The DB train from southern Augsburg to Erfurt was a pleasant ride through pastures, farms and idyllic villages. Erfurt is known as the green heart of Germany because it’s in the center of Germany’s Thuringian Forest. Erfurt was also famous for its woad plant. The woad was used to create a unique blue dye in high demand during the Middle Ages—a demand which helped Erfurt become prosperous. Its central location was also an integral part of European trade routes.
We arrived at the station to meet our guide Dr. Reiner Prass, provided to us by Historic Germany and our lifeline for exploring the city from the historical and local point of view. Luckily for us, we would have this smart and fun “Erfurter” to show us around for two days.
As we got into the taxi, we time-traveled from modern Erfurt to the medieval Merchants’ Bridge and its bordering houses preserved for more than a millennium. Now of course, the houses are modern shops that travelers and locals gravitate to. Reiner informed us that our first order of business was Nüsslein Café, a 100-year tradition. Here, we were delighted to see an impressive array of homemade baked goods and Italian cappuccinos. At 3 pm the café was packed. Our German chocolate and cheesecakes were extraordinary!
After our refreshments, Reiner led us over the magical cobblestone bridge (dates back to the 8th century!) to the Puppet Maker’s Shop, where we met Martin Gobsch, the artist who imagines, designs and carves the puppets and oversees the popular puppet theatre here. Here we also met many of his characters that perform in the Puppet Theater. Martin is incredibly talented and carries on the handcrafted tradition of puppeteering. The visit to his shop and meeting with him was a definite highlight of our Erfurt experience. Here’s a quick taste of some of his magic:
We then visited the Augustine monastery where Martin Luther began his career as a German monk. Onsite, a man dressed as Martin Luther was giving a tour of “his” monastery. He showed us the cloister, the rooms where he slept and worked and his own original Bible. Martin Luther did so much in his life—mainly challenging the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholics and leading the reformation movement of 16th-century Christianity. He made the Bible more accessible by translating it from Latin into the contemporary vernacular.
Next, we visited the Old—really old, over 1,000 years—Synagogue. Tragically, a genocide extinguished the entire Jewish community 900 years ago. Ironically, the synagogue became a dancehall during the Nazi regime and the third floor retains the original wallpaper from that time. In the basement, however, they discovered gold treasures buried by Jewish elders who must have foreseen their doom. Some, and a more recently uncovered cache from a nearby construction site, are on display in the synagogue’s museum, which pays tribute to the Jewish community.
We walked back to the old town for a traditional Thuringian dinner: Thuringian sausages (famous throughout Germany), potatoes and sauerkraut at the 12th-century Golden Swan Restaurant. Of course, pils style and dark beer accompanied the meal.
Erfurt is completely accessible by foot, and after our day packed with a crash course in hundreds of years of astonishing history, we strolled home to the modern 5-star Pullman Hotel with its cool spa and impressive five-story open modern lobby. Our bedroom was small but efficient, with cotton bottom sheets, a twin duvet for each half of the split king bed (no top sheet), a flat-screen TV, a club chair, and a desk.
Cam and I relaxed in the Pullman’s beautiful spa, unwinding in the jacuzzi and steam room—a perfect way to end the day after our lengthy walkabout in the cool of German autumn. The next morning we enjoyed the Pullman’s bountiful selection of German specialties including Muesli, hazelnuts, walnuts, dried currants, jams from indigenous fruits, omelets, hams, cheeses, and more different types of mustards than I ever knew existed.
Next, we continued on foot up the 70 stairs to the massive Gothic cathedral of St. Mary with its odd and intricate carvings. Once again the lion motif signifying strength was featured heavily within the church and on the imposing massive doors. Alongside the cathedral was the Church of St. Severus, which makes an impressive focal point of Erfurt and its skyline. A carnival was going on at the time and viewing the modern rides next to the ancient church provided an interesting contrast.
Our second day’s guided tour would begin at the 17th-century Petersberg Citadel, which we entered through an underground passageway that began right outside the Pullman’s entrance. We walked through the fortress’s dark tunnel, while companion Reiner guided the way with his torch. We emerged on the highest hill in Erfurt and to a spectacular view.
We walked to downtown Erfurt where we merged back into the modern world—except for the 1890s tram. Downtown Erfurt buzzed with its businesses and shops—so different from historical Erfurt. But Erfurt is also about keeping up with the present. The children’s animated character “Bernd,” a piece of toast and a popular television program, is created and produced in Erfurt. Erfurt is home to innovative technology as well.
Our final stopover was at the Goldhelm Chocolate Shop where the most imaginative and delectable handmade chocolates are created and sometimes given as gifts to dignitaries; even President Obama has had these fine confections. Green tea chocolates with yogurt, vodka and orange—combinations you would never think are offered at Goldhelm chocolate.
Erfurt’s preserved medieval center, specialty shops, Merchants’ Bridge, gourmet food, incredible history and progressiveness make it a must see when in Germany. Historic Germany was there to help with an exciting itinerary that left us little planning to do.