Following the footsteps of Bach, Luther and Goethe by Caravan

The Erfurt cathedral at sunset
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To Caravan or not to caravan, that was our question.

I’m not sure how the idea of caravanning first came to us. We have friends who own one, and a colleague of Kathrin is an avid caravanner, so maybe it just slowly grew on us. We like the idea of being free to drive where we want, stop where we want, be on the road as long as we want… footloose and fancy free. Or so the dream goes.

After some back and forth, researching, and considering, we rented a van for a test vacation. If it turned out to be something we liked, then we would consider purchasing one.  The type of vehicle we were interested in came in two basic configurations. Version 1 has the beds running lengthwise along both sides of the vehicle. This has the advantage that both people can easily get in/out of bed, but the van is longer, over 6 meters. Version 2 has the beds crosswise, which means it is shorter, and easier to drive, but requires one person to crawl over the other to get in bed. Ease of driving was more important to us than sleeping convenience so we rented version 2.

The big day arrived, and we met Engin, the owner of the RV, to pick up the vehicle. He was a nice young man and showed us all the features, how to add water, empty water, plug in the van to electricity, etc. Then he handed us the keys, and we hit the open road. It took me a while to get used to driving such a big vehicle with its wide left turns, blind spots, no rearview mirror, but after a few hours, I had gotten used to it.

Martin Luther and Bach

By early afternoon, we arrived in Eisenach and pulled into our parking space. Unpacked our folding bikes, and began exploring the city. We know of no better way to get acquainted with a new place than a geocache. Anywhere worth visiting will have at least one “city tour” cache. Eisenach, being a historical city, had a number of these caches to choose from. We first rode our bikes to Wartburg Castle, which dates back to 1067. It sits on a high, steep hill overlooking the town. We attempted to ride up the hill but quickly gave up and pushed our bikes to the first tree where we could lock them up, continuing to the castle on foot.

From May 1521 to March of 1522, Martin Luther hid here under the name Junker Jürg to escape persecution from the pope and emperor following his excommunication and refusal to recant at the Diet of Worms. Within just ten weeks, he translated the New Testament from the original Greek text into a German that can be understood by the public. With this translation, he set in motion the formation of a standardized high German language. As I wandered through the castle grounds its history made an impression on me. This was a major site in the Protestant Reformation. Equally impressive was its physical stature. This was a big, well cared for site. I could easily imagine Luther and the other residents walking around during their daily life here.

Roughly 164 years after Luther’s stay at Wartburg Castle, Johann Sebastian Bach, the composer, was born in Eisenach. He spent his first 10 years here, until his parents died and he moved in with his older brother in a nearby town. A geocache led us through a series of memorials, appropriately called Bach Organs, marking important sites during his life here: at the Predigerkirche near the Old Latin School, which Bach attended, at the Georgenkirche on the market square, where Bach was baptized, and at the Frauenplan, where the Bach House and the Bach Monument are located.

A bridge, a citadel, and a cathedral meet in Erfurt

Our next destination was Erfurt. We had previously stayed here for one night, which wasn’t nearly enough to experience everything this city has to offer, so we came back for a closer look. Erfurt is best known for its cathedral; the Petersburg citadel, one of the largest and best-preserved town fortresses in central Europe; and the “Krämerbrücke”, or Merchants’ Bridge–a medieval arch bridge with half-timbered shops and houses on each side. The bridge has been continuously inhabited for over 500 years! The bridge was quiet when we walked through, which made for a very pleasant experience.

The Erfurt cathedral at sunset

I was especially looking forward to this stop for the photo opportunities. The cathedral and the bridge were at the top of my list.  The bridge turned out to be challenging. As interesting and impressive as it was, it was hard to capture that with my camera. I settled for the typical travel shots. On the other hand, evening at the cathedral was a fantastic success. I got the shot the entire trip here. The illuminated building set against the glowing evening sky made for an unforgettable image.

Where Goethe got his Von

The next day, May 2nd, we were in Weimar. Weimar is the town of Schiller and Goethe. Goethe is actually a native of Frankfurt, but he made his name in Weimar. After moving here in 1775 he became a member of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar’s privy council where he was very influential. Seven years later the Duke ennobled him where he was ever after known as Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. I read a short biography of him so I had a picture of Weimar in my head (granted, it is a dated picture, formed in Goethe’s time.) As we walked around, the town’s low-key charm made a good impression. The city matched my imagination. It didn’t impress as much as Eisenach or Erfurt, but it had something. 

Communing with Mother Nature

Touring Weimar didn’t take so long, and since our only choice for overnighting was a lonely parking lot, we decided to move on to our next location, Saalburg, a nature park area with a big lake. May is low season, so we only had 2 neighbors to share this giant campsite with.

