It is asparagus season in Erfurt. Which is not to say you need to eat asparagus for breakfast, or make it to the Domplatz farmers market to procure the fat, white bundles for yourself. Spargelzeit is everywhere. Nearly every restaurant offers a special Tageskarte, or daily menu, with variations on the theme.
Fountain centerpiece of the Wenigemarktplatz.
Erfurt is the capital city of Thuringia (or ThàÆ’ ¼ringen), an old Germanic settlement that became a major trading crossroads and, after centuries, was appropriated by the GDR. It is the city nearest to the geographical heart of Germany and, like many nearby towns, is famous for its Christmas market. Now, however, it is spring, so bands and farmers crowd the market squares instead. Because it is small and slightly overlooked, and just a three hour ICE train ride from Berlin, Erfurt is an ideal spot for wandering-either on its own or part of a Thuringian country tour. It is pleasant and placid, with distinctive bustle, personality-except on Sundays, of course, when all is shut.
It is morning. You’ve either woken up in Erfurt or have arrived into the Hauptbahnhof. Likely it is sunny, hot out in the open, cool in shade, the sky a perfect robin’s egg. Grab a pastry and a latte macchiato at the first café you see, maybe one with outdoor seating on the Gera river, which trickles, one foot deep, through the city center, its smaller tributary dribbling along behind it. You will have to cross a thoroughfare, the wide Juri-Gagarin-Ring, which separates the medieval city center from rest of town. The BahnhofstraàÆ’à… ¸e gets you pretty far, as it gives into SchlàÆ’ ¶sserstraàÆ’à… ¸e. This leads you straight into the Fischmarkt, with the stately Rathaus (city hall). From there you’re free to wander off in each direction. Don’t worry, you will not get lost.
For the morning hours, a stroll. Not much English is spoken in Erfurt, but a tourist information center located on the Benediktsplatz offers user-friendly maps and pamphlets for your troubles. While here, consider booking tickets for the opera or an evening concert. Chase the ghost of Martin Luther through the streets, the university, or the Augustinerkloster.
Alte Synagoge (the old synagogue) in Erfurt, over 900 years old.
Make sure to visit the Alte Synagoge, the oldest standing synagogue in Europe, or wander along the famous KràÆ’ ¤merbràÆ’ ¼cke, or “Merchants Bridge”, once the residential center of this town. Today there are 32 houses on the bridge, mostly antique and artisan shops. Behind it is the Kreuzgasse, a tiny, cobbled cross street with places to buy mustards, meats, and chocolate souvenirs. If you look carefully, you’ll find a charming coin-op puppet show built into the bricks.
For lunch consider picnicking. Bakeries or DàÆ’ ¶ner shops are plenty; grab some sandwiches (and Bier from a GetràÆ’ ¤nkemarkt!) and trace your way along the Gera to an ideal picnic park. Take off your shoes and plunge your feet into the brook.
Mosey back toward the KràÆ’ ¤merbràÆ’ ¼cke, past the medieval bakery, toward the Augustiner Biergarten. You’re looking for the workshop café of the Goldhelm Schokoladen Manufaktur, which will be unmistakable with its white iron café tables and its ice cream counter with a lengthy queue. Sample any flavor you like, but bear in mind the bitter chocolate is unbeatable. If there happens to be a chill in the air, sit and order HeiàÆ’à… ¸e Schokolade instead, a hot chocolate so dense with cocoa that it coats the cup sides.
If you haven’t made it to the Domplatz yet, afternoon is ideal. Wander along MarktstraàÆ’à… ¸e until it empties into the wide expanse of stone. Scale the impressive steps to the Mariendom cathedral, saving its sister sanctuary for last. Here are two extremely stylish churches, vaulted ceilings, cold stone floors, rows of wooden pews, a breathtakingly ornate altar, and perhaps an errant bird or two. Just across the courtyard, the Dom St. Severi is nothing to be sniffed at; admire the unfinished carvings on the tombs you’ll tread.
Just a short walk from the cathedrals is the Erfurt citadel. Even if you don’t bother with the history lesson, the view is worth the walk. Here is all of Erfurt laid out beneath you, the dark forests visible on the hills. Treat yourself to a Rhabarber-Schorle (half rhubarb nectar, half sparkling water) or an icy aperitif at the Glas HàÆ’ ¼tte to inaugurate your evening.
Whether you choose a typical Thuringian restuarant dinner (I recommend Zum Wenigemarkt 13, al fresco dining on the square and plenty of Spargel on their Speisekarte), a Biergarten (Zum Goldenen Schwan, just near the Michaeliskirche-high marks for authenticity and charm), or more casual fare, your dinner will be moderately priced and fresh. Expect creamy sauces, doughy ThàÆ’ ¼ringer KlàÆ’ ¶àÆ’à… ¸e (dumplings), curly green leaf lettuce, plus meats and bratwurst of the highest pedigree.
Theater Erfurt is located just behind the Domplatz to the left of the Mariendom cathedral; follow the flock of well dressed Erfurters as they clack their sandal heels on the cobble stones-you cannot miss the theater’s glass faà§ade. (Our visit coincided with the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Die Zauberin, but there are ample choices. Just note: the titles are in German, so maybe choose an opera you are familiar with.) Treat yourself to champagne or Schwarzbier at intermission, and another ice cream afterwards. You’ll have earned it with all your wandering around.
And remember, Erfurt is alive at night, but the streets are rarely crowded. The 203,333 residents and additional tourists are easily dispersed among its alleys and its charms. As you make your way back to your accommodations or your outbound train, take your pick of charming cafés and cocktail bars. (I recommend Modern Masters for imaginative cocktails, and Hemingway for Cuba Libres and cigars). If you have time, don’t miss the unassuming Noah, hidden on Grosse Arche 8. A ship’s prow dominates the door. Pick your way through the kitschy dark wood inside to the outdoor garden. Choose a bench and order a stein of something local. The barmaid will mark your tab in tick marks on a cardboard coaster. Clink tankards to cheer your day in Erfurt, and don’t forget that, when you’re here, it’s “Prost!”