Hamburg, the seedy and the seriously hip

I honestly never thought I’d find myself saying this, but Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district makes Amsterdam’s red light district look classy. I’m not sure it’s possible for any area that deals in selling sex, and caters to gangs of heavy drinking men and occasional hen nights, to be particularly pleasant, but the Reeperbahn strips bare any pretensions to glamour or even normality. Even at 3pm in the afternoon it’s populated by a selection of seedy characters, at night things take a turn for the even more surreal as tour groups mingle with stag parties and brothel patrons.

Despite the fact that it’s not a particularly pleasant place to visit, it’s an obligatory stop on any Hamburg itinerary. If for no other reason than to know why it’s not worth your time to go there in the first place. Plus, if you want to unearth some of the sites where the Beatles spent their time when living in Hamburg, a trip down the Reeperbahn is necessary. Even then, most of the venues the Beatles played have been knocked down, and the Beatles-Platz memorial to the band is best described as the worst €500,000 the City of Hamburg has ever spent.

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

ATM and sex in the Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

ATM and sex in the Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

There is an argument that the Reeperbahn represents an alternative world view and its unique history should be respected and protected. Some local residents decry the creeping gentrification that’s taking place, but change is inevitable and most probably desirable. Right now the Reeperbahn’s heady mix of cheap drinking dens, sex shops, discount stores, tacky souvenir shops, table dancing clubs, brothels, kebab shops and street level prostitution is just nasty. Not to mention the rough sleepers, pan handlers and victims of drink and drugs who are scattered around.

I found myself exploring the Reeperbahn while walking between the River Elbe and Hamburg’s legendary St. Pauli district. The Reeperbahn is the southern boundary of the district, walk north and you’ll soon find yourself amidst a maze of fascinating streets that are filled with off-beat, alternative bars, restaurants and cafes. I was staying just north of here in the Karolinenviertel area which, although gentrification has made its mark, still retains a counter-cultural vibe for which this area of Hamburg is famed.

I spent much of my time in Karolinenviertel and neighbouring Schanzenviertel, both are former working class areas known historically for poverty and deprivation. Their transformation into hip, multicultural and uber-trendy districts has taken place over the last decade or two. On Saturday morning I went to the flea market in an area that connects the two districts, the Schlachthof. It’s worth a visit both for the bizarre range of items on sale and to get a real sense of the area’s inhabitants – it’s not always pretty but it’s definitely entertaining.

There are no real ‘sights’ in these neighbourhoods, unless you count the Rote Flora. A former theatre, this now dilapidated building has been a squat since it was seized by left wing activists in 1989, who declared it a “free space for realising an autonomous life”. It’s quite famous in left wing circles, but as sights go it’s less than thrilling. Many would like to see it closed down and redeveloped, but successive city governments have backed off from doing so. In part, because of the fairly well-deserved reputation for violence of the people who ‘run’ Rote Flora.

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

I went to have a look to see what all the fuss was about, but had more fun just aimlessly wandering the surrounding neighbourhood. There are interesting streets and pleasant squares to explore. In keeping with the rest of this trip, I visited the Braugasthaus Altes Mädchen craft brewery to sample its range of delicious beers. This is also where I ate a hamburger in Hamburg, something of a lifelong ambition. Small things, I know!

Beaches and boat races, a lazy day along the Elbe

Hamburg’s relationship with the River Elbe dates back to the 9th century. Its citizens’ love affair with the Elbe’s riverside beach bars may only be a part of a tradition going back to the 19th century, but it’s equally intimate. On a warm, sunny Sunday morning I arrived at the picturesque harbour of Neumühlen on Ferry 62, and was one of only a handful of people to disembark. The harbour doubles as a maritime museum filled with lovely wooden boats as well as more modern ice breakers, tugs and a floating crane.

I made my way onto land and to a cafe with tables overlooking the harbour and river. It was very peaceful as I ordered up some breakfast and much needed coffee after a night out in Hamburg’s Karolinenviertel. My neighbours at the next table were two of the most drunk ‘sailors’ in the history of sailing. They’d been involved in the tall ships festival, and seemed to have spent the previous 72 hours drinking themselves into a stupor in the Reeperbahn.

