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Small town capital of culture

The roll call of creativity and brain power packed into such a small town, supported by six generations of Weimar nobility, is staggering. Composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt lived here, and they have the biggest Shakespeare society in Europe.

If Shakespeare had been German, the tiny town of Weimar would probably have signed him up and brought him there to write his plays among them.
But as the bard was English, and lived a century too soon, he was beyond the reach of even the 18th Century culture-luring Duchess Anna Amalia and her family. So they did the next best thing. Weimar has the biggest Shakespeare society in Europe, and the only monument to the great man on the continent. The first thing I saw as I walked out of the station was a bus to Shakespearestrasse Shakespeare is one local hero who did not actually live and work in this pretty and pretty amazing place in the former East Germany. But, over the past three centuries it’s been standing room only for those many giants of Euro-culture who did.

Goethe - poet, statesman and naturalist - leads the field. His play Faust is the most famous version of the timeless story about what a man will do for power and wealth - he will even sell his soul to the Devil. Duke Carl August brought him in here 1775 when he was just 26. He stayed all his life.

If you want a sporting analogy for him, it’s as if the football club in Aylesbury - about the size of present day Weimar - signed up Christiano Ronaldo. Just around the corner from Goethe’s house in Frauenplan lived Schiller, another import. He wrote William Tell and the Ode to Joy, which Beethoven used in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony.

Word went around Europe that this joint was - culturally speaking - jumping. The roll call of creativity and brain power packed into such a small town, supported by six generations of Weimar nobility, is staggering. Composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt Lived here. So did artists Kandinsky and Klee and the eminent 20th Century architect Walter Gropius. The philosopher Nietzsche spent the last years of his life in Weimar. Even Marlene Dietrich was here for two years, frequenting the Residenz Cafe. And the ill-fated Weimar Republic was set up here in 1919 as Germany tried a new, democratic life after World War One.

With so many broad hints dropped from history, how could Brussels resist? The EU designated Weimar the 1999 European City of Culture. With a population of just 62,000, it is by far the smallest there has ever been - earlier culture capitals include Glasgow, Paris and Amsterdam. By the formal opening of the City of Culture Year, the city had underone probably the biggest make-over of a small European town in peacetime - generously funded with German and EU public money.

This must make Weimar the best preserved small town in Europe. Scarcely a narrow street has not been retro-fitted with cobbles. They have repaired 21 fountains and 13 monuments. They have refurbished palaces and half-timbered houses, as well as the town’s fine old copies of other world cultural landmarks, like the smaller version of the Temple of Nike in Athens, and the Catholic church imitating Florence Cathedral. And there’s a brand new Goethe museum.
There seems to hardly be a day when some renowned theatre, opera or ballet company or orchestra, jazz, pop, and modern dance group from around the world arenot performing.

Weimar is a lucky town. The drabness that was East Germany passed it by. Only an hour from the outskirts of Leipzig, all sullen flat blocks, and sad allotments, Weimar is set apart in pleasant, hilly countryside, clear of polluting industry.

My guide Alexander was a big enthusiast for this town. Naturally he wasn’t from here either - he comes from Russia. He told me the only great international figure actually born here was Karl Zeiss, the inventor of optical equipment.

We started our tour in the park, a massive slab of green for such a small place, cut through by the river Ilm. Multi-talented Goethe helped design it, as an “English” country park. A recent re-opening is an exact replica of Goethe’s Garden House. The orignial, just a few yards away, can’t take the strain.

Just outside the Ducal Palace, the famous old ginko tree which Goethe tended still stands. Its strange, rounded leaves, symbolising love, are the unofficial town emblem. You see them everywhere on tasteful mementos.

On to Bach’s old house. The great composer of Air on a G String and Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring lived in Weimar for five years and his sons WF and CPE Bch were born here. Bach would probably have stayed if - in a rare lapse in Weimar’s talent spotting skillls - he hadn’t been passed over for the top job as court musician.

Alexander tells a story at every lamp-post. Napoleon stayed in what is now the White Swan Inn at least five times - the cannon embedded in that wall was fired at Jena, just down the road, where the enperor scored a famous victory. Those revolving doors in the Elephant Hotel come from the Savoy in London, a gift from Winston Churchill.

The town has great art too. Painters Lucas Cranach, elder and younger, lived here. And we found Monet's study of Rouen Cathedral in the Royal Place galleries.

All Goethe’s plays were first performed in the German National Theatre, where the assembly of the Weimar Republic met. In the opera house Wagner gave the first performance of his opera Lohengrin. And Englebert Humperdinck first staged his opera Hansel and Gretel. Remarkable for a small town, Weimar has over 200 pubs, cafes and restaurants, and some surpises. We are deep in the province of Thuringia, where the traditional fare is game and braised beef marinated in vinegar and herbs. But what’s this? An Australian restaurant, serving kangaroo.

Weimar’s cultural past is divided into Golden and Silver Ages. But it also has a Black Age, when this town’s cultural brilliance was hijcked for political purposes. Hitler came here often.

The lasting stain on Weimar is Buchenwald Concentration Camp, just over a mile from the town centre. It is to the Germans’ credit that they did not try to erase its memory by changing the name - it’s a shock to see “Buchenwald” as the destination of the number 6 bus. The town has reopened the ancient footpath linking Ettersberg Castle, where Weimar’s cultural life flourished under Anna Amalia’s patronage, the few hundred yards to the edge of the camp. They want to symbolically reintegrate this awful place, now the Buchenwald Memorial Site, into its environment.

The most poignant performance in Weimar’s year was of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the Resurrection, performed with an Israeli orchestra and a German choir on German soil for the first time.

Weimar is so small its dense, rich history is in every street. And it doesnt stop there. As I stood on Weimar station awaiting my connection to the airport, a important train drew in. it was the Goethe Express. Its route, Prague to Paris, sums up what they are attempting here - to, in a modest way, unite Europe.


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