Wismar is a beautiful, ancient city with a history dating back to the early 13th century. Exports of beer and herring created the vast wealth of this once powerful Hanseatic trading centre on the Baltic Sea – wealth still visible today in the gabled merchants houses, massives churches and a vast market place. It not only shares a common history with the equally historic Stralsund a bit further along the Baltic coast, but also an UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
Wismar and Stralsund were both successful Hanseatic cities and were a rich prize for potential conquerors. They regularly changed hands between German, Danish and Polish control until, in 1648, both became Swedish cities after this region was annexed following the Thirty Years’ War. Swedish control lasted for over 150 years and its influence is still evident in Wismar’s architecture, including numerous baroque buildings.
Both towns are rich in Gothic buildings, including six Gothic churches, but only Wismar can lay claim as the setting – as the fictional town of Wisborg – for one of German cinema’s Gothic horror classics, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. It was into Wismar harbour that a silent, deathly ship transported the vampire, Count Orlok (actor Max Schreck) and brought a deadly plague in its wake. The town’s medieval Wassertor, through which Orlok carries his own coffin, has a plaque commemorating the film.
Released in 1922, Nosferatu is legendary for its groundbreaking filming techniques and has had a cult following almost from the moment it was released. I was surprised by how little the town exploits its association with this epic piece of early German cinema. It was a hot summer weekend when we visited. There were plenty of tourists milling around the town, ice cream and fried fish seemed more popular than vampire hunting.
The film begins with a sweeping panorama over the town’s impressive medieval marketplace with its iconic 16th century water fountain, the Wasserkunst. That’s where we began our explorations of this atmospheric town. The square is surrounded by glorious gabled buildings, including the Alter Schwede building with its ‘Swedish head’ complete with handlebar mustache. There are other ‘heads’ by the harbour and they’ve become a symbol of the city.
Behind the market square rises the imposing tower of the Marienkirche. The tower is a bit of a red herring. When we reached it down a cobbled street, we discovered that it was the only part of this 13th century Gothic red brick church to have survived the Second World War and the East German Communist authorities. It’s an imposing and poignant sight, and home to some interesting sculptures. We meandered around until we found our way to the 14th century Church of St. Nikolai.
St. Nikolai’s is the epitome of massive Gothic, set in a picturesque square alongside the Grube, an ancient artificial waterway. It gives a hint of what was lost when two other medieval churches were obliterated by Second World War bombing. Follow the Grube downhill and it will bring you to the harbour, but not before flowing underneath the timber-framed Gewölbe, a former customs house. It was approaching lunch and we had only one location in mind.
Medieval Wismar’s wealth was founded on herring and beer. The latter was famed throughout the Baltic region and was even exported to distant shores, including India. At one time, the town’s 150 hops gardens supported 183 breweries, and thankfully that traditional is still alive. We settled down for lunch at the 15th century Brahaus am Lohberg and sampled their traditional Baltic beers, brewed on site to an ancient recipe that has been protected by Germany’s Purity Law since 1516.
Nothing could be more Hanseatic than that.