Bremen was the last city on the trail. The smallest land in Deustchland the Free and Hanseatic city of Bremen certainly is yet it as free-thinking as Hamburg and eclectic to boot.
On a gloomy day, beset with a steady drizzle, I was dropped off at the Atlantic Grand Hotel by my husband and his colleagues after we landed in Bremen early one morning. A bit of unpacking and a cup of tea later I was out of the hotel and walking through a narrow lane adjacent to it that had all the markings of an excellent discovery. The lane that ran a 360-feet-length is called the Böttcherstrasse after coopers (böttcher) who used to live and work there. Psst: Coopers are people who make and repair casks and barrels.
I stood in that narrow alley, in between art deco and gabled, brick edifices, tightly packed in a row on either side of me, and thought to myself, “This has to be one of the most eccentric alleys in the world”. Art & craft shops, bon bon boutiques and art studios stood shoulder-to-shoulder, with curiously named houses. Böttcherstrasse 1 is the address of the Robinson-Crusoe-House. It is dedicated to Daniel Defoe’s eponymous mariner who had been marooned near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque in America, and no, he had nothing to do with Germany, let alone a tiny fairy-tale town called Bremen. Coffee baron Ludwig Roselius, who had bought the Böttcherstrasse at the start of the 20th century and funded it to be transformed into a tribute to art and culture, found in Robinson Crusoe an embodiment of the Hanseatic pioneering spirit.
Roselius, the inventor of decaffeinated coffee, was an interesting baron.
He employed Bernhard Hoetger, a German artist of the Expressionist Movement, to transform the alley. They dedicated it to Hitler by putting a bronze relief in startling gold called The Lightbringer at the entrance to it from the market that shows a man with a sword descending from the sky and attacking a dragon. Their attempt was to glorify the victory of the Führer over the powers of darkness. The irony is that Hitler rejected it as degenerate art.
My pick of the unusually named houses in the Böttcherstrasse was the House of the 7 Lazy Brothers/Haus der 7 Faulen. It was named after the city’s fable of the seven lazy brothers who preferred to solve problems by using their brains and not their brawn.
Most of these houses were destroyed in 1944 but they had new roles to play post their re-construction in the 1950s. The House of the 7 Lazy Brothers was once the advertising headquarter for Kaffee HAG (or Café HAG today is a brand of decaffeinated coffee owned by the American Kraft Foods but was started by Roselius) and the main office of the German Work Federation, Deutscher Werkbund. Now there is a tea shop, a souvenir store and a children’s clothing shop in the House of the 7 Lazy Brothers.
The Robinson-Crusoe House has a similar story to tell. It was the erstwhile presentation area for a German cocoa product, Kaba, and home to the oldest social club in Germany, Club zu Bremen. Post 1944, the stairway, adorned with the history of Robinson Crusoe in carved wooden panels, leads up to offices and apartments. Meanwhile the ground floor is fragrant with the delicious smell of coffee from a café owned by private coffee roaster, Büchlers beste Bohne (Büchler’s best bean). Bremen is after all the city of coffee and it was a befitting introductory note to it for me.
Apart from the effervescent bon bon shop that is tucked inside an archway in the alley, the House of the Glockenspiel is most alluring at certain times in the day when it chimes for 15 minutes at a stretch. I happened to be there at 6 one evening when the Meissen China Glockenspiel (a musical instrument) started chiming while a revolving panel depicted iconic seafarers and aviators acclaiming the city’s adventurous Hanseatic merchants.
People started coming together to watch and record the little spectacle. It almost had us in a state of trance. The moment the Glockenspiel stopped it was as if people came back to their senses and started dispersing almost immediately. It is a one-of-a-kind experience.
Bremen’s most famous citizens are four musicians from the Grimms Brothers’ fairy tales. A donkey, a cat, a dog and a cockerel who find their way into the fabric of the town. The town gets its epithet, ‘die Stadt der Stadtmusikanten’, or the Town of the Town Musicians, from the quartet. I found references to them everywhere. In souvenir shops, in the marktplatz (market square) which has a large bronze statue of the four, in cafés, on bags. The world had suddenly gone the donkey-cat-dog-cockerel way.