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

As I sat watching boats sail by on the Elbe, I noticed something unusual in the harbour: two boats were being lined up to race each other. Two pilots were stood in the back of the small wooden boats, each with a single oar in the water. Someone shouted ‘go’ and they paddled furiously towards the finish line, a bridge over the harbour. I wandered back towards the harbour to watch the competition unfold. It seemed like a pointless way of propelling a boat forward, but everyone was having fun.

Leaving the harbour sports behind me, I headed over to the remarkably pleasant and clean beach that stretches for about a kilometre along the river bank. It was still quite early and the beach wasn’t particularly busy until I reached the iconic Strandperle beach bar. It and the neighbouring Ahoi Strandkiosk heaved with people enjoying a drink in the sun. It really was a hot day, so I joined the crowds in the shade and had a glass of the locally brewed Astra.

The bars have a laid-back feel and were the perfect place to wash up on a Hamburg Sunday. The views across the river to boats sailing past the giant cranes of the Port of Hamburg seemed perfectly normal sitting on this beach along the Elbe. Fully rested, I walked further down the beach before doubling back through the lovely, upmarket suburb of Övelgönne. Tree-lined pathways weave across the hillside behind the beach and past wooden houses with wrought iron balconies.

It’s very sedate and peaceful, with beautiful views over the river. Interestingly,  there are a surprising number of bars and good restaurants in the area. You could easily go from spending a day on the beach to not leaving until well after sunset. I strolled back to the harbour grateful that I’d made the effort to visit this sublime piece of Hamburg – I almost didn’t. Ferry 62 dutifully turned up a short while later, and I headed back to town as yet more sailing ships made their way towards the open sea.

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Beaches on the River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

Beaches on the River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

Beaches on the River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

Beaches on the River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

I made one final stop to visit the Fish Market which, by the time I arrived in the late afternoon, was in a bit of a slump following what looked like a busy lunchtime. The grand wrought iron interior was decked out in bunting and a band was warming up. If this little trip down the river had proved anything, it is that Hamburg really is a city full of surprises. It won’t be the last time I visit.

Tall ships along the Elbe, Hamburg’s old port

It was unintentional, but I’d arrived in Hamburg during a tall ships festival, taking place along the River Elbe to celebrate the anniversary of the port receiving tax free status from the Emperor Barbarossa in 1189. This is credited with catapulting Hamburg on its trajectory towards becoming a global trading city. It’s celebrated annually with the visit of numerous historic sailing ships and more modern vessels. There is also a week-long series of events, not to mention a multitude of pop-up food stalls and beer halls. I’ve never seen so many sausages in one place.

Hamburg harbour and Elbphilharmonie, Speicherstadt, Germany

Hamburg harbour and Elbphilharmonie, Speicherstadt, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg harbour, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg harbour, Germany

Statue of Barbarossa, Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Statue of Barbarossa, Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

The result of all this fun was that the whole of the port area and historic Speicherstadt were packed with people. This is the biggest port festival in the world, an estimated one million people take part throughout the week alongside over three hundred ships, several from the Netherlands and others from Russia. At one point, I saw a large group of Russian sea cadets strolling down the Reeperbahn, the person who thought that was a good idea is very deluded. The backdrop for the whole thing are the warehouses of the Speicherstadt and the extraordinary looking Elbphilharmonie.

The neo-Gothic buildings of the Speicherstadt warehouse district are now an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The huge red brick buildings tower over interlinking canals, and were constructed between the 1880s and 1920s on top of massive oak pillars. They were built at the expense of over 1,100 houses, which were demolished. The 24,000 residents were evicted just so more capacity could be created in the tax free port area. These attractive buildings were the predecessors to the immense port that now sits just downstream on the Elbe.

I’d arrived in the Speicherstadt from the Deichtorhallen, crossing one of Hamburg’s many canals on the way. This was once the epicentre of Hamburg’s trade with the world, and these massive warehouses would at one time have been filled with goods from around the globe. The area was severely damaged during the Second World War by repeated bombings, including the vicious firestorm caused by Operation Gomorrah in July 1943 in which more than 42,000 people were killed. Reconstruction of the area was only completed in 1967.

Today, it’s still a commercial area but one that increasingly relies on tourism and, with so many people visiting, it was a bit touristy. That though shouldn’t take away from the glories of the area. There are also some good museums housed in the old warehouses some, like the Spice Museum, tell the tale of the area’s fascinating history. I decided to visit the very crowded Elbphilharmonie on another day, and crossed the river to see St. Nicholas’ Church instead. Partially destroyed in 1943, it’s an evocative memorial to the horrors of World War Two.

