Lubeck

Lubeck is a wonderful little town on an island of the Trave River, at the frontier of what used to be West and East Germany, close to the Baltic Sea. The first thing that caught our eyes was the many green spires of the churches and the cathedral of the Alstadt (Old town). And the fact that none of them is straight: they all have a bit of “Tower of Pisa” effect to them!

By the way, the true spelling of this town is Lübeck with an umlaut on the U, but because many English computers do not recognize the umlaut as a letter, we left it behind….

Before crossing the river onto the Hostenbrücke (Hosten Bridge) you will see the two columns of the town’s door, and even they are crooked! So much so that one wonders how they are still standing up with such a lean.

But before getting into more details of the town, let’s have a bit of history.


History of Lubeck

As with many cities in Germany, Lubeck has two faces: an old charming one and a more business like one.

The old town (A UNSECO world heritage site), Lubeck Altstadt, is actually on an island on the Trave river which reaches the Baltic Sea. And there is a nice town at the mouth of the Trave by the Baltic Sea called Travemünde (Mund means mouth!) where one can go for a holiday by the sea, do some sailing or walk on the beach.

It is also close to another river called Wakenitz that reaches the beautiful Ratzerburger See (Ratzerberger Lake) where you can go sailing to your heart's content. The River Wakenitz was used as the frontier between East and West Germany during the cold war (see further down for more details).

So, not surprisingly, with two major rivers close by and the Baltic Sea a short distance away, Lubeck has been an important German port for a long time. So long in fact, that the city was the first Hanseatic city. The Hanseatic League (Hansa means guild), was a confederation of powerful merchant guilds in the north of Europe, mainly along the Baltic and the North Sea. It seems that even before the term Hanseatic League was first coined in the 13th century, Lubeck was already a strong merchant city since its rebuilding in 1159 by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, and had many alliances with other well-to-do trading cities such as Hamburg. And thus, we find the origin of the league here in 1356.  


You can actually see a remnant of sort of this league in the Schiffergesellschaft (Seafarers’ Guild, which is also Lubeck’s most famous restaurant, or so says the little tourist guide you can get at the tourist office!).  Although it is no longer reserved exclusively for sailors, the captains of the Seafarers’ Guild still meet there every Tuesday.

Because it was a Hanseatic city and a very powerful one at that (it was the chief city of its region), it gained the status of free imperial city in 1227. This means that it was subordinate only to the emperor or not to a local lord and that it could levy taxes on goods and had its own army. And because Lubeck was situated between the Baltic to the North and the rest of Europe to the South, it became increasingly rich because of salted fish.

You can still see the Salzspeicher (Salt Warehouses) at the entrance of the old town, where the salt used to preserve the fish from the North and Baltic Seas was stored. Because of its alliance in 1241 with Hamburg, who controlled the salt-trade routes from Lüneburg, and the fact that Lubeck had access to the Baltic and North Sea fishing grounds, it gained control over most of the salt-fish trade of Northern Europe, making it one of the most important cities of the Late Middle Ages.

As with other old German cities, such as Heidelberg,  Lubeck was destroyed during the 30 years war and most of its buildings are from the  17th and 18th century. Also, unfortunately, part of the old town dating from this era, and most of its churches, were once again destroyed during another war, the Second World War.


But, the churches have been rebuilt in most part and you can still find many older buildings, some even dating from the 16th century.

So, come have a look!

Tour of the Altstadt

The island of old Lubeck is only about 3 km long by less than 2 km wide, and  thus it is easily discovered on foot. But, if you so wish, you can take a tour of the island by boat: there are many cruising boats along the quay (Hafen) and one leaves every half hour during the tourist season. It takes about 45 minutes to go around the island and you will also have the chance of seeing a bit of the new Lubeck: its busy port with its modern installations.

Actually, taking a guided boat tour first can be a good thing: you will have a better idea of what you would like to visit later. And it gives you another perspective on the importance of water in regards to Lubeck’s history.

An interesting sight that we saw by boat, and which is not mentioned in the tourist pamphlet of the town, is a little green church, The Schwedische Kirche (the Swedish Church or in Swedish: Svenska Kyrkan) called St-Gertrud.

This church was built at the turn of the 20th century by the Swedish mission (Schwedische Seemannsmission) to care for the Swedish sailors that were staying in Lubeck in this area, close to the port, at any given time. It is built with green tiles covering its exterior walls, thus known as the Grüne Kirche (Green Church). Because of the decreasing number of Swedish sailors staying in the area and the diminished service attendance, the last celebration occurred in this church in 1968.

