Germany's land of poets and thinkers
There are more unambiguous delights, too. Unexpectedly, Erfurt contains the longest inhabited medieval bridge in the world, the Kramerbrücke, which is considerably longer than the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Here, among a line of small craft shops, you will find the wood carver and puppet maker Martin Gobsch, happily at work at his long-established craft. ‘I make them for the theatre,’ he tells me. ‘I was in a puppet theatre when I was young. I’ve been here for thirty years.’
And it’s still going? With delight, Martin shows me an extraordinary construction – a puppet machine account of the essentials of the Snow White story. He’s a happy man with his limewood, his tools, and his shop on the most beautiful bridge in Germany. The most mesmerising treasure in Erfurt, however, is a recently discovered one. In 1998, builders found a chest of gold while digging a new car park. This turned out to be medieval Jewish jewellery, buried in 1349 after a pogrom (antisemitic riot), to await the owner’s return. The treasure led historians to identify a nearby building as an ancient synagogue. The city’s Jews fled in the 14th century and were absent for 300 years. In the meantime, the building became a warehouse, then, in the 19th century, a café. Then a dance hall, patronised by Nazis. The original function of the building had been forgotten for centuries, but it is now fascinatingly restored and offers a tragic insight into the darker side of German history. On the upper floors, the provincial Paris-style café is tattered, torn and peeling. Down below, there is the grave simplicity of the medieval synagogue and, shining in the dark, the wedding jewels of a medieval money lender’s pretty daughter.
History has gone over Thuringia from top to bottom. Some remarkable minds have swept through here, and some acts of great darkness have taken place here, too. In this magical, undisturbed corner of the most fascinating of European countries, you encounter the national spirit at its most private and authentic.