The hand print of history is clearly visible on the landscape as my train from Berlin nears the compact riverside city of Erfurt. Vast fields stretching in every direction are a reminder of Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaften (LPG) – the collective farms that dominated agriculture in the rural state of Thuringia from the 1950s until the collapse of the East German regime in 1989.

Jens Wilhelm, park ranger at Thuringia’s 7500-hectare Hainich National Park, tells me these colossal fields still undermine biodiversity. But nowadays LPG are largely a rueful joke in this bucolic region of forests, farms and ducal towns that has reinvented itself as Germany’s green heartland. Among the richly scented pralines and truffles I sample at Goldhelm Schokolade, a chocolate maker on Erfurt’s medieval merchants' bridge or Kramerbrucke, is an LPG chocolate bar. This bestseller reminds locals of an East German cake filled with "pudding creme".

Contemporary Thuringians can afford to look back with gentle humour on a period that destroyed more than just hedgerows – as the museum in Erfurt’s former Stasi headquarters attests. Having studied in East Germany in the 1980s and witnessed the grey pallor on the region then, I am astonished by how utterly it has brightened. Today, Thuringia’s mix of rambling and cycling trails and spruced-up towns steeped in history attracts throngs of German visitors. With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation coming up next year, overseas visitors are also discovering the charms of the Land of Luther.

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The father of the Reformation, Martin Luther was born in Eisleben in neighbouring Saxony-Anhalt but spent much of his life in Thuringia. He went to school in Eisenach – the beautiful half-timbered house where he supposedly lived is well worth a visit – and completed his world-changing German translation of the New Testament at Wartburg Castle, which towers over the town.

In Erfurt, where Luther lived for six years after completing his studies at the university, I visit St Augustine’s Monastery and see his prayer cell and the stone floor where the monks slept together. With its cloisters and magnificent stained glass windows, the medieval monastery, which was extensively restored in 2000-2003, still conveys a sense of the God-fearing frugality of the monks’ lives. It’s even possible to stay there, though the rooms, which have no TV, radio or telephone, may be a little, well, monastic for some.

A short distance away across the cobbled streets of the old town lies the Old Synagogue, which my guide, Sabine Hahnel, tells me is the oldest synagogue in central Europe to have survived complete with its roof. The most ancient part of the building dates from 1100, and the synagogue’s history – it was converted into a storehouse after a Jewish pogrom in 1349 and served as a restaurant in the Nazi period – offers a poignant insight into the story of the Jewish people in central Europe.

"It’s incredible to think that Nazi officers once danced here," says Hahnel.

The Old Synagogue’s rediscovery and the unearthing in its grounds of the Erfurt Treasure – a hoard of coins, vessels and jewellery including an elaborate Jewish wedding ring – are recent, dating from the 1990s. Other Jewish sites have been discovered in the meantime: Hahnel shows me a ritual Jewish bath or mikwe on the bank of the Gera river. Excavated in 2007, the bath, which was used by women, provides further compelling details of Jewish life in Erfurt in medieval times.

Back then Erfurt lay on the Via Regia that linked eastern and western Europe and was central Europe’s most important centre for woad, a blue dye-yielding plant widely used before indigo was introduced in the 17th century. Today, you can again buy woad-dyed products at Erfurter Blau on the Kramerbrucke. This shop and Goldhelm Schokolade are two of a number of carefully selected businesses that operate from the half-timbered houses on what is the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. "All are artisans, and each one plies a different trade," Hahnel explains.

This wealth of history makes Thuringia the ideal destination for visitors who want to combine cultural excursions with outdoor activities. Many – though not all – of the region’s towns escaped substantial bomb damage during the Second World War. Restoration work since the collapse of the East German regime has meant Erfurt and Eisenach, which was Bach’s birthplace, are enjoying a 21st-century renaissance, alongside the spa town of Bad Langensalza and Weimar, with its Goethe, Wagner and Bauhaus connections.

However, some of the most impressive restoration post-1989 has taken place in the Thuringian landscape. After decades of environmental damage in East German times, that change is perhaps clearer to see in this fertile region famed for its agriculture and horticulture than elsewhere. Nowhere is this more true than Hainich National Park – today the largest area of continuous deciduous woodland in Germany.

When I visit the first thing ranger Jens Wilhelm points out to me are initials in Cyrillic script carved into a tree trunk. They open a window on Hainich’s 20th-century past. Lying close to the West German-East German border, the forest was a military exclusion zone accessible only to the Red Army during the Cold War. Ironically, this helped to preserve some of the woodland. Areas that were destroyed for military exercises are now being allowed to grow back naturally in line with the park’s motto of "let nature be nature".

