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.
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.
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.