“Erfurt is such a bright place now, but much of its past isn’t.” This was a phrase that stuck in my mind near to the end of my time in Erfurt – a response to my announcement of it as my second most favourite German city to date after Berlin. On the surface, this restored medieval area is nothing short of what German writer, Arnold Zwieg describes as “a picture book of German history”, yet it’s all too easy to forget its darker days when it was a part of the former socialist East Germany.
Passing through, it looks completely untainted; there’s not a hint of ‘East Germany’ unless you look hard enough. From its time as a prime European trading route in the Middle Ages, to its cultural and politically rich present following the reunification of Germany, there’s more to Erfurt than just its elegant exterior.
Germany’s Biggest Single Preservation Area
Its 1270 year-old history lives on in its cobbled streets and charming restored renaissance buildings. A city perched within the green heart of Germany, everywhere you look is picturesque, living up to it’s name of ‘Thuringia’s Rome’. Culturally it shines, having been home to artists and intellectuals including Bach and church reformist Martin Luther, who paved the way for its rich heritage and artistic vibrancy.
It’s an incredible space to wander around – compact, easily navigable, and mostly pedestrianised. Different architectural designs and colours stand perfectly aligned on every corner, side-street and winding alley, its long-established history preserved while sitting side by side with sporadic modern additions.
Erfurt survived much of the Second World War untouched, yet its buildings were left to decay during its East Germany days – the Soviets having little money to bulldoze and rebuild here in their distinct style.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city was lovingly restored, able to retain its old history and without the lingering Cold War reminder from Russian architecture. Erfurt was occupied, but it was never destroyed.
From the Cathedral and Church of St Severus, the Old Synagogue and the cobblestone street of 32 half-timbered buildings of the Merchants’ Bridge (Krämerbrücke Bridge), to the boutique shops, street cafes and riverside hangouts, Erfurt retains its medieval splendor while boasting a metropolitan twist.
You can wander the boutiques, galleries, and medieval craft workshops on the bridge before enjoying a drink in one of the beer gardens behind it; get lost in the tiny streets before lounging in a café on one of the more modern thoroughfares.
The Past Lingers and is Not Forgotten
It wasn’t until I went to visit the fortress Petersberg (Zitadelle Petersberg) and stand high on the famous Cathedral steps down into the Domplatz (Cathedral Square), that Erfurt’s Cold War history was most apparent.
The fortress many provide an incredible view across the city and a mysterious space where you can wander within its tunnel-like passages, but it was also the place where the Nazi’s executed deserters and the Soviets later took over as a base for its state security operations. Today expensive apartment rentals are a part of the area’s conversion, standing next to the building where the Stassi files are now achieved (locals being able to look up what was documented about them during the time of socialist rule – as is the norm across former East Germany states). Historical tours return it to its former glory.
At the bottom of the hill, is the Erfurt Stasi Museum (the site of the former Stasi prison) – a dominating and looming building that is hard to walk past and forget about.
If you want a comprehensive historical overview of Erfurt outside of its medieval charm, and an education insight into the Cold War and Soviet occupation, then this museum is an absolute must. I have never been in a museum so well planned, educational and captivating. It’s chilling, but you leave with a better understanding and appreciation for Erfurt and what it has become today.
And when you wander down the Cathedral steps, look out into the square. While Leipzig started the ‘Peaceful Protest’ movement, smaller gatherings were taking place elsewhere, and Erfurt was one of them. Locals rallied to peacefully put an end to division and for the country to be unified…and for the Iron Curtain to be dissolved.
When I posted a ‘then and now’ picture on Facebook, fellow travel blogger and backpacker, Steve Hänisch, posted his memories of this place. It was at that point that it really hit home how recent this history is and how it affected my generation and my friends.
“As a young person, it wasn’t that bad living here. Thuringia was directly at the border to West Germany which meant we couldn’t go any further to visit our family there (even though they could visit us). In reality, I knew of nothing else,” comments Steve on his time living in the area during the time when Erfurt was a part of East Germany.
“I was only 7 years old when I took part in the peaceful protests and for me it was more like an adventure – I just realised later the role we played in the whole thing. I was shouting the slogans ‘Schwarz-Rot-Gold, Wir sind das Volk’ and have it still in my ear when I’m thinking about it today. I’m glad I now have the freedom to do things my grandparents never had the chance to do – travel the world freely. I feel more aware of how lucky I really am.”
How lucky we are too, to be able to experience the freedom of a united Germany, and to be able to enjoy the long-established history of such beautiful and charming destinations… which we must do so without forgetting the tough pasts that helped shape them into their modern-day brilliance.
Things To Note:
- I stayed in Peckham’s guesthouse, whose two rooms are a part of the gorgeous organic café, right in the heart of the old town. A great place to feel as though you are ‘living local’.
- For further information on visiting Erfurt, including information on organized day tours, visit www.erfurt-tourismus.de
Erfurt was the fourth stop on my ‘Fall of the Wall’ trip to former east Germany towns and cities in conjunction with the German National Tourist Office, to look at modern Germany and how it’s changed since reunification. All opinions remain my own.