An historic town formerly in the DDR (East Germany), Weimar is beloved by Germans but not well-known to Westerners. It is, however, catching on. Gemütlichkeit's advice: see it now.

Of all the historic towns now emerging as the old East Germany becomes fully Westernized, perhaps the most important is Weimar, known and dismissed in the West for the last 40 years as the capital of the "old Weimar Republic."

That period of ineffectual government, marked by inflation so virulent that bushel baskets of Deutsche Mark were required to purchase a single postage stamp, led to National Socialism and Adolf Hitler.

But dismissing Weimar because of its connection with a failed government is like judging Michael Jordan's athletic ability based on his baseball playing days. Weimar, like Jordan, has so much more to offer. Sometimes called the "Athens of Germany," it was never a spawning ground for extreme politics, but a cradle for great literature, music and ideas.

That this placid little town (58,000 pop.) played a major role in the development of German culture hit home at our first sight-seeing stop - the small chapel in the town's Alter Friedhof (old cemetery). As the only visitors on a rainy December morning, we descended alone to the Ducal Vault where the ornate sarcophagi of the royal family of the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar play second fiddle to a pair of plain, polished wooden coffins. Sitting side by side, they are occupied by the remains of two of the most revered citizens in German history, Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. Weimar was the physical and creative headquarters for both.

The genius Goethe, who created Faust and directed the National Theater, is often referred to as the greatest German of them all and his pal Schiller as in Schiller's "Ode to Joy" in the glorious choral movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony and the William Tell drama is not far behind. Perhaps one way to judge their impact on Germany is by the literally thousands of Schiller Strassen and Goethe Platzen in towns all over the country.

Among Weimar's other famous citizens: the painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder; J.S. Bach and Franz Liszt, both of whom directed the local orchestra; Walter Gropius, who established the original Bauhaus, which altered forever the course of modern design and architecture; and the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Of course, there is a Cranachhaus, a Liszthaus, a Bachstube, a Schillerhaus, a Goethehaus and even a Goethe Gartenhaus in the town's lovely Ilm Park, all of which can be visited.

The Deutsches National Theater, adoption site of the constitution of the ill-fated Weimar Republic in 1919, was almost completely destroyed in World War II but today offers a schedule of music and drama whose frequency and quality are extraordinary for a town of this size.

Visitors can also take in a variety of palaces and museums or make the grim, five-mile pilgrimage to Buchenwald, one of the largest of Hitlers concentration camps.

Even if most Americans don't know much about Weimar, the Germans, of course, are in love with the town and fully aware of its historical significance. Soon after unification, the government began pouring millions of Deutsche Mark into making it a showplace. The culmination of that will be 1999, a year in which Weimar has been designated Europe's Cultural Capital. It is by far the smallest city so named and follows such European metropolises as Madrid (92), Lisbon (94), Copenhagen (96) and Stockholm (98).

Even though Weimar might now be said to be a "work in progress," the cranes and scaffolding detract only a little from its peaceful charm.

Given the publicity push that will accompany the "Cultural Capital" hoorah, Weimar could become like Salzburg or Rothenburg ob der Tauber, where hundreds of buses each day dump their loads of tourists to have a look around.

The time to see Weimar is now; preferably in the off-season.

Weimar Hotels

We would be comfortable in any of the hotels reviewed here; but one is extraordinary and two others offer that special combination of warmth, comfort and price that earned them a "G" rating.

Wolff's Art Hotel & Restaurant

(Editor's Choice)

Stunning interior design - a 90s version of Bauhaus/Art Nouveau - and a fantastic collection of Polish and Czech poster art combine to make this new (1993) hotel a visual delight. Wolff's is the creation of an East German engineer, Dr. Christian Wolff, who acquired the property from the descendants of a Jewish family, most of whom died in nearby Buchenwald. As a memorial to the family, Dr. Wolff has erected on the grounds a tiled monolith that is a striking focal point of an outdoor conversation pit.

Two extraordinary guestrooms are numbers 13 and 14 at 260 DM ($158). We give a slight nod to the former but both are huge with massive white wood beams, dormer windows, lofty ceilings and large, well-furnished separate sitting areas. They are the best rooms we saw in Weimar.

Most rooms, like number 2, a light, airy corner double, have tiled floors (not to worry, there is radiant heating under all floors), tall ceilings and windows, the latest halogen lighting and spacious, sparkling, fully-tiled bathrooms.

The 35-room Wolff is actually four buildings located in a residential area about 10 minutes walk from the center.

Beer enthusiasts should note that the hotel's restaurant is the only place in Weimar which serves Singer beer, made by a brewery "museum" in a nearby town.

Factoring in the Wolff's warm welcome with its extraordinary decor and amenities, we rank it Weimar's best hotel.

