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Alsace and Goethe

August 15, 2017

Ultimately, Goethe got his Doctor of Jurisprudence degree in Strasbourg. But he spent more time with his beloved in Sessenheim. The village in Alsace has been glad to reap the benefits.

Straßburg Petit France
Image: picture-alliance/Uwe Gerig

He partied and he fell in love. In his early twenties, Johann Wolfgang Goethe spent a year in Strasbourg and the vicinity at the behest of his father. He was supposed to improve his French and continue to study law. And - as before, in Leipzig - he took everything that life as a student made available to him. "It was his Erasmus year," says Strasbourg tour guide Annie Dumoulin.

Friederike Brion, Geliebte Goethes
Friederike Brion remained unmarried for the rest of her lifeImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

In the autumn in Sessenheim, a village about 40 kilometers away, Goethe met and fell in love with Friederike Brion, the parson's daughter. From then on, he spent more time with her than at his law studies. He rode to his beloved and wrote, "To horse, my pounding heart kept crying!" ("Welcome and Departure")

That was nearly 250 years ago, but it has remained unforgotten in Sessenheim. The village on the French side of the Rhine has made the very most it could from the love affair. Thus far there is: a Goethe memorial, a Goethe hill and oak, and a Goethe trail. Of course streets are named for the two of them, and in addition, the school is named after Friederike.

 "Sessenheim is Goethe," says Dumoulin. Anyone who parks in the middle of the village with a German number plate and looks around briefly is told the story of Goethe and his sweetheart - unsolicited.

Goethe-Scheune in Sessenheim, Elsass
There is even a Goethe barn in SessenheimImage: picture-alliance/Presse-Bild-Poss/U. Poss

The love story has fascinated generations

The Auberge au Boeuf has also profited from the German poet's love life. The family-run restaurant has maintained a private Goethe collection since 1890. In the window of its exhibition room stands a bust of the writer. Behind it, on the other side of the street, is the church where Friederike's father once delivered his sermons, with Goethe among his listeners: "Where, by her side, I found a somewhat dry sermon of her father's not too long," he wrote in his autobiographical work "Poetry and Truth." 

Sessenheim, Frankreich Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche
Friederike's father worked as a pastor in the Lutheran church Image: picture-alliance/Klaus Nowottnick

 A first edition of the book stands open in a vitrine in the museum. Next to it is a motley collection of old treasures: letters, a library lending slip with Goethe's name on it, editions of the Bible from 1589 and 1656. On the walls hang black-and-white photographs of the village, old maps of the Rhine Valley, a gallery with the best-known women in Goethe's love life. 

The collection was put together by Wilhelm Gillig, a master carpenter who was "fascinated by the history of this amorous idyll," says Christiane Charneau about her great uncle. Now 66, she herself was the third generation to run the Auberge au Boeuf. She has now passed it on to her son. 

Goethes Erasmus-Jahr im Elsass - Christiane Charneau
Christiane Charneau in the restaurant's private Goethe museumImage: picture-alliance/Claudia Kornmeier

 She has guests from the Black Forest who come every year on Goethe's birthday. "True Goethe fans still exist," she says. 

Just a few steps from the restaurant and church, the village has erected a memorial. In front of the small canopy, a group of older men in cycling clothing position themselves for a souvenir snapshot. Their next destination is Meissenheim, on the German side of the Rhine. "Goethe is said to have had a sweetheart there as well," whispers on of the cyclists. In fact it was Friederike, who spent her final yers in Meissenheim and is buried there. 

Sessenheim im Elsaß, Goethe-Gedenkstätte
Goethe Memorial in SessenheimImage: picture-alliance/Claudia Kornmeier

 At the exit to the village of Sessenheim lies "Friederikens Ruhe" - a glade where the couple regularly strolled and where the poem "Heidenröslein" is said to have originated. "As children we always called it the Goethe hill, because it's the only hill here," Charneau remembers. The "hill" is more of a small mound in the otherwise flat countryside, where you can already see the onion dome of the church from far afar, over the corn fields. The village has built a large wooden pavilion there. It has the charm of a shelter for wayfarers.

Flying high in Strasbourg

Unlike in Sessenheim, in Strasbourg, where Goethe studied, you have to search for signs of him. A statue stands in front of the university, there's a bust in the botanical garden, and a plaque hangs on the building where he lodged on Old Fish Market Square - but that's all. 

Despite that, tour guide Annie Dumoulin says, "Don't tell me there's not a lot about him here." She says Goethe is the only writer with a statue in the city. Goethe was fascinated by Strasbourg Cathedral. In "Poetry and Truth" he wrote extensively about the cathedral, whose tower he regularly climbed in order to fight his fear of heights. 

Straßburger Münster
Strasbourg Cathedral, one of the most important in EuropeImage: picture-alliance/Winfried Rothermel

 As anticipated, in 1771 Goethe passed his doctoral exam and left the region. With that, the love story of the country girl and the man who was going to be one of Germany's most important poets came to an end. "He may have been deeply in love with her," says Dumoulin, "but she didn't fit into his career plans." 

Eight years later Goethe again took a trip to Sessenheim, but "Le charme était rompu", says  Charneau - the spell was broken.

Claudia Kornmeier (dpa)