Destination Erfurt: Germany’s City of Towers

Described as the ‘Thuringian Rome,’ it is steeped in history

By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author
Home page photo by Barbara Neumann, courtesy Erfurt Tourism and Marketing

The reformer Martin Luther once said that Erfurt, Germany “is situated in the best location. It is the perfect place for a city.”

Little did he know 500 years later that Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, with a population of 200,000 and right in the center of “modern” Germany, would attract large crowds of visitors, many just to see the city in which Luther became an ordained priest.

Erfurt is the capital city of the German state of Thuringia and the main city nearest to the geographical center of modern Germany, located 60 miles southwest of Leipzig. With the Luther Decade ending in 2017, Erfurt has put on its best face to show what is has to offer, and visitors won’t be disappointed.

Erfurt was all spit and polish for the 2015 German Travel Mart in April 2015, when thousands of journalists worldwide, buyers (travel agents and meeting planners) and German suppliers (hotels, Germany’s cities and regions, and commercial attractions) all met in Erfurt (and next-door Weimar) for a three-day-long conference to put Germany on display.

The town’s domplatz is said to be one of Europe’s largest, and it sits next to the impressive central church in Erfurt, St. Mary’s Cathedral, the oldest ecclesiastic building in the city, founded in the 8th century.

Initially the Romanesque-turned-Gothic cathedral served as the bishop’s seat, and up to the 19th century was the seat of the collegiate chapter of St. Mary. Martin Luther himself was ordained in the church in 1507.

The Mariendom (St. Mary’s) and St. Severi form an imposing backdrop for the annual Cathedral Steps Festival held in Erfurt.

The largest free-swinging bell in the world, the “Gloriosa,” with a diameter of 8 feet, hangs in the church today, but because of its age is only rung occasionally. Inside the cathedral there is an elaborate Gothic chancel with a series of 13 colored stained-glass windows which are 42 feet high and are among the greatest works of medieval stained-glass art. The cathedral contains a number of art treasures from various centuries. Guided tours of the church can be arranged in advance.

A flight of 70 steps that lead to the cathedral date back to the 14th century, and today many concerts and events are held on the steps.

Next to St. Mary’s on the hill is St. Severi Church, and together with St. Mary’s the two churches dominate the heart of this medieval city.

Nicknamed the “Rome of the North” for its profusion of some 30 spires and steeples, Erfurt is unquestionably one of Germany’s most beautiful cities. The old heart of the city with its half-timbered buildings looks like something out of the movies from years ago.

“Erfordia turrita” or “Erfurt, city of towers” is how Luther once praised Erfurt with its 25 parish churches, 15 religious foundations and 10 chapels. This impressive list of ecclesiastical buildings, in conjunction with the magnificent architectural motif of the cathedral and the Church of St. Severus (now the city’s emblem), inspired historians such as Ernst Stida (1585–1632) to refer to the city as the “The Thuringian Rome.”

Most of the churches are still intact and blend in with the beautifully restored half-timbered houses of the Andreas quarter and with the brightly-colored façades of Renaissance buildings. The medieval part of the city is one of the largest and best preserved historical city centers in Germany.

The Augustinian Monastery, built in 1277, is of Gothic design; stained glass windows date from the beginning of the 14th century. The monastery is considered one of the most famous places related to the Reformation.

In 1505, Luther became a monk and took up residency at the beautiful and peaceful Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt, built in 1277. Recently renovated, the gothic monastery has functioned as an Evangelical/Lutheran church and school since 1525. Visit the chapter house and enjoy the same wonderful acoustics that Luther did in his day, or see the reconstruction of Luther’s cell. The Augustinerkloster possesses valuable stained glass windows dating to the beginning of the 14th century. Martin Luther lived here as a monk from 1505 to 1511. You can also spend the night in one of the 51 comfortable guest rooms at the monastery. Today the abbey serves as an ecumenical conference center and a memorial to Luther.

The Luther Stone stands to the east of Stotternheim near Erfurt. On July 2, 1505 Martin Luther, then a law student at Erfurt University, was returning to Erfurt after visiting his parents in Mansfeld. He was making the journey on foot, and as he approached Stotternheim he witnessed a severe thunderstorm that put him in fear of his life. He is said to have cried out, “Help, St. Anne, I will become a monk.” The site where the memorial stone now stands is sometimes described as the birthplace of the Reformation.

