Saturday, 1 September 2012

Erfurt - City at the Heart of Germany

Erfurt Domplatz
If you look at a map of Germany and place your finger on what seems like Germany's geographical center, you will probably be covering up the town of Erfurt, capital of Thuringia (der Freistaat Thüringen).

We visited it on a day-trip from Berlin. Using the ICE Hamburg to München express train it takes about two and a half hours, which isn't too bad.

As you head towards the centre of town from the Hauptbahnhof you will inevitably have to cross the small river Gera or one of its many tributaries.

The river was originally called the Erphes river, 'erphes' being the latin for muddy brown water. In German a ford is eine Furt, so you see that Erfurt is named from being the ford over the muddy brown river.

Nowadays the river looks sparkling clean, and must at least support enough fish for anglers to climb into it in their waders:

Anglers fishing in the Breitsrom (branch of the Gera)  next to the Neue Mühle (new mill) Technisches Denkmal.
At one time there were up to fifty mills in Erfurt; this is the last,
Nearby to the bridge on Schlösserstraße shown above are the ruins of the Barfüßerkirche, or church of the Barefoot Friars.

They were termed 'bare-foot' (discalced) because they were Franciscan monks who followed the rules of poverty set down by St. Francis of Assisi. The life of St. Francis was changed when he heard a sermon about Matthew 9-10 where Christ tells his followers to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven and go forth 'without a knapsack, change of clothes, shoes, or even a staff'.

The first Barefoot Friars settled in Erfurt in 1226 and soon after started building a church for their monastery. The present building was last added to in 1400 when it acquired a tower, and though it survived the Restoration and being ransacked for stone to add to the city's fortifications during the turbulent 17th C, it was finally done for by a British bomb on the night of 27th November 1944. It is now being restored.

Barfüßerkirche, Erfurt
At the monastery of the Bare-footed Monks

Just around the corner from the Franciscans there was a Domincan friary, of which the Predigerkirche ('Preacher's Church'), built in the 13th Century, survives. It is now Erfurt's main protestant church.

Inside there is a magnificent baroque organ, and from 1636-1673 the organist here was Johannes Bach, father of the so-called 'Erfurt line' of the many musical Bachs (J.S.Bach is the most well known, but apparently there were some fifty notable Bach musicians and composers).
Predigerkirche, Erfurt
Nowadays the monks aren't barefoot - they wear sports sandals - and they give guided tours!*
[*apparently. Don't quote me on this.].

Erfurt Domplatz with Not-barefoot Friar
The large marketplace is located on the Domplatz, which is dominated on one side by Erfurt's enormous cathedral (the Mariendom) and its smaller partner the Severikirche. They are on a slight hill and are reached by a flight of steep stone steps, the Domstufen.

Mariendom (l.) and Severikirche (r.)
At the top of the steps a gruesome crucifix 'greets' you.

The various statues of Mary adorning the cathedral (after whom the Mariendom is named) are much gentler:

Statue of Mary and Child
The whole of this Roman Catholic cathedral, which goes back to the 12th C., is clad with statues and Gothic stonework and spires.

St Michael doing some Dragon-smoteing above the entrance to the Mariendom

Gothic spires and fancy knobbly bits and stone tracery on the Mariendom
It is ironic that Martin Luther, that great iconoclast, was ordained in this very cathedral in 1507. More of him later.

The Mariendom's companion atop Cathedral Hill is die St-Severi-Kirche, or church of St.Severus. The story goes that in 836, the relics of St. Severus of Ravenna (died 344AD) were brought to Erfurt by the Archbishop of Mainz and housed in a Benedictine monastery where the St-Severi-Kirche now stands.

I guess that's the Severus dude over the entrance. His actual sarcophagus is located inside the church, but visitors are not allowed to take photographs that are for web-publication.

