The train to Lübeck transported me to the land of marionettes and marzipan. I took off to the city on the river Trave on a cloudy, grey day in February from Hamburg’s busy Hauptbahnof. But the overwhelming dullness of that cold morning could not dampen my sense of anticipation once I had laid my eyes on the Holstentor. Before that though I did behold naked Mercury’s bums as I approached the city from Puppenbrücke – the Bridge of Statues. A statue which inspired a 19th century German poet to write a ditty: “On Lübeck’s bridge is standing/ The god Mercury proud and fine/ In every part, toned muscles form/ A statue Olympian/ In god-like contemplation/ To clothes he won’t succumb/ So to all those people passing/ He bares his naked bum.”
The 15th-century gate to the city – its main one – the Holstentor stands out spectacularly with its robust rust towers and steely grey turrets. I had spied an acronym, SPQL, on the facade of this brick Gothic gate. It is said to be a nod to the Roman acronym SPQR which means Senatus Populus Que Romanus (the Senate and People of Rome in English). It also has the years 1477 and 1871 inscribed upon it. The first was the supposed date of its construction and the second the date of the gate’s restoration and the founding of the German Reich. On the opposite side facing the Puppenbrücke and train station is the inscription “Concordia Domi Foris Pax” (translated which means ‘harmony within, peace without’). I could quite picture the windows as tools of defence – pitch or boiling water being used to douse invaders to rich and wealthy Lübeck.
Alongside the Holstentor the gabled brick fronts of the Salzspeicher (salt warehouses) line up along the Upper Trave and look as pretty as a picture. They date back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
To hark back to its days of glory, Lübeck was deemed The ‘Queen of the Hansa’. As capital of the Hanseatic League, it reigned supreme over Northern Europe shipping routes between 1230 and 1535.
The city refused to allow Hitler to campaign there in 1932 and he loathed Lübeck, punishing it five years later by ending its 700 years of independence and making it a part of Hamburg.
Charting Lübeck’s cobble-stoned lanes and alleys with the perfect gabled houses and churches, it is difficult to grasp the fact that the city was badly bombed in an RAF raid in 1942 due to the significance of the port to Hitler’s war effort. Yet careful restoration to its medieval mercantile past got it the Unesco World Heritage Site status in 1987.
My favourite memory in Lübeck was made up of puppets and courtyards. I spent time leisurely in the Theaterfigurenmuseum, the museum of puppets, where almost 1200 marionettes from around the world have been put together by its owner and his Indian wife. Needless to say, Indian marionettes find pride of place in the much-feted collection. Finding the museum was itself a reward as I peered down the narrowest of cobble-stoned alleys and spied a row of brick buildings winding down it. Note: The museum boasts of Kolk 16, the narrowest house in Lübeck, which indeed resembles a passage.
I had to force myself out of the museum because I had to see what the rest of the city was like. The promise of romance it held for me was too tempting.
The turquoise spire of the Petrikirche (Church of St. Peter) dominates this part of the Alstadt. The Gothic church retains its magnificence despite being damaged extensively by the air raids during 1942 and as I charted the cobble-stoned alleys to the walk along the river, I could always see the spire. Then there are those sagging gables of houses that suddenly come up in the alleys, looking absolutely nutty as they lean at various angles. But then those are the quirks of a place that lodge themselves firmly in the memory.
I had a map of the city at hand but I am woeful at reading maps. I usually amble aimlessly and discover things along the way. Yet the map has to be there. You never know when you might have to fall back upon it.
This is how I came upon the Rathaus which marks the celebration of Lübeck’s status as a Free City of the Roman Empire in 1226. It is one of the most significant town halls in Germany and one of the oldest. The Brick Gothic structure of it built in the late Romanesque style is a little at odds with the whiteness of the Renaissance arbour that pops up on its façade.
Now, Lübeck is to marzipan what Dijon is to mustard. Right opposite the Rathaus is the Niederegger Café which has a Marzipan Salon. The story goes that sugary marzipan came out accidentally, when a local baker played with the four ingredients of sugar, almonds, eggs and rose water, during a siege.
I remember how blue with cold I was by the time I had crossed the Rathaus. I was desperate to sit and grab a bite, and more importantly, get some warmth into my frozen bones. I finally entered a small café in which I had a croissant stuffed with ham and enormous quantities of cheese. After my cheese and cappuccino fix, I was out again on the alleys and this time I was rewarded by the sight of the Marienkirche, behind the Rathaus. It is said to be one of the finest churches in northern Germany and I was certainly in awe of its grandeur. When it was built during the 13th and 14th centuries by the merchant elite, they clearly proved a point. Their independence from the Church had been guaranteed by the Saxon town founder, Henry the Lion, and so it stands that the spires of Marienkirche dominate those of the bishop’s Dom to the south.
