Part carefully restored medieval town from the past, part modern metropolitan capital, Erfurt originally wasn’t on our radar. It’s not as well-known as other German cities, perhaps because it was part of the former East Germany and closed to foreigners for decades. As a result, Erfurt deserves more attention than it has received. After reading about the city’s beautiful, pedestrian-friendly old town and its rich history that includes Bach and Martin Luther, we decided to see Erfurt for ourselves. And we weren’t disappointed!
It was a beautiful, warm, late September day when we arrived at our hotel, located on a square in the center of town, lined with cafes filled with people enjoying the late afternoon sun. After checking in, we set out to find the Merchant’s Bridge. It’s the city’s most famous tourist sight and the longest continuously occupied bridge in Europe with merchants’ houses and shops lining both sides.
Erfurt is located along what was an important east-west trade route linking Spain to Poland. The Romans called it Via Regia. The city began as a settlement at the place where the route crossed, or forded, the river Erpha – the medieval word for “muddy water”- which is how Erfurt got its name – Erpha + ford. Today the river is called the Gera.
When a wooden bridge was built across the Gera during the Middle Ages, the local merchants immediately recognized the opportunity to sell their goods to the many traders and pilgrims passing through. The bridge was lined with 62 houses, each less than nine feet wide. Merchants and their families lived upstairs above their shops, which were stuffed full of precious herbs, jewelry, and the indigo dye that made Erfurt wealthy.
During the Middle Ages, the bridge was closed by gates and had churches on either end. Today, only one gate remains, along with the 12th century church next door. We didn’t have to go far to find the gate, which is more of a covered passageway. It was just at the edge of the square.
Inside the passage was a stairway leading to the top of the church bell tower, which offered a wonderful bird’s eye view of the bridge.
On the bridge, we wandered down the narrow cobblestone street lined with colorful houses. Instead of a name, each house had its own symbol. Inside one was an ice cream shop. The menu included something called “Spaghettieis” or spaghetti ice cream because it is extruded through a press and comes out looking like spaghetti. It’s apparently a German specialty. We didn’t try the ice cream, but judging by the long line out the door, it was really good. There is also a chocolate shop, along with many galleries selling fabrics, ceramics, and other handmade items, all the work of local craftsmen.
One of my favorites was a shop selling beautiful hand-blown glass ornaments. Apparently, the first glass ornaments were made in the 1500s in a town not too far away.
Enchanting, even in September, Erfurt must be even more so in December, when a Christmas market spreads throughout the town. On the main square, there’s a giant Christmas “pyramid”- apparently the predecessor to the Christmas tree – featuring around 30 life-sized figures.
Some of the Merchant’s Bridge was damaged in WWII and had to be rebuilt. Luckily, during Erfurt’s East German days, the bridge was already famous, so it was not as badly neglected as some other historic monuments.
On the other side of the bridge, we wandered along the banks of the Gera admiring the lovely window boxes and charming houses lining the peaceful stream.
A small bridge crossed onto the “Dämmchen”, a tiny narrow island in the river. While we were on the bridge, it took a few minutes to realize that we weren’t on a normal street. Now, from where we stood on the little island, we could finally see the bridge itself supporting the tall, narrow half-timbered buildings.
Most were a little crooked and some seemed to lean on their neighbor for support, but in general, the houses were remarkably well-preserved.
Over its 800 year history, the bridge was destroyed or damaged several times by fire. Each time the determined villagers rebuilt it, finally in stone rather than wood. They reconstructed the houses making them wider and higher than the originals, reducing the number of houses to 32. One of the most surprising and unique features of the houses located over the bridge-supporting piers are their cellars, built into and part of the pier structures. It is amazing that, to this day, people still live upstairs above the shops just as they did 500 years ago.