The Venn Diagram of reader recommendations and travel plans overlapped neatly this year, meaning I could put the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach on the itinerary. And I’m so glad. The Wartburg Castle Tour takes you on a journey through history from the 11th century to the end of the 19th. There are rough and ready rooms for knights, as well beautiful rooms decorated with carvings and golden mosaics. You’ll see the room where Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German, and you’ll visit a room where a legendary musical competition took place. And it all comes with a spectacular view!
And naturally, a café…. Because after wandering around a castle in Germany, you might want a slice of cake.
It’s easy to see why this amazing Burg was the first German castle to receive UNESCO Heritage status. It’s well worth the journey up the hill.
Where is the Wartburg Castle?
A name like The Wartburg in Eisenach sort of sounds like it belongs in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but the imposing Wartburg sits 400 meters above Eisenach in the German state of Thuringia. To get up to the castle, you first drive thought town. Parking is about halfway up the hill.
From the parking lot, you hike the rest of the way. It’s not a difficult hike, but, if because of age or issues walking, an uphill climb isn’t for you, there is a shuttle bus. The bus meets you in front of the building at the entrance to the parking area. This is also where you pay for parking on the way out. The shuttle (a large van) comes regularly (in June 2023, the cost was 2,50) and drops you in the turnaround at the gate.
Note- if you are traveling in a wheelchair, there is a shuttle that can accommodate you, please reach out to Visitors Services in advance ([email protected]). The entrance is cobblestoned, but the courtyard of the castle is smoother, so visiting that part of the castle is do-able. Unfortunately, the castle tour is not wheelchair accessible. There are spiral staircases and no elevators. Because the Burg is a listed building, this probably won’t change.
Walking through Wartburg Castle History
The Wartburg Castle history touches so much of Germany’s history, and the castle tour takes you through it in chronological order (mostly).
The strategically located Wartburg is a BURG, not a Schloss, meaning it is a defensible castle, and not a fancy palace founded by Count Ludwig der Springer in 1067 because he liked the location. The word “Warte” means observation point… so… Wartburg is the castle/fortress on the observation point. (And it really is an amazing view.)
His son, Landgrave Ludwig II added a stone buildings, and his grandson Ludwig III added another level. With each addition, the strength and power of the family grew until they controlled Thuringia, Hesse and Saxony. The tour meets in a room filled with stonework and carvings… but the real tour starts in the Rittersaal (Knight’s Hall). A Romanesque era chamber with vaulted ceilings, a huge fireplace and decorated columns (and three latrine bays!).
From there you pass through the dining hall (the beams date to the 11 hundreds!)
The Holy Elizabeth
Gold mosaic covers the walls of the room belonging to the Holy Elizabeth, wife to Ludwig IV. Although the shape matches the Knight’s Hall, the glitz of the glittering gold mosaic make the “Fräulein Elisabeth Camin Stuben” or Elizabeth’s Bower, feel rich and luxurious. Scenes from the life of Elizabeth of Hungary, wife of Ludwig IV cover the walls interspersed with flowers and ornamental patterns.
Elizabeth, daughter of Andrew II, King of Hungary, came from an incredibly religious and pious family (there are quite a few Saints and Nuns in her family tree). Engaged to Ludwig as an infant, she came to live at the Wartburg at age 4, but she never felt comfortable with the wealth. Her heart went out to the poor, and she continually gave away her possessions.
In this famous scene, where Elizabeth removes her crown because she felt unworthy of wearing a crown when, as she said, Jesus wore one of thorns.
When Elizabeth’s husband, Ludwig IV died on the way to the Crusades in 1227. Elizabeth’s brother-in-law threw her, and her children, out of the Wartburg. According to legend, (and one of the mosaic images) she wandered the streets, hungry and impoverished. Finally, her uncle, the Bishop of Bamberg intervened, and she lived out her days in a Marburg monastery, working at the hospital she had donated. She died at age 24, and was canonized 4 years later in 1235. St. Elizabeth, die Heilige Elizabeth’s birthday is celebrated on July 7th. A special day on the Wartburg.
Those fancy white pigeons in the Dove-cote are descendants of pigeons given to the Landgraves as an engagement gift when Elizabeth was sent to live at the Wartburg.
What makes this chapel unusual is that it’s both Catholic AND Protestant, with services even today dedicated to the Holy Elizabeth and to Martin Luther.
The columns and baptismal font date back to the 1300s.
Hall of Minstrels
One of my favorite stops was the Hall of Minstrels… because of the story.