That motto also applies to the park’s rare population of wildcats. On a visit to Hutscheroda Wildcat Village, Wilhelm explains how. These shy animals hole up in the deep forest, but that means it’s almost impossible to see them in the wild. Instead, visitors can view captive wildcats in the near-natural environment of the wildcat village. The Hutscheroda wildcats – all toms – have been bred in captivity elsewhere. Their keepers keep them as close to nature as possible, even varying their feeding times so they don’t get into a routine.

Once the snarling and pouncing of the feed is over, we plunge deeper into the forest. Immersed in Thuringia’s vast woodlands, I get a visceral sense of what central Europe must have been like in the distant past. It’s easy to understand why Hainich National Park is now part of a Unesco World Heritage site that comprises the primeval beech forests of the Carpathians and the ancient beech forests of Germany.

For walkers and cyclists, the beauty of Germany’s 13th national park is that it combines this evocation of the primeval forest with an abundance of well-marked trails for all levels of ability, including trails suitable for people with disabilities. Whether it’s a short afternoon stroll you’re after or a 31km yomp over two days with an overnight stay in a walkers’ hotel, Hainich National Park has a trail for you.

Those seeking longer hiking and mountain-biking routes will find several long-distance trails in the surrounding area. Two of the most compelling are the 168km Rennsteig, a high route through the Thuringian forest, and the 98km Nature Path Leine-Werra, which runs along the former West German-East German border to the edge of Hainich.

A particular highlight within the park is the canopy walk through the tree tops. Rising through the tree trunks into the crowns, I begin to see the forest in a different light. At this height I can feel how much the trees move, and a rope bridge allows me to swing with the branches in the crown of a massive beech – the hallmark tree of the primeval German forest. The walk culminates on a 40m-high open platform with magnificent views across the Thuringian basin.

It’s a little misty when I visit, but on a clear day you can see the 1000-year-old Wartburg castle – also a Unesco World Heritage Site – atop one of the area’s many small peaks. The following evening, I hear the legendary Japanese violinist Midori play there, having first visited the castle, where courtly art of the Middle Ages sits alongside the cell in which Luther completed his translation of the New Testament.

It is a special feature of a trip to Thuringia that cultural and natural heritage are found side by side in this way. With its superlative agriculture, the region is also the perfect place to explore German cuisine. I check out the particular spice mix in the Thuringer bratwurst – a scrumptious sausage – at Faustfood, an indoor grill in Erfurt’s old town.

But there’s much more to German cooking than sausages. At Kromer’s restaurant in Erfurt, recommended by Slow Food Germany, I sup on local specialities such as watercress soup and smoked trout, washed down with a glass of regional white wine made from a mix of muller-thurgau and riesling grapes. Thuringia is famous for its strong-tasting beer, including Germany’s first wheat beer, but a trip to this southern region is also a wonderful opportunity to try Germany’s many fine wines – not least because of the reasonable prices.

Late autumn, when the trees are in their pomp, is the perfect time to visit this unspoilt corner of Germany, but in truth it is a region for all seasons. In snowy winter time, you can swing through the forest in a sleigh and warm up with a glass of Gluhwein from the Christmas market. In spring, the forest floor erupts in wild flowers. In summer, the warm weather favours outdoor eating and events. Whenever you go, once you’ve visited enchanting Thuringia, you’ll want to return.

TRAVEL NOTES

Getting there

Fiona Rintoul flew to Berlin from Glasgow on EasyJet (easyjet.com) courtesy of Visit Germany. Prices start at £72 return. She then travelled by train from Berlin to Erfurt. Direct trains take about 1 hour 50 minutes. Saver tickets start at €19 single.

Where to stay

Fiona stayed at Hotel Zumnorde am Anger in Erfurt (hotel-zumnorde.de) and Hotel Glockenhof in Eisenach (glockenhof.de). Prices for a double room start at £105 (€119) per night at Hotel Zumnorde and £88 (€99) at Hotel Glockenhof.

Getting around

Eisenach, Bad Langensalza and Weimar are connected to Erfurt by regular trains. Hainich National Park and Hutscheroda Wildcat Village can be reached from Eisenach by bus. Wartburg Castle can be reached from Eisenach on foot or by shuttle bus.

Other information

For information about the cities, landscape and accommodation in Thuringia see visit-thuringia.com.