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Erfurt: Simple, unspoiled Germany

BY RICK STEVES Modified: November 6, 2012 at 1:55 pm •  Published: November 6, 2012
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I walked across the Merchants' Bridge that spans the river. Unlike the famous shop-lined Ponte Vecchio in Florence, people actually make their homes along this bridge. As in ages past, the residents live upstairs and run shops downstairs, such as at Theatrum Mundi, featuring the brilliant work of puppetmaker Martin Gobsch. For €1, I saw an intricately detailed, fully articulated rendering of Snow White.

Across the bridge is the Old Synagogue, one of Europe's earliest surviving synagogues. Its cellar features the Erfurt Treasure, consisting of 60 pounds of gold, silver, and jewels that once belonged to a wealthy local Jew. The prize piece is a finely detailed golden wedding ring from the early 14th century, inscribed with the words mazel tov, indicating that it once belonged to a Jewish woman.

From the synagogue, I took a short walk to the Preachers' Church, Erfurt's main Protestant church. Despite being rebuilt after World War II, it still features the original 700-year-old wood wall used in pre-Reformation days to separate people from the clergy.

Behind the altar is a kaleidoscope of colorful windows, pieced together from the original medieval glass windows shattered in the war. The church also has a glorious circa-1650 Baroque pipe organ that is used for weekly concerts.

My walk through Erfurt culminated on the vast Cathedral Square, dominated by twin churches — the Church of St. Severus and the cathedral where Martin Luther was ordained a priest. As I soaked up the scene, I was enveloped by the sounds of an opera troupe rehearsing on the square while the dark churches rung with the sound of pipe organists practicing.

For me, as a Lutheran, coming to Erfurt is a bit like a Catholic going to Rome. Without the pivotal accomplishments of the Reformation, the Bible would still be read in Latin and interpreted for us by priests. The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther kicking off the Reformation in 1517 is quickly approaching, and towns like Erfurt will enjoy lots of attention. But until then, visitors can enjoy this delightful slice of simple, unspoiled Germany in peace.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.