Afterwards, I strolled amongst the crowds to St. Pauli-Landungsbrücken, where Ferry 62 departs to several interesting places along the River Elbe. Once I’d worked out how to buy a ticket, the ferry took me past several tall ships at anchor and then on to the famous fish market, now a popular place for food and a drink, before depositing me at Neumühlen. This small harbour houses numerous historic boats, and is the jumping off point for a stroll through an upmarket Hamburg suburb to some good beaches on the river.

As the ferry heads in the direction of the North Sea, it also passes humungous cruise ships and lots of small leisure boats. On the Elbe’s southern bank, Hamburg’s massive modern container port dominates the views, and you can see cargo ships being loaded and unloaded. Ranks of cranes line the water’s edge like ancient creatures. Watching tall ships under full sail heading out to sea against the backdrop of the modern port was a magnificent sight.

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Tugs on the River Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Tugs on the River Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

St. Nicholas' Church, Hamburg, Germany

St. Nicholas’ Church, Hamburg, Germany

St. Nicholas' Church, Hamburg, Germany

St. Nicholas’ Church, Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Port of Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Port of Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Port of Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Port of Hamburg, Germany

Down-to-earth Hamburg, Europe’s hippest city?

Hamburg may well be Germany’s second city, but its fearsome reputation as one of the hottest and, simultaneously, coolest cities in Europe is second to none. Its hotness and coolness are off the hip-o-metre if the numerous articles I’d read about it were close to being true. Cementing a status as one of Europe’s hippest destinations, Lonely Planet recently ranked it fourth in its Top 10 Cities 2018 index. That’s a level of adoration that could unfairly raise expectations, but after four days of exploration I was left with the impression that it’s not possible to visit Hamburg without having fun. A lot of fun.

Hamburg has a long, rich and colourful history. Founded in 825 on the River Elbe, the city was an important centre for early Christianity, a fact that seems particularly ironic after a visit to the modern-day Reeperbahn; but it was Hamburg’s role in global trade that made it wealthy and saw it become one of the most important cities in northern Europe. A key member of the Hanseatic League, Hamburg grew and prospered until, by the end of the 17th century, it was the second largest city in Germany after Cologne. By the 19th century, it was considered Germany’s ‘gateway to the world’.

Law courts, Hamburg, Germany

Law courts, Hamburg, Germany

Law courts, Hamburg, Germany

Law courts, Hamburg, Germany

Rathaus, Hamburg, Germany

Rathaus, Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

Rathaus, Hamburg, Germany

Rathaus, Hamburg, Germany

Heinrich-Hertz-Tower, Hamburg, Germany

Heinrich-Hertz-Tower, Hamburg, Germany

Not that it was all plain sailing. Vikings burnt it to the ground in 845, a fate repeated numerous times over the centuries, including the great fire of 1842 which destroyed a quarter of the city. A thousand years after the Vikings, the city was virtually destroyed again. This time it was British and American bombers targeting military, civilian and naval targets in the greatest port in Germany. By 1945, 55% of Hamburg’s residential area had been destroyed, along with 60% of its port infrastructure. Considerably more than 50,000 civilians were killed.

The sixty years since then has seen Hamburg rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes to its current exulted position as global trendsetter. Some things never change though, and Hamburg’s port is still the third biggest by volume in Europe. A visit to the port and a trip down the River Elbe is fascinating and should be on everyone’s itinerary when in Hamburg. The city is home to around 1.8 million people, and is quite spread out, luckily public transport is excellent and many of the central sights are walkable if you have the time.

The sun was shinning as I set off early towards the Museum Mile, a road that contains five world class museums, passing by Hamburg’s courthouses and through the park that surrounds them. People were out jogging or walking their dogs, otherwise it was very peaceful. Nearby is the classical concert hall, the Laeiszhalle, with its memorial to Johannes Brahms, from where I headed across to the Alster. This lake at the heart of the city is one of its defining features, and is surrounded by beautiful 19th century buildings.

It’s a short stroll from here to Hamburg’s rightly famous Museum Mile, but first I took a detour to find an ATM. You have to carry cash in Hamburg, many places don’t accept cards, others don’t accept non-German cards. It came as a rude awakening after the Netherlands where cash has essentially been outlawed. Luckily, the ATM was close to the glorious Rathaus, the City Hall, and the Rathausmarkt in front of it. From here I wandered through a patchwork of pleasant streets to reach the museums.