Since then, it underwent major renovations and rebuilding and is no longer a church. Nowadays, it serves as a rehabilitation and reintegration residential building and is not accessible to public viewing. But, we can still see its green façade through the industrial buildings of the port, reminding us that the port was once inhabited by Swedish sailors, trying to find respite between two trips on the treacherous seas of the North.

The Holsten Gate

To go to the old town, you have to cross the Holstenbrücke and in front of this bridge is the Holsten Gate. It is a miracle that this gate is still standing: both its towers have such a lean that one is reminded of the Tower of Pisa in Italy!

You will find a nice museum about the Hanseatic League in the towers: the explanations (some of them in English) are clear and the pictures self-explanatory. It shows how important Lubeck used to be.

Once you cross the bridge you will discover an old medieval town, with cobblestoned streets, small little alleyways (called Gang) that are just wide enough for one person at a time and which open onto hidden courtyards, and a multitude of redbrick houses with tiled roofs. One characteristic of Lubeck is its square façades in front of pointed roofs. You will find them everywhere in the old town.

There is a self-guide tour of the island that can take between 90 minutes to as many hours as you wish. It is rather well done, but, we discovered many other sights by simply taking the little streets that were NOT mentioned in the guide. Actually, we had many happy surprises by just following our fancy! Such as the Altstadtbad (the public “pool”, actually, it is an access to swim in the Tave river), the half tower house (it is a half tower from the original town wall that was transformed into a house in the 17th century), many parks and smaller bridges, etc. The nicely treed canal and river banks will make you feel as if you were in the countryside instead of a town.

Lubeck has many areas that are so very different from one another: from the center town with its many restaurants and stores, to the pathways along the river, to the modern port. Each one has its one personality and its feels as if Lubeck was in fact made of many smaller towns.


The Churches of Lubeck

Another striking feature is the number of churches with green Gothic spires, all of them crooked and all of them destroyed partly or completely during WWII. They have been rebuilt, in most parts, and are a must in sightseeing. Here is a list of the many churches in the old town alone.

St. Petri (St.Peter’s) with its tower. You can, and probably should, climb to the top of the tower (there is an elevator!) for a fantastic view of the city roof tops and of its warm red brick buildings. There are maps over each window that mark the main buildings and the direction of the Baltic Sea. A good way to start a tour.

Katholishe Propsteikirche Herz-Jesu (Catholic provost church of the Sacred Heart) where three Catholic chaplains of the Sacred Heart Church, John Prassek, Hermann Lange and Eduard Müller were beatified, and one Lutheran pastor, Karl Friedrich Stellbrink was honoured in 2011.  These four clerics were arrested along with 18 lay Catholics in the spring / early summer of 1942, and put to death. The judgment was already established before the trial.  The Nazi regime was shocked that clergymen of both denominations were working together against it.

Lubecker Dom (the Cathedral of Lubeck), the oldest church in the parish. It has one of the largest brick vaults of Northern Europe. It was started under the order of Henry the Lion in 1173 for the Bishop of Lubeck, Gerold. There is a legend about the building of the Dom by Henry the Lion. It seems that Charlemagne was hunting in Saxony in the 7th century when he saw a beautiful great deer. 

He decided, after capturing it, to neither keep it nor kill it, but to place a gold chain in its antlers. Centuries later, four to be exact, Henry was hunting alone (he was a in a reflexive mood at the time) when he saw a beautiful huge deer with a golden cross in its antlers. He saw this as a sign that he should build a cathedral and use the magnificent cross to pay for it.

You see, Henry had been thinking about building a cathedral for some time but didn’t have enough money. So, he killed the deer, picked up the cross and built it for the Bishopric. Well, I don’t know if there’s much truth in this legend, but we know for sure that it was Henry who started building it. Unfortunately, like the rest of the churches in Lubeck, the Dom was greatly damaged during the Palm Sunday bombing of 1942, but was completely restored by 1982.

St. Aegidien (St. Gilles’ church) is the smallest of the churches in Lubeck. It is close to, surprise, the Synagogue of Lubeck and to the St. Anne’s Art Gallery and Museum (it used to be a convent). The whole area around St. Gilles and towards the water is beautiful, with very old houses that remind us of Hirschhorn  along the Neckar river.

Another church is St. Jakobi (St.Jacob’s church). It is a triple-nave brick building from 1334 and used as a seafarers and sailors church. There is a memorial (a salvaged lifeboat) in honour of the Pamir, a four-masted-barque that sink in 1957. It is a nice church where you can listen to organ concerts in the evening.

