There is a misconception about how a person should define a house bridge, for the appearance of such a structure in the eyes of both Americans and Europeans alike are different. In America, we think of a house bridge like a covered bridge- a small house-like structure with a gabled roof and entrances on both ends. These covered bridges are easy to find in America, for they are numerous and popular among tourists, and many state transportation departments take great care of them to ensure that they are attractive to see and safe to cross.
In Europe however, despite the fact that one can find covered bridges everywhere, including the Alps and local places mostly unknown to tourists, our definition of a house bridge is different. Unlike the covered bridges, a house bridge is defined as a bridge which holds buildings but the passage is open-aired, meaning you cannot cross these bridges just by walking through the buildings, but through these passage ways that have no roofs above them.
Many of these house bridges were built during and after the Medieval times, including the Rialto Bridge in Venice or the famous London Bridge before its relocation to Lake Havasu City, Arizona in 1967. But in Germany, we have the Kraemerbruecke, located in the heart of the country in the city of Erfurt, and the third part of the series on Erfurt’s bridges focuses on this particular structure.
The Kraemerbruecke was first mentioned in the record books in 1117 as a wooden bridge crossing the Breitstrom section of the Gera River connecting Fischmarkt on the west end and the Wenige Markt market square on the east end. While it was rebuilt at least six times due to fires, the municipality in 1293 acquired all rights from the monasteries that had owned the bridge and built a permanent structure featuring stone arches supporting timber stands and gated church towers on each end- St. Benedict on the west end and St. Aegidian on the east side, the latter of which still stands today. After a fire in 1472 which destroyed half of the city and severely damaged the bridge, it was then decided to construct timber houses across the bridge, using trusses to support them and whose height rose to three stories. A total of 68 houses were built on each side of the bridge, allowing passage space of up to 5.5 meters for people and goods to cross. A story was once mentioned that there was one way passage across the bridge- going eastward only in the morning and westward in the afternoon, with those wanting to go against the scheduled flow of traffic being left with no choice but to ford the river located next to the bridge. While this rule no longer exists, crossing the bridge today, one can see the narrow passage, together with the huge masses of people going in and out of the shops that exist.
Today’s bridge is no different than the one that existed during the Medieval Ages. There are fewer houses on the bridge, but mainly due to owners consolidating them to provide more space and housing. Work on the bridge was done in three phases: restoring the houses between 1967 and 1973, reconstructing the arches and vaults in 1986, and reinforcing the bridge and the housing in 2002. Despite this, the bridge is one of the darlings of the city of Erfurt. It is the only bridge of its kind north of the Alps on the European Mainland. There are a few house bridges remaining that exist, like the Bridgehouse in Ambleside and the Pulteney Bridge in Bath (both in the UK), and the aforementioned Rialto Bridge in Venice, however the Kraemerbruecke today represents an example of a bridge with multiple-story housing that still has businesses and residences. A festival honoring the structure takes place every year in June, where hundreds of thousands of people visit the bridge. It is an integral part of the city’s annual Christmas market, taking place between the end of November and right before Christmas Eve.
And even on a regular business day, thousands cross this bridge to see the many stores that offer local specialties and unique items worth taking with to show family and friends. This includes the Thuringian shop near the Aegidean Tower, which sells wine, mustard, and other goods. Across the passage is the famous Erfurt Brueckentrueffel shop, which sells thimble-shaped bridge truffles made of dark chocolate and other ingredients that are made by hand and using local products. There is the left-hand-shop located near the middle of the bridge, which sells products made solely for left-handed people. Also on the bridge are a pair of souvenir shops, a café offering local wines, an art gallery and the Kraemerbruecke Stiftung, a foundation devoted strictly to the bridge and its importance to the city of Erfurt. And if one has an appetite, there is the Kraemerbruecke Cafe located on the site of the former St. Benedict tower (the tower was razed in 1810), which offers a wide array of local pastries.
If you happen to visit Thuringia someday, or happen to pass through its capital of Erfurt, and ask someone about the places that should be visited, do not be surprised if nine out of ten residents say that the Kraemerbruecke is a must-see apart from the Cathedral, the market squares and the churches. This Medieval bridge has survived many fires and bombings to become an even more attractive place to see than ever before. It has earned its place as an integral part of the city and its history, and in light of the most recent bridge festival, it stands out as part of Germany’s heritage, which will surely be considered a World Heritage site. It is a bridge that every pontist and bridge photographer should see once in his/her life, and learn about. While each city has its own bridge representing a part of its history- New York City with the Brooklyn Bridge, San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge, London with Tower Bridge and Berlin with both the Oberbaum-Bridge and the Jungfern pedestrian bridge, Erfurt has its Kraemerbruecke, the greatest and most popular of the 258 bridges that serve the city of 400,000 inhabitants.
According to Vockrodt in a publication on Pont Habités, part of the European Bridge Culture (published in 2011), approximately 30 house bridges were built between the 13th and 18th centuries, with the majority of them located in Paris. The Parisians built at least five of these bridges over the Seine, including the Pont Notre Dame, Quai de Gevres, Pont aux Meuniers, Pont au Change and Pont Marchand. All of these bridges were either destroyed by fire or lost their houses to demolition. The largest of the house bridges in Europe was the Pont Notre Dame, which featured two bridges crossing the Seine and the island where the Cathedral of Norte Dame was located, with houses of 3-4 stories high.
Now that the tour of Erfurt’s bridges is complete, the last two segments will feature a book review and the interview with Vockrodt and Baumbach about the bridges in the city.