Law courts, Hamburg, Germany

Law courts, Hamburg, Germany

Concert Hall, Hamburg, Germany

Concert Hall, Hamburg, Germany

Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, Germany

Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

Museum Mile, Hamburg, Germany

Museum Mile, Hamburg, Germany

I visited the two ‘bookends’ along Museum Mile. The imposing 19th century Kunsthalle houses a magnificent collection of European art spanning a period of over 700 years, ranging from old masters to the 20th century’s greatest names. A special exhibition of the Dutch Golden Age reunited me with numerous artists I’ve come to love over four years living in the Netherlands. I walked past Hamburg’s main railway station to the very different but equally wonderful, Deichtorhallen, housing contemporary art and photographic exhibitions.

The Deichtorhallen is an easy walk from Hamburg’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a definte ‘must see’. Next stop, the Speicherstadt …

Hanseatic Lübeck, a literary powerhouse of Nobel Laureates

After a visit to the European Hansemuseum the previous day, my second morning in Lübeck dawned with a brand new appreciation of its Hanseatic history. Founded in 1143, Lübeck became one of the most powerful cities in Europe as the capital of the Hanseatic League, a commercial block of medieval cities that came to dominate trade across northern Europe. Lübeck was ideally placed to exploit the trade in raw products from Russia, Norway and Sweden, and manufactured goods from central and southern Europe. It made a lot of money trading salt from nearby Luneburg.

It’s a heritage still very much on display in the wealth of magnificent merchants houses, churches and civic buildings that are liberally scattered all over town. I knew nothing of Lübeck’s illustrious history before I arrived in this part of Germany, but I’m glad I made the trip. I was staying close to the Heiligen-Geist-Hospital, Germany’s first hospital dating from 1227. Sadly it’s closed for a major restoration, but it’s close to the Burgtor, a huge city gate to rival the more famous Holstentor, and sits at the heart of a warren of cobbled medieval streets.

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Burgtor, Lübeck, Germany

Burgtor, Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Boats on the Trave, Lübeck, Germany

Boats on the Trave, Lübeck, Germany

I spent a couple of hours wandering along the river through pretty neighbourhoods to the lovely St. Annen Museumsquartier. Along the way I unearthed several courtyards, medieval ‘hofs’ that were built to house the less fortunate in society. Füchtingshof, one of the most picturesque of the courtyards, was built to house the widows of sailors and merchants, of which there were probably many given the role Lübeck played in trade. Many Lübeck merchants travelled into the heart of Russia to exchange goods, a risky journey to make from which many didn’t return.

Lübeck isn’t only known for its Hanseatic glories though. It is also the home of two globally famous writers, Thomas Mann and Günter Grass, both recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature; and, if that wasn’t enough, it is also the birthplace of a third Nobel Laureate, Willy Brandt, the politician who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his work building bridges between West Germany and the Soviet controlled East. All three Nobel prize winners have museums dedicated to them in their former houses.

I visited Günter Grass Haus first, it’s a fascinating insight into his life. I hadn’t realised that as well as being a novelist, he was also an accomplished illustrator, graphic artist and sculptor. It was a shame that the museum only has information in German, but there were lots of illustrations and video to keep me engaged. Even better there was a special exhibition on Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who it turns out had a passion for film making. There were several of Shaw’s brilliant short films.

There wasn’t time to visit both of the other Nobel winners’ museums, so I decided to keep the literary theme going and went to the former home of Thomas Mann. His most famous book, Buddenbrooks, is based on his experiences growing up in Lübeck. The museum is small but at least has some English translations, which allowed for a better understanding of his fascinating life. Particularly his opposition to Nazism, followed by exile to the United States and then persecution as a suspected communist.

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Ratskeller, Lübeck, Germany

Ratskeller, Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Glandorps Hof, Lübeck, Germany

Glandorps Hof, Lübeck, Germany

Günter Grass Haus, Lübeck, Germany

Günter Grass Haus, Lübeck, Germany

Before leaving town for Hamburg, I went underground for lunch in the Ratskeller, one of Lübeck’s most historic restaurants. It has discreet booths in which to eat, and you can imagine illicit assignations and deals being done behind the closed doors of the booths. It’s an atmospheric place, and chance had it that I was shown to the Thomas Mann booth, decorated with his letters and photos. Apparently he ate here regularly and, given the restaurant’s only a short stroll from his house, I’m inclined to believe it.