Kathrin relaxing in a chair outside the caravan.
fresh air and sunshine at Saalburg

Being here during the low season meant we missed out on the loud families, with happy, energetic, screaming kids running around the lake shore and jumping in the water. Fortunately, the one on-site dining option remained open, a small fast-food stand, so we took our first dinner there. An employee stood behind us waiting to order, and after I sat down, he asked me if I was from the Netherlands (you would be surprised how often this happens.) This led to a longer conversation about the area–he introduced us to it, where he’s been, where he’s from, etc., etc. To our surprise, he told us that this place is home to Germany’s second biggest festival, The Sun, Moon and Stars Festival, in August. During this time the area is flooded with thousands upon thousands of people and numerous bands playing various kinds of head banging music on a number of stages.

In the beginning of May, the only thing to do here is relax and enjoy nature, which is just what we did after dinner. We sat in some folding chairs, read our books, and enjoyed the lake views. When evening came, I traded my eReader for my camera and took some photos. Afterwards, we retreated inside to relax a bit more before going to bed.

view of the lake in the evening.
A quiet spring evening on the lake
a boat floating on the lake in early morning fog.
Followed by a cold spring morning on the lake

We woke up this morning to a foggy start of the day. I mean, really foggy. I stared at the sun. It was like looking at the moon. I could feel the cool temperatures in the RV as well, so I turned on the heating. The caravan uses propane for heating and after about 30 minutes, the place was comfortable again.

a snake crossing the hiking path

The lake, being the biggest attraction here, was the focus of today’s activities. We unpacked and unfolded our Bromptons and first headed into a small town to get sandwiches and sweets at a bakery before hitting the trails. The terrain around the lake was hilly, but manageable. On two occasions, we had to dismount and push our bikes up steep hills. Despite that, trip around the lake was a pleasant experience. The lake views, the encounters with nature, including two snake sightings, was a nice change from the city sightseeing on our previous stops.

Now you might be thinking, “You rode a folding bike through the hilly paths around a lake??” Yes, and we admit it isn’t the terrain those bikes are meant for. When we first made our packing list we reasoned that the convenience of storing/transporting the folding bikes, which easily fit in the RV, outweighed the disadvantage on one destination during our trip. After our nature experience we changed our minds about that.

Overview of lake at Saalburg
our campsite as seen from the other side of the lake
You can see our caravan!

Over the course of six hours, we circumnavigated the lake. We came across wonderful views, we found a few geocaches, and we rode across the dam. For lunch,, we stopped at a high point that offered a great overview of the entire lake, including our caravan!

At about 3pm we were back “home” and relaxed a while before walking over to the campsite facilities for a shower. It was now our dinner time, so we mounted our Bromptons again and rode back into town (using paved roads this time!) We chose a restaurant with a view of the lake. It was actually an easy choice. The only other restaurant in town was closed!

Take a walk on the wild side!

Now we were ready to move on to our next stage of this trip: wild camping. This was the stage where we wanted to put the RV life to the test. Could we comfortably camp in the middle of nowhere? What is it like to live “off the grid”, completely independent of civilization? We were going to find out.  Kathrin found a geocache power trail (a line of several caches meant to be found one after the other) in the middle of a farming area. We found a small parking space on the side of a quiet road and decided to take it. It was on the edge of some farm lands with 6 wind turbines scattered about.

We enjoyed riding through the scenic farmland as we did the power trail. I was especially interested in the wind turbines. I had never been so close to one, and was curious to see what they were like “in person.” Turns out, they are just boring towers with a propeller on top.

With six caches still to find, we heard the thunder of an approaching storm. As we came nearer to the last cache, we were confident that the storm was not approaching us, but moving parallel from a distance. Keeping one eye toward the sky as we found the remaining caches (what, you didn’t really think we would let a thunderstorm on a hilltop with wind turbines scare us away, did you?), as soon as our names were in the last log book we biked back to the caravan. A few minutes later the rain came. Great timing!

After congratulating ourselves on a successful outing and a dry return home, Kathrin cooked our first meal in the RV. We didn’t want to go overboard on our first attempt at caravan cooking, so she prepared a simple pasta dish. She did a fine job, and we enjoyed the fruits of her labor.

It was here that we had our most thrilling night on our trip. At 3am, approaching headlights woke me up. I peaked, bleary eyed, out the window and saw what looked like a police car. Controlling my panic, I shook Kathrin awake, quietly yelling “Kathrin, police. Kathrin, police,” which did nothing more than wake her up in a state of panic.  Before either of us could collect ourselves and get out of bed, the car had turned around and left. We both spent the rest of the night with one eye open, but we never saw it again.

Back to the city

For our next destination, we headed back into a city, this time Coburg. Back in the day, Coburg was the capitol of a couple of duchies and, through some strategic dynastic decisions, they managed to marry into several of the royal families in Europe, most notably Prince Albert’s marriage to Queen Victoria.

