Waiting in line in Weimar
The clouds over Weimar have decided to shed a few pounds this morning.
My wife, Kris, and I stand in a line with about thirty other early birds, hoods or umbrellas up against the downpour, waiting for the ticket office at the Duchess Anna Amalia Library to open. We know it’s a crap shoot: The Rococo hall we hope to see is filled with some of the over one million items in the library’s collection. It’s part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and allows only 290 people per day to visit. And most of those have reserved their tickets months in advance. However, as our damp line-mates also know, a few tickets are set aside for those who show up early. Even if it’s raining.
The doors open shortly after 9:00 a.m. and our line shuffles inside. Eventually, it’s our turn. We have the choice of the 10:30 a.m. slot or one at 2:30 p.m. We go for the earlier entry.
That gives us a little over an hour to begin our exploration of the rest of the historic center of this cultural heart of Germany. All the big names of classical German art and culture seem to have spent time here: Bach, Cranach (both Elder and Younger), Luther and then, in 18th and 19th centuries, the glory days of Goethe, Schiller, Liszt and Nietzsche. The early 20th century saw the founding of the Bauhaus movement here under Gropius, as well as artists such as Kandinsky and Klee.
But not all is light and uplifting here in Weimar. The city became home of the National Assembly who formed the German government after WWI that became known as the Weimar Republic. The ineffectiveness of this government contributed to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.
Hitler, in fact, was a frequent visitor here, staying at the Hotel Elephant (which he had remodeled in the late 1930’s to incorporate the “Fuerher Balcony” for speaking to large rallies in the square in front of the hotel). Perhaps the worst effect of the Nazi presence here was the building of the Buchenwald concentration camp a mere eight kilometers away.
Every place has it’s good and bad sides. What adds depth and meaning to your time in a town such as Weimar—or anywhere— is holding those opposites together in tension, realizing that places are filled with people and people—just about any of us—have the capacity for both great good and great evil.
We will, in fact, spend the afternoon today at Buchenwald. And that, I’m sure, will inform all we’re seeing now. But in this moment, we choose to focus on the beauty of this place. Or at least try to be open to it, despite the rain.
What to see and do in Weimar
Because it is still relatively early, none of the other main visitor sites is open. Which is just as well. If you want to see these historic and cultural buildings and museums, here’s a good overview of the top ones in Weimar. Or consider this list of what to do in 36 hours there. For us, however, we’ve come to Weimar primarily for the library—I’m a sucker for old books.
Pursuing a passion on a trip, however, doesn’t mean you limit your trip only to hobby or interest-related sites because you never know what else you might discover. Which is why we decide to spend the rest of our time just wandering and seeing what the day and this place bring until our entry time to the library.
The small shops and boutiques around the old town center are charming. But what stands out to me are the number of bookstores here. (See? There’s that book thing again.) We pass at least three within a ten-minute stroll. I’m not going to liken them to having a Starbucks on every corner, but in a world where Amazon has taken such a toll on local independent bookstores where I live, it’s refreshing to see a place where such shops seem to be thriving.
We continue our meandering past Schiller’s house, the National Theater (with it’s statue outside of Schiller and Goethe, both great writers but apparently even more, great friends) and other places that I’m sure have historic significance. But at this moment, my wife has a need for something of even greater personal significance: caffeine. She thus goes and finds solace in one of the many cafés around the square we’ve entered. I decide to poke into the church at the center of this square.
The Herder Church (Stadtkirche St. Peter und Paul)
This is the Stadtkirche St. Peter und Paul (town church of St. Peter and Paul, aka the Herder Church) built around 1500. I walk inside. The carvings around the choir are impressive, but architecturally, it looks like many other late Gothic churches.
I’m not alone here. A group of high-school-aged youth are being shown around by a docent of the church. The boys in the group joke around, not quite boisterous, but not exactly entranced. Until they get to the area in front of the altar.
I don’t catch everything the docent says mostly because, until that point, I’m actually trying to avoid the group rather than be part of it. But she tells them something about all the fruits and vegetables set before the altar. This is October and it seems local farmers bring part of their harvest to the church each fall in gratitude for God’s bounty. Most of it is shared with those in the community who are struggling to get by. But this horizontally spread out cornucopia is available to all who visit. As the group begins to depart, she encourages a few of the remaining boys to take something with them. Some reach down and grab the nearest object and quickly walk off, mostly it seems because they feel that’s what they’re supposed to do. But one lingers.
He looks between the piled up produce and the docent. She smiles and encourages him, then returns to the rest of the group. Now alone, he carefully, almost furtively, reaches down and selects a particular apple. He holds it close to him, like a hand of cards in a poker game. He then turns and scurries back to catch up with his group.
Several years from now, I won’t be able to tell you anything about the history or even the decor of this church . But I will remember that one student, his shy approach and then his treasuring of a mere apple, made special because of where and how he obtained it.