Lübeck, Queen of the Hanse

The glories of Lübeck’s 900-year history were all but obliterated in 1942 by a firestorm resulting from a British bombing raid. It took over four decades, but the magnificent Hanseatic centre of Lübeck was lovingly restored and was justifiably granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1987. There are more than a thousand historic buildings in the ancient heart of the city, all tightly packed onto a small island in the Trave river and connected by cobbled streets, narrow alleyways and picturesque courtyards. It must count as one of Europe’s most spectacular historic cities.

It’s a joy to explore Lübeck’s history, but when you throw in a couple of famous literary connections and one of northern Germany’s finest museums, Lübeck quickly becomes a dream destination – for me at least. The only downside of a visit is that the culinary speciality of the town is marzipan, the disgusting almond-based dough first invented as a medieval torture device. If you order a breakfast pastry in a Lübeck cafe, it would be wise to double-check that it doesn’t contain marzipan. Take it from one who knows, it can ruin the start of your day. I hate marzipan, inexplicably Lübeckers seem proud of it.

Holstentor, Lübeck, Germany

Holstentor, Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Salzspeicher, Lübeck, Germany

Salzspeicher, Lübeck, Germany

Europäisches Hansemuseum, Lübeck, Germany

Europäisches Hansemuseum, Lübeck, Germany

I arrived in Lübeck just in time for the morning rush hour. I’m blaming this for the fact that I managed to drive past the iconic Holstentor, the massive 15th century medieval gateway that squats ominously at the western entrance of the town, without seeing it. An hour later when I was stood underneath it marvelling at its sheer size, it was hard to imagine how anyone could have missed it, especially when the road is only metres away. It was a warm day and people were relaxing and picnicking in the adjacent park.

The Holstentor is a good place to start a visit to Lübeck. It sits on the riverbank a short distance from another iconic sight, the Salzspeicher, a group of 16th – 18th century salt warehouses. Salt was one of the commodities that made Lübeck one of the wealthiest towns in Europe. My plan was to spend the day just wandering around before visiting the Europäisches Hansemuseum, the utterly brilliant museum dedicated to the history of the Hanseatic League, and Lübeck’s role as the powerful capital city of the League. Little did I know that you could spend the best part of a day in the museum.

The island upon which ancient Lübeck sits is less than mile long, but it took me hours to make my way from one end to the other. There are so many attractive churches, quiet streets and pleasant squares to explore, not to mention good cafes and restaurants, that it’s impossible not to find yourself endlessly diverting down narrow lanes to find out where they lead. Each turn of the street unearths more glorious architecture and beautiful views. This is a town saturated in history and I was beginning to regret only having a day and a half to spend here.

By mid-afternoon I’d managed to work my way to the Europäisches Hansemuseum. It’s housed in buildings that date back to the foundation of Lübeck in the 12th century, but this is a museum with a modern interactive approach. I paid and was guided through the process of selecting a language and a theme in which to do the tour – there were several to chose from, I selected social history. As you walk through the museum there are multiple places where you can scan your pass and hear narration in your language of choice, on your theme of choice. It’s absolutely fantastic.

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Holstentor, Lübeck, Germany

Holstentor, Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Our wish was fulfilled, Lübeck, Germany

Our wish was fulfilled, Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany

I’d been in the museum for a couple of hours when a member of staff approached me. She politely pointed out that I was only half way around and the museum was closing in 45 minutes. Basically, get a move on. I picked up the pace but there was no way I could do it all. Another trip is going to be necessary. I ended a great day in a local institution, the Brauberger zu Lübeck. In 1450 there were 180 breweries in Lübeck, Brauberger is one of the remaining few. They only make one beer, the Brauberger Zwickelbier, but it’s good and worth the effort of a visit alone.

Schloss Schwerin, a fairytale castle on Lake Schwerin

Sitting picturesquely on an island in Lake Schwerin, the glorious Schloss Schwerin is a magnificent sight as you approach along the lake shore. Its pale stone seems to reflect the sun, making it glow softly in the morning light. It’s considered to be one of the best existing examples in Europe of the historic-romanticism architectural style. Basically, it looks like a building straight out of the overwrought imagination of a Disney film set designer, although it wouldn’t look out of place amongst the chateau in the Loire Valley.

