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Eastern Germany's Cultural Capital : Weimar visitors follow in the footsteps of Bach, Goethe, Liszt, Nietzsche, Schiller and Gropius.

August 23, 1992|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

WEIMAR, Germany — Politically speaking, this town's moment in the sun was neither bright nor long-lasting. It was named the first--and last--capital of the German Weimar Republic at the end of World War I, and its moment lasted only until Hitler took things into his pathological hands in 1933.

More fortunately for Weimar, its reputation as a wellspring of German humanism began in the 17th Century, when Lucas Cranach the Elder produced some of his finest work. He was followed in 1708 by Johann Sebastian Bach, who, as court organist to the Duchy of Weimar-Saxony for 10 years, was commissioned to produce a new work every month.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lived in Weimar for nearly half a century. He and master playwright Friedrich Schiller, the German Shakespeare, helped to establish Weimar as the center of classical Teutonic literature in the 18th Century. Franz Liszt stayed here 17 years, mesmerizing Europe with his music. And philosopher Frederich Nietzsche spent his final years in Weimar.

Henry van de Velde and Walter Gropius changed the course of modern architecture with their Bauhaus School here in the early 20th Century. During the 1920s two founding figures of abstract painting, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, also taught at the Bauhaus.

Obviously conscious of its estimable past, the town is content to rest comfortably on its considerable laurels. It is a compact and lovely town garlanded with parks and gardens, set in the beautiful Ilm River valley. And Weimar seems to have been created for the walker, with magnificent medieval buildings and other sights clustered around Market Square.

Getting settled: Built in 1542 as the home of Weimar's mayor, Hotel Elephant became an inn in 1696. From its marble floors to its contemporary furnishings, lovely dining room and garden terrace, the Elephant is a modern, first-class hotel. Yet it also has bedrooms without private baths at considerably less cost.

Der Russischer Hof, built around a central garden courtyard, has been a hotel since 1805. Very contemporary bedrooms run from medium to small in size, baths usually the latter.

Hotel Thuringer, by the Main Railway Station, has been a Gasthaus for only a century. All-new bedrooms are of medium size, but the decor is pretentious. There's a restaurant and cozy bar .

Book private-room B&Bs through the city tourist office for between $33 and $46, double.

Regional food and drink: The Thuringian wurst is as famous as any in Germany. It's always long and is usually served with black bread ( brot ) and mustard ( senf ). They're about $1.50 at street stands, including the brot and senf .

Baseball-size Thuringian klossen (dumplings) are on every menu as local specialty, served with just about any dish. Barley is grown throughout the region, producing a fine beer.

Good local dining: Gasthaus zum Weissen Schwan (Am Frauenplan, near Market Square) has been in business since about 1500 and still has a cannonball in a wall, put there when Napoleon plundered the town in 1806. Goethe and Schiller were frequent guests during their day, and the White Swan remains the town's best restaurant.

The Thuringer bratwurst with sauerkraut, potatoes and garnish ($9.50) was delicious, and the roast duck with wild berries, klossen and red cabbage ($19) a regal feast. The menu here is crammed with local specialties, and the two floors have a decidedly rustic ambience.

At Sommer's wine and beer stuben (Humboltstrasse 2) food is served at the sidewalk cafe, bar or in two rooms; the latter was singularly lacking in decor, but the conversation was lively everywhere. Sommer's menu leans heavily on potatoes, usually prepared in the Swiss- rosti style (a crisp, pan-fried pancake) and served with mushrooms, ham, tuna or bacon for about $4.50.

The dining room of Hotel Russischer Hof (Goetheplatz 2) also sticks pretty much to local specialties, including sauerbraten with Thuringer klossen , roast duck with the same and braised apple, plus wild boar in a creamed cranberry sauce with dumplings. Most main dishes are in the $12 range, the duck $14, cold plates $9.

On your own: Start with a rambling walk from Market Square, making sure to see the homes of Goethe, Schiller and Liszt and their museums. Now head for the German National Theater, with its statue of Goethe and Schiller on Theaterplatz. Lucas Cranach the Elder's altar painting in St. Peter and Paul (Herder Church) is not to be missed, since this friend of Martin Luther is considered the father of Protestant religious art. The Residence Castle also has a formidable collection of master paintings.

A sad chapter in Weimar's history is the nearby Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald. Some 56,000 people from 35 countries died there.

GUIDEBOOK: Beautiful Weimar

Getting there: From Los Angeles, fly Lufthansa to Leipzig, then take the train 44 miles to Weimar. Delta, United, Northwest, American and TWA will get you to Frankfurt. An advance-purchase, round-trip ticket connecting to Leipzig from Frankfurt will cost $1,128 on Lufthansa, $1,102 on the other airlines. The Leipzig-Weimar train fare is inexpensive.

Where to stay: Hotel Elephant (Markt 19; $127 double B&B, $72 without private bath); Der Russischer Hof (Goetheplatz 2; $114 double B&B); Hotel Thuringen (Brennerstrasse 42; $110 double B&B, $72 without bath).

For more information: German National Tourist Office, 11766 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 750, Los Angeles 90025, (310) 575-9799.

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