Erfurts noise is mainly visual and comes from wildly contrasting styles
Travel writers seldom return to the scene - so many cities, so little time - but this was my fourth visit to Erfurt. I had written about Bach, the Christmas market, sausage and Martin Luther. Why don't I just rent a place here, and become the Erfurt expert? Not joking. My hallmark question about a town - after the quality of architecture and food - is, "Could I live here?" I won't move soon, but the answer is, "yes."
Erfurt is a livable city, a state capital that has everything but the noise of a metropolis. On the busiest square, the Anger, I heard only footsteps, conversation and the odd warning bell of a tram. I enjoyed near-silence along the Gera River, once lined by dozens of mills, but now a place of waterside cafes.
On my first day, I didn't see a car: Much of downtown is a pedestrian zone reserved for people and quietly gliding trams. A tram took me from the train station to my room, then to lunch. I stayed in a guest house in the town centre, where the deli, cafe and pub were just down the street. Who needs a car?
Erfurt was born in the eighth century, and grew into riches by the 12th century as a market town on the trade road between Kyiv and Paris. Any goods moving through Erfurt passed some money to the taxman. Prosperity also came from making blue dye from the woad plant. The process required urine. Some dye makers had permits to brew beer, and thoughtfully provided guests with holes in the wall to add to the collection. Pairing two industries made the producers rich. The well-to-do merchants built spacious, 16th-century renaissance-style houses, many of which still stand.
Rich Erfurters also spent money on churches. St. Michael's Church, with a wooden barrel ceiling inside and tiled pitched roof outside, was built by a pious rich man in 1183. The meagre belfry and plain exterior of the Predigerkirche, the preacher's church, symbolized the poverty of monks, but it has a richly sculpted inside. Music lovers will note the 1578 vintage Compenius organ, which Hieronymus Praetorius, Johann Bach and Johann Pachelbel once played.
(The Bach family served as town musicians all over Thuringia state for 256 years. In Erfurt, Johann Bach (Johann Sebastian Bach's great-uncle) played the organ in the Predigerkirche; his son Agidius worked in St. Michael's and the Merchants' Church - where JBS's parents got married in 1668. Even the Kramerbrucke, the shopkeeper's bridge, has a Bach connection. This bridge is built up with houses on both sides, so it looks like a street. Johann Bach lived here in a house six metres deep, with his family and 20 pupils.
The king and queen of churches are the Gothic St. Mary's Cathedral and St. Severus Church, which rise above the city on a hill. Below them spreads the wide Domplatz, home of the daily market. Its back is a flea market; the front rows are the "green market" of vegetables and fruits. Between them, people line up at the stalls that supply them with their high daily requirement of grilled sausage.
In midsummer, the 70 steps leading up to the churches become an open-air stage for a festival. The program embraces music, theatre and ballet performed against that beautiful backdrop. In late November, the same place turns into a Christmas market, a vast fair of more than 200 booths that runs until just before Christmas, and the whole town seems to be there, as well as busloads of visitors.
Other historic buildings in the centre connect to Martin Luther. He studied at the University, and received a master's degree in 1505. In the same year, he entered the Augustinian Monastery to become a monk. He was ordained as a priest in St. Mary's Cathedral, and often preached in St. George's Church.
The strong Lutheran spirit notwithstanding, Erfurt's Jewish presence goes back more than 900 years. Beams in the Old Synagogue have been dated to 1094. The synagogue had been enlarged, burned, rebuilt, and enlarged again. After a pogrom in 1349, the great hall became a warehouse, then bowling alley, restaurant, and dance hall. Over the centuries, other buildings went up against its walls, saving it from destruction by the Nazis. Currently, restorations continue to turn the building into a museum. It will house a 167-piece treasure trove of gold and silver artifacts from the 13th and 14th centuries.
Another relic is the mikweh, the ritual bath that dates from 1250. Religious law demanded that it be filled with flowing water, so it was built near the Gera River, deep enough to get groundwater. It was discovered in 2007 under a 19th-century cellar. The renovation has started, and soon the bath will be visible again.
Nearer the present, the road led through some fusion architecture. The town didn't build much after the 17th century, when trade shifted to the seas, indigo replaced woad, and income dropped.
Fortune smiled again in the 1870s, after the Franco-Prussian War, when money from war reparations found its way here. People built playfully ornate houses. Stepped gables and funny gargoyles ornament the 1910 neo-Gothic Town Hall. The whole of Anger, developed then, is incongruous. A sandstone imitation-Gothic castle houses a bank. Gothic polychrome cameos and carved gargoyles gaze down from a department store's facade. The mixture includes lavish fin-de-siecle, gracious art nouveau, and streamlined art deco. It stops the walker and provokes criticism.
"Nothing is authentic. Why did they do this?" complained my companion.
"Why not?" I asked. "It surprises, entertains, starts arguments, like right now, keeps our brains working."
Perhaps not the original purpose, but serves to make Erfurt a very livable city of many colours.
IF YOU GO:
Getting there and getting around
Air Canada (www.aircanada.ca, 888-247-2262) flies daily to Frankfurt, the nearest gateway airport. Currently, there is no air connection to Erfurt; flight time via Munich is 3 1/4 hours, the same as by direct train. For information on passes and tickets, contact Rail Europe (800-361-7245, www.raileurope.ca).
The city is served by an efficient bus and tram network. The Erfurt Card is valid for 48 hours of free travel on public transport, free admission to municipal museums and a guided walk. It costs 9.90 euros (about $16) and can be purchased at the tourist office.
Contact the German National Tourist Office, P.O. Box 65162, Toronto, M4K 3Z3, 877-315-6237, e-mail gnto