Erfurt, capital of Thuringia in Germany

On the bridge lined with housesA balmy evening in Erfurt and we are sitting in a busy beer garden, beneath a chestnut tree, eating dumplings by a chef who once cooked them for the Pope. They are klosse, a Thuringian speciality, made with mashed and grated raw potato, simmered gently together.  Mine are stuffed with black pudding and liver sausage and served with two sauces, one a sort of horseradish cream. Pope Benedict's were filled with spinach and served with smoked and steamed salmon. Not your kind of food? Trust me, they are delicious.

Pope Benedict, of course didn't eat in the beer garden at Zum Güldenen Rade where I try a local black brew, Schwarzbier, which is something like Guinness but with a hint of liquorice. Chef Bernd Alsgut catered for him elsewhere in town. He served Kaiserschmarrn for dessert.

Erfurt, capital of the German state of Thuringia, is one of the loveliest cities in Europe. Where Weimar is classical, Erfurt is more medieval. It sat at the crossing of trade routes from the Baltic to Venice and Madrid to Kiev. Traders paid tolls to bring their carts through is narrow, one way streets, splashing through the ford (or furt) from which its name derives.

Medieval streetIt is full of little nooks and crannies where you can rest from sightseeing with a coffee, perhaps, or an iced tea. It has a bridge more then 100 metres long over the River Gera which is entirely lined with little shops. Some reflect the city's exotic trading links, such as Spices of the World and a boutique which sells table linen dyed with woad, another source of Erfurt's wealth. Our guide tells us woad, which we see growing, was fermented in urine – but only that of men, partly because they needed to get rid of strong beer, which aided the process.

There are two Catholic Churches bang next door to each other (one is actually the cathedral), their closeness explained by the fact than one was originally a nunnery, the other used by canons. The cathedral has all manner of treasures, among them medieval windows, hidden during the Second World War, some of which are still being cleaned of the black film left by the burning of lignite under the old East German regime.

But perhaps Erfurt's most astonishing treasure is the old synagogue, which had lain hidden for centuries until archaeologists discovered it 20 years ago. It had long been a restaurant and dance hall used by Nazis who, ironically,  had no idea where they were carousing.When the Jews of Erfurt were blamed for the Black Death in the 14th century they were all killed in a pogrom and the ancient building became first a storehouse. Nearby, a construction worker found what he thought was an old ash tray. Merchant's houseThat led to the discovery of a breathtaking hoard of jewellery, coins and artefacts which have now been seen at exhibitions around the world and which includes a huge silver gilt Jewish wedding ring shaped as a house.

We wander through alleys and streets, marvelling at the plethora of magnificently preserved old houses and relieve tired feet at Goldhelm,  a chocolate shop and cafe near the river. The owner wandered Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and learned the art  of the chocolatier in France. These are not your usual, run of  the miill chocolates: there's goat's cheese and green tomato, and vodka, green tea and elderflower, to mention just two. We try some less exotic flavours. No, really now, one more and we won''t eat dinner. But we do, and I still manage not one, but two of those potato dumplings.
 

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Roger Bray

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