Ilmenau: Walking in the footsteps of Goethe

by Zac Steger

The small university town of Ilmenau sits at the edge of the Thuringian Forest in central Germany, taking its name from the River Ilm that flows through it. Though long known for its mining, glass, and porcelain industries, visitors to the town often come for its association with Germany’s most famous writer and scholar, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Today, the Goethe Trail takes visitors along the scenic pathways around the town that Goethe himself once walked.

Goethe’s first of 28 visits to Ilmenau came at the request of the Duke of Weimar in 1776. His job was to inspect the finances and taxation system of the Ilmenau offices, focusing in particular on issues of local corruption. However, Goethe spent much of his time and energy on reviving the silver and copper mines, which had been unproductive for some 30 years. He succeeded in both finances and mining, but his experiences with nature were his most treasured association with the town.

Though he devoted much energy into his official work, Goethe did continue his literary endeavors. His writing during this period includes his famous “Wanderers Nachtlied” (“Traveler’s Night Song”), which he wrote on the Kickelhahn, the highest of the hills surrounding the town. Short and sweet, this poem is a quiet reflection on his love of the natural world.

The history of Ilmenau was first recorded in 1341 under the first ruling landgraves, though it is believed that silver and copper mining was already taking place here a century before. By the time of Goethe’s visits, the town was also producing porcelain and glassworks, benefiting from its position along the trade route from Erfurt to Nuremburg. University life in Ilmenau did not begin until 1894 when the “Thringisches Technikum” was founded as a private training institute for mechanical and electrical engineers. This made way for today’s Technical University.

Fires that seemed to plague the city, the greatest of which occurred in 1752, destroyed much of the town’s early architecture. In the years that followed, the town was largely rebuilt under the plans of Gottfried Heinrich Krohne, whose influence is seen in much of the Baroque redevelopment in Thuringia.

However, one building that was not rebuilt following the great fire of 1752 was the rococo castle built by Duke Herzog Ernst August von Sachsen-Weimar.  This summer residence was destroyed within a few years of its completion, having stood on the current site of the old post office.  Today, all that remains is the wing known as the “Alte Frsterei” (Old Forestry), which now houses a civic art gallery and is a good place to start exploring the town.  It is also one of the places Goethe stayed during visits in 1813 and 1831, each time celebrating his August 28th birthday.

Walking from the Old Forestry at Wetzlaerplatz towards the town center, one passes the curious looking Weather Column.  Funded by the “Thringische Glasinstrumentenfabrik” local glass manufacturers, this landmark uses animals to depict the time of day around the top of the column.

The late Gothic style Saint Jakobuskirche is believed to date back to the fifteenth century, though relics of the original twelfth- and thirteenth-century Romanesque structure can be seen in the foundations in the nave.  It was rebuilt in 1760-1761 following the 1752 fire. In 1911, Walcker’s of Ludwigsburg built the church organ, which is the largest of its kind in Thuringia.

The “Schsischer Hof” (also known as the “Posthof”) stands as one of the most beautiful and historic buildings in Ilmenau. Guests here have included Charlotte von Stein, who took up residence at Goethe’s request in 1776, and Corona Schrter, a renowned singer and actress at the Weimar Court, and the first to take on the role of Goethe’s Iphigenia.  Though she stayed here a relatively short period until her death in 1802, she is buried, along with several other contemporaries of Goethe, in a cemetery on the northern edge of the town.

Many shops line the “Strae des Friedens” along the way to the Wenzel House, which now houses the tourist office. Named after the family that originally lived there, the Wenzels came to the city to make glass, and in later generations, were the town’s postmasters and mayors.  Karl Ludwig von Knebel, a close friend of Goethe, lived here from 1800 to 1804.

A short walk out of the town center leads to Zechenhaus, or pit house. Due to its location at the edge of town, this baroque building was spared from the fires that devastated much of the town. Goethe visited the pit house on many occasions during his time as the director of the mining commission. The nearby miner’s chapel is another important landmark in Ilmenau’s mining history.

The true gem of Ilmenau is the town hall, reflecting three different building periods. This town hall was rebuilt from 1768 to 1786 under Krohne’s baroque design, while incorporating the Renaissance portal dating back to 1625 from the previous structure. Three more wings were later added at the start of the twentieth century. Dates are inscribed above the doorway to remind the citizens of the dreadful fires of 1603, 1624, and 1752.

The Amtshaus (courthouse) was originally built by Countess Sophie von Henneberg and then rebuilt under the designs of Krohne. Completed in 1756, it contained courtrooms on the ground floor and accommodations for the ducal family above, who later summoned Goethe from Weimar. In 1949, on his 200th birthday, a memorial focusing on Goethe’s work in Ilmenau was created in his first floor living quarters. The Goethe memorial is decorated with furniture from the period, including the Baroque bookcase and writing desk where he presumably worked.  Works inside document not only Goethe’s work in Ilmenau, but also notable figures connected with him and local industry. The Miner’s Room, for example, provides insight into the silver and copper mining industry and Goethe’s efforts to keep the trade alive.  The Amtshaus is the official start of the Goethe Trail.

Visitors to Ilmenau often trace Goethe’s footsteps along the Goethe Trail, which takes them to the many places associated with the scholar and writer in and around the town. It begins at the Amtshaus and takes visitors on a long hike outside of the town into the surrounding hills.

One of the first important stops along the trail is the Schwalbenstein, where Goethe composed the fourth act of Iphigenia in Taurus, a reworking of the play by Euripides, in one day on March 19th, 1779.  Further on the walk is the former site of a medieval castle at the “Grosser Hermannstein”. The cliff houses a cave of which Goethe described as “my beloved place of sojourn, a place to make my home.”

A reproduction of the small hut (the “Pirschhuschen”) where Goethe composed his “Wanderers Nachtlied” can be found on the Kickelhahn. One can view deep into the Thuringian Forest from the Kickelhahn Tower, and as far as the Harz Mountains to the north on a clear day.  From there the trail leads to the “Jagdhaus Gabelbach”, a hunting lodge built for Duke Carl Augustus in 1783. Goethe stayed here on several occasions and a small exhibit focusing on Goethe’s scientific research in the forest is located inside.

The Goethe Trail comes to an end at the Goethe House in Sttzerbach, where Goethe stayed on many occasions. Also known by the owner’s name, Gundelachs, it houses a museum featuring antique furniture and an exhibition on glass manufacturing in the region.

Along with Frankfurt and Weimar, Ilmenau is considered the third “Goethe city” in Germany and a must see for any admirer of his work. On his last visit to the town on his 82nd birthday, Goethe reflected, “Ilmenau has cost me much time, but I have learnt something and earned a view of nature that I would not like to exchange for any price”.

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