Stepping from a Martin Luther-focused museum built in 2015 into the Luther House, where the noted religious reformer had lived as a schoolboy from 1498-1501, is like going back in time.
"With one step, we've gone across 500 years," said Malcolm Crowson, of Eisenach, Germany.
The whole of Germany is stepping across half a millennium in 2017 as it celebrates the 500th anniversary of Luther setting the Reformation in motion on Oct. 31, 1517, when he is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg.
Germany is inviting the rest of the world to visit and celebrate 2017 with a year full of exhibits, festivals and other activities. There is serious historical scholarship, such as three national exhibits looking at Luther's impact on the world, but there is a sense that this is a time to have fun and find a way to get everyone in on the celebration.
Playmobil toy company has made a special edition "Little Luther" complete with a quill pen and Bible that can be found everywhere. There are Luther socks inscribed with, "Here I stand, I can do no other." Luther rubber ducks. Luther comic books. Visitors can even buy a Luther-themed energy drink called "Devil's Death." October 31, 2017, has been declared a public holiday as Reformation Day.
Whether it's education, celebration or a combination of the two, the German National Tourist board has come up with eight different routes along the "Luther Trail," featuring multiple cities and towns.
Our recent journey took us to the towns of Eisenach and Erfurt, which were both key spots in the Luther legacy.
'No town knows me better'
Luther's parents sent him to Eisenach, a small town in former East Germany, as a 15-year-old schoolboy.
"He spent a lot of time working as a choir boy to supplement his income," Crowson said, "and he began to identify himself with the town."
Luther would develop such a connection with the locals, he would later say of Eisenach, "No town knows me better."
Luther House lets visitors see the room where Luther lived and gives a sense of what life would have been like in a 16th-century boarding house. The adjoining building is a full museum that addresses many phases of Luther's legacy, such as how his translation of the Bible helped create the modern German language. The exhibit does not shy away from noting how his anti-Jewish writings were construed then used by the Nazis.
Children can also experience a Luther school day complete with pen and quill writing and printing out a page of the Bible on a Gutenberg printing press — the newly invented Twitter of the 16th-century that allowed Luther's writings to spread quickly.
Luther House is also hosting an exhibit through Nov. 5, titled, "Heretic, Schismatic, Teacher of the Faith — The Catholic View of Luther." Upon entry, guests are given what appear to be 3D glasses with one blue lens and one red lens. However, instead of seeing a 3D Luther, the blue lens gives the Protestant view of Luther and the red lens the Catholic view. Various words and pictures appear to be a jumble on the wall, but a look through the blue lens reveals the words "Popular Saint," while a glance through the red lens shows the word "Tempter."
See lutherhaus-eisenach.com for information.
After the Diet of Worms in 1521, when Luther refused to recant his writings, orders went out that the renegade priest was to be delivered to Rome for punishment. Luther supporters determined it was best if he hid out at Wartburg Castle, just outside of Eisenach. They took Luther "prisoner," and he stayed for about 300 days at the castle where he found the solitude he needed to translate the New Testament into German in approximately 10 weeks.
The castle sits just about a mile outside of Eisenach and can be reached by car, but a short hike on "The Luther Adventure Trail" reveals what a good hideout this would have been since the climb is quite steep. The hike can be enjoyable as the trail winds through beautiful German forest and the is marked every so often by signposts featuring paintings of significant moments in Luther's life along with notable quotes.
Once at the castle, there are 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside from a site sporting almost 1,000 years of history as well as a modern-day hotel and restaurant.
The property offers many options in terms of historical displays.
"One of the things most visitors want to see is Luther's room," said Marc Hochner, who is curating the "Luther and the Germans" exhibition at the castle. "It's the room he actually stayed in when he translated the New Testament into German."
The room has been a Luther pilgrimage site since not long after he stayed there, and graffiti dating back to 1603 can still be found on the walls. See wartburg.de for information about the castle.
Following his school days in Eisenach, Luther moved to Erfurt in 1501 to study at the university. At his father's insistence, he became a law student. In 1505, he visited his parents in nearby Mansfield to express his misgivings about pursuing a legal career. On his way back to Erfurt, Luther got caught in an open field during a severe thunderstorm. He prayed to St. Anna and promised that if he were spared, he would become a monk.
The storm passed, and when Luther got back to Erfurt he soon joined the local Augustinian Monastery.
"He thought it would be for the rest of his life," said Irene Mildenberger of the beginning of Luther's religious journey. She now presides as pastor over an Evangelical congregation that meets in the same complex of buildings which is no longer Catholic and no longer a monastery, but is still where, Mildenberger said, "You can experience how it was like to live as a monk. You really can feel how they lived. You can pray every day in the church where Martin Luther once prayed every day for three to four hours."
Visitors can even stay overnight in modern guest rooms and experience the peacefulness of electronics-free accommodations and the fellowship that comes with a communal breakfast. The monastery is also a popular conference center in the area, and this year will be hosting a number of Luther-themed events. The highlight will be a summer "Wedding Banquet," when actors portraying Luther and his wife, the former nun Katharina Von Bora, will host guests while serving dishes from the 1500s.
Besides the monastery, Erfurt also has numerous beautiful spots associated with Luther. The magnificent Cathedral of St. Mary is where he was ordained as a priest in 1507. It sits atop a hill next to the Church of St. Severus, with a beautiful staircase sweeping down to a town plaza below. The Merchant's Bridge, the longest inhabited bridge in Europe with 32 occupied shops and residences, is where Luther would have begged for alms as a young monk.
See augustinerkloster.de for information.
There are many different ways to enjoy the historic and educational Luther Trail. Whether it's the church where it all started in Wittenberg, a national exhibition in Berlin or visiting a small town church where the Reformer once preached, the Luther Trail offers a trip across 500 years into the places and a life that changed the world of religion forever.
The historical places along the Luther Trail will be there beyond 2017, and there are annual festivals and holidays associated with the Reformation, but three national exhibits will run through Nov. 5, at Wartburg Castle, Eisenach and Berlin.
Wartburg Castle, just outside of Eisenach, will host "Luther and the Germans," which began May 4. Wittenberg will feature, "Luther! 95 Treasures — 95 People," beginning May 13. "The Luther Effect," an exhibition done by the German History Museum, opened on April 12 at Martin-Gropius-Bau, an exhibition space in Berlin.
For more information go to 3xHammer.de.
The German National Tourist Board features eight different "routes" along the Luther Trail and highlights places and events. There's a video featuring a Playmobil "Little Luther" traveling around to different sites and narrating the life of the Reformer. See germany.travel/en/specials/luther/luther.html for information.