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

I arrived in the morning in the car and was able to drive right up to the castle entrance. I was hoping to find a car park, but instead found three security guards, who advised me that I couldn’t park there. This, it turned out, was because the castle still houses the State Parliament of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and they’re a bit wary of strangers parking their cars near to where the parliamentarians enter the building. Sadly, the Far Right AfD are the second largest party in the parliament, which takes away some of the fun of a visit.

It was sunny so I decided to start with a stroll around the expansive parklands. The main grounds are on the mainland, accessible via a bridge from the island on which the castle sits. I walked down the garden’s central avenue to get a spectacular view back down to the castle. Walking through shady woodland I reached the lake shore for even more extravagant views of the castle across the water. Following the lake edge I made my way back to the castle and the well maintained gardens. It was still early and there weren’t many people around, adding to the serenity.

There has probably been a castle or fort here since the 10th century, but the castle you see today dates from extensive 19th century remodelling and rebuilding in preparation for accommodating the court of the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. The aristocratic House of Mecklenburg ruled Mecklenburg-Schwerin for eight centuries, playing a role in virtually all major European conflicts during that period. They were influential in the unification of Germany in 1871, before being abolished during the Weimar Republic in 1918, following Germany’s defeat in the First World War.

This place has seen some history. It has also accumulated a number of art collections, including an incredible collection of Masters from the Flemish and Dutch Golden Age now housed in the nearby Staatliches Museum. Inside the castle itself (€8.50 entrance), the well preserved Grand Ducal Apartments are the main attraction. There is still some renovation work going, part of ongoing efforts to have the castle listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, which meant some parts of the castle weren’t open.

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Gardens, Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

Schloss Schwerin, Germany

The luxurious interiors are sumptuous on the eye, with gold gilding everywhere and beautifully painted ceilings. Thanks to the relative obscurity of Schwerin there were few other people visiting and no tour groups. It’s not often you can say that if you’re visiting such a historic place these days. The Grand Duke’s throne room is perhaps the finest of all the rooms. Like any good castle, Schloss Schwerin comes with a ghost, the legendary Petermannchen – whose only crime it seems to me, was to be a person of restricted height.

It took me a little over an hour to complete the full tour, there are English translations of the information boards, which is helpful, but there’s not a lot else to detain you. It meant I had a bit of time left to visit the gardens again before heading to Lubeck and the next part of this mini German roadtrip.

Schwerin, the city on seven lakes

Schwerin is a pretty town of around a hundred thousand people and, surprisingly, for a place as small as this, it is also the capital of the German state of Mecklenburg–West Pomerania. The main reason for a visit is to see Schloss Schwerin, the beautiful castle that dates back to the 14th century and sits on the outskirts of town (of which, more later), but this former seat of the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg has much more to offer. Its old town survived the Second World War largely intact, and today sits attractively amidst a watery landscape of seven lakes.

Am Markt, Schwerin, Germany

Am Markt, Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

Old Town, Schwerin, Germany

Old Town, Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

Pfaffenteich, Schwerin, Germany

Pfaffenteich, Schwerin, Germany

I decided to spend the night here rather than press on to Lubeck, and I’m really glad I did. If for no other reason than I was able to stay in the delightful Zum weißen Haus, a B&B that was the nicest place I stayed on this trip. It also meant I got to see the town in the evening and enjoy some local cuisine. Let’s be honest, not unlike a lot of Germany, that means ‘hearty’, ‘meaty’ and almost certainly accompanied by potatoes. After a day exploring I figured I’d earned it, not to mention sampling some beers at a local watering hole, the Altstadt Brauhaus.

I’d arrived in the morning after an early start from Berlin. After finding somewhere to park in the town centre I headed to Am Markt, the central square that is towered over by the cathedral and ringed by historic buildings. The cathedral dates back to the 12th century, and is famous thanks to Count Henry of Schwerin. He returned here after attempting to recapture Jerusalem during the Fifth Crusade, allegedly with a drop of Christ’s blood contained inside a jewel. He placed it in the cathedral, which instantly became a pilgrimage site.

