Javelin thrower Thomas Röhler from Jena travels all over the world. He was Olympic champion at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro and European champion in 2018 in Berlin, and has regularly competed and trained in England, the US, South Africa and Finland. There are challenges waiting everywhere, and everywhere is beautiful, exciting and fascinating. But the only place the top athlete wants to live is in his home city. Why? Here he takes us to some of his favourite places in Jena.
Start your day in paradise
How many people can boast that they’ve got paradise right on their doorstep? In Jena this is nothing unusual! When Thomas Röhler is in Jena, in between competitions and training camps, he likes nothing better than to start his day with a gentle run through Paradies Park. The air is clean, his worries drift away, and his body feels as light as a feather. Even the rain can’t spoil his fun! As he runs past the Strand 22 café it is still deep in a peaceful slumber, and the dew sparkles on the meadows of Rasenmühleninsel. The JenTower glitters in the morning light, it’s only a few minutes’ walk to the city centre. In a few hours the park will be busy, with walkers strolling past and students stretched out on the lawns. People who work in the city centre also enjoy leafy lunch breaks in Paradies Park. Thomas Röhler crosses the Saale and enters Oberaue, the section of the park located on the other side of the river. A few short sprints get the circulation going. His five kilometre lap takes about half an hour, then it’s back into the city through the ‘Golden Gate’. Paradies Park is flanked by distinctive heating pipes, which rise to form a sort of gateway at this point. Ten years ago, the gold-painted ‘arch’ won the Thuringian Landscape Architecture Award for its efforts to smarten up the overground pipework. So what next? Time for a healthy athlete’s breakfast, consisting of yogurt, fruit, nuts, an omelette and a large white coffee.
Coffee – ideally freshly roasted
According to Thomas Röhler, athletes love to drink coffee. And he ought to know. The Olympic champion likes to drop in at the coffee roastery on Markt 11 whenever he’s in Jena. Sitting in the market square, with a delicious coffee on the table and sometimes even a slice of their wonderful homemade cake – yes, athletes do eat cake! – that is relaxation at its best. It’s a sense of home that the javelin thrower does miss when he’s travelling the world. Occasionally he makes do with a takeaway coffee. His enthusiasm for Jena has rubbed off on his colleagues from out of town. The American athletes in particular are keen on taking a quick break from the training centre to pop down to the market square and try one of the many variants of premium coffee available at the roastery. Finally, an alternative to the standard fare offered by the big coffee chains! But even relaxation requires a bit of training – especially for athletes used to constantly performing in top gear. Simply to switch off the smartphone, enjoy the moment, lower the adrenaline levels and add a bit of variety to the day, that is something Thomas Röhler resolves to do on a regular basis. But there’s not an awful lot of time left before it’s back to training, lectures, or to pack for the next competition.
Jena – a paradise for students
Jena is a great place for students. Everything is close at hand. It’s just ten minutes’ walk from the main campus on Ernst Abbe square to the old university building. Over the next few years, a new campus is being built on Inselplatz, directly opposite. Anyway keen to blow away the cobwebs between lectures can be in Paradies Park in next to no time. The students certainly appreciate this luxury. For Thomas Röhler, who obtained his bachelor’s degree in sports and economics here, a typical university day begins at 6am. Lectures alternate with training until the evening. His sport and his education – they are both important to the Olympic champion, who is currently studying for a master’s in business administration. It’s Thomas Röhler’s way of securing his future beyond his athletic career. Jena University has a long and proud tradition. It was founded in 1558 under the Elector Johann Friedrich. The educationally enlightened ruler is commemorated by the Hanfried statue on the market square. Friedrich Schiller’s inaugural lecture at the Alma Jenensis in 1789 has become the stuff of legend. The writer threatened to be overwhelmed by the crush of students and had to relocate to a larger auditorium. The university has carried his name since 1934. Nowadays the curriculum includes technology and high-level research as well as the arts and humanities.
