Monday, 22 April 2013

Of marzipan and vampires

Holstentor, Lübeck.
Saturday didn’t so much dawn as emerge, slowly and reluctantly, as the train headed north. We had crossed into Germany at Metz, some hours earlier.

But it was still very much dark by the time my fellow passenger quietly and carefully readied herself and left.

I tried to sleep a little longer, but it was no good. Having the cabin to myself, I lifted the blind and sat next to the window, as we passed a mixture of wide open and wooded terrain, through Hannover, and then beyond.

There was so much space; so many trees; so much sky. Give it a week or so of improved weather and Beethoven's Pastoral will make the perfect soundtrack.

The train had been comfortable – a proper duvet and pillow for sleeping, and a shower just a door along. Then we were served a boxed Frühstück for breaking the overnight fast.

A carton of sweetened fruit juice, a small packet of volkornbrot, some spreadable cheese and a muffin, plus coffee – hardly the best example of German cuisine, but welcome nonetheless, as I watched the countryside roll past.

Hamburg was waiting. I worked out the tickets and the platform and waited, but not for long.

The final leg of the journey took around 40 minutes. I was out of my seat and bending to see through the windows as we approached Lübeck. There on the horizon were the seven spires – I knew already to which vast Gothic churches some of them belonged.

Otto von Bismarck.
Out of the station and into a gloomy day. A taxi would have done the job quicker, but I was determined to make my entry to the Altstadt on foot, past a statue of Otto von Bismarck, over the Puppenbrüke bridge and on through the 15th century Holstentor – such a German icon that it used to feature on the 50 mark note.

It was always going to be this way, but dragging a case through puddles, up steps and over cobbles wasn’t easy.

I wonder whether the group of elderly tourists looking at this leaning, imposing building, who cast a glance, mused to themselves: ‘ah, such eccentric behaviour can only be a sign of someone from perfidious Albion’?

Lübeck was The Queen of the Hanseatic League, the medieval trading and defence organisation of guilds and towns, which operated thoughout northern Europe and beyond from the 13th century. Although often considered primarily as a German creation, it had significant links in many non-German towns and cities, including Bruges.

The one remaining Hanseatic building in the UK is in King's Lynn, where it is now the registry office. Unfortunately – and yet one more reason why I want to improve my German – this fascinating subject finds little information in English.

The city was independent for 711 years – until Hitler gave it to Hamburg in 1937, in revenge for its having refused to let him campaign there in '32.

Once into the old city, it was an easy passage to my hotel. Check-in was 3pm – hours away – but they happily let me store my case, so I could set off straight away on my exploration.

First stop – Buddenbrookhaus. Over the years, we have managed to forget, so often, to check opening times, and then found ourselves missing something, so on this trip I was prioritising madly.

The home of Heinrich and Thomas Mann’s grandparents, it was immortalised in Buddenbrooks, Thomas’s precocious 1901 debut novel. Deceptively straightforward and light, the book is far more than a story of one Hanseatic family’s gradual decline.

Apart from anything else, it is about the onset of modernity; the hardening of business attitudes and the development of individual sensibilities are just two aspects of the changing times that Mann marked. Like so much of his work, it is partially autobiographical.

And here I was – treading ground that Mann himself had trod and seeing, despite damage in WWII, plenty of buildings that he would have been familiar with.

The original building was bombed in the Easter 1942 RAF raid: the cellar and the impressive frontage alone remain.

Inside are extensive displays about the Mann family. There was also a temporary exhibition about other Lübeckers who were exiled during the Nazi years.

Marienkirche. The lower Death Dance Chapel window.
However much I would love to avoid that subject when I come to Germany, it is not entirely possible. But the key (for me at least) is not seeing all German history and culture through the prism of 12 years.

The British obsession with the years of National Socialism – and the WWII years in particular – to the exception of so much else is, I think, both increasingly negative and self-indulgent.

That in doing so we ignore the massive achievements and influence of German culture, and that it contributes to a widespread, isolationist belief that ‘we’ are somehow not European, are two, inter-linked aspects of a sort of wilful blindness brought on by a surfeit of anti-intellectual masturbation.

Anyway, back to the Manns.

It was an odd visit: I possibly expected too much. But the recreation of two rooms as two of those described in the novel seem to distance it from fact.

I bought a lovely, facsimile hardback edition of the novel – given the issues over translations into English of all Thomas’s novels, and the dearth of translations of most of Heinrich’s work (including the Lübeck-set story, Professor Unrat, which became the film, Der blaue Engel), it was another must-do-better language reminder.

Marienkirche, vault.
Next, the Marienkirche. Oh my. I do not, generally, rhapsodise about much to do with religion, but this really does take the breath away.

Begun in 1250, it's right next to the Rathaus (city hall) and was intended as a bit of a snub to the similarly double-spired cathedral a short way away. Its vast vaulting reaches 38.5 metres and it has become known as the ‘mother of Gothic brick churches’.

Here’s a touch of heresy: for it’s lightness alone, it is better than Notre Dame. I gazed upward in awe.

And then there are the bells. Two of them, shattered at the base of the south tower, lying where they fell in those bombing raids.

It’s all well and good being able to say that one’s country was in the right – explanations in the church itself compare the damage to that which the Luftwaffe exacted on Coventry Cathedral; in effect suggesting that it was like for like – but it is a striking reminder of the divisive insanity of politics by war, certainly in the modern era.

The bombing raids had a rather more positive effect on the church, though, as the fires licked away the plaster that had covered the paintwork from the Middle Ages.

Marienkirche, bells.
On a lighter note, the famous organist and composer Dieterich Buxtenhude (c1637-1707) held post at the church in his late career – and it was to the Marienkirche that JS Bach walked some 400km to hear the master play, while Handel also visited.