St Severus. Maybe.
A larger hill overlooks Cathedral Hill. This is the Petersberg and is crowned by the Zitadelle. From here you get a good view down onto the Domplatz and Erfurt Altstadt, but can also start to see the Soviet-era Plattenbau encircling the city.

Erfurt from Petersberg Zitadelle
There is a small vineyard on the SE face of the hill, and a micro-winery where you can sit and sip wine made from the grapes grown here.
Vineyard on Petersberg
The Zitadelle (Citadel or fortress) has impressive fortifications including enormous pointed bastions projecting from the inner curtain wall, each with their own name.

Bastion Killian, viewed from Bastion Leonhard
Access bridge (built 1670) leading to the Commandant's House.
Peterstor, built 1666-1668
The Zitadelle dates back to 1665, though the Petersberg has been inhabited since the Iron Age. In 1664 Erfurt was forcibly brought under control of the Electorate of Mainz, and the fortress was built on the orders of Archbishop-Elector of Mainz Johann Philipp von Schönborn to consolidate his territorial gain. The Archbishop-Elector of Mainz was second in importance only to the Emperor in the Holy Roman Empire, and Erfurt's Zitadelle became the northern-most bulwark of the HRE against the Protestant German states. Which is again ironic considering the arch-protestant Martin Luther was ordained and lived here.

In a series of manoeuvres much too complicated to go into here (or anywhere) control of Erfurt was given to Prussia in 1801 as compensation by France (Treaty of Lunéville), then controlled by Napoleon's armies in 1806 (the Capitulation of Erfurt), then re-taken by Prussia in 1816. It remained part of the Prussian province of Saxony until 1st September 1944 despite being surrounded by the state of Thuringia. In the last century the National Socialists had a large SS garrison here, and under the Soviets there was a police academy , a motor pool for the Stasi, and barracks for the National Peoples Army (NVA). Since unification, there has been a branch of the Stasi Archives authority.

Passing through the Peterstor are the restored Upper Barracks built 1675, next to a parade ground and reconstructed cannon.

The Upper Barracks
The remainder of the barracks, and the old St Peter's monastery that gave the hill its name, remain however in a dilapidated state.

Former parade ground.
Remains of St Peter's Monastery on the right, now an arts centre

At the foot of the Eastern slope lies the Andreasviertel, centred around Andreaskirche (St Andrew's Church).

This picturesque area nearly succumbed to DDR-era town-planning (i.e. knock everything old down and erect modern Plattenbau blocks of flats instead), but thankfully a public campaign and the fall of The Wall saved it.
Typical street in the renovated Andreasviertal
Continuing East you soon come to Augustinerstrasse, and the pale blue tower of the Nikolaikirchturm, matching in colour the Plattenbau along the street.
Just nearby down a small alleyway is the restored Renaissance-era Georgenburse. This building, first mentioned in 1456, served until the mid-Sixteenth century as lodgings for students at Erfurt University. It is likely therefore that Martin Luther lived here when he was a student.

The heavily restored/modernised Georgenburse
Continuing the Martin Luther theme, just up the road is the former Augustian Monastery, where a young Luther joined the Augustine order of monks on 17th July 1505. It was secularised after the Reformation (that Luther of course caused), with the deaths of the last hermits there in 1556. Nowadays it is a conference centre, lodge and meeting place for the Protestant Church in central Germany. As well as a major tourist destination for all things Lutherian.

The Augustinian Monastery, Erfurt 

If you continue further East from here you come to the cosmonautically-named Juri-Gagarin ring-road. You know that you are in the former Soviet Sector when the Old Town is circled by a road commemorating the first man into space! Instead, you will want to head South from the Augustinian Monastery towards another mediaeval gem, the Krämerbrücke.