The Am Markt provides a pretty focal point for the town and, while Schwerin may not have a wealth of glorious buildings, take any of the roads that radiate from the square and you’ll find cobbled streets and historic buildings. It’s not obvious, to me at least, but Schwerin was in East Germany, now a hotbed of extremist politics. I saw an office of the far right AfD party – one in five people in this state voted for them in 2017. In their window was an ‘I ❤ Germany’ bag. I’m pretty sure it’s possible to ❤ Germany without hating everyone else, but no one seems to have told the AfD.

I wandered around for a while before heading to local lunchtime institution, Weinhaus Wöhler, for something to eat. They have a pleasant courtyard but deciding what to eat was something of a lottery. No one spoke English and the German menu was filled with colloquialisms that confounded Google Translate. After Berlin it was a bit of a shock to be in an area where very few people spoke English. Pot luck landed me with a dish of chicken and curried vegetables, pretty tasty and a much needed change from sausage, potatoes and cabbage.

Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

Old Town, Schwerin, Germany

Old Town, Schwerin, Germany

Bear blowing bubbles, Schwerin, Germany

Bear blowing bubbles, Schwerin, Germany

Old Town, Schwerin, Germany

Old Town, Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin, Germany

I walked off lunch with a stroll around the Pfaffenteich, the small lake in the heart of the town. On the far side was an odd looking orange building that looks like a North African castle has escaped and taken up residence. Today, this building is home to the state interior ministry, but during the communist era it was home to the Stasi secret police. From the top of the lake is a pedestrianised street that runs down to the largest lake in the area, the Schweriner See, and to Schloss Schwerin, my next destination.

A day strolling through central Berlin

My final day in Berlin before catching the train back to the Netherlands started early, with a walk through the Tiergarten bathed in early morning sun. The peace and quiet was only occasionally interrupted by a cyclist or dog walker. I was making my way to ‘museum island’, which sits in the River Spree and is home to a number of (you guessed it) internationally acclaimed museums. First though, I stopped at perhaps Berlin’s most sombre sight, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany

Nikolaikirche, Nikolaiviertel, Berlin, Germany

Nikolaikirche, Nikolaiviertel, Berlin, Germany

French Cathedral, Berlin, Germany

French Cathedral, Berlin, Germany

French Cathedral, Berlin, Germany

French Cathedral, Berlin, Germany

The site sits at the end of the Tiergarten, close to Brandenburg Tor and the Reichstag. Its 2,711 dark grey concrete slabs are designed almost like a maze, but when you walk through them the ground undulates like a wave creating an odd sense of uncertainty. It was built to commemorate those murdered in the holocaust, and occupies an area that was once part of the ‘death strip’ of the Berlin Wall. In the quiet of the early morning, it was a sobering and emotional experience.

Such a huge and centrally located memorial is testimony to Germany’s recognition of the horrors committed in the 1930s and 1940s, but that legacy is now under attack. A leader of the far-right AfD party, Alexander Gauland, who recently caused a storm of protest by calling the Nazi era a “speck of birds shit” on German history, criticised this memorial, saying “Germans are the only people who plant a monument of shame in the capital”. Revisionist history seems to be growing in popularity everywhere in Europe.

I made my way to the famous boulevard, Unter den Linden, past Humboldt University, and across the Spree to visit the epic Pergamonmuseum. There are so many excellent museums to choose from in this small area, but the Pergamon is exceptional. It houses monumental buildings from antiquity, including the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, and the Ishtar Gate. The latter, constructed on the orders of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, is utterly magnificent. The rest of the museum is filled with a mind-boggling array of priceless artefacts.

I left the museum uplifted, and spent a hour wandering the pleasant area around the vast, domineering Berliner Dom. In the park outside people were having barbecues and musicians entertained the crowds. I headed over the river into the area of Mitte filled with good cafes and restaurants to find somewhere for lunch. I passed a memorial to a Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Nazis (here, there’s always something to remind you of that period) before finding a nice cafe close to the Sophienkirche.

Time was passing and I would have to leave early the next day, so I went back through Alexanderplatz (always an interesting place to be) to visit the oldest church in the city, the 800-year old Nikolaikirche. This iconic twin-towered church overlooks the river and is at the centre of the historic heart of Berlin, parts of  which were faithfully rebuilt after the war. It’s a bit touristy, and the restored historic buildings rub shoulders with modern concrete structures, but there are several traditional german pubs serving good food and even better beer.

