Former queen of the Hanseatic League

Trip Start Apr 08, 2007
Trip End Oct 01, 2007

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Up early after a restful sleep, Mayu and I set off on the first of our daytrips from big, bustling Hamburg. For a long time now I had been interested in seeing the former Hanseatic stronghold of Lübeck, but never had an opportunity to get this far north in Deutschland. Since we were going to be in its backyard, I made sure that we prioritized so that we could fit it in.

Back in the Middle Ages, the city was pretty much the wealthiest city on the Baltic coast, courtesy of its great mercantile tradition. A fabulous store of red-brick architecture was built up during this time, spanning styles from Romanesque and Gothic to Renaissance and Baroque. Hamburg later supplanted it in importance and then as Germany united and grew in economic power, it became more of a provincial outpost. The place got utterly pounded in 1942 courtesy of the British Air Force, but reconstruction was sincere and thorough enough to bring back much of its historic beauty. Now it basks in the glory of UNESCO World Heritage status, even if many tourists following the standard Germany itinerary couldn't find it on a map.

Mayu and I got in just short of 11 'o clock, giving us most of the day to explore the place (especially with the late sunsets typical of late April in Northern Europe). First stop was the tourist office, which only left us gobsmacked at the audacious €2 price they wanted for a simple map. Funnily enough, a tourist office closer to town had a more comprehensive pocket map for only €0.90. This one also included a walking tour providing a nice overview of the town's scenic spots, so another bonus. With that in hand, we ventured forth.

The key sights in Lübeck include a beautiful, twin-towered main gate marking the entrance into the old city from the station approach. From there the main drag of Holstenstraße climbs up into the Altstadt, changing names a couple of times until it comes out the other side. The Altstadt itself is surrounded by water, the Treve river having been canalized centuries ago to bolster the defenses of the city. The walls are long gone, but the historic core still stands with obvious prominence over the flat plains surrounding the town.

The main market square has several of the city's other most celebrated landmarks. The Rathaus (town hall) stands in clear contrast to the predominantly red brick townscape, with a stark, black facade accented by royal insignia and other medieval remnants. Next door stands the tallest brick Gothic church in Europe, St. Marien's, which was apparently the blueprint for all similar brick Gothic structures built later across the Baltic coastline and elsewhere. The inside is incredibly airy, with the vast heights of the nave towering overhead. At one end of the church lies a shattered bronze bell, left in situ after being felled by the 1942 air raid. Easily the strangest feature of the church interior are its numerous wall sculptures of skeletal angelic figures - angels of death, if you were. Even the stained glass has numerous depictions of zombie-like skeletons harassing medieval mankind. Not exactly the most comforting place to worship! Despite looking through the material available, Mayu and I were unable to figure out why there were so many deathly images.

These all were the focus of the earliest part of our town tour (despite coming at the end of the proscribed walking tour). After that we did a long circuit of the town, wandering through its charming backstreets from brick church to gabled roof to quiet lanes of historic facades. After a while though, every church started to look alike; red-brick Gothic architecture may be soaring and majestic, but it certainly isn't very diverse! By the end of our tour, the sun had crossed to the other end of town, providing the ideal light to enjoy the peaceful western canal with its historic ships and fine old buildings.

Having spent the day then here, Mayu and I have both wondered why Hamburg is better known. Lübeck is certainly much easier on the eye and more manageable, but the majority of tourism seems aimed at locals. Well, that is apart from the odd "World Heritage Site" seeker (we saw a few Japanese tourists probably doing just that, actually). Anyhow, it was well worth the 50 minute train ride. Glad to have made the trip.
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