Erfurt is known best as the city that shaped the philosophy of Martin Luther, the German priest who was central to the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 1500s. But beyond the impressive churches and soaring cathedrals is a city that is inclusive, charming and full of history.
Erfurt, the capital of the state of Thuringia in central Germany, was a major trading hub in the Middle Ages, owing to its location between two major European trading routes, the Via Regia and the Nuremberg Geleitstrasse. Its prosperity grew when the medieval town began to produce a precious blue dye from the woad plant. Erfurt University established in 1379 was known as a centre of radical thinking, with Martin Luther being one of its star pupils. The Augustinerkloster, the monastery in which the reformer lived and worked between 1505 and 1511, still stands and is open to visitors. The church with stained glass windows, and a re-created cell to show you how Luther lived take you back in time.
Testament to the city’s illustrious past as a trade centre is stamped all over the well-preserved and infinitely walkable old town. Much of the original architecture survived World War II, which is why a walk through the old town feels like a step back into history. The Kramerbrucke or Merchant’s Bridge, the longest inhabited medieval arch bridge, built around 1325AD and lined with half-timber homes, is still in use. It is dotted with houses from the 17th to the 19th centuries and continues to be home to an artisanal trading community from jewelers to doll makers. Around the bridge are ancient alleys, leading to half-timber homes and Gothic churches, all framed by the Gera river.
Nearby, the St. Petersburg Citadel that squats above a labyrinth of tunnels is one of the best-preserved Baroque fortresses in central Europe. I take the panoramic trail to the top. At an elevation of 231m, the city views are commanding. From this vantage point, I am impressed by the abundance of church steeples. The centre of Erfurt is home to around 25 churches and monasteries, which is why it was frequently referred to as Thuringian Rome.
Looming large over the old town centre, standing side by side on Domberg Hill, are the monuments of St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Church of St. Severus. St. Mary’s imparts a sense of awe, with its stained-glass windows featuring biblical scenes, the Gloriosa bell, and the 14th century choir stalls. The Church of St. Severus is a five-aisled splendor that holds the sarcophagus of St. Severus among other treasures. Another historic establishment worth seeking out is the Alte Synagogue, one of the oldest Jewish houses of worship, dating back to the 12th century. Walking you through the history of the Jews who thrived here are multimedia exhibits and objects excavated in Erfurt’s Jewish quarter. These include brooches, cutlery and a unique golden Jewish marriage ring from the 14th century.
Although there is an abundance of green spaces along the Gera river, it’s Egapark, 4km west of the city, that gets travellers’ votes. This horticultural exhibition, park and botanic garden established in 1961, was the venue for the 2021 Federal Horticultural show. It is home to the largest ornamental flower bed in Europe, from Japanese to rose gardens. One can spend the entire day here, as there’s a superlative horticultural museum, a climate house, and a vast play area under the trees. A 45-minute drive from the old town takes one to the UNESCO World Heritage Hainich National Park. These primeval woodlands are home to a rich diversity of deciduous tree species, key among them being the silver-trunked European beech. Inside the park, the Wald Promenade trail offers many places to relax and engage with the scenery, from reflective mirrors to forest games to hammocks.
All these experiences are accessible to all—Erfurt is a member of the association of German cities dedicated to ‘barrier-free travel’. This translates into spaces on the tram for wheelchairs, ramps at forts and museums. Even the Treetop Trail at the Hainich National Park is accessible for wheelchair users thanks to a lift, and proves that Erfurt puts the traveller first.
Sonia Nazareth is a writer and an anthropologist based in Mumbai.