I had one last place I needed to visit to complete my trip down memory lane, the Prater Beer Garden. I was introduced to this traditional beer garden by a friend when visiting Berlin for work, we had such a good time on a warm summer evening the memory of it has stayed with me. Late afternoon on a hot day, the place was packed. I joined a mixed table of Germans and Americans to enjoy a beer and giant pretzel in the sun, safe in the knowledge that I’d be returning soon.

Nikolaiviertel, Berlin, Germany

Nikolaiviertel, Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Berlin, Germany

Sophienkirche, Berlin, Germany

Sophienkirche, Berlin, Germany

Jewish cemetery memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Jewish cemetery memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Prater Beer Garden, Berlin, Germany

Prater Beer Garden, Berlin, Germany

Cold War history and the ghost of Bertolt Brecht in Berlin

I’d arrived in Berlin without a plan, at least not a coherent one. I wanted to revisit some of the places I’d been before, and to check out some neighbourhoods that had been recommended to me, but other than that I just followed my nose. I made an early start on my second morning in the city, getting the U-Bahn to the Berlin Wall Memorial and Museum in Mitte. I arrived before the museum opened, but the memorial park over the road has excellent audio and video exhibits that you can visit at any time.

There’s little left of the wall that defined the geography of Berlin from 1961 to 1989. When it was built it had little regard for communities or families, cutting across roads and rail lines, and bringing normal life in the city to a halt. Destroying the hated symbol of a divided city was a very popular thing to do. The museum and memorial park has retained a segment of the original wall, not just the concrete blocks that were targets for graffiti in the West, but also the watchtowers, searchlights and electronic detection devices collectively known as the ‘death strip’.

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

It combines this with testimonials of those the wall affected, and remembers the 136 people who died attempting to cross the wall. There’s audio of people’s stories and you can read about how the wall came to be constructed. Unsurprisingly, the local council wanted to get rid of the whole thing, but the city insisted on keeping it. The museum does an excellent job of explaining the social, political and economic causes and effects of the wall. Afterwards, you can visit a peaceful cemetery which, like so much else in Berlin, became off limits for anyone on the wrong side of the wall.

It turns out that Bertolt Brecht, the legendary playwright, theatre director and founder of the Berliner Ensemble, lived quite nearby at the Brecht House on Chausseestrase. As a Marxist playwright, Brecht was despised by the Nazis, he fled Germany fearing for his life when Hitler came to power in 1933. He ended up in the United States where, as an anti-Fascist, he was initially welcomed. A suspected communist in post-war America he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He returned to Europe in 1947, and then to live in East Berlin in 1949.

His final years, before his death in 1956, were spent at this house and, to my surprise, he is buried with his  partner, Helene Weigel, in the adjacent Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery. It’s only possible to visit the house on a guided tour, I’d arrived just in time for the final tour of the day – at midday – but I couldn’t find anyone to ask for a ticket. I hung around until a woman appeared. I was the only person for the tour that day and had a personalised visit in English. It was brilliant.

I went to the cemetery to see Brecht’s and Weigel’s grave. I picked up a leaflet about the cemetery and even I recognised several of the names in it. Passing a mausoleum that still carried bullet holes from fighting in World War Two, I spent a peaceful hour just wandering around this shady space. This is Berlin’s version of the Père Lachaise in Paris or Highgate in London. Amongst other luminaries buried here are philosopher Friedrich Hegel, author Heinrich Mann, and eight members of the 20 July 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler, that was led by Claus von Stauffenberg.

Brecht House, Chausseestrase, Berlin, Germany

Brecht House, Chausseestrase, Berlin, Germany

Brecht House, Chausseestrase, Berlin, Germany

Brecht House, Chausseestrase, Berlin, Germany

Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, Berlin, Germany

Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, Berlin, Germany

Bertolt Brecht's grave, Dorotheenstädtischer, Berlin, Germany

Bertolt Brecht’s grave, Dorotheenstädtischer, Berlin, Germany

Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, Berlin, Germany

Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, Berlin, Germany

It’s impossible to avoid history here, or to stray into the realms of cliche describing a visit to Berlin. After a morning exploring, I set off looking for lunch. Luckily, I was near the mind-bendingly trendy streets behind Oranienburger Strasse. There are more boutique restaurants, bistros and cafes here than London’s Shoreditch. I found a deli that did a superb bagel and salt beef, washed down with a craft beer recommended to me by two friendly Americans on the next table. Fully refreshed, it was time to get back on the streets.