• Daily Rates: Singles 150 DM ($91), doubles 190 DM ($115), suites 240 to 260 DM ($145-$158). Sauna, solarium, swimming pool, nonsmoking rooms.
Contact: Wolff's Art Hotel & Restaurant Freiherr-vom-Stein-Allee 3a/b, D-99425 Weimar, tel. 5 40 60, fax 54 06 99.
Rating: Quality 17/20 Value 17/20

Christliches Hotel Amalienhof

(Editor's Choice)

Going from the stylish Wolff's to the down-home, 22-room, Amalienhof is not as big a step down as one might imagine. More traditional and old world, the Amalienhof is the Wolff's equal in warmth of welcome and not far behind in comfort.

There is no restaurant or elevator but our room, number 203, had a high ceiling, good furniture and good reading lights. There were two windows, a comfortable sofa, desk, table and two hard chairs. Overhead lighting was only adequate and the bathroom a one person affair had no toiletries, bar soap or washcloths. There was a dispenser of soft soap, however.

The basic buffet breakfast, in a small but pleasant room, was served by a friendly, efficient woman of about 60 who looked like the dean of women at the local university. While the selection was not vast, the items served, notably the cheese and diced fresh fruit dipped from a large bowl, were first rate.

Owned by the church (one presumes Lutheran), the Amalienhof is just steps from the center of town. Innkeepers Karin and Jochen Bretthauer are particularly helpful and friendly.

• Daily Rates: Singles 125 to 150 DM ($76-$91), doubles 186 to 196 DM ($113-$119).
Contact: Christliches Hotel Amalienhof Amalienstrasse 2, D-99423 Weimar, tel. 54 90, fax 54 91 10
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 14/20

Flamberg Hotel Elephant

This famous hotel on the town square has been remodeled since it was first reviewed in 1990 by Gemütlichkeit's Claudia Fischer and Roger Holliday. Then it was owned and operated by the state-run Interhotel organization and an unimpressed Fischer/Holliday gave it a "special DDR rating of two flickering stars."

But things have changed. Gone are the tiny black and white TVs and the wild assortment of unmatched towels. The Hotel Elephant, which Hitler visited many times, has returned to five-star, CNN-on-the-cable, glory.

It is interesting to compare its 1930s-style Art Nouveau decor with the Wolff's contemporary version. The Elephant's guestrooms, though large and expensively furnished, are just a bit clunky. The furniture is heavy and bulky, the bathroom tile patterns and colors a bit strange and light fixtures that looked good in the days of the Weimar Republic aren't much to read by.

Public rooms, however, are extraordinary and worth a peek, even if you're not staying at the hotel. See the Franz Liszt bar, the Richard Wagner Saal, the library and the Anna Amalia restaurant (it was she, the Duchess of Saxe-Weimar, who hired the writer Christoph Martin Wieland to tutor her son, Karl August, who in turn convinced Goethe to come to Weimar where he stayed for 57 years).

This is an expensive, rather impersonal hotel, but full of history. Goethe and Schiller wined and dined here, as did the likes of J.S. Bach, Franz Liszt, Leo Tolstoy, Franz Grillparzer, Richard Wagner, Clara Schumann and, of course, the villain of the century, Mr. H. (Hitler spoke several times from the balcony off room number 128 at the front of the hotel, a suite in which he presumably was a guest.)

• Daily Rates: Singles 200 to 260 DM ($121-$158), doubles 260 to 380 DM ($158-$230). Special weekend packages available. Some nonsmoking rooms.
Contact: Flamberg Hotel Elephant Markt 19, D-99423 Weimar, tel. 80 20, fax 6 53 10
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 11/20

(Just Asking: Apparently, for $100,000, one can overnight in the Lincoln bedroom in the Whitehouse. Considering Lincoln was probably the greatest American of the 19th century, that may be a fair price. With that in mind, does the approximately $218 it costs to reserve room number 128 in Weimar's Flamberg Hotel Elephant, where Adolph Hitler is said to have stayed when in Weimar, sound about right?)

Pension Altenburg

(Editor's Choice)

A 15-minute walk across the Ilm and above the town, the Pension Altenburg is the best value in Weimar. Frau Marikka Hüttmann offers 12 simple but well-scrubbed rooms all with private bath, TV and telephone. Some on the first floor (our second floor) are under the eaves and have cozy dormer windows.

Number 8 is a large single that rents for 90 DM ($55) and number 12, one of the more interesting dormer window rooms, has twin beds and goes for 130 DM ($79). (Though her brochure lists room prices at 90 DM and 150 DM, Mrs. Hüttmann quoted us prices of 90 DM for singles and 130 DM for doubles.)

The house itself recently underwent a complete reconstruction and is on what looks to be an acre or two of land, thus there is plenty of free parking.

• Daily Rates: Singles 90 DM ($55), doubles 130 DM ($79). Cable TV, no elevator.
Contact: Pension Altenburg, Tiefurter Allee 2a, D-99425 Weimar, tel. 03643/64980, fax 03643/400303.
Rating: Quality 10/20 Value 15/20

Hotel Liszt

Most of the rooms of this contemporarily-decorated hotel, which is a five-minute stroll from the center, come with kitchen facilities. We assume the main clientèle is longer-staying business travelers.

The location is right, it is clean and the rooms larger than average, but the Liszt has not a shred of old-world charm.