St. Katharinen (St. Catherine’s church) is just a few feet from St.Jacobi. It is a brick Gothic church from the 13th century which used to belong to a Franciscan monastery called Saint-Catherine of Alexandria. It is part of the World Heritage and is a Museum for Religious Art, such as Saint George and the Dragon made by Bernt Notke and the Resurrection of Lazarus  by Tintoretto.

The last one, but not the least, is St.Marien (St. Mary’s church). This is the world tallest brick church and it houses the world’s largest mechanical organ. 

Most of the church itself was damaged or destroyed during that raid and it took 12 years, from 1947 to 1959, to rebuild it.

The bells crashed during the Palm Sunday bombing of 1942 and were left were they fell as a reminder of the horrors of wars.

St.Mary's Church is listed in the UNESCO world heritage. It also seems that Johannes Sebastian Bach played the organ there and even composed a musical piece in honour of Lubeck.


The Town Hall

Another interesting sight is the Rathaus (Town Hall). It is the oldest European town hall still in use today as it was in the 13th century. This is where the Senate of Lubeck still meets. You can visit the town hall with a guided tour, but as mentioned, it is a working town hall, so many doors and sections of the building are closed to public. It is a marvelous building of black glazed bricks, mullion windows and carved wood panels.

They also have guided tours in English. It is a must see, if only to sit in the Senators grandiose room.


Other Points of Interest

There are many other little gems to discover in Lubeck. For example, the town is well known for its marzipan and there is a café almost entirely devoted to the stuff: the Café Niederegger. It is a marzipan salon where you can have a cup of marzipan coffee and a slice of marzipan cake.

There are also a few Museums: the Museum für Natur und Umwelt (Nature Museum), the Behnhaus/Drägerhaus Museum, The Günter Grass-House Museum, the Willy-Brandt-House Museum, the harbour Museum, etc. But, instead of talking about these, let’s have a cruise on the Wakenitz River, known as the Amazon of the North.


The Wakenitz River

The river Wakenitz was part of the Iron Curtain between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Democratic Republic of Germany during the cold war and because of this has changed very little since. The river’s source is the Ratzeburger See (Ratzeburger Lake) in Ratzeburg and is about 14 km long. The Wakenitz drains into the Tave river in Lubeck and thus, you can take a cruise boat from Lubeck to the Ratzeburger Lake, which is a magnificent lake.

The cruise itself takes about 2 hours to get to the lake and the same to come back. Most cruise boats stop 2 or 3 times along the way to leave passengers embark or disembark at Müggenbusch, Absalonshorst and Rothenhusen.

There are drinks available on board (for a fee, but remember that beer is cheap in Germany, so, enjoy!) and the scenery is wonderful: kilometers of river edge without any buildings!

And then, when you arrive at the lake, you realized that, this being Germany, a nice little restaurant-guesthouse awaits you with beautiful fish dishes and a fantastic view of the lake and its sailing boats.

It was a very peaceful enjoyable trip and for one afternoon we felt as if we have been transported in a completely different part of Germany. Just the birds, the aquatic plants and the fish. And the occasional canoe or kayak.


Facts and Shops

There are about 213 000 people living in Lubeck and as in many other places in Germany, the Shops are closed on Sundays and many Museums and Restaurants are closed on Mondays. As for the Banks, they are open weekdays, usually from around 8h30 to 18h30, except on Wednesday; 8h30 to 13h00 only.

There is a Tourist office at the Holstentorplatz  and some of the employees (but not all by any means) do speak English. There are also some guided tours in many languages that start at the tourist office.


Restaurants

Most of the Restaurants that we tried were good or very good. And, because Lubeck is so close to the Baltic Sea, the fish (mainly cod and plaice, but also small Baltic shrimps and herrings) were fresh and excellent.

One of their specialties is cod in a mustard sauce. Like any other German town, they seem to really like ice cream and one of the preferred desserts is vanilla ice cream with a compote of red fruit called rote Grütze.

There are many cafés and restaurant along the An der Obertrave (a street that runs along the Trave river), and although, they have somewhat of a “for tourists” atmosphere, we found that the food was good and the prices reasonable. We also tried a cute little Italian restaurant that was tucked away in a small street close to St.Jakobi church and which has a courtyard at the back. The service was excellent, the waiters were very friendly and the food simply delicious.

So, as always in Germany, just try what you think looks good! It probably is.


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