Erfurt: Simple, unspoiled Germany

BY RICK STEVES Modified: November 6, 2012 at 1:55 pm •  Published: November 6, 2012
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Long ago I gave up looking for an untouristy, half-timbered medieval German town, but recently, I stumbled upon it in the sleepy town of Erfurt.

The capital of the German region of Thuringia, Erfurt has history swinging from its eaves. It's most notable as the place where Martin Luther studied and became a monk, essentially planting the roots that set into motion the Protestant Reformation.

It's also the rare city in the center of Germany that emerged relatively unscathed from World War II, after which it became stuck in the strange cocoon of East German communism for half a century. Because of this, Erfurt has a surprising time-capsule quality.

I arrived in Erfurt by train. After spending the previous week in Hard Rock Café Munich, Climb Every Mountain Salzburg, and Boys' Choir Vienna, I was excited to be in a city that was unfamiliar.

I hopped in a taxi to my guesthouse, run by the monastery Martin Luther called home. A tiny wooden cross decorated the otherwise blank wall above my headboard. The inlaid tiles and creaky floor felt like pre-WWII Germany.

Pushing out my shutters, I leaned out my window to survey the scene — a thick deciduous forest, chirping and hooting birds, a babbling brook, and a well-groomed lane with locals who seemed as happy to be in Erfurt as I was.

To orient myself, I took a walk through the city, starting in the main shopping square called Anger. Meaning “Meadow,” the name evokes the grazing land that once sprawled just outside the city walls. Famished, I dropped by a characteristic bratwurst stand to buy a Thuringer brat, a long, skinny pork sausage.

The man paused until I realized I was supposed to pick up and spread open my roll so he could place the sausage in it. I beaded it with hearty mustard and then snuck in a little ketchup (a tourist move, I admit). Purists put only the locally made Born brand mustard on their brat.

Munching the sausage, I strolled down to the river. Erfurt is named for a shallow point where ancient traders could ford (-furt) a river. The Er- comes from an old German word for dirty — the water was muddied when people would cross.

As I explored, it started sinking in: I wasn't in quaint, beer-and-pretzel Bavaria anymore. Erfurt has that old Tupperware aura of East Germany. People seemed more hardscrabble, less exposed to the world. English was suddenly very foreign.

I hadn't heard an American voice all day. Despite being very popular among German tourists and Martin Luther pilgrims, Erfurt remains largely undiscovered by American visitors.