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You’ll find an Eclectic Mix of Attractions in Erfurt: A Rich Religious History, Awesome Outdoor Operas, a Formidable Fortress, and an ancient Merchant Bridge. Oh Yes, . . . and a Puppet Maker and Delicious Dumplings.
I’ll always remember the ancient city of Erfurt for its sheer variety of jaw dropping sights packed into a small area. One minute you’re crossing a medieval bridge with dozens of houses and quaint little shops built along its length, and the next you’re watching a full-blown opera on the monumental stairs leading up to St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Church of St. Severus.
In Erfurt, you can walk along a dark passageway inside the walls of a classic Baroque fortress, and a short while later, stand where Martin Luther served as a monk. You can also see one of the world’s few remaining professional puppet makers create fairy tale marionettes, and then you can sit down to a hearty meal of potato dumplings, roast beef, and red cabbage salad.
It’s this diversity of images that keeps Erfurt lingering in my mind a year after visiting this fascinating town. And best of all, this city of 215,000 polite and laid back souls still remains beneath the Western tourist’s radar, so it’s not crammed with North Americans comparing it with “back home in Nebraska”. Erfurt’s history dates back over 1270 years, to 729AD, and large sections of its medieval heart are still standing.
Erfurt’s Rich Religious History
The best place to start a travel story about Erfurt is with its religious history. Even today, to the most casual of tourists, the city’s religious heritage stands out above all else. This is especially visual: With the towering spires of 25 parish churches, 15 abbeys and monasteries, and ten chapels all piercing Erfurt’s sky, it quickly becomes clear that the town boasts a serious spiritual history. Every ancient holy order has been established here, from Dominican to Augustinian, and from Benedictine to Franciscan. The town’s religious fervor began way back in 742 AD when English missionary St. Boniface made it his mission to convert the heathen Germans to Christianity. Erfurt’s first Bishopric dates from the same year.
In the 10th century, the German kings established an important monastery on Petersberg hill and in the 11th century, the Jewish community established their synagogue here.
Then, Augustinian hermits built a Monastery (the Augustinerkirche) in Erfurt in 1277. Influential Christian mystic Master Eckhart became prior of Erfurt’s Dominican convent in 1298 and the town’s reputation as a spiritual center continued to grow.
Enter Martin Luther
My Erfurt pilgrimage begins in the Augustinerkirche monastery, where the father of Protestantism, Martin Luther, lived for five years. He studied theology here between 1501 and 1505 and lived here as a monk (in a very modest cell that you can still see today) from 1505 to 1511.
An exhibition dedicated to Martin Luther—who shook the religious world with his “95 Theses”, written in 1517—can be viewed here, plus Luther’s small room. Luther’s visionary work protested Catholic Church corruption and was famously posted on the church door in Wittenberg. It caused quite a tizzy amongst the pre-eminent Catholic clergymen of the time, as they saw their power being challenged and eroded by this learned heretic.
In 1507 Luther became a priest in Erfurt Cathedral and in 1511, Luther set off for Wittenberg where his destiny was to rock the religious world. These were the heady times of the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther was the man who unleashed it. And today, 600 million Protestants worship according to a doctrine largely assembled by Luther. I can’t help but wonder how he managed to avoid being burned at the stake or beheaded while he was preaching his ideas.
It’s a humbling experience to stand in the very cell that Luther lived in, to walk the same cloisters as he, and to listen to his story being told beside the same altar where he had his first mass. An adjacent library in the Augustinerkirche holds 60,000 volumes of Germany’s most important ecclesiastical literature, and 13,000 manuscripts that date before 1850. These priceless writings include some of Luther’s original reformation scripts. He had more than 250 articles printed in Erfurt.
A guided tour of this medieval abbey is recommended and well worth your time, because you’ll get a crash course in Luther and his works, in the actual nave where he worshipped. Now that’s total immersion! Today, the monastery serves as a parish church, an ecumenical conference center, and appropriately enough, a pilgrim hostel.
The Old Synagogue
Continuing my spiritual odyssey of Erfurt, I tour the oldest Synagogue in Europe. This large, white-sided building, built by the town’s Jewish community in the middle Ages, is another important part of the town’s historical heritage.
Parts of the Synagogue date from 1094, and it displays a collection of ancient Jewish treasures and manuscripts. The Erfurt Schatz, or Erfurt Treasure was rediscovered near the Kramerbrucke Bridge in 1998. This 60 lb. hoard of gold, coins, and silver jewelry belonged to a local Jewish merchant who hid his treasure in 1349 when 100 Jews were killed and the rest were driven from the city in the Black Death Jewish Persecutions.
My religious tour continues to Cathedral Square, with the Gothic St. Mary’s Cathedral (Dom St Marien) and the Church of St. Severus (St Severikirche) towering over it like benevolent grandparents. It’s one of Germany’s finest squares. Superbly restored medieval half-timbered buildings line its sides adding to the atmosphere. And yes, Martin Luther preached in the St. Mary’s Cathedral.
This enormous Gothic Cathedral was founded in 742. Its most famous relic is the Gloriosa, one of the largest church bells in the world, and the Wolfram, a 12th century candelabra. The 15-meter high stained glass windows and the baroque altar are also major attractions. The adjacent Church of St. Severin dates from the 13th century and houses St Severin’s tomb, who died in 1365.
Outdoor Operas in summer
Watching an Italian Opera in Germany is a surreal experience! If you’re like me at all, operas are not high on your tourist bucket list. But, I have to admit seeing Turandot on the huge, decorated, 70-step stairway leading up to the majestic St. Mary’s Cathedral and St. Severus Church, was one for the books!
