Lush forests, medieval castles, quaint villages: sound like east Germany to you?
The natural phenomena that survived in this part of Germany defeats any stereotype you might have of this dynamic location
The magical landscape in the Saxon Switzerland National Park
The Bachhaus – home of composer JS Bach – in Eisenach. Photograph: Jochen Keute
Up in the treetops we stare into the leaves of a rare beech forest from this bird’s-eye-high walkway which we clanked up spiral stairs to reach. If Europe had been left to naturally seed itself then beech forests, such as this one in the Hainich National Park, 80kms northeast of Frankfurt, would carpet great swards of it, instead of man-sown pine forests and Tarmac.
While military manoeuvres often cause destruction, in this park its fire-powered neglect has created a beech-rich Unesco World Heritage site. The East German and Russian armies practised war in this natural phenomenon beside the old Iron Curtain, when this was part of East Germany, thus leaving broadleaf trees to flourish across the rolling hills.
In the nature reserve that this now is, experts have discovered various natural phenomena, such as finding out that a mysterious, reputedly wild cat actually does exist. They did this by pasting feline-favoured cod-liver oil to tree trunks. The cats came in the night, they licked and left their DNA.
As we lie flat-back on wooden chaise longues staring hypnotically up through a collage of blue sky and green leaves, I ask our guide what reunification meant to her. She is in her 30s, so for her it has resulted in a professional career, she says.
I have asked many people along my journey. The reactions depend a lot on age. Back then everyone was guaranteed a job, even if it meant overemployment, such as two ticket collectors on a bus. One woman in the town of Eisenach – which had a car factory since shut down – says those in their 50s at the time of change often never worked again.
Another, a teacher, says that now school students are more competitive and individualistic. In East German days they were better at teamwork, she says. It used to be family before the individual, she says: literally commune-ism.
I wonder what the former miners would think if they could see us stand-up paddling (involving standing on a surfboard and propelling yourself with a long oar) across a leisure lake that was created by flooding their former mine in Leipzig New Lakeland, just outside the city.
It has brought regeneration to the area where people are beginning to build holiday homes and taking advantage of sailing, wind-surfing and swimming opportunities as well as white-water rafting down man-made rapids.
We cycle around a lake watching locals take to the water, and being offered the rear view of a vast naked man slowly walking in to swim. One of our party who had driven in search of petrol returned with a tale of a car pulling up, three women getting out with their kit off and a man taking photos as they draped across the vehicle roof. ’Tis a long way from Ireland.
And yet the battle between Catholics and Protestants was drawn near here in Wartburg Castle. Comprising a string of Medieval, Romanesque and Renaissance buildings – with cobbled courtyards – it is perched defensively, magnificently on a plant-rich, rocky hill above the town of Eisenach, where the house of composer JS Bach can be visited.
They play Bach-era instruments for you at the museum but it is not completely dug into the past: you can sit in plastic globes and listen to music through headphones and cup cappuccino in the classically planted garden.
The classical link is not limited to Bach – Richard Wagner set Tannhäuser, his opera about heavenly and earthly love, in Wartburg Castle.