Lüneburg’s medieval alstadt is the definition of picturesque. It feels prosperous and vibrant, wearing its ancient stepped-gable buildings and cobbled streets with pride. A university gives extra life to a place that might otherwise be little more than a living museum. The town is definitely on the beaten track as a convenient day trip from Hamburg, but on a sunny mid-week day in June it was uncrowded and relaxed. It survived the Second World War without damage, and we found ourselves planning to return for a night or two even before we’d left.
Lüneburg’s prosperity can be traced to a single commodity: salt. Over a thousand years ago salt was being mined by monks, but it was only in the 14th century when the town threw off the feudal shackles of the Dukes of Braunschweig-Lüneburg – who relocated to Celle where we’d spent the previous night – and joined the Hanseatic League that things really began to take off. Salt was known as ‘white gold’ in medieval Europe and was a critical ingredient in the pickling of Baltic herring. Lüneburg grew wealthy and powerful as a result.
By the 16th century, Lüneburg was the largest producer of salt in Europe, and that history is visible in more than just the wealth of beautiful town houses, imposing churches and municipal buildings. It’s also why most of them twist, turn and buckle. The mine runs underneath the town’s streets and subsidence has taken its toll over the centuries. It’s not unusual to see a building that sags in the middle or leans precariously.
Salt built the wealth of Lüneburg, but to retain its importance it was dependent on its monopoly within the Hanseatic League. The collapse of Hanseatic power in the early 17th century, coupled with outside competition, ended Lüneburg’s salt monopoly and the town slowly declined, eventually becoming a sleepy backwater. This was fortunate for modern visitors, the wars that raged across Europe over the next few centuries largely bypassed the town.
Salt production continued up to the 1980s, and is still used today in spa treatments, but it would never reclaim the pre-eminent economic role of previous centuries. By the time the family of famed German poet, Heinrich Heine, came to live here in the 1820s the town had fewer inhabitants than in the 1520s. The 26 year old poet, who was living in cosmopolitan Berlin, recalled Lüneburg as the “Residence of Boredom”.
Lüneburg played a minor role at the end of the Second World War, it was here that the German Army in Northwest Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark surrendered to British and Canadian forces. More notoriously, it was while in British custody in Lüneburg that Heinrich Himmler, one of the most powerful Nazi leaders and the chief architect of the Holocaust, committed suicide by cyanide poisoning. Strangely, the tourist board make less of this chapter in the town’s history.
We stopped in Lüneburg to break our journey on the way from Celle to Stralsund, it only gave us a few hours to explore but the old town is quite small and easily walkable in half a day. In the glorious elongated square of Am Sande, we sat under the tower of St. Johanniskirche surrounded by 13th and 14th century town houses and indulged in one of Germany’s weirdest foodstuffs – spaghetti ice cream.
Fuelled by ice cream, we strolled Lüneburg’s atmospheric streets. The collapse of the salt trade put Lüneburg into a state of hibernation for a couple of centuries, and the old town has avoided intrusive development. It really is a special place, and made all the more enjoyable by the fact that much of the town is pedestrianised. It has a similar story to that of Bruges, in Belgium, which also fell into decline after a period of fantastic wealth. The difference is, Lüneburg feels relatively undiscovered.