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MEININGEN, 20km south of Schmalkalden, is a surprise in a region fond of half-timbering. There's a touch of aristocratic swagger to the small town on the River Werra. It blossomed as a Residenzstadt of the dukes of Saxe-Meiningen, notably nineteenth-century culture-vulture Georg II. Under the tenure of this friend of Brahms, the town acquired fame Europe-wide for its theatre and orchestra. Enter from the north on boulevard Bernhard Strasse and you're greeted by the duke's city-scale theatre, whose massive portico acclaims his noble gift to "the people to befriend and elevate". Civilized stuff, as is adjacent municipal gallery Galerie Ada (Tues– Sun 3–8pm; free) with exhibitions of modern and regional works, and the landscaped Englischer Garten behind both.
The best of the many footpaths that explore the adjacent Werra Valley is the Premiumwanderweg, which makes a 12km circuit from the Schloss via neo-Gothic hotel Schloss Landsberg and the ruins of thirteenth-century fort Habichtsburg on a wooded hilltop. It begins off Burgstrasse on the lefthand side of the castle and in theory is signposted throughout.