Discovering what matters personally in Weimar
By this point, we have about 20 minutes left exploring Weimar until our timed entry to the library. I meet up with my wife near the café where she cradles her latte sans umbrella. For the moment, the rain has ceased.
We head in the direction of the library and as we round the corner, we find a shop filled with all kinds of yarn and knitting tools and supplies. I appreciate books, but my wife’s current passion is knitting. And while I may not share that love of knitting, I love my wife. So anything that she delights in, I want to further.
As we look around, Kris spies a tiny sweater hanging from a shelf. Our niece has just given birth to a daughter and my wife decides that such a sweater would be perfect for the newborn.
We find the proprietor of the shop and I start to translate my wife’s questions about patterns into German. The lovely woman then turns directly to Kris, and in that kind, but very German matter-of-fact manner says in perfect English, “Perhaps it is best if we talk directly.” I laugh, concede my role and watch the two of them talk about patterns, yarn and finally, buttons. From their earnest expressions and tone, you’d have thought two brain surgeons were debating the best course to save a patient’s life. But no, the subject here is buttons: Colors, shapes, textures, size—every facet of a button’s appropriateness for the baby sweater has to be analyzed and confirmed.
I had a marketing professor in grad school who once told our class about a dinner he’d been to the night before. It was an American Marketing Association event and he was assigned a seat next to a man who turned out to be the CEO of a company that made rubber bands. My professor told us, “When I heard that, I thought that this was going to be the longest and most boring dinner of my life. But it turned out to be highly engaging. And what I learned is this: Any subject, when you get into the details with people who are passionate about it, can be fascinating.”
The Duchess Anna Amalia Library
From the yarn shop, we race-walk back to the Duchess Anna Amalia Library through another cloudburst. We shove our soaking coats and bags into a tiny locker (“How long does it take for mildew to set in?” is a question I choose not to ask). This library is very popular, and yet when the woman handing out audio guides asks in German what language we prefer and I say, “English,” she lights up as if we are the first foreign guests to Weimar.
We ascend the stairs, don the required slippers (the size of diving fins or clown shoes) to protect the wooden floors, and in we go.
But here’s the gist of it: The Duchess (1739 to 1807) was a cultural powerhouse based here in Weimar. A music composer herself, she attracted the leading artists of her time including Goethe who worked at the library. The Rococo hall that we’re visiting is the showpiece of the collection. The rest of the close to one million artifacts are stored is in a newer building down the street. In 2004, a fire destroyed the top floors of the main building along with 50,000 works. Still, this is one of the finest libraries in Germany and houses one of the best collections of German works (as well as those of Shakespeare and others) from the Enlightenment through the mid-19th century.
That’s the history. But today, I’m here less for the learning and more for the sheer beauty of this place.
The personal meaning of Weimar’s Duchess Anna Amalia Library
The Rococo period is, to me, too fussy. At least aesthetically (for I really don’t know much more about it than certain visual characteristics plus the fact that it’s a fun word to say). But here, it all seems to work together. What stands out most are the small details: the light from the numerous windows; the sculptures throughout, as if they serve as custodians of the books; the oval shape represented in both overall contours and even the curved bookshelves. There’s the height of the space with ceiling frescoes and the occasional library ladder as reminders. And, of course, the old books. They aren’t just literary objects. They’re symbols of all the wonder and knowledge, imagination and history, and the individual characteristics of their authors.
Am I romanticizing the place? A bit. But that’s why, in part, this library exists. It was created and maintained by people who saw things in broader sweeps and more glorious gestures than we often allow ourselves today. Travel offers us the opportunity to be less than practical all the time. And to fall in love with a place for no other reason than it makes you happy to be there.
We explore more of Weimar after the library and then head out to Buchenwald for a very different kind of experience. But even a short time in this cultural landmark of Germany reveals a few key principles of what I call “hidden travel.”
- The moment in the church revealed how much is available to us if we remain open and pay attention not just to the places we visit, but to the people in those places. The important details of a place aren’t always about the place itself.
- The yarn store was a good reminder of the joy that comes from pursuing someone else’s passion, just to see the delight it brings them.
- The Duchess Anna Amalia Library helped me realize anew that the best moments on a trip (or in life) may be ones not of learning, adventure or even discovery (in the typical travel sense). Instead, they may simply be moments of exquisite beauty that move us as only beauty can.
That was my experience in Weimar. But how about you? What are the things that move you, that awaken distant longings or remind you of some memory that pulls and tugs on your heart? Travel can be much more than seeing new places. It can also be about letting those new places trigger connections and yearnings that we are to busy to explore in our daily lives. Let your next trip be an opportunity to explore the world within you as much as that around you. But even now, as you’re not traveling, look back on past trips and mine them for the meaning that lies hidden within.