Tourists visiting big cities in Germany more often than not do have an agenda set for things they will do, places they will visit and even what kind of beer they would like to try out. After living in Germany for almost four years now, I think it’s safe to say I’ve developed a slightly different outlook towards why and how often I visit a particular place as compared to others.
With my friends and university batchmates now working in different cities spread out all over Germany, I really don’t need an excuse to throw in a few spare clothes and a toothbrush into my backpack on a Friday evening and hop into a bus headed in their direction. Over the past couple of months, I have had the pleasure of spending a few of my weekends in the Hanseatic city of Bremen in the northwestern part of the Germany. There is a long history of trade, foundation, formation and commercial expansion that can help you better understand what the term ‘Hanseatic’ means. Simply put, Bremen, owing to its strategically located port on the river Weser has been for many centuries now an important trade route and economic hub.
Unlike the larger Rhine and Main rivers in Germany, the Weser doesn’t exactly have tourists pouring into the city looking to make merry in their ferries, but rather adds to the overall charm of the quiet and yet cheerful city life that Bremen’s townsfolk seem to have become quite accustomed to.
On my first visit, I understandably wanted to first see everything one would typically want to cross out of their city guide catalogue. As one of the oldest public squares in the city, the Bremen Market Square covers a large area and is probably the best place to start your sightseeing tour, simply because it immediately surrounds you with so many of its 13th Gothic style buildings, dominated of course by the Town hall’s Renaissance style façade. Two statues you don’t want to miss in the vicinity are the Roland (city’s protector) holding the “sword of justice” and his impressive shield with an imperial eagle insignia and the Town musicians or “Stadtmusikanten”. Both the Town hall and the Roland statue are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sights. There is also a very enthralling fairy tale behind how a donkey, a dog a cat and a rooster stacked on top of the other became synonymous with city’s free music culture.
Street art and music in Bremen find varied expression in both the busiest and the quieter residential parts of the city. Together with the Haus der Bürgerschaft (House of Parliament), the Bremen Cathedral flanked by its tall twin spires and more ornate looking Schüttling (Merchants guildhalls) with its gold embossed arches of various shapes and styles the market square is an exciting place to be any time of the day. An interesting fact about the Schüttling is that it was refurbished and altered many times since being first constructed and didn’t always look as opulent as it does today. The number of corniches, relief ornaments above the windows and the Bremish merchants’ motto “buten un binnen wagen un winnen” meaning “Outside and in, risk it and win” engraved above the main entrance was added much later in the late 1800s. Very eye catching is the Bremish merchants coat of arms also above the entrance flanked by two imperial eagles facing opposite directions with a golden key on a red shield positioned right in the center of the insignia. There is a lot more to see and revel in around the market square.
Visiting the Bremer Ratskeller or the wine cellar in the basement of the Townhall that offers over 650 varieties of exclusive German wine and even houses the oldest wine barrel of Germany from Rüdesheim (dated 1653) is now at the top of my wish list for the next visit.
Schnoor, Böttcherstraße and the Bürgerpark
The hidden treasures of Bremen aren’t in its basements though. Rather in the narrow cobble stoned alleys that teleport you into an entirely different looking world with its medieval character preserved and architectural marvel almost fully intact. The first time I walked into Schnoor I really couldn’t believe what I was looking at. One can always reconstruct a street or a façade to mimic a medieval-looking town, but Schnoor seems every bit that fantastic movie set based on some fantasy epic TV series set in the Middle Ages. Although I must admit we weren’t there at the best time of the day (noon), Schnoor is truly what you’d expect to see on a postcard from somewhere in Europe. A labyrinth of narrow alleys, sometimes barely wide enough to slip into with your back to the wall, Schnoor is a social haven for local residents and tourists. Coffee shops, souvenir stores, bistros and wine cellars fill up every nook and corner. What many people probably don’t realize when cozying up in this historic district that is under official heritage conservation through state authorities is that Schoor was in fact one of the poorer neighborhoods in the Hanseatic city of Bremen and developed in the 10th century as a district of fishermen. It was as late as 1959 that the city Senate decide to rebuild Schnoor, and they really done an absolutely marvelous job of it.
Like Schoor, there is more to the medieval magic of Bremen in neighbourhoods like Böttchestraße, also famous for its rather unsual expressionist style architecture that uses bricks and sandstone. Once an important link between the Weser river and the market square of Bremen, Böttcherstraße was later mired by political dejections during the Nazi regime on grounds of its unappealing artwork (Lichtbringer) and contrasting view of culture at the time. Today, it is however one of the major tourist attractions of the city and on a recent visit I thoroughly enjoyed visiting many of its arts and crafts workshops, accessories stores and even peeked into a few of its restaurants and bars, Ständige Vertretung aka. Stäv in particular, my favourite German pub franchise that serves the famous Kölsch beer from Cologne.
Warm sunny weather almost naturally draws you nearer to a handsome looking city park in full bloom, Bremen being no exception. Although the weather outside dictated the plan to visit the park that day, I must say I was in awe of the sheer size of Bremen’s Bürgerpark when we looked it up on google maps for directions. It is a colossal area of green with a mix of forest, lakes, jogging and cycling tracks and even a small zoo with some very well-fed farm animals causing a sensation among little kids visiting with their families. Under ideal weather conditions it’s easily the kind of place you can spend an entire afternoon with a picnic basket laid out on the grass, and one of prettiest coffee shops called “emma am see” perched on the lake in the center of the park. Great place to grab a quick cup of hot chocolate, a soup or some delicious pastries and dessert with friends. This is probably the best time of the year (June) to visit the park with the sun shining bright on the lake outside and lush green lawns flanking its exterior vistas.
What is Bremen without its imposing promenade along the east bank of its river famously called Schlachte by local town folk. Once an important city harbour, Schlachte today is more of a fun and recreational setting for couples enjoying a fine brew along its attractive riverside setting, families and groups of friends catching up over a hearty meal at one of its many restaurants and steak houses or in our case just two friends looking to reminisce over their university days over some frothy Franziskaner Royal Weissbier aboard a medieval ship docked at the edge of the river. The Paulaner Wirsthaus (Tavern) an der Schlachte is highly recommended by local residents.
There is still so much I haven’t yet seen in this small, yet historic town. I really am looking forward to visiting Bremerhaven, which is a newer city compared to commercial and industrial district and is currently the most important port in Germany. Also on my wish list is the University of Bremen, well reputed for its educational programs in the field of culture, music, art, media, literature and systems engineering. The natural history, art and harbour museums and the Valentin submarine pens (shipyard) are definitely on the cards. I look forward to sharing more of my wonderful experiences in the next chapter of my Bremen weekend diaries.