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Blast from the past

Jefferson Chase, WeimarApril 28, 2014

The Hotel Elephant in Weimar has been a second home for political and cultural VIPs since 1696. DW's Jefferson Chase stayed there and stuck his trunk in four centuries of history, including Goethe's.

Street sign in Weimar, Copyright: DW / J. Chase
Image: DW/J. Chase

I was a bit nervous as I drove into the parking lot of Weimar's premier hotel, the Elephant. Once upon a time I got a PhD in German literature and even taught the subject at university, but it had been ages since I had looked at one of Goethe or Schiller's tomes. Now I had a bit of bad conscience. What was I, a lapsed Germanist, doing in the cradle of German Classicism, in the very hotel where some of the leading intellectuals of the nation used to while away their hours?

"No need to worry. Our hotel doesn't have a Goethe suite," Andrea Dietrich, the Elephant's deputy manager and publicity director, told me. "Believe me, you'll get more than your fill of Goethe in Weimar."

Frau Dietrich was right. Germany's most famous man of letters is omnipresent in the small eastern German city. His quotes are painted everywhere on the perfectly restored walls of historical buildings. Even the kiosk offering one-euro glasses of pilsner is located on a square named after the literary legend.

Yet there's more to discover in Weimar than just Goethe. For example, the Hotel Elephant itself.

Hotel Elephant in Weimar, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
Hotel Elephant has been reincarnated several timesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The original building in which Goethe and his intellectual posse once held their more or less enlightened conversations and drank liters of wine no longer exists. Another big fan of the Elephant was a certain Adolf Hitler, who had it torn down and rebuilt in 1938 by the star Nazi architect Hermann Giesler. After World War II, Russian occupiers took over the building, using it for a while to house teachers of the Russian language. In 1955, the Elephant opened its doors once more as a hotel, after novelist Thomas Mann requested a room there when he was in Weimar for the 150th anniversary of Friedrich Schiller's death.

Eternal becoming

I learned all of that from the hotel's historical exhibit through which Frau Dietrich guided me. The Elephant has an excellent memory indeed, and it made me realize that a grand old hotel, just like a city, is never truly finished. On the contrary, a hotel morphs over the years, mirroring local history.

The contemporary incarnation of the Elephant is done up in Art Deco, which fits well with Giesler's monumental neo-classicism. Not everything is authentic, but there's no shortage of special details. In the foyer, Frau Dietrich showed me an etching by my favorite artist, Otto Dix. I recognized my room by the Georg Baselitz painting hanging just outside my door.

The day I arrived, a conference of high-ranking politicians was just wrapping up. I think they were the various interior ministers of Germany's federal states, but I'm not sure. I never saw any of them.

Weimar marketplace, Copyright: DW / J. Chase
The view from the rooms at Hotel Elephant is pretty grand, tooImage: DW/J. Chase

VIPs are still no rarity in the Elephant, which is usually booked out. Nonetheless, I found myself reminded of Stanley Kubrik's film "The Shining." Like the fictional Overlook Hotel, the Elephant doesn't seem to exist entirely in the present. When I walked up its broad staircase or down its elegant hallways, I sometimes felt as though I were all alone there. Fortunately, the Elephant's ghosts all proved benign.

Provincial greatness

Just to be contrary I decided to try to take in Weimar without doing any Goethe-related tourist stuff. I left the hotel and headed across the historical market square, ready for inspiration.

I didn't get any. The restored historical buildings are lovely, but a bit sterile. Further away from the old city center, Weimar is another example of none-too-quaint small-town provincialism. The local sex shop is called Sexy (what else?), and Giesler's megalomaniacally proportioned Gauforum at the northern end of town has been converted into a shopping center.

After retreating to the Elephant for an afternoon nap, I got up refreshed and ambled over to the former house of Franz Liszt, always an underrated composer in my book. While the Liszt house was closed, Goethe's former residence was open for business. I decided to abandon my experiment and went inside.

The house is a labyrinth of roughly equally sized rooms crammed with art works and collectibles of all varieties. Goethe was a polymath - a natural scientist, ethnographer, politician, and author all wrapped up into one. But an interior decorator he was not.

Goethehaus in Weimar, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
The Goethehaus is a museum and a tourist magnetImage: picture-alliance/dpa

I then took a walk through the Park an der Ilm, a 119-acre, romantically landscaped green space just outside the Old Town. There I stumbled across Goethe's Garden House, a somewhat ungainly structure that looks a bit too high for its foundation. Duke Carl August gave the place to Goethe in 1776 - there were obviously worse jobs back then than being a writer in Weimar.

Chilling in a culture capital

Why did Goethe need a dacha that was only 10 minutes from his main home? I asked the woman taking tickets. She looked at me as if I were from Mars and answered, "Maybe he wanted a bit of peace and quiet."

Suddenly I remembered that this was where Goethe met his mistresses - hence the sarcastic response to my question. The six small rooms are sparsely and rustically furnished. What stands out most is that all of them, including the bedroom, contain a standing desk. Even in his love shack, Goethe obviously wanted to be able to jot down every one of his musings.

The next morning, as I enjoyed my breakfast just off the Elephant's spectacular Richard Wagner Hall, I pondered what memories I would take with me from Weimar. I couldn't truthfully say I learned much of anything. There's a big difference between reading "Faust" and gawking at the room where Goethe wrote parts of it.

But there were images that I figured would stay with me: the Russian cemetery in the Park an der Ilm with its simple white gravestones inscribed in Cyrillic; the relaxing inn Zum Weissen Schwan, where I had eaten a delicious bratwurst for dinner. For me, Weimar was more relaxation than edification.

Goethe's Gartenhaus in Weimar, Copyright: Fotolia/gummelhanni
Goethe often retreated to his garden residenceImage: Fotolia/gummelhanni

Had I become a philistine? Quite possibly, but polishing off my freshly scrambled eggs with wild herbs amidst the Hotel Elephant's elegant luxury, I didn't really care. I recalled a Goethe quote I had seen somewhere and jotted down: "He who with insight declares himself to be limited has come nearer to perfection."

Goethe was right. For my part, in any case, I'd rather be happy than clever.