An indicator that you are going in the right direction is that the streets get narrower and the houses quainter. Here for example is das Haus zum kleiner Helm - the 'small helmet' house:

Haus zum kleinen Helm, Erfurt
This house is on Schottengasse, which means the Alley of the Scots (or perhaps Tartan Alley). I don't know what Scottish folk were doing here in the middle of Germany, but in fact Erfurt used to be an important manufacturer of dyer's woad, which grew in the meadows around the town. I have this image now of tartan-clad warriors straight out of Braveheart, faces dyed blue with woad, rampaging down Schottengasse! No wonder the guy in my photo is looking rather warily at me from the top-left window.

More quaint half-timbered buildings.
The nearest one is Haus zum Handschuh - Glove House

Soon we got to Erfurt's famous Krämerbrücke or Merchants' Bridge. The first stone version was built in 1325 where the Via Regia forded the river Gera. Its current incarnation dates back to 1472 when it was rebuilt after a fire that destroyed half of the city.

The Via Regia (Royal Highway) by the way, was a vast mediaeval East-West trade route spanning Europe, connecting Paris with Leipzig (where it joined the North-South Via Imperii connecting Stettin and the Baltic with Rome), and Leipzig with Königsberg, Breslau, Kraków, Riga and Novgorod. Not surprisingly then, the crossing at Erfurt was a magnet for merchants, who built their houses and shops on the bridge itself. It is the equivalent of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and the Ponte di Rialto in Venice, and though admittedly not so grand it is still a remarkable sight.

die Krämerbrücke (Merchants' Bridge), Erfurt
North side
Krämerbrücke North Side

Krämerbrücke South Side

Krämerbrücke South Side

Like its Venetian and Florentine role-models, there is a road across it lined with tourist shops, restaurants, and residences.

One end of the Krämerbrücke at Benediktsplatz
On the Krämerbrücke looking towards St Aegidien
- you can climb the church's bell tower to get a good view down onto the bridge.
On the Krämerbrücke looking East
die Mundlandung restaurant and shop on die Krämerbrücke
Continuing our tour of Erfurt, we headed towards the Rathaus (after a rest and a delicious ice-cream in view of the bridge). Just before you get there, you can make a slight diversion to see Erfurt Synagogue.

Erfurt Synagogue
It is not the most attractive building, in an area with such a high concentration of Gothic churches and half-timbered buildings, but it is significant for being the oldest still-standing synagogue building in Europe (built around 1100AD). It isn't used as a synagogue any more, and houses a museum which includes a permanent exhibition of the Erfurt Treasure:  a hoard of coins, goldsmith's work and jewellery that belonged to Jews, who secreted them hastily in 1349 at the time of the Black Death pogroms. The pieces were found in 1998 in the wall of a house in the medieval Jewish neighbourhood of Erfurt.

And so on to the Rathaus (town hall). By now we were getting a bit Erfurt-weary. You cannot really expect to get the measure of the place in a day, so I strongly hope that we will be returning here in the future to explore some more. The area around the Fishmarkt presented another smorgasbord of neo-Gothic architecture, no small amount of Baroque, and middle-German charm.

Erfurt Rathaus
Erfurt Tram am Fischmarkt
zum Breiten Herd  and das Gildehaus
zum Breiten Herd - the Wide Hearth
Finally we made our way back to the Bahnhof, via the Anger (which means a meadow - not the emotion - and was where the woad used to be grown) which seems to be the main shopping area.

der Anger, Erfurt
There appears to be a lot of building renovation and pedestrianisation going on around the Anger. Appealingly dilapidated warehouses stand shoulder-to-shoulder with modern department stores and restored Jungendstil shop-fronts from the Weimar era. I think this is where our Soli is being spent (the Solidaritätszuschlag or Solidarity Tax all Germans have to pay to help with German reunification). If we come back in a year then it will all have changed.

And come back we must! Whether you are interested in Mediaeval architecture, or the history of the Reformation, or just admire picturesque chocolate-box views, Erfurt is a marvelous place to visit. Even if you are barefooted.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad to find your photos and comments- I just visited Erfurt as part of Lutherland 3 weeks ago, and lost my note-taking book. I wasn't as precise as you, anyway. So THANKS!


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