Celle received only a small mention in our guidebook, but it sounded interesting and it was a convenient stopover on our route north from Bavaria to Rügen. The drive itself was horrible, roadworks punctuated by torrential rain making it an endurance test. It was a relief to arrive, some hours later than expected, as the sun was sinking. Later, walking the quiet, near-empty streets, it quickly became apparent that our guidebook had seriously downplayed the charms of the town. Celle is one of the finest and best preserved timber-framed towns in Germany.
Home to over 500 half-timbered houses as well as a palace dating back to the 13th century set in picturesque parkland, Celle seems to be one of Lower Saxony’s well kept secrets. It also boasts a 17th century theatre, the oldest in Germany still in use, a number of lovely parks, including the central Französischer Garten, and the majority of the Old Town is pedestrianised. Maybe it was the post-lockdown quiet before the storm, but Celle should be inundated with visitors.
On my only other visit to Lower Saxony, I’d passed to the south of Celle and made a stop in another near-perfectly preserved half-timbered town, Wolfenbüttel. The similarities were striking, as is the fact that I knew nothing about either place before visiting. If nothing else, given the shared history, these unassuming towns should be well-known to British tourists. On a sunny day in mid-June there was little evidence of that. Lower Saxony seems to fly under the radar.
In 1378, Celle became the power base of the Dukes of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, a family that went on to play a major role in German, European and, a few centuries later, World history. In 1714, George, Duke of Brunswick–Lüneburg and Elector of Hannover, ascended to the British throne as George I. The 150-year relationship between this area and Britain ended only in 1866 when Lower Saxony was absorbed into Prussia after backing the losing side in the Austro-Prussian War.
Celle’s fortunes rose and fell with its ruling family, after 1866 it became something of a backwater. This probably saved it from major development and it became doubly lucky during the Second World War. While the nearby state capital of Hannover was reduced to rubble, the war sidestepped Celle. The town suffered one bombing raid, destroying a number of houses but without starting a fire amongst the timber houses. In 1945, the town surrendered to the Allies without a fight.
Thanks to construction works outside our hotel, we were up early to explore Celle the following day. It’s a small place and in half a day you’ll have covered most of the sights. In the cold light of day Celle felt a little down on its luck, and since it was a Monday some of the town’s attractions weren’t open, including the well-regarded Bomann Museum. We strolled the attractive streets, through the palace grounds and the French Gardens, before emerging back in the Old Town.
The highlight of the Old Town must be the main square which houses the Old Town Hall and the imposing St. Mary’s church. Cafes along the square are perfect for coffee and watching the world go by. In the medieval period, people stood in this same spot to watch jousting tournaments. Around the corner is the extraordinary Hoppener House, with ornate carvings of mythical creatures, grotesque faces and animals on its six-story facade.
We felt we’d exhausted Celle’s delights and decided it was time to head to our next destination, the equally historic Lüneburg. It was only afterwards that we discovered Celle has yet another reason for visiting: this is one of the main centres of Bauhaus architecture in Germany. In fact, the Altstädter Schule, or Glass School, is one of the most famous Bauhaus buildings in the world. It’s bizarre that our guidebook failed to mention this fact, and that the town seems to make little of this heritage.