Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, emerging from a world of black and white, Eastern Germany has been transformed into a Technicolor version of its former self. While relatively unknown to those outside of the country, the cities of Erfurt, Potsdam and Rostock have been transformed into vibrant tourist hot spots that rival many of its big-city cousins. My dream route itinerary started in Frankfurt, taking me by train to the north to explore what history has decided is worth a second look.
My first stop was Erfurt, a two-and-a-half-hour ride from the Frankfurt Airport aboard the high-speed ICE train. Located in the state of Thuringia, Erfurt’s roots go back more than 1,270 years. Its centralised location along major commerce routes made it an important trading hub during the middle ages.
In 1505 a young student named Martin Luther was caught in a thunderstorm near Erfurt. Fearing he would be struck by lightning he prayed for divine intervention, promising to become a monk if spared. The rest is history, as they say, and Luther’s career started here where he was ordained two years later at the Erfurt Cathedral. Today many tour groups follow Luther’s footsteps in town.
After World War II, Erfurt was placed under the control of the Soviet Zone of Occupation and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Freedom of expression and liberty was restricted for the next 25 years until East and West German Chancellors met at a local building in Erfurt and the city once again regained its liberty and became the capital of Thuringia.
Johan Sebastian Bach’s parents were married in Erfurt in 1668 at the Kaufmannskirche (Merchants’ Church), still operating today. And speaking of which, the Merchants’ Bridge is one the more impressive landmarks rivalling the popular Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Thirty-two houses line the bridge that spans the River Gera, making it the longest series of inhabited homes on any crossing in Europe. During my visit, the Merchants’ Bridge was a hub of activity where craftsmen could be seen creating blown glass works of art, wood carvings and hand-painted china.
One of the more unusual shops on the Merchants’ Bridge is owned by puppet maker Martin Gobsch. Wanting to combine his love for theatre and wood he decided to turn his skills towards the lost art of making wooden, marionette-style puppets. With no formal training and using old-school methods, Gobsch creates lifelike works of art that are used in theatre productions all over Germany. Some of his puppets have played in major roles such as the Barber of Seville and Moby Dick. Small crowds can always be found at his workshop that he keeps open for anyone with a childlike curiosity. He even has a mechanical creation of Snow White in the window that will operate and delight for just €1.
This is a walking city with winding cobblestone streets, beautiful restored architecture, coffee houses, bakeries and even a large multi-storey shopping mall. You can have your choice of food options including Italian, Chinese and Mediterranean. But my recommendation is to at least try the local food. The Zum Goldenen Schwan, for instance, was built in the 12th century and is one of the oldest places in Erfurt. Today, they are a microbrewery serving handmade beers and traditional fare.
December is actually an ideal month for a visit because Germany’s Christmas Markets are in full swing. Booths festooned with colourful lights are seemingly around every corner. The largest of these is located below the massive St. Mary’s Cathedral that towers over the city. More than 200 vendors sell everything from handicrafts to grilled bratwurst to candy-coated nuts.
The old synagogue was only recently discovered and is one of oldest medieval houses of worship in Europe dating from the 11th century. One of the ornate wedding rings found here is one of only three worldwide with this one being the largest and made of pure gold.
I hopped back on the train and after making a couple of connections, arrived in Potsdam, the small, elegant little sister of Berlin. This is a refined city with 22 palaces and villas built in a variety of styles including Italian, French, Dutch and Russian. It seems that back in the 18th century Frederick the Great had a penchant for the finer things in life. He sent out his architects all over Europe and the result was some grand buildings that you will find here in Potsdam.
Similar to Erfurt, the city didn’t escape its previous domination by the Soviet Union. In fact, at one time there were 60,000 soldiers living here in barracks. One area was controlled exclusively by the KGB during the Cold War where they occupied 110 homes, making more of a military garrison than residential city.
The famous Potsdam Conference was held here in 1945 at the Schlosshotel Cecilienhof where they discussed the post-war boundaries of Germany. This is now an elegant hotel and the only one in the city housed in the former palace of Crown Prince William and his wife Cecilie for whom the hotel is named.
Attending this conference was US President Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. It was during one of these meetings that Truman received a coded telegram telling him that “the baby has been born”. This cryptic message revealed that there had been a successful test of the first of the atomic bomb. Later during the same conference, Truman signed the order to drop the bomb on the city of Hiroshima.
Potsdam also had its share of secrets and spy stories. The Glienicke Bridge was possibly one of the most famous of the Cold War. Here is where spies wereexchanged with each one crossing a painted line on the ground before getting to freedom. Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 plane was shot down, was among those who made his trip across the Glienicke.
But with the passage of time the last remnants of the Soviet occupation ended in 1994 and Potsdam has been renewing itself ever since. Today there are tree-lined parks, scenic lakes, a river with boat tours and a variety of shopping areas that make this an ideal place to spend a holiday like Christmas.
