A Very German Weekend

When I told my Paper X tutor that I was going to be spending six months in Leipzig, her eyes lit up with excitement. “Oh, brilliant, Ella!” she gushed. “You simply must go to Wittenberg!”

I was studying Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century theologist, as a special option: the closest Oxford’s literature-heavy syllabus would let me get to a history paper. And so, of course, I had to visit this sleepy little town, whose existence over the past five hundred years has been so influenced by the ideas and works of this man that it has renamed itself Lutherstadt (Luther City). It’s rural and calm and pretty, and it’s almost incongruous to imagine that somewhere so serene could be the site of a revolution that shook the foundations of Christendom, and, really, of European society at large. This, though, is where it all happened.

Wittenberg, it turns out, is only half an hour away from Leipzig by train, if you think paying 25 Euros for a thirty minute train journey is a reasonable thing to do. We didn’t, so we took the longer route, travelling on a slow, smelly remnant of the DDR era that took an hour to chug its way there, 90km or so to the north. It was a freezing day, our first sneaky preview of the harsh eastern winter to come. It was, however, completely beautiful, with crisp blue skies as a perfect backing to the pastel-coloured houses.

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Our first destination was the Lutherhaus, where Luther lived for most of its adult life. It opened in 1503 as part of the university, as a space in which Augustinian monks could live and study. Luther was sent here four years later, freshly ordained as a priest, to study for his doctorate – if the sixteenth century academic system had such a thing – in Theology. Until 1521 he lived and studied here, during which time he developed the foundations of his radical ideas (basically: the pope had too much power, and catholicism was kind of missing the point), and wrote his famous ninety-five theses. After three years in hiding as a political outlaw, Luther (and his family) returned to Wittenberg in 1524. They were given the empty halls of residence – which, I must say, is a pretty impressive building for a humble priest – and Luther lived here until his death in 1546. The building, then, was the place where most of his important work took place, including his Table Talks (theological discussions with his students), and many revisions of his German translation of the Bible.

university lecture hall to rival exam schools
university lecture hall to rival exam schools
not too shabby
not too shabby
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entrance hall ceiling

The Lutherhaus is now a museum. (Of course it is). The two hours or so we’d set aside turned out to be not quite enough, and I would have loved to have time to read all of the snippets plastered all over the walls, and gaze in awe at all of the artefacts. Sadly not. There were, though, two things in particular that gripped me.

The first was the Luthers’ living room, somehow preserved in all of its wonderful 16th century splendour. The Luthers saved for years, I’m told, to decorate a room as finely as this. It smelled divinely musty, and I stood for a long time in the middle of it, staring up at the ornate ceiling, and across towards the beautiful wooden panelled walls, and feeling quite overwhelmed to be in a room of such history.

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The other completely captivating exhibit was the printing room. The widespread popularity of Luther’s writings owes much to the development of the printing press, which meant that Luther, unlike the great thinkers who proceeded him, was able to distribute his ideas to a far larger audience with far less effort. The importance of the invention itself is, obviously, huge. What struck me, though, was just how stunning the prints were. Keen not to waste any of the capabilities of their new machine, printers adorned their work with wonderfully ornate patterns, colour illustrations, and elegant fonts. The printing exhibition in the Lutherhaus had an almost overwhelmingly extensive display of originals, but here are a few of my favourites:

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We set off again into the chilly outdoors and walked further along the main street towards the castle church. This building is particularly famous: it was onto these wooden doors that Luther nailed his ninety-five theses, gave some of his most influential sermons, and now, aptly, lies buried under the pulpit here. The church is marked by a very distinctive circular tower, which stands far taller than anything else in Wittenberg and makes it very easy to find. Unfortunately, though, the tower was about as much as we managed to see of the church, as it was closed for repairs. (Shame – I had been so excited to pretend to nail my own theses to the door.)

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With our planned tour cut short, all that remained to be done was to eat. I found some Kartoffelbread (potato bread – no idea) in a bakery, and Tash provided homemade Streusel, courtesy of her lovely landlady.  We ate sitting outside in the picturesque main square, huddling from the cold. It was a complete joy to visit somewhere so utterly different from Leipzig, the (relative) metropolis. I’m yet to be convinced of the logic, but it is rather common and very acceptable here for shops to close at lunchtime on Saturday and not open again until Monday, and, once I’d managed to find a bakery that was still open, I very much enjoyed simply looking at this pretty place and taking it all in.

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Tash getting pally with the man himself
Tash getting pally with the man himself

We left Wittenberg in the middle of the afternoon. Our trip had been a short one because there was a very important, not-to-be-missed cultural spectacle happening in Leipzig that evening. Oktoberfest. Only, I was missing it, or so I thought, because in my excitement and dirndl-buying, I had forgotten to do the only thing that really mattered, and get a ticket. As I sat on the train, listening to Tash and Alex chattering excitedly about Oktoberfest and feeling like a prize idiot for having missed out, our whatsapp group chimed with good news. Ian had a ticket he couldn’t use, and would anyone like it?

Of course I’d like it, we replied quickly. I mean, I already had a dirndl. We excitedly made our way back to mine, where we donned our dresses and platted our hair like medieval maidens.

Unlike the Munich version, which takes over the whole city for a few weeks, Leipzig’s Oktoberfest is confined to a huge marquee in the most unlikely of locations: the carpark of a retail park, somewhere just out of town. We got off the tram behind two men clad in lederhosen, and decided that following them would be a sure way to find it. Five minutes later, they turned around, laughing and asked “are you following us? Because we’re actually going to pee in those bushes. But” – with a gesture in entirely the opposite direction – “Oktoberfest is over there”.

Oktoberfest is bizarre. Imagine your dad, your uncle and your grandfather, all dressed in leather shorts and wooly socks, very drunk at 7pm and dancing on tables. To the macarena. Without knowing the macarena. (We wondered if, in fact, the macarena had ever reached Germany. Towards the end of it, we realised we were the only group really doing the routine, and a man at the table next to us had filmed the whole thing). There was a wonderful array of dirndls too. We drank beer from glasses bigger than our heads, ate pretzels and wurst and pommes, and laughed a lot at the surreal-ness of it all.

a LOT of beer
a LOT of beer

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