• Daily Rates: Singles 95 to 105 DM ($58-$64), doubles 140 DM ($85), apartments 170 to 210 DM ($103-$127). Underground parking.
Contact: Hotel Liszt Lisztstrasse 1-3, D-99423 Weimar, tel. 5 40 80, fax 54 08 30.
Rating: Quality 8/20 Value 12/20

Weimar Restaurants

Based on the three restaurants below, Weimar will not be recognized as a capital of gastronomy in 1999. But the food was straightforward, a few dishes were very good, the portions were massive and we ate every morsel.

Sommer's Weinstuben

Just around the corner from the Christliches Hotel Amalienhof. The small, dark dining room with plain wood tables, a big tile stove and old photographs, was pleasant enough until halfway through dinner when one of the under-30 diners asked for the music to be cranked up.

Like many cafés and restaurants in Weimar, the Sommer's clientèle is largely students.

The food was so-so. The salad greens were fresh and crunchy but the dressing watery. A skillet of fried potatoes, thin slices of pork, onion and garlic was hearty but too garlicky and too greasy.

The beer was good and the service friendly.

Sommer's Weinstuben und Restaurant Humboldtstrasse 2, D-99423, tel. 03643/65919.
Rating: Quality 7/20 Value 8/20

Gasthaus zum weissen Schwan

"The White Swan is ready to welcome you with open wings at any time." So wrote Goethe in a letter inviting a friend to Weimar. This charming inn next to Goethe's house has been beautifully restored since unification and is, as it has been for centuries, Weimar's favorite "local."

The Stube, where we were served, has the traditional wood floors, dark wooden tables and head-high dark wood paneling. Two interesting murals depict rollicking parties.

Big plates of food range in price from about 18 to 28 DM ($11-$17). Wildragout (18.50 DM/$11) was a rich stew of wild game including boar and venison. Chicken breast (22.50 DM/$14) stuffed with ground boiled beef was too dry but a decent cream sauce saved it - barely. Salads of butter lettuce, tomatoes and a dill dressing were crisp and fresh.

Gasthaus zum weissen Schwan Frauentorstr. 23, D-99423. tel. 03643/202521, fax 03643/202575.
Rating: Quality 11/20 Value 11/20

Residenz Café

The best food we found was at this smoky, sprawling, busy student hangout. Schnitzel mit Petersilienkartoffeln (19.50/$12) was an excellent piece of veal, perfectly cooked. But the dozen or so small potatoes with it, having probably been boiled earlier in the day then microwaved, had a strange texture.

Thuringer Grillplatte (18.50 DM/$11) was a giant mixed grill of various meats and sausages served with warm potato salad dotted with chunks of bacon. Vvvvveeeeery filling.

Good mixed salads were 4.50 DM ($2.75) and the beer was the world/s best, Budvar from the Czech Republic.

Don't mind the hopelessly confused decor which is probably left over from the communist days.

Residenz Café Grüner Markt 4, D-99423 Weimar, tel/fax 03643/59408.
Rating: Quality 12/20 Value 13/20

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WEIMAR

* Altitude: 208 meters, 682 feet
* Population: 58,000

Tourist Information Weimar

* Markt 10, D-99423 Weimar
* Tel. 03643/2400-0
* Fax 03643/61240
* Event hotline 03643/2400-30

Location: Weimar is directly on the Eisenach-Dresden Autobahn 4 (E40) with a connection to the Autobahn 9 Berlin-Leipzig-Nürnberg. By train, Weimar is a stop on Frankfurt/Main-Leipzig InterCity line as well as on the Kassel-Erfurt-Chemnitz regional line

Map: ADAC #23

Guide Service: Those with more than a passing interest in Weimar's history might find that a guide hired through the tourist office is worth the money particularly if two or more couples can share the cost. The charge for two hours is 120 DM ($73). Ask for Alexander Livitsky, an erudite young man, who took us on a fascinating quick march through the town's main sites. After such an overview, you can return to the Goethehaus, Schillerhaus, museums, etc. and browse them at your leisure.

Pass for Sights/Transport: The WeimarCard costs 25 DM ($15), is valid for 72 hours and provides admission to most of the major sights, unlimited use of public transportation (buses) and reduced prices (50%) on sight-seeing tours and theater events (10%) at the Deutsches National Theater.

Distance to:

* City KM/Miles
* Berlin 300/186
* Düsseldorf 400/248
* Frankfurt/Main 300/186
* Hamburg 500/310
* Copenhagen 700/434
* London 1000/620
* Madrid 2000/1240
* Munich 400/248
* Prague 300/186
* Rome 1500/930
* Vienna 900/558

Key Attractions:

Site Hours Closed Cost
Goethehaus 9-5 Mon 6 DM
Goethe Gartenhaus 9-12 1-5 Mon 6 DM
Schillerhaus 9-5 Tue 5 DM
Ducal Vault 9-1 2-5 Tue 4 DM
Liszthaus 9-1 2-5 Mon 4 DM
Tiefurt Mansion 9-1 2-5 Mon 6 DM
Anna Amalia Library 11-12:30 Sun 2 DM
Belvedere Castle 10-6 Mon 4 DM

February 1997