Another sights in Germany

Krämer Bridge in Erfurt

     The Krämer Bridge in Erfurt is an old medieval bridge over the Gera River covered by  thirty-eight inhabited half-timber houses and popular stores with a pedestrian zone running down the center and a church on either end.  It is called the Krämerbrücke in German: Krämer (alternately spelled Kraemer) means Merchant or Seller of Small Goods and Brücke (Bruecke) means Bridge.  So the Krämerbrückemeans Merchant’s Bridge. And true to its name, today the street that runs along the bridge is lined with lively boutiques and antique stores. It is a real life example of the lively medieval bridge English speakers know from the children’s song “London Bridge is Falling Down”  and people who have visited Italy will immediately be put in mind of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
The bridge’s beginnings lie so far back they disappear in the mists of time.  The town Erfurt is named for the crossing over the river – Furt in German is the same as the English Ford – a shallow spot in the river where crossing with animals was possible.  
     One of the most important east-west routes through northern Europe went through Erfurt and over this bridge. During the middle ages, under the auspices of the Holy Roman Empire, this route was called the Via Regia – the Royal Road or King’s Road.  It wasn’t an actual physical road built and maintained by the Emperor, not something like the Romans built long ago, but rather a knitted together net of agreements between all the many cities and communities that the route passed through, that tried to guarantee the safety of travelers and facilitate trade.
     The famous cloth of Flanders went east on this road, and from the lands east of the Baltic Sea, natural resources such as wood, furs, honey, and wax traveled west.  The Via Regia also connected the two European towns where important trading fairs were held for centuries – Frankfurt and Leipzig.  And the royal road was the main pilgrimage route for central and eastern Europeans traveling to Santiago de Compestela in Spain, the most popular goal in those centuries when the Holy Lands were unsafe for Christian pilgrims.  Traders and merchants naturally gathered at the bridge and set up their stalls on its flat and dry surface instead of the floodplain immediately around the river.
     The Krämer bridge was originally made of wood.  The first written reference historians have found, dates to 1117 AD, when a reference was made to the bridge burning down, and it was clear from how it was worded that it wasn’t the first time the bridge had burned down.  After that the records get better and we can see how dangerous life by candlelight in towns made of half-timbered houses was – for the bridge, built after all, over a river where all anyone had to do to get water was throw a bucket out the window – is recorded as burning down seven times in the next 110 years.  Finally, the city council in Erfurt took over the right to levy tolls on bridges from the local monestaries and cloisters, and used that money to finance the building of a new bridge out of stone.  The construction took thirty-seven years, but it was a huge project.  When it was done – the town had a mostly stone bridge lined with roughly seventy new half-timber houses or shops (shops or warehouses on the first floor, living quarters behind and above), and a stone church with a gate on each end (  – don’t forget the tolls!).  These houses were small and narrow at the base, much like a market stall, but grew bigger on each of the two higher floors, which gave them more space inside and protected the merchants and travelers below from the sun and rain.  On the whole though, you have to imagine a much higher number of smaller dwellings than what you see today.
But that wasn’t the end of the fires.  In 1472 half of Erfurt burned down, including the half-timbered houses on the bridge.  But the city fathers took advantage of the rebuilding to expand the size of the houses on the bridge – that is when those wooden supports were added on the outside of the bridge that you can see in the photos, and that meant deeper houses could be built.
Over the years many of the houses were joined together, making them larger and reducing their number by half.  In the nineteenth century one of the church towers was removed to make way for a second nearby bridge.  Then in World War II, four of the houses were damaged so badly that they had to be torn down and completely rebuilt in 1952.  Finding big enough trees to make the solid support beams took months to arrange.
The East German Communist government recognized the uniqueness of the Krämer bridge, and spent six years from 1967 to 1973 restoring all the houses, and then the bridge itself in 1985-86.  The latest renovation to the bridge took place in 2002.  Five of the houses are privately owned, and the rest belong to the city of Erfurt.  Most have boutiques or antique stores on the ground floor with apartments above.

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