Central European Gems: Carved from Financial Hardship

In the Czech Republic, the city of Prague was largely spared the bombing of WWII and thus has seen an influx of tourism since the fall of the Iron Curtain. It is a shame that in many ways, the success of tourism there has killed a bit of its charm with the seas of swarming visitors.

The term gentrification generally is applied to inner-cities where decline and subsequent restoration of old homes is changing a neighbor. The same processes are at work all over the Eastern half of Germany and points farther a field.

wittenberg1 (998 x 1331)

the changes in Eastern Europe have where infrastructure investment is still underway and that leaves many less well-known cities actually better travel destinations.

The town of Erfurt (pop. 500,000), in central Germany, has largely escaped the tourists, thus far, and Erfurt’s old town if filled with locals, not tourists with cameras following a guide around. With one of the most intact medieval cities in Germany, Erfurt and its old town remains largely intact also by escaping the bombings of WWII.

At a cross between north/south and east/west trading routes, Erfurt was a wealthy community during medieval times. In the very heart of the city is a bridge built-in 1486, the Krämerbrücke (Merchants’ bridge). Spanning a branch of the Gera River, it is lined with inhabited, half-timbered buildings on both sides and an ally of shops in between. The whole area of the historic center continues to be a vibrant shopping area. Unlike Prague, which has no local culture and only tourist shops, the center of Erfurt is full of local residents, adding local flavor, both literary and figuratively, to the street scene.

Krämerbrücke (Merchants’ bridge), Erfurt


Most notably linked with the Reformation, the town of roughly 50,000 people in 1990, the core of Wittenberg saw much reinvestment, leaving the quaint medieval core largely restored (or rebuilt). Several sites within the fortified city walls (now replaced with a green-belt park) are Unesco World Heritage sites.

In contrast to the medieval buildings, just a short walk away from the core of the city is the architecture of the Communist era, symmetrical and without personality.

Another city in the region is Torgau (pop. ~20,000), most notably the city where the American and Soviet armies came together at the end of WWII.

torgau (600 x 450)
Restored & Unrestored, Torgau

Torgau, has not seen the same level off financial investment in the city (yet), but this is a side of Germany unspoiled by tourism. Typical of medieval towns, is has a castle, market square and large church.

Claiming not one, but 2 major historic sites, the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Wartberg castle, the latter a Unesco World Heritage site.

wartberg (2016 x 1512)
Wartberg Castle

All of these towns were under-invested in after the war the town centers were run down with buildings in decay. Now largely restored, the charm of the town centers is equal parts physical and cultural. They are alive by local residents visiting the markets and tending to their daily business. This is why you should consider adding these to your travel itineraries.

Self Directed Tours 

We have found the most memorable experiences when traveling come from happenstance, they are not prescripted or staged.  So when planning a vacation how do you increase the probably of encountering these memorable moments?

cropped-img_1131.jpgOur answer: self directed tours, in essence you become your own tour operator following an Itinerary, but you are in charge.   True story:  we were with a group tour and walk across a quaint square in the Spain town Córdoba and wanted to linger with the locals and were ushered across to meet a waiting tour bus while the guide was nervously looking at his watch.  Missed opportunity.

There are basic needs for all of us that apply when we are traveling. “How am I going to get there?”  and ” Where am I going to eat and sleep?”   Once Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs is met for travel, the stage is set for happenstance memory making.

Instead of being bound by strict timeline, our preference is to have a general plan for the days activities.  Each day we have a must do thing or two, a ‘like to do’ item and perhaps some alternative items depending on time, weather, location etc.  Self-Directed tours give one the flexibility to modify the itinerary to take advantage of the spontaneous things that are most memorable.