A natural high on the SaaleHorizontale
The fabulous thing about Jena is that you’re never more than 15 minutes away from the great outdoors. As far as Thomas Röhler is concerned, that means the city offers an amazing quality of life. His destination of choice is the SaaleHorizontale walking trail, which runs along the top of the limestone hills that surround Jena. It’s the perfect quick fix when you’re looking for relaxation. And in no time at all you’re back in the bustling city centre to get on with the rest of your day. The SaaleHorizontale never gets boring either. From an hour’s walk to a ten-hour hike – everyone can choose their own pace. Once up there, you keep discovering new paths and photo opportunities. When we get on to the subject of photography, Thomas Röhler becomes very enthusiastic. As an amateur photographer he has an eye for the natural beauty of the seasons. The fabulous panoramic views across the city and the surrounding villages, of the Saale valley, Fuchsturm tower or Jenzig hill never cease to inspire him. The best vantage point for Jena is on Landgrafen hill, by the way. And the restaurant of the same name allows you to enjoy good food at eye level with the top of the JenTower. So what are you waiting for? Time to get up and get out there!
Simply switch off the smartphone, enjoy the moment, lower the adrenaline levels.
Burgau bridge, a historical monument
For 500 years, the historical Burgau bridge has spanned the Saale river, linking the districts of Burgau and Lobeda. Thomas Röhler regards the attractive structure as one of the sights of the Saale valley. It is quite close to the training centre, so it’s easy enough to grab his running shoes or get on his bike to come here and just switch off for a bit. In the summer he enjoys sitting amid the greenery on the riverbank and getting away from it all. “Many people don’t even realise there are hills all around Jena. This view of the hills – to me that is the essence of Jena!” The fast-flowing Burgau weir is right by the bridge. It’s an enchanting place even in winter, as the frost glitters on the riverside reeds, with the odd kingfisher dropping by for a visit. Looking at Burgau bridge today, it’s hard to imagine its turbulent history. Having been destroyed once during the Thirty Years’ War, three of its arches were blown up by the Wehrmacht in 1945, at the end of the Second World War. Flood damage later put the bridge entirely out of action until the 1990s, when there were organised moves to save it. Work was finally completed in 2004, with the bridge restored to its former glory. By the way, two beautiful long-distance cycle routes lead directly past Burgau bridge – the Saale Cycle Route and the Towns of Thuringia Cycle Route. Touring cyclists should aim to include a detour through Paradies Park right into the centre of Jena.
The botanical garden – an oasis in the city centre
Anyone interested in plants and nature should make sure to visit Jena’s botanical garden. Where else can you find such an attractive oasis so close to the city centre? Thomas Röhler always recommends the captivating gardens, which are maintained by Jena University, to young athletes and people visiting Jena with their families. The colourful free-flying butterflies at the Victoria House delight young and old alike. All of the sections are fascinating, from the alpine garden and tropical plants to the herbs and medicinal plants. Thomas Röhler particularly likes the cacti and succulents. Is that because they remind him of training and competitions in warmer climes? “No,” he laughs, “it’s because of the challenge to get them to flower!” The botanical garden in Jena is the second oldest in Germany. Goethe himself played a part in shaping the current form of the garden, which was founded in 1586 as a medicinal herb garden. One of the writer’s ‘contemporaries’, a ginkgo tree now more than 200 years old, is resplendent in bright yellow each autumn as a reminder of the botanical activities of the great polymath Goethe. But there is so much more to see here. Around 10,000 plant species fill the 4.5 hectare space – a wonderful retreat for stressed office workers, keen botanists and anyone looking for peace and quiet in Jena’s bustling city centre.
Wagnergasse – a relaxed and friendly vibe
Lunchtime, and a break in training. So where are we going to eat? That’s a very good question! Thomas Röhler normally recommends Wagnergasse to his guests. It seems to be good advice, as they’re always happy to come back. With its blend of the medieval and the modern, and its many restaurants, cafés and small shops, the narrow street seems more like a cosy living room. Good coffee, diverse cuisine and food to go – Jena’s Wagnergasse offers something for all tastes. From spring to autumn you can relax in the outdoor seating between colourful restored houses with views of St John’s Gate and the JenTower. Even in winter the chairs reappear as soon as the sun is out. If you have the time and the inclination, you can browse in the small independent shops and galleries after lunch. In this congenial setting Thomas Röhler loves to tuck into his favourite dish, Pasta a la Professore, accompanied by a ginger ale, to boost his energy reserves for the training later on.
