Despite a truly outstanding collection of historic towns and cities, vast forests that have earned it the title of ‘the green heart of Germany’, and a wealth of cultural attractions, to the outside world the central German state of Thüringen is little know. I first heard the name while ordering one of its eponymous sausages, the Thüringen bratwurst with its distinctive mix of pepper, caraway, marjoram, and garlic.
Even that is shrouded in ancient lore. The oldest document to mention the Thüringen bratwurst dates from 1404, and was found in the 8th century Arnstadt convent just 20km south of Erfurt. The oldest known recipe dates from 1613. It should come as no surprise then, that Erfurt itself is a ridiculously enchanting medieval town that was founded in the year 742 by none other than St Boniface, Apostle to the Germans.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Germany really does have an extraordinary wealth of beautiful and well preserved medieval towns. Even after three years of living and travelling in Germany this still surprises me. Thüringen, or Thuringia as it’s known in English, is no exception. Erfurt itself may well be one of the most interesting and best preserved medieval towns in the country.
It definitely attracts its share of (German) tourists, but unlike more touristy towns in neighbouring Bavaria, Erfurt feels low-key. The fact that it survived the Second World War mostly intact, and was cocooned by decades of communist indifference, helps. We arrived early and found ourselves having coffee and poppyseed cake in a small square next to the Krämerbrücke, one of Erfurt’s many iconic sights.
The Krämerbrücke is a miraculously well preserved medieval bridge dating from 1325, lined with timber framed merchant houses and crossing the Gera River. Strolling down the narrow cobbled street that passes between the houses is to recreate a scene that has been taking place for almost 700 years. We ambled across into Benediktsplatz and then onward to the Fischmarkt and Rathaus.
Erfurt became wealthy in the medieval period – it was a famed centre of woad production, the highly valued blue dye – and even joined the Hanseatic League. In the Altstadt there are reminders of that wealth everywhere, but it is only when you enter the Domplatz and set eyes on Erfurt’s magnificent cathedral and adjoining Church of St. Severus, that you realise just what riches the town has known.
Martin Luther, who attended university in Erfurt, was ordained in the cathedral on 3 April 1507, starting his slow journey towards nailing those Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517. The two churches are a truly wondrous sight. Unfortunately, the town had taken it upon itself to construct a huge outdoor area in front of them blocking both access and the view.
There has been a church on the site since St Boniface arrived in 742, so we found an alternate route to the top, not for a Luther pilgrimage but a Latrinensturz pilgrimage. In the year 1184, King Henry VI hosted a council in Erfurt cathedral. Alas, the weight of all the dignitaries, including the Archbishop, was too great and the floor collapsed – tossing everyone into the latines below.
The Latrinensturz, or Latrine Fall, might have remained simply an hilarious medieval incident, but according to contemporary accounts dozens of people drowned in the (presumably vile) contents of the latrines. Still, the views over the town and to the hulking Petersberg Citadel from here are magnificent. After visiting the cathedral, we wandered up to the citadel, but it was so busy that we didn’t stay long.
Instead, we returned to the Altstadt for lunch and people watching in one of the town’s ancient squares, before having an afternoon of exploration.