But wait, there’s more. Coburg is home to Veste Coburg, one of Germany’s largest castles. Martin Luther knocked on the doors of this castle in April 1530, seeking protection, as he was still under an imperial ban. He ended up spending 6 months here where he continued his work of translating the bible into German.

Turns out, the caravan parking lot where we would be spending the night had a nice view of the castle. However, I had chosen this spot for its location near a public swimming/sauna facility, so we would have a place to relax after touring around town.

caravan parking lot with a view of the castle

I’m sure you know by now what we did first. A sightseeing cache introduced us to this impressive city. The beautiful architecture hints at its prestigious history. We started our tour at the Veste, one of the largest and best-preserved medieval fortresses in Germany.  Just like Wartburg Castle, it sat on a very high hill, but this time we reached the top by bike. This is a lovely, photogenic castle and we took our time walking through it.

We then explored the town below, where every turn in the historic center evoked a new ooohhh and ahhhh. As fate would have it, we found ourselves in front of a traditional butcher shop/delicatessen at lunch time that offered Texas chili as the daily special. The décor of the interior and the worker’s uniforms reminded me of an old western movie stage. Unfortunately, the place couldn’t accept guests for dine-in, so we took our to-go bowls and sat at a nearby bench. A nice elderly couple made room for us, and we struck up a pleasant conversation. When we finished, we both agreed,  this place knows how to make some gooood chili. Lots of meat, with just a little beans and corn. And the bread was really delicious. Kathrin liked it so much she asked for a second roll and got it!

The sauna was a great place to recover from the nice but strenuous sightseeing. We started in the “coolest” sauna (60ºC/140ºF) and worked our way up. To finish our time, we had an Aufguss (infusion). A woman put scented ice balls on the hot stones, then, using a towel, fanned hot air on each of us in turn. She did this 3 times, then we went outside to rub salt on our skin and headed back in for another fanning. This was a very new and pleasantly relaxing experience for us.

 

Once back at our caravan, we each settled into our evening spots–Kathrin in bed and me at the table, opposite ends of the vehicle and yet only two steps away from each other. It wasn’t long before the day’s activities and the relaxing sauna treatment got the best of Kathrin, and she turned over to go to sleep. A couple of hours later, my eyelids were getting too heavy, so I climbed over her to get on my side of the bed. By this time, I was practiced enough to not disturb her.

Our last stop

We were undecided about how to spend our last day. Originally, we planned to go to Bad Kissingen, a spa town. But an entire day in a spa with a bunch of bad kissers might be boring, so we changed our mind and planned on Bayreuth, famous for its opera house. But a full day just to look at an opera house? Why not buy tickets to one of their shows and get the full experience? Both places were a bit out of the way, so we looked at the driving route home and randomly picked a more convenient target, Schweinfurt. We had very low expectations as we pulled into the unattended RV campsite. It was one of those small sites with the pre-paid electrical outlets. However, unlike the other city lots, this one was a green area near the river bank. An oasis within the city.

After we settled into our parking space, we ventured into the town to start a city-tour geocache. Boy, were we surprised! This is a charming town. The multi-stage cache led us through all of Schweinfurt’s cute little corners. When lunchtime came, we decided on a restaurant in the town center where we ordered a schnitzel. This place reminded me of another village restaurant where Kathrin and I ordered the same thing. It was very well done, pan fried just like mama would do it at home. This restaurant in Schweinfurt was nothing like that. They offered a cheap, deep fried version with a canned mushroom sauce. Well, we didn’t walk away hungry, but that’s all I have to say about that. We continued the geocache tour and soon forgot about lunch. When we completed the cache tour of the city, we biked through a wooded park area that was blanketed with wild a garlic called Bärlauch. It was also home to millions of mosquitoes, but they didn’t seem to be interested in me. I came out unharmed. Kathrin, on the other hand, proved to be a much more appealing target. The things we do for geocaching!

On the way back to the van, we stopped at an Aldi for picnic items for dinner. Once home, we pulled out the picnic table, a couple of chairs, and enjoyed our meal, along with a bottle of beer. We also had an interesting show unfolding in front of us. All during the meal, we watched a parade of caravans slowly driving through the circular parking lot, looking for an empty space. The first 3-4 got one, all the others drove away to try their luck elsewhere. That’s what happens when you show up late. We were glad we arrived early.

Home, sweet home

The next morning, we drove back home, stopping at an outlet shopping mall that was on the way. Although common in America, they are very rare in Germany. Hence, This place is very popular with locals, as well as tourists from distant lands, as there was a special parking lot for RVs! This was our first time here, and we were very successful in our searches. We walked back to our RV with several bags in hand.

 


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