Following the River Elbe downstream, we cut through sandstone hills into Saxony. The waters flow past graceful Dresden and then by Meissen with its great Gothic cathedral perched on a hill on the left bank of the river. There is still a quiet drama to the landscape as we slip by Seußlitz with its wonderful baroque palace. The next place of any size by the Elbe is Torgau, a remarkable small town which featured on the cover of issue 52 of hidden europe — “the Elbe’s unsung star” we wrote in the accompanying article.
Following the river down from Torgau, the landscape is tamer. Not boring, perfect for cycling of course, but it takes a discerning eye to appreciate the beauty of the terrain. Eventually and inevitably, we arrive in Wittenberg where it is market day. We wander, in that aimless way which has informed over the years so many articles in hidden europe . We admire the town’s striking skyline from the bank of the Elbe, watch the kids play in the park and drink from a water fountain.
It is All Saints’ Day. We make our way up towards the Castle Church, outside which in the late autumn chill a canon is seated by a wooden table. He is selling letters of indulgence. “That’s just what you need if you want to avoid purgatory,” says a woman who evidently works at the bordello. There’s a long line of would-be takers for the letters of indulgence, each hopeful beneficiary clutching a coin to be placed in a box in exchange for one of the precious letters. Just to boost the cleric’s business a balladeer works the queue, melodically reminding all of the dreadful purgatorial torment that awaits anyone not securing an indulgence. We decide to take our chances on purgatory, make our way past the canon and slip into the tavern.
This small town by the Elbe is a place of scholarship and learning. But it also has that gritty appeal of all towns in central Europe of the period. What makes Wittenberg different from the others is one man: Martin Luther. It was abuse of indulgences — particularly the profiteering by clerics through the sale of letters of indulgence — which so incensed Luther and led him to confront the Church authorities.
In 2017, the Elbe-side city of Lutherstadt Wittenberg marked the 500th anniversary of the events which kicked off the German Reformation. It was the focus of so much media attention that we decided not to feature Wittenberg in hidden europe and instead focused on Torgau, which is so overlooked but had its own pivotal role in the religious turmoil of 1517.