Erfurt Introspective with a touch of grandiose

The cathedral square of Erfurt
The cathedral square of Erfurt | Photo (detail): Kerstin Nonn

Erfurt may be the largest city in the state of Thuringia, but that doesn't take away from its charming Old Town, the warm tones of its church bells and the hidden treasures it possesses. Erfurt Cathedral organist, Silvius von Kessel, tells us what makes this city so lovable.

Mr. von Kessel, do you like living in Erfurt?

Absolutely. Erfurt is a beautiful city, historically beautiful. When friends of ours visit they are consistently surprised by the Old Town here. Walking through the labyrinth of alleyways is just lovely. You get the feeling you could be in a small village in Italy or France. Germany doesn't have too many Old Town centers anymore that stretch over this large of an area. Many of them have a few pretty streets but Erfurt's entire downtown is still largely preserved and that is amazing.

What are the absolute must-see attractions in Erfurt for visitors?

Well, cathedral hill, of course. That may sound a bit presumptuous coming from the cathedral organist, but it is the undisputed crown jewel of the city. You also shouldn't miss the Krämerbrücke bridge and the Monastery of St. Augustine, where Martin Luther lived for seven years as a monk.

What is your favorite place in the city?

The cathedral hill really is something special. It is not quite as “cozy” as the rest of Thuringia. It is simply monumental, but the more charming bits of the city have their positive sides, of course. For example, the area around the Krämerbrücke is typical of Thuringia: modestly lordly and enchanting.

What is the most impressive building for you?

Architecturally speaking it has to be the cathedral hill ensemble of buildings, with the two churches rising up to the heavens and the entire thing placed atop an artificial foundation so that it rises above the city. It is an impressive thing indeed. The towering chancel, however, is without doubt Erfurt's most meaningful historical building. It's worth coming just to see the glass windows!

Where does one get the best view of the city?

From the Petersberg hill. That is the best view. But I like the view from the tower in the All Saints' Church even more. You get a wonderful panorama from up there.

Erfurt is about 50 kilometers southeast of the geographical center of Germany and is therefore the most centrally located large city in the country. Do you feel that Erfurt plays a central role in any other ways?

If so, then it would be in a historical sense, in particular on a scholarly level. You just have to consider the University of Erfurt, founded in the 14th century, and Eckhart von Hochheim and the humanists. You would have to be crazy to think things are the same these days, but there are still a few areas in which Erfurt enjoys a bit of renown. Our puppet theater is pretty famous, and that fits perfectly with Erfurt's introspective, intimate, cozy and lovable side.

In terms of organ music, I am also confident the city would do well in a nationwide comparison. That could even be said for the state of Thuringia, actually, with its many historic organs and the relationships to Bach and his contemporaries, who all worked here. We of course benefit from that during the Thuringia Bach Weeks music festival as well.

Where does Erfurt sound the best to you?

I can't help it, but once again I have to say the cathedral hill and, more specifically, the “Gloriosa”. It is the world's number one bell, and not just because it is the largest free-hanging medieval bell in the world. Among bells, it is to the world of sound what the fugue is to the world of music. It has the most wonderful tone. It moves people.

Erfurt is also home to Central Europe's oldest preserved synagogue…

Yes, and very close by in 1998 they discovered a significant treasure during a soil analysis that has now become world famous: nearly 30 kilos of silver coins, bars and valuable goldsmith work…

That sounds like a fairy tale. Speaking of which, the children's channel KiKa is based in Erfurt. What else does Erfurt have to offer kids these days?

The Egapark is a very large and lovely garden and park complex with a butterfly house and tropical habitat as well as the Deutsches Gartenbau museum, which is dedicated to horticulture. For families with children, Erfurt also offers a family ticket that gets them into a number of attractions at discounted rates or even for free. In general, I think the city is nice for kids because it feels a bit like a dollhouse. It's not like Rothenburg on the Tauber, though, which only has the dollhouse aspect to offer. Erfurt has 200,000 inhabitants so it is a bit more diverse but still a comfortable size for a city.

People from Erfurt are also called “Puffbohnen” (broad beans). As an Oldenburger, how do you see the Erfurters?

I think they are lovely people. They make you feel at home here. There is a bit of parochialism in every region.

Are there any culinary specialties you would recommend?

There is the Erfurt “Schittchen”, which is a bit like a fruitcake but I don't know much about that kind of thing. Otherwise, the Thuringian bratwurst comes to mind, but that is not just Erfurt, of course. That may be symptomatic, I'm afraid. The food in the region is a bit unrefined. The meat dishes are good, but we aren't talking about haut cuisine here…