Recently I finished a book that was inspired by that one day of exploring Lübeck. Buddenbrookhaus by Thomas Mann. I had seen the Buddenbrookhaus on Mengstraße 4 and its beautiful white Baroque façade had me curious. The plaque on it read that it was home to Mann’s grandparents. As I read the story of the declining merchant family, the Buddenbrooks, it became effortless to visualize it because roaming the streets around it lent the imagination more credence.
Lübeck is extremely proud of its three Nobel Prize winner residents: Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Willy Brandt (1913-1992) and Günter Grass (1927-2015). All three lived in the beautiful city though Grass was born in Danzig and moved to Lübeck at the age of 68, because he wanted to be ‘closer’ to Mann and Brandt. Their houses have been transformed into literature museums and exhibition and research centers.
Before I took the alley that was marked Glockengießerstraße/Glockengiesserstrasse – I was gung-ho about this one and you will soon see why – I had a fleeting look at the Katharinenkirche (Church of St. Katharine), built as a Franciscan monastery in the 13th century but famous for Tintoretto’s The Resurrection of Lazarus that is housed inside. It was apparently picked up as a souvenir by a merchant from Venice.
The romance I was talking about earlier with reference to Lübeck lay in its gänges (walkways) and höfs (courtyards) on Glockengießerstraße. These buildings have the tiniest plaques stating their existence and they are quite unobstrusive. The woman behind the till at the Theaterfigurenmuseum had warned me to keep my eyes peeled for them and that is how I was thrilled when I located Glandorps Gang and Füchtingshof. In the old days, merchants built these courtyards to house the poor and widows and at their back were tiny booths called Buden for artisans and labourers.
Glandorps Gang is the legacy left behind by Anna, the wife of a rich merchant, Johann Glandorp, in 1625. Johann had built a hof in 1603 for widows to stay in. It was supposed to have achieved him salvation after death. When he died in 1612, his widow carried on the charitable idea and that is how the second residential courtyard called Glandorps Gang (Glandorp’s Passageway) came about. I had to indulge in Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ when I stood in front of those picturesque 17th century homes and imagined them to be poorhouses. Since people live there today in those beautiful crème coloured houses with windows painted in deep bottle green hues, I had to be extremely careful not to go clackety clack with my heels. And, that my friend, is quite a feat on cobbled stones.
The other charming building secreted behind the street fronts was that of the Füchtingshof. Painted a pastel pink, it dates back to 1639, when it was built to provide housing to widows of seafarers who were lost to the sea. Johann Füchting, the rich merchant who was the owner, apparently kept an eye on the courtyard from his rooms that were located above it.
These courtyards, almost like quite sentinels of the past, house my favourite memories of the city. Though it has to be mentioned that apart from being charitable, the landlords were wily things who built them to utilise spaces between the houses. From the 190-odd passageways of yore, now only 90 remain.
I stood for a while on the street that read Langer Lohberg 1, as I tried to figure out from the map where I should head next. Suddenly I heard a kind voice say a few German words to me. I looked up to find a tall, fashionable old lady dressed in a long, luxurious trench coat and a velvet hat smiling at me. Once I had tried out my favourite line on her that went thus “Sprechen zie Englisch?” (Do you speak English?), she started speaking in English and pointed out where I was and which areas I should explore. She was a chatty old lady, curious to know where I was from and if I wanted more help.
Sometimes, a kind word or a smile from a stranger means the world to me. A beatific smile always dawns on me at such moments.
My last couple of hours there was spent strolling around Germany’s oldest hospital (c.1260), the Heiligen-Geist-Hospital. It is a former pensioners’ home too where till 1970, men pensioners lived in tiny cabins at the back of the hospital. Right across it stood the Jakobikirche/St Jacob’s Church, a far less flashy church than the rest out there whose congregation consisted originally of fishermen and sailors. It seemed fitting to see the Haus der Schiffergesellschaft (House of the Seamen’s Guildhall) opposite the church that was bought by the Shipper’s Guild in 1535. Members’ widows still benefit from the lease money earned through the restaurant inside the Haus der Schiffergesellschaft.
Dusk fell as I made my way back to the railway station to head back to Hamburg and I was left with the overwhelming feeling I had when I had visited Bruges. The feeling that I had left behind me yet another city of fairytale beauty.
(Versions of this story were published in The Telegraph and Shubh Yatra)