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Luther's Presence Felt in Wittenberg : The university town southwest of Berlin preserves its history as home of the Reformation.

February 07, 1993|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

WITTENBERG, Germany — Martin Luther could hardly have known of the monumental and extensive changes in world history that he was soon to bring about when he unceremoniously nailed up his 95 theses on the door of this town's Palace Church in 1517.

As an Augustinian priest and professor of theology at Wittenberg University, he was merely posting on the school's bulletin board a list of subjects for upcoming tutorial discussions with his students, mainly on his objections to the dubious value and sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church.

After later denying absolutely the supremacy of the Pope, he was excommunicated by Rome in 1521. But the fires of the Reformation and Protestantism had already been lit and were soon spreading headlong throughout Europe.

Luther's iconoclastic nature expressed itself even more four years later when he married a former nun who had left her order and was then working in the Wittenberg household of Lucas Cranach the Elder, the master painter and a friend of Luther's who lived and worked in Wittenberg for 47 years.

Luther, never one to mollify, also had a rather dim view of Wittenberg and its citizens, since he considered them to be living on the very edge of culture and civility. Yet the flood of Europeans to the little city, particularly students anxious to hear this intemperate man preach his sermons of change, soon converted Wittenberg into an intellectual hub of Europe.

Lucas Cranach, court painter in Wittenberg and the originator of Protestant religious art, was but one of the artists, intellectuals, scholars and theologians who made 16th-Century Wittenberg glow with learning and vitality. The physical aspects of the town also underwent a renewal, blossoming with handsome buildings, homes, squares and gardens.

Today's Wittenberg, dead center of the old East Germany about 65 miles southwest of Berlin, is now emerging from a 45-year nightmare under Communism. It is once again a very pretty little town on the Elbe River, celebrating its 700-year-old charter this year and definitely worth at least a day's time for travelers in the region.

Some maps and tourist brochures identify it also as Lutherstadt, but there is really little need for that. The father of Protestantism is identified with just about everything in town. And encircling the soaring tower of the Palace Church, in huge letters easily readable from ground level, are his opening words of that beloved Lutheran hymn: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

Getting settled in: Hotel Goldener Adler, built in 1524 on the town's Market Square, counted Luther as a steady customer in its restaurant. Now ending a complete renovation, the colorful little hotel has been given 20th-Century amenities to go with its considerable history. Still, as is the case with many older European hotels, bedrooms run from moderate in size to small. Ask for one in the front overlooking the busy market, particularly for Wednesday's market day.

Waldhotel Vogel is a new one in a lovely wooded residential area just outside town. All 21 bedrooms are very modern if rather small, and there's a tiny pool, plenty of parking, excellent breakfasts and evening meals. This one is a little difficult to find and is really more convenient for motorists.

Parkhotel, 14 miles from Wittenberg in the delightful little town of Pretzsch/Elbe, has been open little more than a year. Renovated using a series of traditional buildings as a base, the hotel is a marvelous example of what new capital can do in the former East Germany.

Resembling a stately chateau in a park setting, the hotel has sparkling new rooms and baths, atelier bedrooms upstairs with exposed roof beams, a superb dining room, outdoor beer garden with bowling, and enough activities to satisfy anyone: horseback riding, biking, canoes and kayaks for the nearby river, and archery equipment. This one is a real find.

Regional food and drink: The kitchens of Wittenberg's region of Saxony-Anhalt turn out fare not all that different from other regions of Germany, although there is a strong affinity to the food of Berlin, with the usual emphasis on hearty meats, sausages, potatoes and dumplings. This area's forests have perhaps more game than others, and the seasonal vegetables, fruits and berries add color, interest and zest to local tables.

The springtime spargel (asparagus) are as fine as one finds anywhere in Europe and, along with tender new potatoes and the first tiny strawberries, herald the arrival of spring throughout Germany. All those fresh fruits account for great desserts hereabouts, and the regional Kroftitzer beer is excellent.

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