Hidden away in the heart of Germany and well off the beaten tourist tracks you will find the dynastic homeland of Queen Victoria’s consort, the two duchies of Coburg and Gotha, our destination for this year’s Arts Society trip. And what a treasure trove awaited us in these 2 small towns, (population under 50,000) quite able to compete with the highly reputed collections of many a cosmopolitan city.
Having escaped serious bombing in WWII they have retained their historical character and integrity, dominated by the Baroque and neo-Gothic, and Gotha itself saved from serious deterioration by German re-unification thirty years ago and now to be seen in restored splendour. So real is the spirit of bygone days that as you stand at the foot of Schloss Friedenstein, looking upwards at the romantic Castle, you expect Prince Charming to come flying down the steps to greet his Cinderella as her coach rolls up the cobbled streets.
In past centuries the various small duchies vied with each other to build the most prestigious castles and fill them with beautiful objets d’art of cultural, historical and social value. The new Kunstkammer in Schloss Friedenstein can probably compete with such fine art collections as that in Dresden, with so many precious objects from its collection now on view. We were able to see only a small part of this region’s treasures in our 5-day trip as we also made time to visit Albert’s birthplace at Rosenau, attend a lecture on Victoria and Albert’s art collection, visit the splendid baroque Basilica of the Fourteen Saints near Bad Staffelstein and the Banz Benedictine monastery nearby, admire the exhibits in the European Museum of Modern Glass Design and enjoy a trip on the narrow-guage railway passing through the beautiful Thuringian Forest.
On the way home we stopped at the spectacular Panorama Museum in Bad Frankenhausen, only completed in 1987 and especially built to house the huge 134 metre circular painting by Werner Tübker, commisioned by the GDR regime, which depicts the last battle in the Peasants’ War fought nearby in 1525 at the time of the Reformation.
Prince Albert’s birthday falls in August but on 24th May, Queen Victoria’s 200th, we raised our glasses and drank a toast to the royal couple who had motivated us to make this very worthwhile and most enjoyable trip.