Occasionally history provides a symmetry that borders on irony. Thanks to that powerful confederation of mainly German cities that dominated trade in Northern Europe, the Hanseatic League, the Swedish capital of Stockholm became a powerful and wealthy trading city. Indeed, Sweden only gained independence from Denmark in 1524 with the military help of the Hanseatic city of Lübeck. Yet, only when Sweden threw off the shackles of the Hanseatic League, did it become a European power in its own right.
Fast forward just over a century to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, and the former leading Hanseatic cities of Stralsund and Wismar, as well as a huge swathe of what is today northern Germany, would be ceded to the Swedish Empire at the end of the Thirty Years’ War. Sweden’s rise to power was the death-knell of the Hanseatic League. This region remained physically under Swedish control for over 150 years – and legally Sweden retained a claim on the region until 1903.
Wismar became the capital of Sweden’s German possessions and was turned into one of Europe’s largest fortresses to protect Swedish interests. Little remains of those massive fortifications today, but there’s no denying the continued Swedish influence when you look at the architecture of the city. Not to mention the numerous Swedish flags you see dotted around the historic centre – do the inhabitants of Wismar secretly want to be Swedish?
It took until 1803 to ‘liberate’ Wismar from the Swedes, and only because the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin paid a hefty price for it. Even then, Sweden retained a right to reclaim Wismar for the next 100 years. Today, Wismar is a town with a dual identity: definitely German (food, language), but with a lingering nod to its century and a half of Swedish control (architecture). It’s certainly a town unafraid to trade on its Swedish past for tourism. Strangely, we didn’t meet any Swedes when we were there.
It’s as much for this Swedish legacy with its colourful gabled merchants houses, as it is for its Hanseatic history typified by the gloriously intricate red brick Gothic buildings, that Wismar was recognised as an UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002. This heady mix of history makes strolling its picturesque centre a real pleasure. It may attract plenty of tourists, but Wismar feels calm and relaxed by comparison with other historic towns with World Heritage status.
Regardless of who controlled it, Wismar’s history revolves around its harbour, which was deep enough to allow large ships to dock. Stand on the old docks or, in our case, take a seat at the Kai Barcafé on the water’s edge and you get the perspective of a ships crew returning to Wismar. The town’s massive church towers were important landmarks for fishing boats returning from the Baltic with their catch.
We left the harbour, busy on a summer weekend, and headed towards one of those towers, belonging to the Church of St. Nicholas. This must be one of the most impressive buildings in northern germany, a vast red brick Gothic statement with an intricate brick facade that was built for sailors between the 14th and 15th centuries. The interior is quite plain, although the painted wall by the entrance reminded me of Sirius Black’s family tree in the Harry Potter films.
The church sits next to one of the oldest artificial waterways in Germany, the Frischen Grube, which is crossed by a bridge decorated with pig sculptures, the Schweinsbrücke. The sculptures are new but the bridge’s name probably dates back to a time when it was used for getting pigs to market.We wandered around taking in the lovely cobbled streets before finding ourselves back in the Market Place – Wismar is not large despite its long and storied history.
It was our final day in this charming place and we decided to eat on the square at the fittingly named Alter Schwede restaurant, with its ‘Swedish Head’ sculpture. Fitting but inaccurate. The building dates from the 14th century, way before the Swedes got here. The origins of the name are shrouded in mystery, much like why Wismar isn’t far better known and more visited? Not that I’m complaining.