This website may ask your browser to store cookies. See our Cookies Policy for more information about our use of cookies.

Back to previous page

When Bach went AWOL - A walking tour from Lübeck to Arnstadt

A pilgrimage of walks through pine forests, open countryside and medieval townscapes.

Daily lectures from Lindsay Kemp, musicologist and BBC Radio 3 producer, whose 2017 mini-series Bach Walks inspired the tour.

Designed for particpants joining The Johann Sebastian Bach Journey (13–19 May 2019).

  • Arnstadt, steel engraving c. 1850.
Navigate tour


Johann Sebastian’s time in Arnstadt 1703–07 as church organist and choir director, his first appointment in that role, was not a stress-free period, for either employee or employer. For example, there was the little matter of the brawl with a bassoonist, though a tribunal grudgingly exonerated Bach. As context, it is worth noting that he was twenty at the time, while his (university educated) assailant, member of a band Bach was contracted to conduct, was twenty-three.

Then there was the episode when he went AWOL. He wanted to further his musical education by travelling to Lübeck to consort with Dieterich Buxtehude, the greatest German musician of his time and, at the Church of St Mary, master of one of the finest organs in the world. The Arnstadt authorities granted him four weeks’ leave; he took four months. This is a journey of five hundred kilometres which Bach would have undertaken on foot, perhaps occasionally cadging a lift from a passing cart or boat. All this shows that while Bach may have been the most divinely inspired composer of all time, he was also tough, ambitious, obstreperous and, above all, dedicated to his art.

This tour covers the ground of his return journey – not the exact same route because that is unknown, but this approximation is sufficient to give a flavour of the topography and landscapes of that heroic hike. This is a walking tour, though the stretches actually walked are a small proportion of the total distance, with six walks of between forty-five minutes and two-and-a-half hours. Most of the journey, however, is done by coach.

For the drives, we have chosen lesser roads where the countryside is most attractive. The towns we have selected are likely to be ones he visited; in one, Lüneburg, he had spent two years as a teenager.

Day 1

London to Lübeck. Fly at c. 10.30am (British Airways) from Heathrow to Hamburg. Drive to Lübeck and walk from the medieval city gate to the soaring Gothic Marienkirche, the sight of which was surely an uplifting moment for the travel-weary J.S. Bach. Buxtehude was organist here 1668–1707. Short organ recital (subject to confirmation). Overnight Lübeck.

Day 2

Lübeck, Mölln, Lüneburg. The St Annen Museum, in a former priory, shows art of the 13th–16th centuries, including an altarpiece by Memling. Some free time to explore the picturesque streets, or the home of Thomas Mann’s family. After lunch drive south to Mölln, a charming and well-preserved medieval town on the the Elbe-Lübeck canal, part of the old salt route. From here, an easy semicircular walk through fields and woodland: c. 4.5km, 1½ hours. Overnight in Lüneburg.

Day 3

Lüneburg, Medingen, Celle. The architecture of Lüneburg reflects its prosperous past as a key trading post. Bach boarded here at the prestigious Michaelisschule 1700–02, and sang in the Mettenchor. Drive to Bad Bevensen and walk through a park and along a woodland trail above the Ilmenau river; 5km, 2 hours. Emerge from the trees at Kloster Medingen, a convent and girls’ school. Drive to the lovely town of Celle and visit the wonderfully decorated Renaissance chapel in the Schloss. It is assumed the young Bach attended concerts here, encountering French music played by the duke’s band. Overnight Hildesheim.

Day 4

Hildesheim, Quedlinburg. A pinnacle of Ottonian achievement, embodying many influential innovations, the six-towered church of St Michael at Hildesheim is important in the history of Romanesque art and architecture. Quedlinburg is not only a wonderfully preserved medieval town, but also has the authentic feel of a place not spruced up for the tourist trade. The castle hill is crowned by the Romanesque church of St Servatius, and contains one of Germany’s finest treasuries. First of two nights in Quedlinburg.

Day 5

Brocken, Quedlinburg. Bach would have saved himself days and blisters by traversing rather than circumventing the Harz mountain range. Walk on rocky paths through thick pine forest and on a paved road to the summit, the Brocken, which is steeped in German folklore: c. 7 km, 2½ hours (ascent: 500m). The Brocken is often shrouded in mist, though on a clear day there are panoramic views. Lunch at the summit before travelling down by steam train. Free time in Quedlinburg. Second and final night here.

Day 6

Arnstadt, Dornheim. Drive through unspoilt countryside to Arnstadt, a lovely ancient town on a sloping site where Bach was organist 1703–07 at the New Church, now named the Bach Church. From here there is a pleasant walk (3.5km, 1 hour) to Dornheim, which follows the presumed route Bach would have taken in 1707 to his wedding to Maria Barbara at the Church of St Bartholomäus. This makes a charming ensemble with the cemetery and gatehouse. Overnight in Arnstadt.

Day 7

First day of the festival: Arnstadt, Eisenach. Drive to Schloss Wartburg which rides the crest of a steep hill above Eisenach. One of the best-preserved secular constructions of the 12th century in Germany, it was here that Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German. Lunch here before transferring to your festival hotel in Eisenach or Mühlhausen. The rest of the afternoon is free until you join the other festival participants for dinner.

Sunday 19th May, final day of The J.S. Bach Journey. Join flight option 5, arriving at London Heathrow at c. 5.40pm.

Price, per person

Two sharing: £2,460 or £2,260 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,640 or £2,440 without flights.


Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 320); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 3 lunches and 5 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager. As flights are included in the price of this tour, the JS Bach Journey will be charged at the ‘without flights’ price.


Radisson Blu Senator Hotel, Lübeck: a 4-star hotel located on the banks of the river Trave. Hotel Bergström, Lüneburg: a charming 4-star hotel on the banks of the River Ilmenau in the heart of town. Van der Valk Hotel, Hildesheim: a modern 4-star hotel with a historical facade looking onto the market square. Romantik Hotel am Brühl, Quedlinburg: a comfortably furnished 4-star hotel in a restored heritage building. Hotelpark Stadtbrauerei, Arnstadt: a comfortable 4-star hotel with on-site brewery on the outskirts of town.

Single rooms throughout are doubles for sole use.

How strenuous?

This is a walking tour, graded moderate. There are 6 walks, of which 5 are easy and 1 is challenging. It is essential for participants to have appropriate walking footwear, be in good physical condition and to be used to country walking with uphill and downhill content. If you are used to them, you may find walking poles useful. The distance covered necessitates several hotel changes and some long drives. Average distance by coach per day: 60 miles.

Are you fit enough to join the tour?

Group size

Between 10 and 22 participants.

Tour combinations

Combine this tour with The Johann Sebastian Bach Journey, 13–19 May 2019.

Travel advice

Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.