x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The last German crusade in the search for Schiller's skull

On the road Setting out to try to track down the missing skull of a playwright who died in Germany more than two centuries ago is not everyone's idea of a relaxing, fun-filled holiday.

Setting out to try to track down the missing skull of a playwright who died in Germany more than two centuries ago is not everyone's idea of a relaxing, fun-filled holiday. Maps, guile and a comprehensive understanding of German would seem to be the bare essentials required for such a trip. I had none of these things, but I did have a credit card and an undeniable sense of adventure. And should the missing bones of Friedrich Schiller, one of Germany's most celebrated writers, remain as elusive during my four-day road trip as they had for the past 200 years, which was likely, I thought I would at least see a little of rural Germany.

Last November marked the 250th anniversary of Schiller's birth and all the towns and villages where the playwright laid his hat marked the occasion with exhibitions and events - although in the year that Germany celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, it was a tough sell. To those in the know, despite never quite achieving the glory of his contemporary and friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Schiller was one of the most important German writers of the late 18th century. His works were the inspiration for Beethoven's Ode to Joy and Verdi's opera, Luisa Miller.

The location of the author's bones had become a mystery more of interest to me even than the author's literary prowess. For more than two centuries, a skeleton, thought to belong to Schiller, had been kept in his coffin in the city of Weimar, where he died. But in May last year, scientists carrying out DNA tests on the skeleton announced that the skull did not match the rest of the bones. The news received a little media coverage and a host of theories emerged as to when the switch might have taken place, but more than 12 months later, the skull had still not been found. So with the Indiana Jones theme tune playing on my iPod, I embarked on a whistlestop tour of towns where Herr Schiller was born and died to see if I noticed a spare 18th-century bone rattling around the place.

A hunt for a German author's skull clearly needed German wheels and I picked up the keys to a top-of-the-range BMW F800 GS motorbike complete with time-saving GPS. After picking up the bike in Frankfurt and a brief stop in Stuttgart, I launched into the start of the 3,000km tour with a trip to Marbach, a little town on the banks of the River Necker in the Baden-Württemberg district of southern Germany where Schiller was born.

I found the Schiller "Geburtshaus", or birthplace. The reconditioned four-storey timber-framed building, with its shuttered windows and flower baskets, has been turned into a little shrine to the author complete with locks of his hair and even his babygro on display. After enjoying the Schiller relics, I bought all the English pamphlets I could find and wandered through a steep tree-lined pathway. I emerged on the bank of the river and lay on the grass to scour the paperwork for clues as to the location of Schiller's skull.

I learned much about his father, the military doctor Johann Kaspar Schiller. I found out about his mother and his five sisters, and how the family moved from Schwäbisch Gmünd to nearby Lorch, but there paperwork provided no clues as to what happened to the skull. The key to unravelling the truth clearly lay in local knowledge and with this in mind, I enlisted the help of Ernst Morlock, proprietor of the aptly named Schillerhof Hotel, whose ancestors have lived in the region since 1711.

"You're searching for the skull of Schiller?" he said incredulously. "I know a little about Schiller but I didn't know his skull was even missing," he laughed. "If I see it, I will let you know." It wasn't the answer I was looking for, so I turned north to Weimar, more than 400km away through river valleys and beautifully verdant countryside. On my way, I passed through Ludwigsburg, where the teenage Schiller studied medicine and began work on his first and most sensational work, Die Räuber (The Robbers).

Today, the city is home to an eclectic shopping district, beautiful gardens and classic baroque architecture. The centrepiece is the 18th-century Residential Palace. With its sweeping grounds and spectacular period buildings, it is one of the town's unmissable tourist attractions. The Baroque-themed rooms and fascinating fashion museum provide a glimpse as to the clothing and lifestyle enjoyed by Germany's elite at the time.

Heading north, blue sky gave way to cloud and a fresh wind swept across me, buffeting the motorbike.(Choosing to travel by motorbike rather than car means that the travel itself becomes half the experience, rather than a means of getting from A to B). I arrived in Weimar, a hub of German creative thought throughout the centuries; from Goethe to Friedrich Nietzsche and from Johann Sebastian Bach to Marlene Dietrich. Its wide pedestrianised boulevards offer little bistros, cafes and pubs where visitors can sit back and watch the world go by.

Schiller spent his final years in the town with his wife and children in a three-storey house before, in 1805, he succumbed to pneumonia. Apart from the entrance, which is taken up with a gaudy gift shop, much of the building has been restored to how it looked during Schiller's life, complete with pieces of original furniture. In his workroom, a simple wood-framed single bed lies opposite his desk. A page of an unfinished work still lies on his desk, as it did when he died.

But where were the clues to the whereabouts of the great man's skull? Leaving the house, I spotted a statue; Schiller's longtime friend Goethe cast in bronze and holding Schiller's skull. Coincidence or message from beyond the grave? In a moment of wild giddiness, it crossed my mind that maybe Goethe had masterminded the theft of his long-time friend's skull to keep as a memento; then again, maybe not.

I was promised that a tour of the Ducal Vault, where Schiller was reburied, would reveal a more likely explanation of what happened. According to the vault's audio guide, his remains were placed in the underground vault beside the Poseckscher Garden. His empty coffin now lies next to Goethe's near the staircase at the entrance to the cool chamber. During the hiatus of the close of the Second World War, a group of Nazi soldiers wanted to destroy the coffins but some locals managed to steal the remains.

They hid the bones until they could be handed over to US troops and it seems likely that this was when the skull was lost. And that, like so many missing treasures from that period of Germany's history, may well be where the story ends. No conspiracy. No Goethe-engineered bone-hoarding. No skull. If I had failed to find the skull at least I had found a likely answer to what happened to it. So, just like Indiana Jones and countless other movie heroes, I took my disappointment stoically. I simply tipped my helmet to the Goethe-Schiller statue, mounted my two-wheeled steed and rode off into the sunset.

Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies daily from Abu Dhabi to Frankfurt; return flights cost from US$900 (Dh3,305), including taxes. Double rooms at the Schillerhof hotel in Marbach (www.schillerhof-marbach.de; 0049 07144 6686) cost from $102 (Dh375) per night. Double rooms at Gasthof Luise (0049 3643 905819) cost from $75 (Dh275).