non-medieval feel. Now there's the bronze replacement door, upon which Luther's text is replicated, word for word, in bold metallic relief. This is totally different from what originally was a rough-hewn wooden entrance that also served as a 16th-century community bulletin board.
Luther's prime complaints were against the church's sale of indulgences —passes individuals could buy granting them freedom from afterlife punishment —and the premise that the clergy alone could provide the sole route to salvation. Ultimately Luther was condemned in a church-issued papal bull (also on view is the site of a former garbage pit where he burned it), after which he was condemned in person at the Diet (or conclave) of Worms in 1521.
The lively market town of Erfurt (one hour and 11 minutes via high-speed rail from Leipzig, two hours and 13 minutes from Frankfurt) was where Luther spent the decade prior to his moving to Wittenberg. Arriving in 1501 as a Latin scholar and determined, due to his father's insistence, to enter a profitable profession, Luther decided to study law at Erfurt University.
However, in 1505 he underwent a radical spiritual shift. According to legend, sparked by what he perceived to be divine intervention that saved his life during an electrical storm, Luther suddenly decided to become a monk. He took his final vows in 1506 in front of the altar of the Augustinian church and said his first mass in 1507. Later, as a respected church scholar, he traveled (almost entirely by foot) back and forth to Rome to resolve a church fiscal dispute. This visit, he said, greatly impressed him with both Rome's power and corruption.
Even after he moved to Wittenberg, Luther returned many times to Erfurt. These visits included a brief stop in 1521 en route to his Diet of Worms heresy trial. Erfurt visitors tracking Luther will definitely want to see the Augustinian monastery, known as the Augsustinerkloster. It offers a permanent display of Luther artifacts and a restored monastic cell replicating the space where Luther spent so many of his Erfurt monastic days.
Erfurt's other prime draws include its side-by-side hilltop St. Mary's Cathedral and the Church of St. Severus; the imposing St. Petersburg Citadel, one of Europe's best-preserved baroque fortresses; and the extraordinary 14th-century Merchant's Bridge, packed with former shops and dwellings. Another don't-miss is the recently discovered and renovated former Great Synagogue. This is a structure which, following numerous pogroms and the expulsion of Erfurt's Jews, was converted into a warehouse. After hiding in plain sight for centuries, the former temple — now a museum with portions dating to the 11th century — is one of Europe's oldest surviving synagogues.
Eisenach, a 27-minute rail ride from Erfurt, was influential on Luther's life twice under very different circumstances. When he was 15 his father sent him there to study Latin. Lacking sufficient funds, Luther lived an impoverished life until a merchant family named Cotta, impressed with his singing skills, offered him free board in exchange for tutoring their children. Luther lived here with the family until 1501.
The half-timbered Cotta house, though heavily renovated and reconstructed, still stands a block from Eisenach's main square. Today it's a museum where visitors can see rooms thought to be those Luther occupied plus plenty of other Reformation memorabilia. Just a five-minute walk away is another prime Eisenach draw: the birthplace of — and extensive museum about — Johann Sebastian Bach.
In 1521 Luther returned, not to Eisenach itself but to the nearby Wartburg Castle, a massive impregnable fortress that's now is a 15-minute cab ride from the market square. Wartburg provided Luther with shelter between 1521 and 1522. There, after his condemnation, he lived and worked under the protection of Frederick the Wise. Luther got to Wartburg via a "kidnapping" arranged by Frederick, who was also a Luther devotee. Frederick created this ruse to protect Luther before enemies could capture and possibly kill him.
At Wartburg, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek to German, a radical act at a time when the Catholic Church forbade the translation of its holiest texts into vernacular languages. This Greek-German translation, which was quickly printed and widely distributed, spread the word of Luther's reformation of church doctrine and was pivotal in establishing Protestantism as a viable Christian alternative. Guides note that many visiting the room where Luther did his translation are greatly moved.
Wartburg itself is fascinating, not only for Luther's quarters, but for its ramparts and chambers. The castle is also mentioned in tales about the 13th- century St. Elizabeth who lived here, and it is a major setting in Richard Wagner's opera "Tannhauser."
Lutherstadt Eisleben, a one change, hour and 12-minute rail ride from Leipzig, also offers several attractions. While Luther's 1483 birth house no longer stands, on its site is a 17th-century replacement that today houses a Luther museum. Luther may have died here in 1546 while settling an inheritance quarrel. While his actual death site is disputed, it is possible to visit St. Andrews, where he gave his last sermons and where the original pulpit which he used still stands.
WHEN YOU GO
German tourism information: www.germany.travel
German rail information and timetables: www.bahn.com/i/view/usa/en/index.shtml
Rail Europe: www.raileurope.com
An excellent Erfurt lodging choice is the centrally located Mercure-Hotel Erfurt-Altstadt: www.accorhotels.com/gb/hotel-erfurt-altstadt/index.shtml
For superior Erfurt dining, try Kostritzer Zum guldenen Rade Marktstrasse 50.
Photos courtesy of Robert Selwitz