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Travel

Wartburg Castle: Immersed in History

It has been called the most German of all castles. But to see the Wartburg, tourists have to be ready for a tough climb up the steep road leading to the castle. The view, however, is worth the effort.

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The historic castle of Wartburg is a popular tourist attraction

Nestled in the Thuringian Forest, the Wartburg Castle rises majestically 400 meters above a rock plateau overlooking the town of Eisenach in the former communist East Germany. With its thousand-year-old history, the medieval fortress can look back on quite a tumultuous past.

According to legend, Knight Graf Ludwig founded the castle as early as 1067, but the first historical recording didn’t appear until 1080 when Bruno, Bishop of Merseburg, mentioned the impressive edifice in his writings. Historians believe construction of the Wartburg’s main building, which forms the essence of the castle, began in 1155. At the time the castle was unique – one of a kind and well-known throughout the region. Today, the Wartburg is one of the best preserved Romanesque castles north of the Alps.

If only walls could talk

The thick walls of the fortress could tell many tales from the numerous times the Wartburg has been the arena for historical events. One legend says the castle was the venue for the Minnesingers’ Contest or “Singers War” in 1206 when six musicians (among them Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walther von der Vogelweide) gathered to entertain the lord of the castle, Hermann I. After a fight broke out over who sang the best songs, Meister Klingsor, a renowned minstrel in the region, was called in to settle the dispute by deciding who was the worst singer. The one who was deemed the least musical was sentenced to death by hanging. But as so often in historic epics, Meister Klingsor ruled there was no loser and the war of the singers ended peacefully.

The Wartburg is perhaps best known through its connection to the German church reformer Martin Luther who sought refuge in the castle in 1521 after he was excommunicated by the pope and outlawed by the emperor for undermining Catholic doctrine with his 95 Theses. During his long months of hiding, Luther translated the New Testament from the original Greek into German, which today is still the basis for the modern German Bible. For more than a hundred years after Luther left the Wartburg, tourists have flocked to the castle to see the sparsely furnished parlor where the founder of the Reformation lived and worked.

In 1777, Germany’s most famous writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, stayed at the Wartburg Castle for five weeks during which time he explored the idyllic landscape of the Thuringian Forest and recorded the images of the now much-deteriorated castle in several drawings.

On Oct. 18, 1817, some 500 students gathered at the castle for the “Wartburgfest,” the first democratic public demonstration in the not-yet united Germany. Under the motto, “Honor, Freedom, Fatherland,” the students proclaimed their commitment to a free and united Germany.

A World Heritage Site

Over the centuries, the castle fell into disuse and deterioration. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that extensive reconstruction took place inside the castle. Under the oversight of the communist German Democratic Republic the main building was restored to its Romanesque style.

Today the castle's oldest building, the palace built in the 12th century's late Romanesque period, is used for music concerts. A museum on the castle grounds displays art treasures collected over centuries, including tapestries, medieval musical instruments and valuable silverware.

In 1999 UNESCO designated the Wartburg Castle a World Heritage Site.

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