With their smiling devils, dancing skeletons and comically gruesome gargoyles, Lübeck’s medieval churches certainly don’t stick to pious convention. But it’s the broken bells that make the biggest impact, and there’s no fantasy attached to these giant relics. To the rear of St Mary’s Church, the magnificent 13th-century Gothic cathedral built by the city’s wealthy merchants, the remains of the bells lie where they fell on Palm Sunday in 1942, when an RAF night raid destroyed much of Lübeck’s historic centre.
As guide and long-term Lübeck resident Jan Kruijswijk tells me, the bells fell not because of the impact of the bombs, but due to the ferocious heat created by the resulting firestorm. “As the wooden tower got hotter, the bells swung more and more, so much so that they began to ring. It was said by local residents they were singing their own song of death.”
But the story of Lübeck begins long before the war — right back in the 12th century. It was from here that merchants established the Hanseatic League, an association of cities which dominated trade across northern Europe for over 500 years. Lübeck’s merchants did very well for themselves on the back of the trade in goods from across Europe and beyond, which passed through the city before being shipped across the Baltic Sea to Scandinavia, Russia and even to the English North Sea ports. As the headquarters of this powerful trading bloc, Lübeck was known as the Queen of the Hanseatic League.
Jan points out the glazed black bricks within the red-brick church wall. These special bricks were used in the medieval city as a brash symbol of wealth; even today, Germans may still refer to someone with money as steinreich, or ‘stone rich’. “At first, only the wealthy could build their houses from any sort of brick,” explains Jan. “After a big fire, the civic authorities ruled that all homes must be made from brick. With this visible status symbol removed, rich merchants had glazed bricks added to their walls to signify their wealth.” Once they been pointed out to me, I find many of these shiny bricks in Lübeck’s medieval buildings.
There’s more to learn about Lübeck’s medieval heritage at the hi-tech European Hanseatic museum, which opened in May 2015. The Hansemuseum is housed on an archaeological site, which has revealed the remains of 12th-century houses beside the old friary. Visitors follow a chronological journey from pre-Hanseatic trading times, when the constant fear of attack forced merchants to pay for units of armed men (hansas) to protect them on their journeys. Many of the museum’s rooms use interactive tablets, which provide customised interpretation (tailored to the user’s language and personal interests); all the material can be sent to the user by email at the end of the visit.
While the museum is new, many of Lübeck’s other attractions have stood for over 500 years. The city’s most photographed icon is the Holstentor, the double-turreted gatehouse at the western end of the town. It was once a prominent symbol of the city’s wealth and now houses a small historical museum. A spiral staircase in one of the towers leads to an impressive collection of medieval ships suspended from the ceiling, along with maps of the European trade routes and a wonderful wooden model of Lübeck.
In search of a sweeter part of Lübeck history, I visit the 200-year-old Cafe Niederegger, directly opposite the elaborate town hall, which served as a meeting place for the rich and powerful of the Hanseatic League. The cafe is famous for its marzipan and I indulge in a moist slice of layered cake before exploring the small museum on the upper floor. Exhibits tell the story of this almond sweet, but the highlight is the largest statue ever made in marzipan; a life-size representation of Lübeck’s historical characters.
Dinner’s booked at Schiffergesellschaft, a popular restaurant housed in the old Seafearer’s Guild. There are ships hanging from the ceiling here too, while the 16th-century painted walls are magnificent, and the crests of the various Hanseatic cities adorn the ends of the long, communal benches. The atmosphere is lively as work groups, families and couples get to grips with portions which would challenge the most committed carnivores. The restaurant has the type of medieval grandeur typically found only in churches, but Lübeck was a rare exception where the real power and wealth sat not with the church but with the merchants.
The next day it’s time to leave Lübeck and head for the coast, but first I take a bus to the eastern suburb of Schlutup. It may seem fairly unremarkable today, but between 1945 and 1990, Schlutup was on the border of West Germany and East Germany. The Inner German perimeter was a foreboding place, with multiple fences, mines, floodlights, dog runs and armed guards. Today the old border just beyond Schlutup is marked by a simple stone, and the no-man’s land has become part of a green belt conservation area. I’ve come to visit the drably named Border Documentation Site, easily found thanks to the chunk of Berlin Wall and the Trabant parked on the lawn outside. The museum has a modest collection of memorabilia from East German times: soldiers’ uniforms and official documents sit alongside everyday items such as chocolate packaging. More unusual items include a dinghy that was once used in an escape attempt across the Trave river. There’s even a marzipan Trabant donated by the folks at Cafe Niederegger.
Out on foot
From here I take the bus to Travemünde, my base on the Baltic Coast for the final two nights of my trip. Germany has a scant coastline and resorts such as Travemünde get extremely busy in the summer. The town has a charming, retro vibe, reinforced by the distinctive and quaint double beach chairs which line the long stretch of sand. Most of the hotels are family-run affairs, and the 35-storey Maritim Strandhotel looks completely out of place as a lone skyscraper in a traditional landscape. I check in to my ninth-floor room and have a fabulous view overlooking the coast and the magnificent four-mast sailing ship Passat, permanently moored directly opposite the hotel, while Scandinavian-bound ferries pass by silently and with surprising regularity.
Keen to make the most of the afternoon sunshine, I set off on the path along the coast towards the unassuming seaside town of Niendorf, around five miles north of Travemünde. The walk is glorious, with constant views out to sea, the path following the cliffs and passing through light woodland. I pass joggers, walkers and cyclists, and by the time I find a restaurant, I’m ready for a taste of a much-loved Baltic dish. Thanks to my Polish roots I am well acquainted with the sharp taste of pickled herring and I eagerly order a large portion at a seafront restaurant. It comes with a generous pile of boiled potatoes and, washed down with a local beer, is a satisfying reward for my less than strenuous exercise.
The next day, a ferry takes me across to the Priwall peninsula, a five-minute journey from Travemünde, and after a few minutes’ walk I’m enjoying the silence of the forest. The next two hours take me through a mix of woodland and coastal trails. I pass a couple of committed ship spotters, enthralled by the big vessels passing in and out of the estuary. Reaching the tip of the peninsula, the scenery changes as the shipping lane makes way for Pötenitzer Wiek, a sheltered bay, which feels like a remote nature reserve. At the narrowest point linking the Priwall to the mainland, I once again arrive at the old Inner German border. A couple of young cyclists are taking a break in the sunshine and I stop too, looking at the rock marking the old frontier and wondering how different the area would have been a mere 25 years ago.
This corner of north-eastern Germany attracts relatively few British visitors, but is worth the short journey. With its combination of 20th-century and medieval history, and its many hiking trails, it’s a place worth exploring. I plan to return — not least because I know there’ll always be another slice of marzipan cake waiting for me.
British Airways and EasyJet fly direct from various UK airports to Hamburg. From Hamburg Airport it’s around 80 minutes by train to Lübeck. deutschebahn.com/en
Average flight time: 1h30m
A comprehensive network of buses and trains connect Lübeck and Travemünde. The HappyDay card offers unlimited travel in the region and discounts for local attractions. luebeck-tourism.de
When to go
May to October offers the most pleasant temperatures (around 12-18C). The hotels book up quickly in July and August as German holidaymakers head to the Baltic coast.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (EUR). £1 = €1.40
International dial code: 00 49.
Time difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
Self-booked flights with British Airways, plus one night B&B at the Anno 1216 in Lübeck and two nights at the Maritim Strandhotel in Travemünde, cost from £288 per person, based on two people sharing.
EasyJet Holidays offers three nights from £158.38 per person including accommodation and flights, based on two sharing.
Published in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)