In the early 13th century, Landgrave Herman I, the Patron of Poets (and brother of Ludwig III), made the Wartburg a center of arts and music, equal to the Babenberger dynasty in Vienna. Minstrels came from far and wide to play and entertain the court with their songs. In 1206, a fabulous event, the Fürstenlob or Praise of Princes invited 6 famous Minstrels to put forth their best work before the Count and Countess of Thuringia. The winner would be crowned most eloquent the loser would be put to death. (Bit harsh… but sounds a little like those song contests we see on TV today).
Five of the Minstrels or Minnesänger sang the praises of the Count and Countess… but Heinrich von Ofterdingen, the best of them all, got himself into trouble because he sang the praises to the Duke of Austria.
Fortunately, his silver tongue and the graciousness of Herman I saved him. They set up a second contest to take place in exactly one year. In steps a Hungarian sorcerer and poet, Klingsor, who somehow smooths things over.
And this is where things get a little fuzzy. Did it actually happen?
The history gets intertwined with legend. In the late 1700s, the story pops up again. First in Medieval history books, then literature, it even appears in Grimm’s Deutsche Sagen (a book of short stories and summaries of historical legends… this came after the Fairy Tale book).. and then in steps Wagner, who writes the opera, Tannhäuser based on the legendary event.
The Festsaal or Banquet Hall
The beautiful Festsaal truly is a fabulous room. Ludwig II loved this room so much, he insisted that it be recreated at Schloss Neuschwanstein. Although this lovely hall, with its amazing acoustics, looks old, the construction took place in the early 1800s, at a time when the Middle Ages were being idealized.
The room witnessed a key event in German history. At the Wartburgfest on Oct 18, 1817, 500 students from German universities came together to appeal for democratic rights in Germany. Their motto- “Honor Freedom Fatherland!” The red, black and gold flag, originally from a student fraternity in Jena, would become the first German national flag.
Today, the room is used for concerts and events… like a performance of Tannhäser, or the graduation of local Abitur students.
Martin Luther and the Wartburg Castle
1521 (4 years after he nailed the 95 Thesis to the church door in Wittenberg), he found himself in serious trouble. Not only had Pope Leo X excommunicated him (barred him from the church), the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V declared him at outlaw after the Diet of Worms, when Luther refused to recant. He was at serious risk of being imprisoned or exiled.
Frederick der Weise offered protective custody. On May 4, 1521, Luther was “kidnapped” in the Thuringian forest.. and taken to the Wartburg. There he grew out his hair to take on the appearance of a long-haired Prussian Junker (Prussian landowner). Then, with the encouragement of friends and supporters, he translated the New Testament of the Bible into German.
This was no ordinary achievement. For the first time, the Bible was written in the language of the people. Ten months later, Luther left the Wartburg, and a few months later, Gutenberg published the work.
1541 edition of the Luther Bible
What about the Ink Spot??
There is a famous story about Luther throwing his inkwell against the wall of his cell. Did he do it because he was frustrated about being locked up? Or did he throw it to chase the devil? That’s unclear… The spot, although used in lots of marketing, is no longer there. Some say that tourists kept scraping off pieces as a souvenir, and others say it was painted over years ago. Either way… no spot.
But there is a stuffed monkey.
(I never did find out why… except that the cell was most likely used as storage after Luther moved out. That might explain the whale vertebrae/footstool)
What came next?
The Wartburg lost much of its importance after Luther left, and slowly the buildings began to decay. In 1777 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe “discovered” the Wartburg, and set out to make it museum. Still, nothing much was done for fifty years. The students used it for their meeting in 1817, which may have reawakened interest. By 1850, with the consent of Grand Duke Carl Alexander of Saxe-Weimar-Einsenach, work was underway to restore the Burg to its former glory. In 1918, Germany became a Republic, and upkeep of the Wartburg fell out of the family’s hands. Since 1952, the government has maintained the Wartburg.
In 1999, the Wartburg in Eisenach earned UNESCO World Heritage status, the first German castle to receive the honor.
You can visit the Wartburg 365 days a year!
Wartburg Castle Tour
Wartburg Castle gets loads of visitors daily and it’s good to book your tour in advance. English tours are available (around 1PM), but if the time slot doesn’t fit into your schedule, you can take one in German and follow along in the handy tour pamphlet (you might miss some of the interesting color though).
It is NOT possible to wander through the castle without a tour guide. You can stay in the courtyard, enjoy the views and the pigeons, have a snack at the restaurant, but you will not get inside… not to the museum, not to the Luther room, just forget it. Book the tour. Cost is 12€ per person (kids under 6 are free!) and there are special prices for families etc. Tickets
When arriving, make sure you calculate enough time to get from the parking lot to the castle before your tour!
Take a walk thought German History!
We LOVED the Tour!