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.
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.
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.