Walking tours, in my opinion, are the best way to know any city. They take you into the heart of the city and transport you into its past so effectively. My tour of Bremen, on foot, with a handful of Germans and a German tour guide turned out to be an adventure. The tour guide’s hat flew away in the midst of our tour as it turned particularly windy and she went running after it. That though was not the crucial bit. It started hailing. Yes, big fat hailstones that were merciless as they came pelleting down upon us that afternoon. Soggy and icy cold, the tour winded up at the Böttcherstrasse, when suddenly the sun shone upon that brick red alley and bathed everything in its mellow golden hues.
I found refuge that day in the Kaffeehaus Classico, without a mention of which my days in Bremen would be quite incomplete. It is one of the most classical looking coffeehouses I have had the pleasure of being seated in. First of all, it does more business than the Starbucks which sits opposite it. I knew why when I walked in. Gigantic Renaissance paintings hung on white walls and ancient pillars gave it a touch of nostalgia of all thing classic. I cannot resist anything old – the more rusted and old it looks, the more value it holds for me.
Once I had hung my drenched coat on the coat stand and sat down, I noticed that I was surrounded by coffee drinkers and cake eaters who all looked old and rich. Yet how happy every couple looked as they dug into giant pieces of decorative frosted cakes. One look at the counter, lined up with traditional German cakes (I am sure there is a reason it is positioned strategically at the entrance – how can you ever walk away?) and I was utterly confused. I settled that feeling by indulging in a takeaway of a few slices of different cakes, while for the moment, I lived it up with a berry cheesecake and a cup of coffee. If I could have, I would have carried it back home with me to Northampton. The coffeehouse.
Adjacent the bronze statue of the Four Musicians stands one of the glories of the marktplatz (marketsquare) of Bremen. The city hall and standing tall and proud directly in front of it is the statue of Roland. This tall, strapping figure is a symbol of civic liberty and freedom which is common to many cities of the former Holy Roman Empire.
Dating back to 1404, the Bremen Roland is shown as the paladin of the first Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and hero of a battle. He is quite the confrontational chap – there is a significance of him facing the church as a representation of city rights and challenging the prince-archbishop’s rights over the city. Carved in limestone he is but the protector of the city and during his watch Bremen will always be a free and independent city. Could it be true then that a second statue has been preserved in the town hall’s underground vaults to act as a substitute lest the original Roland fall?
Maybe I should have asked Marie Louise. She was a smartly turned out woman in formal attire who introduced a French foursome and me to the history of the town hall and showed us its stunning interiors. I found it rather fascinating that the mayor annually hands over the Rathaus to the youth of the city who organize all kinds of events there on that one day.
The Bremen marktplatz is riveting. Along with the Rathaus, the Four Musicians and the Roland, it has an ancient guildhaal called Schütting which remains the seat of the board of commerce, on its south eastern side is the Bürgerschaft which is the seat of Bremen’s state parliament and then the impressive Dom.
If I discovered the charms of a river walk by the Weser, the garden bars in the Schlachte area that sits on the Weser and came upon the Alte Mühle or the Old Windmill, I think I was most delighted to chance upon the Schnoor.
Imagine charming and quaint at its peak and you have the Schnoor which gets its name (meaning string) from old handicrafts associated with shipping such as ropes and wire cables and anchor chains. The maze of lanes inside the Schnoor today is lined with art galleries, chocolateries, cafés and little boutiques. Adding a piece of quirk to its medieval world atmosphere is the Birgittenkloster, a modern Bridgettine convent founded as lately as 2002, and housed in bright orange and green buildings.
It is quite difficult to lend imagination to the fact that in the 10th century, the Schnoor was the poor corner and a district of fishermen and sailors. The entrance to the Schnoor has a memorial for the victims of the “Reichskristallnacht”. The reference is grim and to the five Jewish victims who were murdered by the National Socialists in Bremen on a November night in 1938. But any sadness is swept aside once you are inside the Schnoor. Some of my happiest moments have been walking its cobble stoned pathways, peering into pretty boutiques and sitting in Café Schröter`s and gorging on brownies and macaroons.
Bremen is a small city, there is no fighting that fact, but it catches the fancy. To such lengths that I did not think about catching a train from the hauptbahnhof to anywhere else.