Thuringia

Walkway for kids - big kids too!In Thuringia's Hainich National Park it's a morning of two halves. One minute we're walking  in Germany's largest original deciduous forest, on a tree canopy walkway designed to spark interest in the natural environment. Next we're visiting a museum celebrating the Trabant, the smoke belching two stroke car which seemed purpose built to destroy it.

The walkway, which runs for 310 metres, is beautifully designed. Its gradient is manageable by wheelchair users, who can reach it by lift. There are perfectly safe rope bridges to divert children bored by too much information.

By the 44 metre high tower at one end we meet park ranger Axel Ziehn, a former lumberjack, who takes us around and explains flora and fauna. There are about 50 wild cats in the park. They are nocturnal and rarely seen but the rangers have erected poles sprayed with scent which attracts them. The cats rub against the poles and leave hairs. The hairs provide DNA which enables experts to analyse and count the population. There are red deer and so many wild boar they sometimes have to be culled, to reduced the menace to local farmers. There are even raccoons descended from animals imported to Germany in the 1930s, which then escaped. Axel points out their droppings, draws our attention to tiny woodpecker drillings in the trunk of a tree.

Gotha street scenePart of the park, stripped of trees, was used by the German army in the 1930s for tank training. Later it was used by the Russians and the Communist East German regime for the same purpose.  More recently, rockets used in Afghanistan were tested there by tghe army of a reunited Germany But with the Cold War over the military decided it was surplus to requirements and the forest became a national park in 1997 – and later a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A few kilometres away at Trabi Paradies (Paradise), it's hard to separate reality and fantasy. Some of the cars on show, such as those used by the police, and one with a little camping tent on top, are in their original guise. Others have been converted since the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Trabi became a desirable object of retro chic. It's possible that one converted to carry a grain grinder on the back was used in Communist times, but the one which became a party wagon, with a small plunge pool incorporated, certainly wasn't.  And as for the Trabi "Popemobile", that was clearly someone's idea of a  joke. But the exhibition is worth the seven euro entrance fee, not least for the adjoining collection of old East German bicycles, which will appeal to any of you who rode fixed wheel machines with drop handlebars. Perhaps its most fascinating exhibit is a poster carrying a message of  praise for the regime from champion cyclist Gustav-Adolf Schur, saying he wouldn't have got where he was today without it, or words to that effect.

Theatre at Schloss FriedensteinWe have started the day in the gorgeous spa town of Bad Langensalza, whose Market Street comprises the most perfect ensemble of baroque period facades imaginable. We finish in Gotha, which lent its name to the Almanack, a list of Europe's complex nobility. We could do with one at Schloss Friedenstein, the town's main attraction, where dukes and devious arranged marriages come at us like hailstones. My tired brain can't keep up. Two treasures  stamp themselves on the  memory, however: one of Napoleon's hats – he visited often, dropping in, for example,  on his ill fated trip to Moscow – and Duke August, a man of transvestite tendencies who was besotted with him, acquired by buttering up Bonaparte's manservant; and the astonishing little baroque theatre, complete with mechanical scene shifting, which is still used for live performances.
 

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Roger Bray

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