The historic German Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha is tiny when compared to the outsized impact it has had on European and world history. The Dukes of Saxe-Gotha called the small but beautiful town of Gotha home from 1640 to 1825 and, from 1826 until the collapse of the German aristocracy in 1918, as Dukes of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
It was the first Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Ernest I, whose family would go on to bigger things. His brother Léopold became King of the Belgians in 1831, his descendants remain on the Belgian throne to this day (albeit scandal-ridden in recent years due to recent revelations of Albert II’s secret love child). Leopold’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, became the short lived Empress of Mexico in 1864.
If the weird world of European royalty wasn’t already clear, Ernest I’s son, Prince Albert, married his cousin and British monarch, Queen Victoria. A statue of Albert’s “young, clever, and beautiful” but doomed mother, Louise, stands close to the palace. The Saxe-Coburg and Gotha dynasty went on to rule in Portugal and Bulgaria. At home, the wealth of the German branch is reflected in the centre of Gotha.
The wondrous sweeping views from the monumental baroque Friedenstein Palace, down the Schlossberg to the red-hued Rathaus in the mansion-lined Hauptmarkt, are literally staggering. This has to be one of the most picturesque town centres in Germany – even when you arrive during a period of works that turn the truly lovely Hauptmarkt into a building site.
To be fair, Gotha isn’t big enough to detain you for too long and most people visit on day trips. We arrived late in the afternoon and decided to spend the night in this peaceful spot that, despite its many historic buildings, still carries the air of a post-communist small town. It might have been the Americans that ‘liberated’ Gotha in 1945, but it was firmly in the Soviet zone when the Iron Curtain fell.
That meant that the historic centre remained mothballed for half a century, emerging almost intact in 1990. It appears that the authorities are only just getting around to renovating chunks of the town, and some of the beautiful mansions in the centre are dilapidated or abandoned, and even the palace had scaffolding down one entire wing of its inner courtyard.
It’s a shame, but it didn’t stop our appreciation of this beautiful little town. We found our way to the Ratskeller to sample a local beer while watching the world go by in the shadow of the 16th century town hall. As night fell we ate early – nothing stays open late in Gotha – and afterwards strolled around the palace and Hauptmarkt in the atmospheric quiet of early evening.
We planned to leave early in the morning, but not before joining local dog walkers in the Schlosspark and the lovely Orangerie, filled with bright flower beds. We passed by the Herzogliches Museum but didn’t have time to visit, which only came back to haunt us when, on the way back, we discovered Gotha’s connection to Lucas Cranach the Elder.
On one side of the Hauptmarkt is a massive entrance gate with a tiny plaque identifying this as the Cranach House. This was actually the home of a former Gotha mayor, and it was his daughter, Barbara Brengebier, that Cranach the Elder married in 1512. The Cranach’s were a talented family of painters, perhaps the greatest artists of the German Reformation. The Herzogliches has several of their works.
As we set off for the last stop of our one way trip to Brussels, the vagaries of how the fortunes of a small town like Gotha were tied to the success or failure of a single family struck me. In this Thuringia backwater today, it would be hard to guess that Gotha once played host to Voltaire and Goethe, Napoleon and Frederick the Great, all thanks to the Dukes of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.