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Travel and retreats: Luther’s revelation

30 January 2015

The 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation falls in 2017. Diana Bentley visits Erfurt, where Martin Luther was a monk


Religious history: the Merchant's Bridge

Religious history: the Merchant's Bridge

"WE CALL it 'Thurigia's Rome'," a guide says in St Mary's RC Cathedral, Erfurt. It is a lofty, ethereal space where Martin Luther was a former regular. The pocket-sized city he is referring to, in the heart of the Thuringia province, in what was formerly East Germany, has a host of churches, he explains, and they all have their own story to tell.

As for the cathedral, it was on this spot, high on a hill in the city, that St Boniface founded a chapel in 742. In time, that gave way to the cathedral, my guide says, as he proudly leads me past its fine windows, 14th-century choir stalls, and intricate wooden carvings. High in the tower is the cathedral's prized possession, the famed Gloriosa: a vast, 15th-century, free-swinging bell. It was calling the faithful to prayer when Luther worshipped here.

Outside, in the crisp morning air, it takes only a few steps to reach the Church of St Severus, which lies next door, on Cathedral Hill. Like affectionate siblings, the churches stand side by side, presiding over the city below. Quaintly called the local parish church, St Severus's started life as a monastery in 1280, and is as regal as the cathedral.

Later, I pause at the top of a monumental flight of stairs that cascade down Cathedral Hill to get a bird's-eye view of the city, one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Germany.

Once below, I follow one of the narrow, winding streets, which leads me deep into the old town, and among its half-timbered patrician houses. There are reminders at every turn of the city's spiritual heritage, but its atmosphere is far from rarefied: the streets are quietly bustling with activity, and trams rattle past its pastel-coloured houses. There are patches of delightful tranquillity in between, too.

Burghers' houses from the 16th and 17th centuries, some with glorious painted Renaissance façades, flank the Fischmarkt - a reminder that Erfurt was a trading centre and university town in medieval times, and far from poor.

Near by is the Merchants' Bridge, one of the greatest delights of the city. Dating from 1472, it arches over the River Gera, and is lined entirely by shops and houses, as it has been since the Middle Ages. I browse their enticing array of artisan crafts and antiques, and then pause for delicious German cake in a cosy café under one of its arches.

AT THE bridge's eastern end, beside the Little Market, lies the 14th- century Church of St Aegidius, where travelling merchants once worshipped. A quiet park behind the bridge provides a panoramic view of the bridge's 32 houses (there were once 62 narrow buildings along the 120-metre bridge), and the Gera, which is garlanded with swans.

I walk down more narrow streets, which lead me past the university, one of the oldest in Germany, and then the Haus Dacheröden, where the owner, Carl Friedrich von Dacheröden, used to entertain luminaries such as the poets Goethe and Schiller, who lived near by in Weimar. The Bachs used to have family gather-ings here, too, and J. S. Bach's parents were married in the Merchants' Church, located in the main square.

In search of traces of Luther, I follow a path that leads past the Kreuzgasse - a sturdy relic from the 13th century, now used as a restaurant - and soon reach the Augustinian monastery, a beautiful group of Gothic buildings dating from 1277. After studying at the city's university from 1501 to 1505, Luther was ordained priest in St Mary's Cathedral in 1507, and served as a monk here from 1505 to 1511.

Upstairs, at the monastery, I peer into a small, softly lit cell where Luther prayed. Then I take in the exhibition of Luther's life and work, and the history of the creation of the Bible. The cloisters at the heart of the monastery provide an airy promenade, and, on one side, lies the Chapel of St Elizabeth: a simple but serene space with wall-paintings that show scenes from the saint's life.

Later, I pass the sturdy, half-timbered 15th-century Haus Zum Schwarzen Horn, where Luther's pamphlets were published.

DESPITE the many churches here, Jewish history is a feature of life in Erfurt, too. The Jews suffered a pogrom here in 1349. It was probably one of the fleeing families that left behind a hoard of gold and jewellery discovered in 1998, and displayed in the Old Synagogue, which lies on a narrow back street.

One of the oldest synagogues in Europe, it was begun in around 1100. Since its use changed over the years, it went unrecognised during the Third Reich, and was discovered only recently. Its simple rooms have a quiet, mysterious atmosphere.

Although the Jews returned to Erfurt, they were expelled again in 1453. The peaceful Small Synagogue, an airy building filled with light, which overlooks the river a little distance away, is another reminder of this chapter in the city's life.

It is a hike to the Petersburg Citadel, a lofty Baroque fortress that sits high on a hill above the city, but worth it. I am taken aback by its tremendous ensemble of stone buildings, among them the Church of St Peter, begun in the 12th century, once part of a Benedictine monastery, and one of the most noted Romanesque churches in all Thuringia.

When Napoleon captured Erfurt, he converted St Peter's into stores and stables. Although the church was damaged, its nave remains.

I look out from the battlements and see the waning sun cast a soft glow over Erfurt, the Gera, and its hinterland. No wonder Luther once declared that Erfurt was "the perfect place for a city". This city remains a timeless gem to explore.

Travel details

The Erfurt City Card provides free entry to museums, iGuides (in English), guided tours in German, and free use of public transport (€14 for 48 hours). Traditional restaurants include Köstritzer Zum güldenen Rade, and Restaurant zum Rebstock. The Erfurt tourist office can help with hotel bookings and arrange guided tours in English. There are also guided tours in the footsteps of Luther, and of the Augustine monastery, and on other themes (www.erfurt-tourismus.de). Visit www.routes-to-luther.com for details about other Luther cities; anniversary events can be found on www.luther2017.de. Germania Airline (www.flygermania.de/en/) flies twice weekly from London-Gatwick to Erfurt-Weimar airport. Flights operate on Mondays and Thursdays. Prices for one-way tickets start at €59, including fees and taxes.

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