Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, emerging from a world of black and white, East 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 their big city cousins. Start your dream route itinerary in Frankfurt, and take the train to the north to explore what history has decided is worth a second look.
Your first stop should be Erfurt, a 2.5-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 centralized location along major trade 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, with Luther starting his career here: he was ordained two years later at the Erfurt Cathedral. Today, many tour groups trace Luther’s footsteps in town.
After the Second World War, Erfurt was placed under the control of the Soviet Zone of Occupation and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Freedom of expression and liberty were 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.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s parents were married in Erfurt in 1668 at the Kaufmannskirche (Merchant’s Church), still operating today. The Merchant’s Bridge is one the more impressive landmarks, rivaling 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 bridge in Europe. During a recent visit the Merchant’s Bridge was a hub of activity, with craftsmen creating blown glass works of art, wood carvings and hand painted china.
One of the more unusual shops on the Merchant Bridge is owned by puppet-maker Martin Gobsch. Wanting to combine his love for theater 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 theater productions all over Germany. Some of his puppets have played major roles in The Barber of Seville and Moby Dick. Small crowds can always be found at his workshop, which he keeps open for anyone with a childlike curiosity. He even has a mechanical creation of Snow White in the window.
Erfurt is a walking city, with winding cobblestone streets, beautiful restored architecture, coffee houses, bakeries, and even a large, multi-storey shopping mall. You have your choice of food options including Italian, Chinese and Mediterranean. But at least try the local food. The Zum Goldenen Schwan (To the Golden Swan), for instance, was built in the 12th century and is one of the oldest places in Erfurt. Today, it is a microbrewery serving handmade beers and traditional fare.
December is an ideal month for a visit because Germany’s Christmas markets are in full swing. Booths festooned with colorful 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. The largest of only three of the most ornately intricate pure gold wedding rings in existence worldwide was found here.
Hop back on the train and, after making a couple of connections, you’ll arrive 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 results were the grand buildings that you will find here in Potsdam.
Similar to Erfurt, the city didn’t escape domination by the Soviet Union. In fact, at one time there were 60,000 soldiers living here. One area – where they occupied 110 homes – was controlled exclusively by the KGB during the Cold War, making it more of a military garrison than residential city.
The famous Potsdam Conference was held here in 1945 at the Schlosshotel Cecilienhof during which the postwar boundaries of Germany were discussed. The Schlosshotel Cecilienhof 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 the Potsdam Conference were U.S. President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. During one of the meetings 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 bombs. 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 Glienicker Brickle (bridge) was possibly one of the most famous of the Cold War. It is here where spies were exchanged, with each one crossing a painted line on the ground before getting to freedom. Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 plane was shot down in 1960, was among those who made the trip across the Glienicker.
But 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. This retail area is crammed with thousands of happy locals and tourists sharing some hot Glühwein, a warm spicy traditional German winter drink made from warmed wine, and eating just about every type of fast food you can imagine.
You will need time to properly explore the many palaces and works of art in Potsdam. If your time is limited, 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 is 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 The Blue Angel, Valkyrie, Metropolis, and Cloud Atlas.
The Villa Schöningen, located near the Glienicker Brickle, is another popular attraction. Most people are unaware that, in addition to the Berlin Wall, Potsdam also had a wall, which ran along the border of the Havel River, of its own to keep people from trying to escape to West Berlin. The Villa is a must-see museum as it preserves the fascinating history of the wall and the people within.
Coffee houses and restaurants are in abundance. Many serve indulgent pastries and cakes layered with whipped cream. One of these in particular, La Mason du Chocolat, has a hot chocolate – made from Belgian chocolate and with the consistency of liquid pudding that is both rich and decadent – that you must try.
Your next destination should be Rostock and its close seaside neighbour of Warnemünde, situated on the Baltic Sea.
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. A fleet of 370 ships sailed under the town’s Hanseatic flag.
The first university in continental Northern Europe, the University of Rostock, as well as the now beautifully-restored university church were built here in 1419.
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, in fact, was previously a prison and the older part of the hotel was the former headquarters of the Soviets and subsequently occupied by the German State Security Services.
But, that was then. Today, Rostock has been restored to its former glory with a vibrant university culture, a busy shopping scene as well as restaurants and, of course, Christmas markets in December. In fact, this city on the Baltic Sea has the largest Christmas market in Northern Germany.
St. Marien Church, the largest of the three in the city, is one of the most beautiful in Germany and is built of bricks in a classic Gothic style. Located behind the altar is the famous astronomical clock built by Nuremberg clockmaker Hans Düringer 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 of its original components anywhere in the world.
A visit to Rostock would not be complete without a side trip to the nearby town of Warnemünde. 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. Along the waterway are coffee houses, restaurants, bakeries, and retail shops. You will find that in the former East Germany people are generally very friendly, with each shopkeeper offering a smile along with a warm guten tag (good day).
From Warnemünde you can take a three-hour ride across the Baltic Sea and be in Denmark. Believe it or not, there are also miles of sandy beaches that attract thousands during the summer. During December, skies can be grey but many come here for the atmosphere, food and ambiance.
The Hotel Neptun (with no e) is the tallest structure in town and all of its rooms come with grand views of the beach and sea. Many notable figures in history have stayed here, including Fidel Castro.
One of its restaurants, The Broiler Room, is relatively unchanged since the time of the GDR. Its specialty is, uncharacteristically, fried chicken with fries and coleslaw, quite delicious on a cold day.
Being only a 30 minute direct train ride from Frankfurt Airport, Wiesbaden should be the last stop along your dream route through Germany. Although not part of Eastern Germany, it is still a great city to explore, even if you just have one day. Wiesbaden is clean, with interconnected pedestrian shopping areas, 19th century eclectic architecture and 26 hot springs. One survey listed Wiesbaden as having the most ‘Christmasy‘ Christmas markets in the country.
There are also boat tours on the Rhine River and, owing to an affable climate, Wiesbaden is known for its wine, especially Zinfandel. You can sample it in most restaurants in town.
If you are a pastry and confection addict then you will want to check out two places that are worthy of your taste buds. The first is Cafe Maldaner. This was the first Vienna-style coffee house in Germany. The decor is purely Austrian, with dark wood and red interior and its display case, filled with delectable cakes and pastries, are, well, wunderbar!
Kunder Confiserie, located at 15 Wilhelmstrasse, is a family business that has been making fine chocolates since, if you can believe it, 1898. Its signature item is a multi-layered cookie made with chocolate, nougat, marzipan, pineapple, and almonds. It takes no less than 14 steps to make and is still processed the same way it was 100 years ago.
The next time you are planning a European trip, consider taking a step back in time along this dream route in Eastern Germany. The once colorless buildings and culture have sprung to life with the vibrant hues of freedom and are only recently being discovered by tourists.
You can find out more by visiting the Historic Highlights of Germany, listed in the resource section below.
IF YOU GO
Historic Highlights of Germany: http://www.historicgermany.travel/
IBB Hotel Erfurt: http://www.ibbhotels.com
Local guide: Matthias Gose. Magose@gmx.de
Hotel Ceceliahof: http://www.relexa-hotel-potsdam.de
Local guide: Regina Ebert. Book through Potsdam tourism at http://potsdam-berlin.de
Penta Hotel: http://www.pentahotels.com/hotels/rosph-rostock/everything
Hotel Oranien: http://www.hotel-oranien.de
The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.