On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his now world-famous 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Luther’s complaints about the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences (the forgiving of sins) launched the Protestant Reformation, forever altering the cultural, political, religious and artistic landscape of Europe and the world.
As we approach the five-hundredth anniversary of this earth-shaking event, there’s no better place to explore Luther and the Reformation than his native Germany.
Start by hopping a plane to Berlin (from $1,100 roundtrip out of JFK). This once-divided city, formerly a symbol of the Third Reich and the Communist bloc, has become the new Germany’s vibrant capital, with nightlife, museums, and fine restaurants of every stripe. Make your headquarters in the historic city center — rooms at the NH Collection Berlin Mitte am Checkpoint Charlie start at just $120 a night — and head for the Deutsches Historisches Museum where “The Luther Effect: Protestantism — 500 Years in the World” runs through Nov. 5.
The exhibition chronicles the Reformation’s expansion from Germany to the rest of Europe and, eventually the world. While you are there, ground yourself in general German history by taking a stroll through the permanent collection. (Note, however, that the Luther exhibit is being held at Martin-Gropius-Bau [Niederkirchnerstraße 7] and not at the main museum complex, which is 1½ miles away.)
To really experience Luther, however, you need to see Wittenberg, the birthplace of the Reformation, 70 miles to the southwest. One such way to do this is on a full-day tour from Berlin, like the 9-hour excursion from Original Berlin Walks ($60 per person), which includes roundtrip transportation to Wittenberg and a full day’s guided sightseeing. However, towns like Wittenberg reward a slower pace, so those with more time should head south on Deutschebahn, Germany’s railway ($25 per person), from Berlin’s main station to Wittenberg’s Altstadt station, which brings you closest to the sites you’ll want to see. As you plan your travel, keep in mind that the official name of the city is now Lutherstadt Wittenberg (“Luther’s City of Wittenberg”), so be sure to use that when searching for train times.
Walk through the Luthergarten (where 500 trees have been planted to commemorate the anniversary) and start your visit at the Schlosskirche (“castle church”) where Martin Luther nailed up his 95 theses five centuries ago. (Or, maybe, he didn’t. Scholars disagree on what precisely happened on Oct. 31, 1517, but no matter). There’s certainly no disputing the fact that this medieval building is Luther’s burial place and is the church most closely connected to him. There are even weekly English-language church services where you can sing Luther’s hymns in the very places he wrote and sang them himself.
Also visit the Stadtkirche St. Marien (“St. Mary’s Church”), which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the oldest church in the city. Luther preached here many times and the interiors feature artwork by his good friend Lucas Cranach, the Elder, another Wittenberg resident. You’ll also want to stop at Luther’s house, which is preserved with artifacts from Luther’s life along with other important Cranach paintings. Nearby is the home of Philipp Melanchthon, a professor at Wittenberg University, who was the most important humanist proponent of the Reformation. (A two-day, combined $12 ticket for both houses can be purchased at either site.)
There are many places to stay in Wittenberg, but history buffs should choose the Hotel Alte Canzley, a modern hotel housed in a building dating back to 1391 (from $115).
While Wittenberg is the town most steeped in Lutheran history, there are plenty of other places to explore his influence and the story of the Reformation. From Wittenberg it is just an hour’s train ride to Leipzig in the modern state of Saxony. One of Europe’s great cities for music (home at various times, to Wagner, Bach and Mendelssohn), Leipzig also played an important role in the Reformation — and Luther’s final schism from the Catholic church — which is detailed in the exhibition “Leipzig in Dispute” at the town’s history museum (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig) located at the old market square. David: This exhibition appears to be open-ended. Among the artifacts on view are a silver chalice that Luther owned and his wife Katharina’s wedding ring.
Forty minutes northwest of Leipzig is Torgau, the town known both as the “wet nurse” and the political center of the Reformation, this is where Luther and his associates worked out the details of their new church. It was here that the first German-language baptism of the new faith took place in 1519, and in October 1544, Martin Luther dedicated the first Protestant-designed church in Hartenfels Castle. This is also the place where Luther’s wife died; the house where she passed away is now open as a museum and she is buried in the Marienkirche.
After passing back through Leipzig, head another hour south on the train to Dresden, one of Saxony’s most charming towns. Though devastated by the Allied bombings in 1945 and the subsequent decades behind the Iron Curtain, the city has rebounded in recent years. The main church, the Frauenkirche, once lay in ruins, but through generous donations from Protestants around the world, it was completely rebuilt as a monument both to Dresden’s resilience and to Luther’s ideals. A handsome statue of the preacher stands in the main town square just in front of the church.
Other highlights of Dresden include the Zwinger museum — filled with wonderful paintings by Lucas Cranach and Raphael’s famous Sistine Madonna — and the Dresden State Art Collections, which include the famous Green Vault filled with incredible objects acquired by the Saxon Electors of the Holy Roman Empire. There’s some Luther memorabilia there, too, including his breviary. Behind the Frauenkirche is the INNSIDE Dresden, a sleek and very comfortable modern hotel (from $68) with outstanding breakfasts.
Dresden is served by an airport that connects to other cities in Germany and across Europe or you can take the two-hour train ($24 one way) back to Berlin to head home. If you are jetting off to other parts of Germany, a couple of other stops connected to the Reformation might be worth your while. From Frankfurt, you can take the train to Bretten ($24) to visit Melanchthon’s birthplace, which has become a museum and shrine dedicated to this teacher’s role in the Reformation. If you find yourself in Mannheim, which is just a quick train ride south from Frankfurt, be sure to check out the exhibition on the papacy (“Die Päpste”) at the fantastic Reiss-Engelhorn Museum through Nov. 26. The show not only traces the history of Catholicism, but gives visitors the opportunity to explore the religious history of Europe that led to Martin Luther and the Reformation.
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