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.
6 thoughts on “Lüneburg, White Gold in the Residence of Boredom”
Thank you for the discovery. Hope all is well? 🙏🏻
You’ve brought so much to this post — great information about the salt trade and the events of WWII here. But your pictures help me visualize this town so well. I love the roofs, arched windows, brick buildings, alleyways, etc. It may be a boring place to you, but it would be one that I would love to visit. Thanks for a great post.
We loved Luneburg, we’ll definitely go back for a few days at some point, it seemed like it had a lot to offer. That region of Germany is fascinating, mainly because of the Hanseatic history in so many places.
And there you go, telling people about it! Still, as long as people don’t tend to think of Germany as a holiday destination, the more people like me can have it to ourselves… Though there was an almost 2-minute long advert by the German tourist board on Youtube last night ahead of a theatre production we were planning to watch. They asked us what we were waiting for; unfortunately, at the moment, the answer is travel insurance that won’t fail to pay out if there’s a fresh lockdown at home or at our destination. Right now they’re all refusing cover for Covid-19 related cancellations. I so want to be in Germany right now!
I know, I feel bad. Still, I don’t know why more people (especially Brits) don’t see Germany as a holiday destination. Apart from anything else, the sheer variety of landscapes offers something for everyone. I like the idea that we might see an influx of theatre-going tourists! I suppose insurers are never going to gamble on something like Covid, but it’s a shame because the weather has been good so far this summer.
On the bright side we’re kicking off four-six months of building work next Monday so we need to be here for most of that anyway. Next year, Brexit permitting.