Buxtenhude's organ, the Totentanzorgel (Dance Macabre organ), probably played by Bach, was destroyed, along with the 1701 reproduction of an accompanying artwork by Bernt Notke.

But time doesn't have to stand still even in a building such as this, and the stained glass windows where it was housed were created in 1955-56 Alfred Mahlau.

By this time, I was starving. And having wandered out of the Marienkirche and around the corner into the marketplace that is bordered on two sides by the church and the medieval Rathaus (begun in 1226 and with add-ons over the centuries), I spotted that the Ratskeller was open for business.

A ratskeller is a remarkable German institution – a restaurant in the basement of a town hall. And in this case, as in so many, serving traditional German food.

Rathaus. Ratskeller entrance under Baroque arches to left.
I ordered a pork schnitzel with roast potatoes. It was huge! In local style, it came with a sauce/dressing of local shrimps, onions and button mushrooms, in a tangy, creamy sauce.

Now German cuisine may not be regarded as highly as some others, but food like this would very much please the likes of Odin and Thor. It is hearty and simple – and relies on good ingredients, used well.

I had a beer on the side. There is no such thing as a Lübeck beer – the city has the oldest wine merchant in Germany but no brewery of its own – so I had a Holsten. It was a very different taste and I’m not sure it entirely suited me, but it is always worth trying the most local brew – or food. The schnitzel was superb.

A very large pork schnitzel.
My waiter gave me an extra bowl of the onion, shrimp and mushroom mix. Perhaps it actually looked as though I was starving. Or perhaps Germans are feeders ...

And of course, there was the sheer pleasure of sitting in somewhere that, were it not still still in normal use, would be a museum.

Here, just a stone's throw from Buddenbrookhaus, in this very small part of this small city, was another key to “the house on Mengstraße”, as Mann often describes it in the novel.

The Marienkirche and the Rathaus were built close together, where they were, for reasons of local politics. It's no coincidence that Mengstraße is where the best merchant’s houses were.

Marzipan 'last supper'.
And Buddenbrookhaus, with its incredible Baroque frontage, is almost as near to both as it’s possible to be on that street.

It was from such a height that Mann charted the family’s fall – almost as high as possible.

After lunch, I headed to the Niederegger marzipan shop, café and museum, which is opposite the Rathaus.

There are various stories about how marzipan was created – from one of those fortunate kitchen accidents to the ingredients being all that was left during a siege, but the truth is that the only things that we really know is that merchants brought back almonds to the city and somehow marzipan was created there, making Lübeck became the world’s marzipan capital.

Marzipan 'apple'.
So even if, at Christmas, you eat a Dresden stollen, it’s entirely possible that the marzipan will have come from Lübeck.

It’s stretching things rather to call the exhibition area a ‘museum’ – there are a series of boards that tell the story of marzipan, placing particular emphasis on the role of the Niederegger clan.

And then there’s a huge exhibit – a sort of marzipan last supper – with one of the old Niedereggers at the heart of it.

The opportunity to watch a young woman working on various marzipan creations is more interesting, as are the small number of examples of superbly-crafted marzipan ‘fruit’.

The memorial to Thomas Mann.
Later, rather knackered, I headed back to my hotel, and discovered that, in effect, at the top of the road that I was staying on, there was a small memorial marking where the Mann brothers had been born on the street that crossed it.

As I walked down the street, it was past the theatre where both Heinrich and Thomas had first witnessed live performances and, in Thomas’s case, first seen anything by Wagner, which was a seminal moment for him.

I thought back to Buddenbrooks, and the Christmas scene where Hanno gets his toy theatre, all set for the final act of Mozart’s Idomeneo, and like some sort of clearing mist, I started seeing, as never before, the links between this city state, the Manns and the literature that those remarkable sons of Lübeck produced.

After a rest, more walking. This time, starting with the Salzspeicher – six brick salt warehouses next to the Holstentor alongside the river Trave, which were built in the 16th to 18th centuries.

The Salzspeicher. Orlok appears in the one on the left.
Not ony are they fascinating to see in their own right, but they were used by Expressionist director FW Murnau as one of the residences of Count Orlok (Dracula) in Nosferatuhis 1922 film version of Bram Stoker’s novel.

The names and title were changed because it was unauthorised, but Stoker’s widow still won a copyright infringement case and the court ordered all copies of the film burned.

Fortunately for posterity – and us – at least one copy had already been sent abroad for distribution and thus the film survives to this day.

The wandering continued, with a brief look at the outside of Schiffergesellschaft, the city’s 1535 eatery (of which much more tomorrow), the 1335 Jacobikirche opposite and the nearby Heiligen-Geist-Hospital (Hospital of the Holy Spirit) from 1260.

And yet for all this, the place does not feel like a lifeless monument to the past. It is a university town and areas of the Altstadt play host to student housing and bars.

But for Saturday at least, I was done in – and a stationary bed called, in a blissfully quiet room, where the only sounds I could hear were the birds and the Marienkirche bells, its spires just visible over the rooftops on the opposite side of the tiny quadrangle that my window looked out on.

* A note for clarity: all photographs were taken on this trip, by me, but not necessarily on the day described – I've used the best shots I ended up with, where such a thing exists.


  1. Totally fascinated by the Hanseatic League. Going to find out more about it. Amazing how long Europe-wide trade agreements/alliances have been going on.

    1. It is fascinating, isn't it. Unfortunately, there's very little available in English. There's not even much in a general history of Germany that I have.

      The best source at present is Wikipedia, and the links within its main entry on the League itself. It's one of the reasons I mean to really work at vastly improving my German.

      Glad you enjoyed it - and thanks for commenting.