There are three distinct quarters (Dutch, French and Russian) where you can find traditional architecture as well as a variety of retails shops and restaurants. During December the order of the month is fun and there are no less than five Christmas markets in town with the largest one running an entire kilometre. During my stay this retail area was crammed with thousands of happy locals and tourists sharing some hot Gluhwein and eating just about every type of fast food you can imagine. They even had a few people serving up Chinese noodles of all things.
You will need time to properly explore the many palaces and works of art in Potsdam. I only had time to visit the Marble Palace which was the property of King Friedrich Wilhelm II and his wife Auguste Victoria. He actually assigned this to the newly-wedded Crown Prince and Princess.
In addition to the many palaces there are also a host of museums. The Museum of Film covers 100 years of cinematic history of the city. Many famous movies were shot entirely or in part in Potsdam including Blue Angel, Valkyrie, Metropolis and Cloud Atlas.
The Villa Schoeningen located near the Glienicke Bridge is another popular attraction. Most people are only aware than in addition to the Berlin Wall, Potsdam also had a wall of its own to keep people from trying to escape to West Berlin. This concrete barrier ran along the border of the Havel River. This museum is a must-see as it preserves the fascinating history of the wall and the people within.
Coffee houses and restaurants are in abundance. Many serve coffee and indulgent pastries and cakes layered with whipped cream. One of these in particular, La Mason du Chocolat, has a hot chocolate that you have to try while here. This decadent beverage is made from Belgian chocolate and has the consistency of liquid pudding that is both rich and decadent!
Once you get used to it the German Rail System (DB Bahn) is fairly easy to use. In our case we had to make a couple of connections to get to my next destination of Rostock and its close seaside neighbour Warnemunde.
The first sign that Rostock is near the Baltic Sea is the presence of seagulls. I watched as one of these birdies swiped a piece of sausage from a Christmas market and during his getaway he headed straight for my face. Fortunately, good reflexes prevented a mid-air man/bird collision.
In 2018, Rostock will be celebrating 800 years of history dating back to the time when its fortunes were built on, strangely enough, salted fish and ale. Merchants would load barrels full of both to be shipped out to other cities, making Rostock both powerful and profitable. This included a fleet of 370 ships sailing under the town’s Hanseatic flag.
The first university in Northern Europe was built here in 1419 as well as the beautifully-restored university church. More than 14,000 students from 80 different countries have studied at this prestigious school.
In more recent times, Rostock, like other cities in East Germany, was under the dark cloud of the former Soviet Union and the GDR. The Penta Hotel, where I stayed, was previously a prison and the older part of the hotel was the former headquarters of the Soviets and later the German State Security Services.
But, that was then. Today Rostock has been restored to its former glory with a vibrant university culture, busy shopping scene as well as restaurants and, of course, Christmas markets. In fact, this city on the Baltic Sea has the largest Christmas market in Northern Germany. Booths cover several streets and this year they featured the largest Christmas pyramid in the world, complete with a restaurant on the lower floor.
St. Marien Church, the largest of the three in the city, is one of the most beautiful in Germany, built of bricks in a classic gothic style. Located behind the altar is the famous astronomical clock built by Nuremberg clockmaker Hans Duringer in 1472. The clock’s three partitions include elements of the apostles, Jesus, the Zodiac and a clock with the daily time. It is the oldest such clock with all its original components anywhere in the world.
A visit to Rostock would not be complete without a side trip to the nearby town of Warnemunde. Once a sleepy and windy fishing village, today it is a picturesque town of pubs, gabled houses, cafes and shops.
Colourfully-painted fishing boats line the old stream, as it is called, with some offering customers the catch of the day, which was salmon. Along the waterway we found coffee houses, restaurants, bakeries and retail shops. One thing I noticed here in East Germany is that people are generally very friendly with each shopkeeper offering a smile along with a warm guten tag (good afternoon).
Here on the coast of the country you can take a three-hour ride across the Baltic Sea and be in Denmark. Believe it or not there are miles of sandy beaches here that attract thousands during the summer. During December skies can be grey but many come here for the atmosphere, food and ambience.
The Hotel Neptun (yes I know there is no ‘e’), is the tallest structure in town and all of their rooms come with grand views of the beach and sea. Many notable figures in history have stayed here including Fidel Castro of all people.
One of their restaurants, The Broiler Room, has been relatively unchanged since the time of the GDR. Their speciality is, uncharacteristically, fried chicken with fries and coleslaw. Mine was better than back home and quite delicious on a cold day.
Where to stay:
- IBB Hotel Erfurt
- Local guide: Matthias Gose. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
For more on this fascinating area, check out the Historic Highlights of Germany tourism page.