Watching tuxedo-clad German tenors singing an Italian opera on this richly decorated set was a memorable experience. That I understood not one word did not detract in the least from my enjoyment of this spectacle.
Just a two-minute walk up from the Cathedral Square, the imposing Petersberg Fortress dominates the city for miles around from its hilltop high ground.
Considered to be one of the largest and best-preserved Baroque strongholds in Europe, the Petersberg Citadel was originally owned by the Electors of Mainz, and would later become a respected Prussian stronghold. Built in the neo-Italian style, between 1665 and 1707, the fortress served the Electors well against attacks from the Protestant forces. It was constructed on the foundations of an ancient Benedictine monastery.
Today, a museum highlights the fortress’s military history, replete with subterranean defensive tunnels that burrow under the fortress’s ramparts. The museum and tunnels can only be explored through official tours, so be sure to book in advance.
The main tourist feature of the Fishkmarkt, the neo-Gothic Town Hall (1870-74), aka the Rathaus, sits alongside elaborate Renaissance mansions and two churches. As far as market squares go, the Fishmarkt is relatively modest in size, but it has numerous historic landmarks of interest to tourists and historians including the spectacular Zum Breiten Herd and Zum Roten Ochsen townhouses.
Considered one of Erfurt’s standout sights, the Kramerbrucke, or merchant bridge, spans the River Gera. What’s so special about this merchant bridge? Constructed in 1325, this unique wide stone bridge is lined with 32 atmospheric half-timbered houses on each side, and an interesting array of shops along their lower level. It remains Europe’s longest inhabited bridge.
The bridge, with six wide stone arches is 120 meters in length—the longest bridge in Europe with housing on both sides. Its 18-meter width is just wide enough for the houses on each side and the narrow cobble stone lane that passes through the middle.
Dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries, the well-preserved houses and their shop fronts are the equivalent of a medieval shopping mall, and transport curious visitors back in time. In bygone times, the townspeople would buy their pepper, sugar, saffron, and other goods here. Today you can browse in artist’s studios, and antique and souvenir shops, and purchase scented soaps, herbs, spices, pottery, baked goods, and other knick-knacks.
But, to fully appreciate the Kramerbrucke Bridge you must view it from the outside, on the riverbank. The bridge is a photographer’s dream. Red and black tiled roofs delineate each block of houses from the next. The uneven spines of the roofs sag with the settling of their aged timber roofing beams, adding to this atmospheric sight.
The walls of the half-timbered houses are painted white, pastel yellow, and green, and have red and brown X-shaped beams inset into the clay or plaster. Lazy trout bask in the sun in the river’s clear, shallow water, while children wade across.
The bridge is fascinating enough—more like something you’d expect to find in Florence, perhaps—but it’s one of the craft shops that draws droves of tourists.
The Theatrum Mundi Mechanisches Theater
In a window, an evil-looking life size puppet of a queen, dressed in purple robes, holds a large oval frame with an intricate collage of small mythical creatures carved into it. It depicts the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The carved picture shows the dwarfs, the handsome prince, and Snow White in her regalia.
When you step inside puppet maker Martin Gobsch’s small shop, you enter the fairy tale realm of the Brothers Grimm. Unpainted wooden marionettes of all sizes hang from the ceiling or perch on shelves. Woodworking tools are strewn everywhere. Chisels, plains, drills, lathes, and saws lie around on the workbench, or arranged neatly on racks.
Herr Gobsch looks like a character from the tales he illustrates. He’s wearing a white long sleeve shirt, a leather jerkin, and double fronted corduroy pants. But it’s his finely chiseled face and shortish blond hair look like he’s descended from one of the fairy tale princes. I admire Martin’s fine craftwork. The superb marionettes are used in mechanical puppet theaters, and as puppets in mini-theaters. Their tiny lifelike faces, ranging from grotesque to beautiful, are finely painted. Martin’s distinctive puppets come in all sizes from small to life size.
I move on across the bridge, stopping briefly in a shop where the Erfurt Treasure was hidden. Here, in a forbidding little stone room, reached by descending some stone steps, the Jewish treasure that is now displayed in the Synagogue, was discovered.
The Stadtmuseum is a great place to tie your tour of Erfurt together. Housed in a distinctive Baroque building the museum offers a collection of decorative and sacred arts, paintings, murals, and an excellent medieval gallery.
The Old Town section of Erfurt, measuring about 1 square kilometer, is small enough to stroll around easily without missing anything important. A two-day stopover in Erfurt is necessary to enjoy the attractions and food.
What to Eat in Erfurt
You’ll find hearty traditional dishes served here. You must try the famous cannonball sized Thuringian potato dumplings, a meal in themselves. A typical Erfurt meal is beef roulade, red cabbage, and the proverbial potato dumplings, doused in rich gravy. Other meats that can be combined with potato dumplings include roast duck, braised beef (almost a goulash), veal, pork steaks, and pretty much any other meat the chef has left in his freezer. It’s all good!
I came across two tourists munching on a Thuringer brat, a long, thin pork bratwurst sausage streaked with mustard or ketchup, housed in a ridiculously small round bread roll—a typical street food here.
Where to Stay in Erfurt
IBB Hotel Erfurt 4-Star
Situated in the shadow of the Kramerbrucke Bridge, this modern hotel is in a renovated medieval house. It’s a great starting point for your tour of Erfurt.
Victor’s Residenz Hotel 4-star
If you are looking for charming accommodations, look no further than Victor’s Residenz Hotel.
Pullman Erfurt am Dom 5-Star
Modern luxury in the heart of Erfurt
Written by and photos (Unless otherwise noted) by Roy Stevenson for EuropeUpClose.com