It’s hard to imagine now that the trams used to squeeze through Wagnergasse until the end of the 1960s. Even Goethe is said to have passed through the street in his coach on his way from Weimar. He probably would have enjoyed taking a break for Italian pasta and reminiscing about his travels in Italy.
A bird’s eye view of Jena and its surroundings
“The JenTower is the ideal place to explain Jena” – that is why Thomas Röhler likes to take visitors up to its 128 metre high platform. He’s pretty much guaranteed the ‘wow’ effect. Nowhere else offers such panoramic views across Jena and the surrounding region. Even the locals never fail to be amazed by the magnificent vistas – of their city, of the Saale valley, Jenzig hill, Fuchsturm tower, and of the Hufeisen nature conservation area, all the way to Leuchtenburg Castle. The tower was designed by East German state architect Hermann Henselmann and opened in 1972. Originally intended for the state-owned Zeiss conglomerate, it was used by Jena University for many years. The historical buildings on Eichplatz square had to make way for the project. Today, it’s impossible to imagine the city skyline without the ‘Uni tower’, as many of the locals still call it, and which has become Jena’s most famous landmark. For Thomas Röhler it is a way of identifying with his home town. The JenTower, the market square, Paradies Park, the Saaleaue plain and Jena’s hills are the solid base that he likes to return to after his travels – no matter how exciting the places throughout the world where he has been competing or training may have been.
An outing to Schleichersee lake
Its official name may be Südbad, but the locals continue to refer to their swimming lake in the southern part of the city as Schleichersee. The Schleicher family used to run a gravel pit here until the 1920s. Once the quarrying finished, the pit filled with groundwater and the owners donated the resulting lake to the city. The athletes’ training ground is next door to the lake. As he practises his javelin throwing, Thomas Röhler frequently has an audience of curious spectators – in swimwear and with ice cream in hand. “It’s a slightly odd situation, the bathers just behind the fence, and here we are, doing high-performance sports. But sometimes I sit by the lake with an ice cream myself after training.” Thomas Röhler regularly exchanges the holiday vibe of Schleichersee lake for long trips to distant training camps, competitions or coaching events. What exactly is it that always draws the Olympic champion back to Jena, now that he’s at home all over the world? “Back when I first graduated from high school I did want to get away, to see different places and travel around a bit. But now I realise that there’s nowhere quite like home! I’ve come to appreciate the feeling of belonging somewhere – and I like the nature, and the way that people here are so friendly and open with each other. Other places may be terribly exciting, but I’m just a guest there. My roots are here in Jena.” Well, if that isn’t a declaration of love for his home town! For people like Thomas Röhler, Jena is simply paradise.
There’s always time for an ice cream on Holzmarkt!
“I love ice cream! And my favourite ice cream comes from Holzmarkt. After all, athletes don’t spend all day just eating rice and salad …” Thomas Röhler shares his passion for delicious ice cream with many other locals. The long queue at the Riva ice-cream parlour is ample proof of that. Mango or After Eight, stracciatella or chocolate – the vast choice makes for a tough decision. In the summer, Holzmarkt is one of the city’s most popular locations. As a schoolboy, Thomas Röhler used to wait amid the hustle and bustle for the hourly long-distance coach heading north. There was always time for an ice cream. Holzmarkt is Jena’s central transport hub, with buses and trams going off in all directions. In the spring, the square returns to its roots as the venue of the Thuringian Wood Market, which spreads across the entire city centre. As the name suggests the market is all about woodwork, which can be explored at craft stalls, through demonstrations and in hands-on activities. And when it’s on, the queue at the ice-cream parlour is even longer than normal!