Discovering Jena and the Thuringen area

From literary giants to world class optics to international cookies, Jena and the surrounding region has been full of surprises.  We had no idea this area had so much to offer.  Throw in a comfortable home base, the use of a car, home cooking, and generous hosts and it has added up to a relaxing and enjoyable visit.






Jena itself is a charming little city with a population just over 100,000. It is located in the Thuringia State in central Germany.  Thuringia is nicknamed “the green heart of Germany” because of the dense forest that covers its terrain.  Jena is tucked away in the Saale Valley, surrounded by limestone cliffs and hills that are dominated by many kilometres of well groomed and well posted walking paths.

Our knowledgeable tour guides: Mellie (left) and Theresa (right)

Detlev’s 16-year old daughter Mellie and her friend Theresa gave us a tour of the city one afternoon.  The girls were well prepared with Wikipedia notes and seemed to welcome the opportunity to practice their English as we walked through the downtown core.  From atop the highest building in Jena (26 stories), we were treated to a birds eye view of the city and the girls eagerly pointed out all the prominent points of interest.

We learned about  Goethe and Schiller, two renowned German writers, who spent time here.  More recently, Carl Zeiss, Ernst Abbe and Otto Schott who are well known for their collaborative work developing optical instruments really put Jena on the map in the 19th century and onward. The Optical Museum in Jena is the only one of its kind in Germany.  The Zeiss-Planetarium which opened in 1926 in Jena is the oldest continuously working planetarium in the world.

A pedestrian street in Jena with many outdoor cafes.

Beyond Jena, we explored the capital city of Thuringia, Erfurt which has a beautiful historic centre.  Aside from the prominent Cathedral or Dom, the Krämerbrücke, a bridge crossing the Breitstrom, a small tributary of the Gera River is probably the most interesting sight. The bridge is covered with 32 inhabited buildings. It was built in 1325 with a church on either bridgehead, one of which, the Ägidienkirche, is still functional.  This was my third visit to Erfurt over a span of 39 years (my that makes me sound old!).  My first visit was as a young girl when I came to Germany with my mother.  At that time, Erfurt was part of East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic.  Although I was only 11 years old, I vividly recall the Dom being very dark and sombre and actually quite a frightening place for a young girl to visit.  I was, however, fascinated by the Krämerbrücke which at the time was lined with colourful little houses.  These have been replaced by tourist shops and cafes today.  My last visit was in 2004 when I visited Germany with both my parents and my youngest brother, Jim.  Not much seems to have changed in Erfurt since that visit, at least not that I noticed.

The Dom in Erfurt.

Weimar is another city of interest located about halfway between Jena and Erfurt.  It is famous for its cultural heritage dating as far back as 899.   Not only was this the place where Germany’s first democratic constitution was signed after the First World War, but it was also the focal point of the German Enlightenment and home of the leading literary characters, the writers Goethe and Schiller. We spent an afternoon wandering through the historic centre of this town, admiring the architecture and monuments.

Our trip to Jena was not only focused on culture and history. Located in such beautiful surroundings, nature was an integral part of our visit. Saalfeld Fairy Grottoes (Feengrotten) are abandoned underground mines dating back to the 16th century that have been transformed into a tourist attraction.  A fairy-themed playground and a museum are all part of the attraction making it a very family-oriented venue.  We were interested in the mines/caves which we could view by guided tour only.  Unfortunately, the tour was only in German, but we did have audio guides in English to offer a little bit of information along the way.  The caves were interesting although not nearly as impressive as caves we have seen in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, USA.

We did several hikes in the surrounding hills of varying lengths and difficulties.  One hike ended with a visit to a cookie factory which reminded us of the Hershey chocolate factory in Smiths Falls, Ontario. Here you could buy all kinds of cookies and chocolates at a fraction of the regular price.  After sampling many cookies and buying more than we should have, we met the factory manager from whom we learned that this cookie factory is the supplier of the Kirkland brand of cookies at Costco. These are the special boxes of cookies that come out for Christmas.  So next time you’re in Costco, you can be assured that those cookies are authentic German made – we can vouch for it!

Our physical fitness was put to the test with a visit to a zip lining park called Kletterwald Hohenfelden.  This was no mere zip lining.  The park consisted of several courses of varying degrees of difficulty which tested your physical abilities as well as your fear of heights.  It was a fun way to spend the afternoon, an equal mix of sheer panic and exhilaration.  The highlight was doing the course called “Qualification” which was a pre-requisite in order to do the most advanced circuit.  Kai, Detlev and I courageously faced our fears and conquered the course….Chris, on the other hand, chickened out and kept his feet firmly on the ground, opting to take video instead.

Video: Ziplining in Germany

Category: Europe, Germany
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2 Responses
  1. Angus says:

    I think that I’d have stayed on the ground with Chris and directed. Those trees look pretty scary to me.

    • christina says:

      The scariest part for me was doing the tarzan rope swing. Even though you know you have a security harness that will “catch” you if your arms fail, it was still scary to jump off the platform. As you can see from the video we just posted, I’m not exactly the most graceful at it either…..ah well, it makes good video 🙂 The last thing we did took absolutely no strength at all, we just had to step off the platform and we would automatically be lowered to the ground. But having the nerve to step off the platform from such a height was one of the hardest things to do. When you watch the video, I am commenting on some guy who is taking an awfully long time to do it. Then when we all got to the platform, Kai tried to do it, but then let his dad go first. Detlev made it look easy when really it wasn’t. You’ll notice I don’t even look down, I just sit on my bum and gently let myself off the platform – mind over matter.

      I noticed most people our age were just watching their kids do the courses…..but where’s the fun in that! Btw, we’re off to Berlin tomorrow for a few days.