With Luther in Wittenberg

July 22, 2008 in Europe, Germany, Travelogue

The sky reflects steel grey in the rippled surface of the Elbe river. This silver ribbon of water flows clear through Prague, where we’ll be a few short weeks from now. We came to Wittenberg without a place to stay and found ourselves in a lovely campsite across the Elbe from Aldstadt (old town) Wittenberg.
One of the things that we’ve noticed about the former East Germany is the increase in cobbled streets, not just nice flat square stones but round rocks cemented together in decorative but impractical street surfaces. Our bicycles bump along with bone jarring intensity through the streets of these old towns. Wittenberg is no exception.

We’ve come to see the church.

No need to ask, “Which church?” Everyone is here to see the same thing: The church door to which Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses. That nail did more than tack down a piece of paper and dent a church door. It cracked the veneer of the Catholic church and began a rift in Christianity which cost thousands of people their lives and still pits followers of Christ one against the other today. The door isn’t there anymore. The church burned and presumably the door with it. In its place are a set of metal doors with the theses inscribed on them. They are imposing, and off limits to the touch of visitors. It is hard to imagine that one man and his pen changed the course of history in this spot.
We walked the length of the long, cobbled market square to another church at the other end: City Church. The church Martin Luther pastored. It is much simpler inside. The altar piece, painted by Cranach, is worth seeing on its own. It is not nearly as ornate or beautiful or imposing as any number of the other churches we’ve been inside. All the same, the presence of the greats of the faith who had broken the rules, bucked the establishment and battled for truth within these walls was palpable. My imagination inevitably wanders in places like these and I wonder what it would have been like to sit in the congregation hearing protestant doctrine take shape for the first time, first hand. I wonder what it was like for Martin Luther’s wife to appear with him in public in church for the first time and face the tide of scandal they produced through their union. I wonder what it would have been like to be present in the little stone chapel to the side of the church where Martin Luther appealed to the Pope to hear his case. Instead, I gather my restless children and head out into the cool afternoon in search of the temporal: lunch.
The Barkers introduced us to doners: shaved meat sandwiches with salad and some ethereal sauce that elevates lunch to a near religious experience (Bill: Tony says they’re better than the Castle.) Since then, we’ve sampled them wherever possible. Wittenberg doners are the best yet. So good, in fact, that we’ve gone back for them two days in a row. The children dive in and come up dripping from every bend: chin, knuckles, elbows, even knees. We sit in the restaurant, looking out at the old square, discussing the fact that our good friends have passed this way before and wondering if they had doners too. We wipe the boys faces, one more time, and head back for camp: we have a guest coming for dinner.

We love dinner guests.

At home we rarely go three days without friends or strangers in for a meal and an evening. On the road we carry one extra set of plates and look for folks to feed off of them. This evening we’ve invited Mr. Robert Thomasen. Mr. Thomasen found us last night and regaled us with stories of his adventures.

At eighty years old, he’s on a three month cycle tour of Eastern Germany… his third trip to Germany. Since he retired (23 yrs ago) he’s cycled from his home in Brooklyn, NY to San Diego, CA, three months in China, three months in Thailand, another three in Japan and some other places I’ve lost count of.

His whole life has been dedicated to building an interracial community in NYC and to promoting cultural tolerance and understanding everywhere he goes. It was a joy to have a meal with him. The children traded him guitar and violin music for stories of trekking in Thailand and the people in his neighbourhood. The highlight of the evening by far was this octogenarian gem singing “New York, New York” at the top of his lungs while whirling Meg around the campsite in an impromptu swing dance on the banks of the Elbe. A sight I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.

He rolled out this morning after taking our picture by the tent, giving us solid hugs good-bye and inviting us to come see him in the city… “but bring some sleeping bags!” He shouted, as he wobbled off down the road. May eighty find us still touring on bikes and as full of life and love as Mr. Thomasen. God bless your journeys, Sir, and we’ll look you up when we make it back to New York.