Merchant’s Bridge, a landmark in Erfurt, is the longest bridge in Europe covered by houses that are still inhabited today. In early times, traders sold their wares from this unique bridge.

The Krämerbrücke/Merchants’ Bridge is Erfurt’s most interesting example of secular architecture. This arched stone bridge was constructed in 1325 over the river Gera where the original ford was located along the “via regia” trading route. The Krämerbrücke is the only bridge north of the Alps to be built over entirely with houses that are still used as residences. In medieval times there were two churches built at each end of the bridge, one of which, the Ägidienkirche, is still in existence.

In 1695, the first foundation stone was laid for one of the few remaining 17th century city fortifications to be found in Germany. Today the Petersberg Citadel is an impressive example of European fortification construction dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Parts of the fortification were open to the public in 1964, but after 1990 it was extensively renovated, and today the greater part of the casemates, esplanades and bastions inside the fortification area are open to visitors. The completion of the citadel and the Petersberg are Erfurt’s largest undertaking.

(left to right) The Erfurt Rathaus is located at the Fischmarkt; origins of the building go back to the 11th century.; Erfurt city guide Matthias Gose points out aspects of the town on a scale model cast in metal.; Erfurt architecture

Haus zum Breiten Herd, historic Renaissance guild house, Fischmarkt square, Erfurt. In earlier times, rich merchants of the the city decorated the fronts of their homes with delicate carvings.

The neo-Gothic town hall at the Fischmarkt was built between 1870 and 1874. Inside the stairwells and the Festsaal (main function hall) there are numerous wall paintings depicting legends and scenes from the life of Luther, as well as pictures illustrating the history of Thuringia and Erfurt.

Erfurt city guide Matthias Gose points out aspects of the town on a scale model cast in metal

The Old Synagogue is one of very few preserved medieval synagogues in Europe. Thanks to the extensive preservation of the original structure, it has a special place in the history of art and architecture and is among the most impressive and highly rated architectural monuments in Erfurt and Thuringia. The synagogue was constructed during the Middle Ages on the “via regia,” at the heart of the historical old quarter very close to the Merchants Bridge and the town hall.

Many parts of the structure still remain today, including all four thick outer walls, the Romanesque gemel window, the Gothic rose window and the entrance to the synagogue room. After extensive restoration, the building was reopened in 2009. On display in the exhibition rooms is a collection of medieval treasures discovered during archaeological excavations. This includes 3,140 silver coins, 14 silver ingots, approximately 6,000 works of goldsmithery from the 13th and 14th centuries, and an intricate wedding ring of the period, of which only two others are known to exist in the world.

One of the buildings that reflects the history of Erfurt in a special and unique manner is the Kaisersaal in the Futterstrasse, which, after radical reconstruction, was reopened in 1994. It was built out of three patrician houses at the beginning of the 18th century to serve as the university’s ballroom. It is the oldest center for cultural events and meetings in Germany.

The Goldhelm Schokolade shop in Erfurt provides a selection of fresh chocolates every day

The Anger Museum with its variety of wood and stone sculptures is situated in the middle of the old part of the city. It was built between 1706 and 1712 as a packing and weighing station, both for Philipp Wilhelm Reichsgraf von Boineburg, the governor of the city, and for Archbishop Lothar Franz von Schönborn. It is one of the most important early 18th century buildings.

The Erfurt city museum, in the magnificent Haus zum Stockfisch building, was founded in 1886 to house the artworks that Erfurt inherited from one of its most famous sons, the Romantic painter Friedrich Nerly. The museum’s four floors present the city’s culture, economic development, politics and religion.

Flowers decorate the Gera River channels in Erfurt.

Erfurt’s last water mill to still be in use is located on the banks of the Gera River near the town hall. Besides the water-driven grinding mill, there are also exhibition rooms displaying historical machines. The museum also contains an illustrated history of Erfurt’s water mills in particular and of the history of hydraulic power in general.

Erfurt, said to be Germany’s largest single heritage site, is a popular destination for tourists, thanks to its medieval ambiance and storied history.

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