Today I want to take you with me to Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia in the east of Germany. I got off the train at Erfurt on my way to East Saxony, put my baggage into a locker and spent three hours in the city.
On the square in front of the station the tourist sees the first attraction, a bratwurst stall. I’ve learnt that not all of you know what a bratwurst is (the Americans do thanks to the many German immigrants), so here is the explanation: a bratwurst is a long, thin, spicy grilled sausage, the Thuringian variety is known throughout Germany and I can tell you from my meat-eating days that it is indeed yummy.
I asked in the station where the tourist information office was and was directed to the Fischmarkt (Fish Market), there it is tucked behind the city hall. How to get to the Fischmarkt? Follow the rails of the tram! I did so and passed many fine houses in the Wilhelminian style from the turn of the last but one century which told me that Erfurt didn’t suffer too much during WW2. High street shops everywhere just like in any other German city.
I soon came to a large square with an enormous and impressive brick building, I thought that I had reached the Fischmarkt and was standing in front of the city hall, but I was on the ‘Anger’ and saw the Post Office. After looking at more well restored buildings I asked someone how to get to the Fischmarkt and was told to follow the rails of the tram, ah, yes, of course.
In the centre of the Fischmarkt, the social centre of the town from the Middle Ages onwards, stands the statue of an armed warrior from 1591 which was meant to show the clergy that the citizens were ready to defend their civil liberties with force of arms if need be, on the west side and on the north side are two richly decorated Renaissance buildings turned restaurants, the city hall is neo-Gothic, an odd mixture but as all buildings are old, they fit together.
I asked the man in the tourist office what else there was to see and he sent me to the Krämerbrücke (Merchants’ Bridge) just to the right of the office. Erfurt is famous for its many bridges, 142 are within the city boundaries, the river Gera branches into several water courses criss-crossing through the city. The Krämerbrücke dates back to 1117, it is the only example of a bridge with houses on either side north of the Alps. As all tourists visit it, the shops in the crooked, half-timbered houses cater for their wishes, but it’s not a cheap tourist trap, there are really nice art galleries, wine shops, cafés, workshops and shops offering Thuringian specialities.
The bridge became important because it was part of the via regia, the royal route, in fact the whole town of Erfurt became important and rich during the Middle Ages because it was located at the point of intersection between two European trade routes, (nowadays it’s the shopping centre for Thuringia). At the end of the 79m long bridge there’s the restaurant Zum Roten Turm with a vault like structure, it’s part of a church and serves good food, recommended!
Back to the tourist office and the city hall and from there to the Cathedral square - following the rails of the tram, what else! Nearly the whole centre is a pedestrian precinct with only the trams and bicycles for transport. The houses opposite the Cathedral are also well renovated, this can’t be stressed enough, only someone who’s seen what 40 years of neglect during the time of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) did to East German cities can appreciate it, if the political U-turn hadn’t occurred when it did, the whole country would have crumbled and fallen to pieces.
To the right of the Cathedral is the St. Severus Church with a flight of 70 stairs in between on which plays are performed in the summer with the spectators sitting on the square. The Cathedral didn’t impress me much so I abstained from peeping into St. Severus. A bit to the right behind the churches on a small hill is the Petersberg, (St. Peter's Heights) from the 18th century, formerly a monastery as well as a fortress, the man from the tourist office had recommended a visit, but I didn‘t have the time for it.
I didn‘t follow the rails of the tram any more but went into the direction of the Andreas Viertel (Andreas Quarter), the medieval part of the city is one of the largest and best preserved historical centres in Germany. There you can find romantic inner courts, small pubs, workshops, in one word, the ideal living quarters for students and artists, also rejuvenated after reunification. My destination was the Augustinian Monastery where Martin Luther lived as a mendicant friar from 1501 - 1505. It being one day before Reformation Day (which is celebrated on 31st October) I thought it appropriate to pay the great man homage, the founder of the Protestant Church, translator of the Bible, one of the sharpest intellects of his time but also not averse to worldly pleasures in his later years, his dinner speeches have become famous („Why don‘t you belch and fart, didn‘t you like the food?") The monastery belongs to the Protestant Church now and is a centre for meetings and further education.
It was time to get back to the station, I asked two men how to get there as quickly as possible, they told me to walk down the street and then, surprise, surprise, to follow the rails of the tram but I could also take the tram if I didn‘t feel like walking. This I did because I love trams, pity that there are so few left, the one in Erfurt is modern, convenient, fast. When I got off I saw a woman pointing up to a window of the hotel opposite the station and overheard her telling her friend that that was where Willy had looked out.
I didn‘t understand what she was talking about, later my relatives explained that in 1979 Willy Brandt, then the Chancellor of West Germany met Willi Stoph, then the Prime Minister of the GDR, to discuss improvements of the East-West relations. It was the first time that leaders of the two German states met after the country was divided in 1949. The large crowds cheering Willy Brandt surprised both Western journalists and the East German authorities who had made every effort to keep the area clear of spectators. They even kept children at school who would normally have had the afternoon off. I am pleased that this historical event is still remembered.
How does one live in Erfurt? Of course, three hours are not enough to find this out, but I know from my friend‘s son who‘s been living and working there for some years that the city is ‘liveable‘ (the Italian language has this word), it‘s big enough to offer attractions and small enough to get to know the place and people well. Should you ever be in the area, go and have a look, you won‘t regret it and if you‘re a meatie, try the bratwurst!