December 2008: Erfurt, one for the woad


erfurt-christmas-marketFamous name, famous place. Saxony throbs bountifully from the heart of the schoolroom maps – the verifiable heart of Europe,

And at the heart of Saxony, Erfurt can claim to be the medieval heart of Germany. It is remarkably well preserved, a refuge amid the mayhem of the world wars in the twentieth century and the orgy of destruction that was the thirty years war in the 1600s.

What is left is worth a visit: a delightful blend of wealthy patrician townhouses and lovingly restored half-timbered buildings, overlooked by the towering spires of Mariendom and Severikirche, which loosely translated as St Mary’s Cathedral and the Church of St Severus.

Inside one of the churches the two organs can be played simultaneously by one organist, and regular concerts there are a must-do for visitors.

There is another star attraction. The Merchants’ Bridge (Krämerbrücke), with 32 houses built along its 120-metre length, is Europe’s longest inhabited bridge and one of only two or its kid to survive.

But there is more. Just a stone’s throw from the cathedral hill is Petersberg Citadel, the only extensively preserved baroque town fortress in Europe, with an intricate maze of underground passageways for visitors to explore. They even installed a car park in modern times.

Originally marking the crossroads of key trading routes, Erfurt now finds itself back as the crossroads of the tourist trade, attract by an amenity rare in war-ravaged Germany, an intact medieval town centre.

Where there beer meets urine, there is also religion.

The churches collected near a ford in the Gera river. The ford of the brown water was shortened to Erfurt, the river too has been diverted by flood relief projects so now it offers little hint of its former grandeur.

Merchants on the landmark bridge, shops clinging to it with medieval tenacity, paid dues to five of them at one time, a total of seven deadly taxes to Peterskloster), Marienstift, Severistift, Cyriakskloster, Reglerkloster and also monasteries in Reinhardsbrunn and Bürgel

The merchants festival, held annually on the third weekend in June, is one of the biggest medieval fairs in Europe where musicians and latter-day knights errand congregate to try some post-woadian beer-drinking.


It is enough to make you thirsty. There is a time honoured tradition of stopping off for a beer herearound, one for the woad, so to speak.

Blue dye was extremely expensive in 14th century Europe. One gram of blue dye was the equivalent of one gram of gold. In Erfurt they made a lot of money out of dying for Thuringia, as it were.

Woad, the key ingredient for blue dye, was grown in rural districts around Erfurt and because of the mild climate there was usually an abundant harvest.

Through the heart of Erfurt you can see evidence of how they took the piss all those years ago. They needed urine to mix with their woad and complete the dye-making process. They sold beer, gathered the end product (an early example of recycling) and, hey presto, got rich.

The houses still have tell tale holes over the door – straw bushes stuck in them would let townspeople know that the beer was available. Outside the entrance was a wooden vat where you could deposit your urine on the way out.

In all there were five wealthy Thuringian woad-towns, Erfurt, Gotha, Tennstedt, Arnstadt and Langensalza. In 1392 the Erfurt University was founded, (students and beer made an ideal mix even then) and Erfurt was one of the wealthiest towns in Europe.





Nearby is the Scotstift, literally the Irish church, where the Irish missionaries brought the faith during the dark ages. Some say the Irish missionaries also brought the woad on which the prosperity of the town was founded.

And a short walk on is the Augustinerkloster is an ancient monastery, where Martin Luther lived as a monk from 1505-11.

Bach’s parents were married there and they didn’t get to be Bach’s birthplace but it might as well have been. His parents were organ players.

By then Erfurt was the major city in the heart of Europe, but with the arrival of an alternative blue dye, indigo, and the decline of woad and its unique beer and urine production cycle the fortunes of the city went into decline as well.

It served as Swedish King Gustav’s headquarters during the Thirty Years War, and after the destruction went into a tailspin of decline afterwards. In 1803 Erfurt became a part of Prussia. Its famous university became defunct in 1816. Glass-blowing was invented herearound, samples of the craft can be seen at the Christmas market, but it was a poor imitation for the woad-wealth.

Erfurt managed to survive with little destruction in the world war, so an architectural museum piece greets the visitor. Standing in the main square you can itemise the architectural styles of the houses as you go along the street, Romanesque, gothic, renaissance, rococo, the town house in new Gothic and the modernistic Bauhaus style from the Weimar days.

Ega, some of the largest and most flamboyant gardens in Germany, is a tourist attraction in its own right, hosting major cultural events and conferences for up to 6,000 visitors.

After centuries of slumber, it seems Erfurt is indeed waking up and smelling the roses.


  • Krämerbrücke, the Merchants Bridge one of only two bridges with shops on them in Europe, once had 62 three-storied houses with a breadth of 2.80m each, reduced to 26 houses nowadays
  • The Palace where the famous meeting between Goethe and Napoleon took place.
  • The Merchants’ Church (Kaufmannskirche), where over many years no less than 61 members of the illustrious Bach musical family were baptized.
  • St. Peter’s Heights, monastery as well as a fortress where Imperial Assemblies took place and a splendid example of European fortification architecture as practiced between the 16th and the 20th centuries. I
  • Erfurt’s Town Hall with its famous paintings.
  • Erfurt is two hours by fast train from Frankfurt airport, served by Lufthansa from Dublin. You can also fly to Leipzig.
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