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Cycling in Jena, Germany

In Germany, a Historic Region Embraces Its Deep Roots to Culture

The trees in the ancient woodland of the Hainich National Park in central Germany have been cut down over a millennium to make way for agriculture and development. But progress stopped six decades ago. The forest was given a reprieve after centuries of being the backbone of this region. 

Instead, the trees were silent witnesses as war and geopolitics took over. 

The Russian army arrived in 1945. Then, in 1964, the GDR (German Democratic Republic) set up an outpost here with tanks. The East German army didn’t depart from the country’s largest unbroken area of deciduous forest until 1994.

By then, the trees were so contaminated with bullets they couldn’t be cut down, says Jens Wilhelm, one of the rangers. 

It’s a respite for the 10,000 species in the park where the forest was a designated UNESCO World Heritage Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Ancient Beech Forests of Germany in 2011. The Hainich region is one of the last remnants of the ancient woodland that once covered large swathes of central Europe. At around 50.2 square miles (130 square kilometers), it is Germany’s largest unbroken area of deciduous forest.

Park an der Ilm in Weimar

Ilm Park in Weimar displays an example of the deciduous forests that are distinct to the area in and around the city. At top, in Jena, cyclists can pedal through fields of woad plants that produce a unique and coveted blue dye for fabrics. (Petti Fong photos for VacayNetwork.com)

For centuries, forests in Germany have been an integral part of its identity from job creation to giving insights into its cultural and societal framework. One-third of Germany is covered in woodland. It’s a dominant theme in literature — from Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which first appeared in the 17th century, to The Hidden Life of Trees, the recent international bestseller that sold more than 2 million copies and was written by a 20-year-veteran of the forestry commission in Germany. 

Johannes von Goethe, Germany’s most famous writer and philosopher, compared fate to a fruit tree in winter and certainty that it will bear fruit come spring. “Who would think that those branches would turn green again and blossom? But we hope it, we know it.”

In November 1775, at the invitation of duke Karl August, Goethe arrived in Weimer, a city about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of Leipzig. It was a meeting of minds and a message of hope. The duke was just 18, Goethe was 26. The young Karl August wanted to create a cultural and intellectual centre in the state of Thuringia in central Germany. He wanted Goethe, the country’s most famous writer, to be at the center of a new cultural outpost in the surrounding area.

It worked. Drawn to Goethe’s influence and reach, literary figures, philosophers, musicians, and artists flocked to Weimar, the city, making it a cultural gathering place in Europe. 

A view from a tree thuringia

The trees in Thuringia have tales to tell and nature lovers will adore a chance to learn more about them. (Petti Fong photo for VacayNetwork.com)

It needed to become a spot for intellectual and artistic endeavors. Back then, in the 18th century, as now, there’s almost no industry in the area and few viable natural resources. The reliance on culture for residents to make a living spread to include crafts and small merchants, many of whom counted on the central location of Thuringia as a passage point.  

There’s a saying that even Germans struggle to pinpoint exactly where Thuringia is with some believing that the state is more east than it actually is because it was one of the five states in the former East Germany. 

Because it’s situated in the middle of the country, Erfurt was an important trade route beginning in the middle ages. Back then, it was a separation between east and west with merchants passing through between Moscow and Paris. Today, it’s a 25-minute drive from Weimar, or about the same time on the train system. 

Erfurt’s most famous attraction  is the Krämerbrücke, or, the Merchants’ Bridge. It is the longest bridge in Europe to consist entirely of houses and shops. Initially made of wood, then rebuilt in parts with stone, the original 62 narrow buildings astride the bridge, along its 394-foot (120-meter) length, houses 32 buildings these days. They are home to craftspeople and artists and small business owners who offer traditional and one-of-a-kind items in galleries and boutiques. 

The arches of the bridge span between 15.75 and 25.6 feet (4.8 and 7.8 metres), and houses and stores are crammed in tight, separated by just a few feet of cobblestone streets. The bridge is just 85.3 feet (26 meters) wide. 

There are no big box stores here, an area designed for strolling, rather than rushing through this bridge enclave. 

Artisan Delights in Thuringia

One of the specialty stores that has become internationally known is Goldhelm Chocolate or Schokoladen, which uses cocoa beans from around the world, including Peru, which produces a special flavor that is fruity, tart, and sweet, all at the same time. A chocolate tasting pairs different chocolates with sherry, juice, and, of course, being Germany, beer. 

The Krämerbrücke in tourist season can bring up to 5,000 visitors a day who browse through shops, including those selling the famous Thuringian blue-printed fabrics. Rosanna Minelli, originally from Genoa, Italy, came to Erfurt two decades ago because of the connection between the two cities and the trading of her specialization in blue dyes. The dye, obtained from the woad plant, has been traded for centuries along the route and Erfurt became wealthy because of the blue dye. While indigo from India is still the leading blue, the dying art of woad plant dyes is still alive because of artisans like Minelli, who heads to the outskirts of the city by bike to gather and harvest the woad leaves. From a distance, the woad leaves look like fields of daisies. 

Cycling past the woad leaves outside the university town of Jena, with gentle hills on the side and the bells of cathedrals ringing, it feels like the yellow plants are coming straight out of a Van Gogh painting.

Twenty-five miles (40 kilometers) away from Erfurt and a 30-minute drive from Weimar, Jena has been rebuilt after suffering severe structural damage from World War II to its medieval fortifications. Goethe wrote his novel Hermann und Dorothea here and it’s rumored that he preferred the livelier Jena to the staid, classical Weimar. The weather might have something to do with it. Jena is one of the warmer cities in Germany because of its location in a valley basin.  

Goethe died in 1832, but his imprint is still felt in Jena, Erfurt, and Weimar. In Weimar, a gingko tree planted in 1813 by Goethe that inspired one of his poems still stands, and in Jena’s countryside, along a bike path, a life-size statue depicting the murderous fairy king in his most famous poem Erlkönig

Killer fairies aside, Jena is best known as the country’s optics capital. Look in your camera and it’s likely the lens was made by Zeiss. Carl Zeiss founded the company in 1846 and world wars and the separation between east and west Germany led to two competing wings of the multinational company. 

Reunification resolved the situation and since the 1990s, the production sites have moved out of the country and many of its products are today produced entirely outside of Germany. But its imprint remains. Weimar may be known as the city of culture, but Jena is known as the city of science. Six Nobel Prize winners have come from Jena University, including the most recent, Herbert Kroemer, who won for physics in 2000. 

Within the three major cities in Thuringia, the culture and history shed light on how lives are lived today. Here, as they did centuries ago, even trees that were once bullet-ridden, turn green again.


Here are some books that will help readers learn a bit about Germany, forests, culture and history.

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from A Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

The Power of Trees: How Ancient Forests Can Save Us if We Let Them Hardcover – by Peter Wohlleben

The Short End of the Sonnenallee – by Thomas Brussig