If you’re on a hunt for some of the best of Germany’s castles then do I have a scenic route for you. The little known Thuringian Castle Road, or Burgenstrasse Thüringen in German, is a monster of a route, going 900km (559mi) through the state of Thuringia, and even a tad bit into Bavaria — but more on that later.
With a distance of that long, you’d think that you’re going to see dozens of castles along the way. Uh, no. There are only a dozen, but what whoppers they are.
So, shall we get started? :-)
Start of the Thuringian Castle Road
The Thuringian Castle Road kicks off at the grandest of castles, Wartburg Castle. If you know anything about Martin Luther then you’ve had to have heard about this formidable Burg overlooking the city of Eisenach. He translated the bible into German here in the 16th century, and the Luther Room looks pretty much like it did in his time.
Another famous resident was St. Elisabeth of Hungary. She was married to Ludwig II (the Duke, not the Mad King of Bavaria) during the 13th century, and after his death she dedicated her life to the poor.
Wartburg Castle is breathtaking from a distance, and just as much close up. It’s constructed of stone and half-timbered design — but I like the climbing ivy going up the South Tower and its wooden steps. It’s like stepping back in time.
Its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but the reason you find it on the Thuringian Castle Road is its Royal Palace and Bastille. The palace houses an extensive art collection (from the Middle Ages to the turn of the 20th century), and guided tours are available for only a few Euros.
Stay in Weimar long enough to see the Church of Sts. Peter & Paul with artwork designed by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Younger — both friends and supporters of Martin Luther. Plus, there’s a 3-day Onion Market every October that’s been going on every year since 1653.
Where to go next?
Bavaria (just a bit).
Coburg once belonged to Thuringia (until around 1920), and it was the boyhood home of the husband of Prince Albert — husband to England’s Queen Victoria. He was born at Schloss Rosenau, but the place that warrants a listing on the Thuringian Castle Road?
That honor belongs to the grand Veste Coburg, a medieval fortress that gave Martin Luther refuge. The Luther Chapel was redesigned in the 19th century, but the original one was done in a Romanesque design. St. Elisabeth also lived here; and it’ll be hard to figure out whether the castle’s prettier in the daytime or all lit up at night.
I think it looks best on a grey, cloudy, dreary snow-covered day — but that’s my opinion. ;-)
All right, let’s head straight back to Thuringia.
Another one of St. Elisabeth’s castles (her son was born here) makes its appearance on this Thuringian Castle Road, Burg Creuzburg. The castle was built in 1165, much later than its Carolingian roots and over a former monastery. One of the most interesting pieces is the castle’s 17th century Saxon cannon.
The town of Creuzburg is small, barely 2,400 people — so it won’t be crowded while you’re sightseeing at the 13th century Nikolai Church.
Drei Gleichen is not much bigger, but it has three castles to add to the Thuringian Castle Road. Located near Gotha, Drei Gleichen has a trail that connects all three of the castles — named for Gustav Freytag who made the Mülburg Castle famous.
Mühlburg is the oldest of the three, built in the very early 8th century. It even had a moat despite being a hilltop castle, and I’m sorry to say that only its keep and walls remain. Although there is now a restaurant and Pottery Museum located there now too.
Burg Gleichen is also a ruin, and the first thing you might notice is its keep. The view from this early 11th century castle is splendid, but you might want to find the medieval stone crosses from a much closer distance.
Wachsenburg is the middle brother in terms of age of these castles, built in 930AD. This castle isn’t a ruin, and houses a restaurant, hotel, and museum (with a huge military war collection).
Veste Heldburg (in Bad Colberg-Heldburg) is unique in that it was built atop a volcano. Crazy considering it was the Thirty Years’ War that did the most damage to this 12th/13th century edifice. It was totally reconstructed, and has been used as a children’s home and a courthouse during its time belonging to East Germany.
Heldburg itself is nice to see, not just for its castle alone. It’s part of Bad Colberg so there’s a spa in tow — and its City Church, Rathaus, and Untertor make great photos.
Wasserburg Kapellendorf might not be the oldest castle (built around 1000/1050AD) on the route, but it is one of the biggest. From its name you can tell it has a moat, and you’re welcome to come for a tour of its kitchen and donjon, as well as see its outer wall. The grounds, however, are free to roam around if you’re so inclined.
After a tour around the castle, you should see the town’s church (i.e., in Kapellendorf) — it’s one of the oldest in the federal state, built around 800 A.D. It was also the location of the last battle of the Franco-Prussian War.
In Kühndorf, the Johanniterburg once belonged to the Knights Hospitallers, who built a castle in 1315 atop an even older original one. What makes this castle totally remarkable (besides being owned by the Knights of the Order of St. John, the Duke of Saxony, and then by Prussia) was it had no military purpose whatsoever.
Yeah, go figure — a castle that wasn’t built for its military strength. Today the castle is privately owned, and is used for a number of celebrations — including a huge festival every year at Pentecost.
Reichsburg Kyffhausen, located in (or near) the spa town of Bad Frankenhausen, used to be an Imperial Castle; now its in ruins. Either way, it had the deepest well of any known castle (176 meters deep), and is so big it was divided into three parts. Prehistoric artifacts have been found here, and the Burg once belonged to the Hohenstaufens — one of the biggest names in German history.
From the castle you can see the Kyffhäuser Monument, a towering structure with figures of both Barbarossa and Kaiser Wilhelm.
Bad Frankenhausen also has a Regional History Museum housed over at Schloss Frankenhausen, a Jewish cemetery, and has a church tower that I think leans more than that famous one in Pisa. ;-)
Kahla is beautiful with its limestone cliffs, but the real winner here is the Leuchtenburg built in 1221 (which is actually in Seitenroda). It is called the “Queen of the Saale Valley,” and it’s now a restaurant and museum — after spending years as a prison. Finish off your day in Kahla with a trip to the City church and walking along the town’s 13th century Stadtmauer.
The Teutonic Knights make an appearance on the Thuringian Castle Road over at the Ordensburg in Liebstedt. Ordensburg was built between the years 900–1000 A.D., and is a lowland castle — meaning it wasn’t built from a high vantage point. It used a wall/trench/moat defense system — but thankfully none of that is needed at the annual Medieval Spectacle at Easter. ;-)
Our last castle is Runneburg in the town of Weißensee. Runneburg wasn’t built until 1168, but it is thought to have been put over what was once a 6th century settlement. In order to see its Romanesque gatehouse and the rest of the castle (that was once home to Emperor Barbarossa’s sister), take a guided tour.
An interesting piece of history comes from Runneburg: a historian found what was a beer purity law from 1434, eighty-two years before the Bavarian Duke issued one (that Germany’s been following ever since).
So, in honor of those who knew what the very best should taste like, I salute you. With a beer, of course. Looks like I’m ending my trip on the Thuringian Castle Road with rustic beer rather than a fine glass of wine — although, with all these castles I forgot to look for a beer garden… ;-)
Thuringian Castle Road Web Site
Here’s the official Web site of the Thuringian Castle Road.