Saturday, April 17, 2010


The low, flat landscape of the northern Netherlands imperceptibly gives way to the low, flat landscape of northern Germany. Having spent a year at school here I always feel comfortable travelling through Germany, both from my ease with the language but also from a sense of familiarity. During that year our history lessons spanned the 14th to 16th centuries. At the time Western Europe, and especially Germany, was split into many little fiefdoms and kingdoms. One of the most important, and breaking the whole feudal trend, was the Hansa, or Hanseatic League. The League was comprised of (semi-)independent trading towns around the North and Baltic Seas, stretching from Scotland and Norway all the way to Russia in the east and Belgium in the south, interested in freeing and facilitating trade. In many ways the Hansa was ahead of its time, an early forerunner of the EU, with its emphasis on the rule of law and free trade to maintain stability in what were, for the rest of Europe, tormented times. The Hansa became so powerful that it even took up arms against countries, managing to sack Copenhagen and earn a draw with England. The Hansa have stuck in my memory probably because our class managed to persuade our (very easy-going) teacher to play a computer game, called Patricians, which aims to simulate the Hanseatic trade, as part of our lessons. (Which just goes to show how useful computers are as an aid to learning.)

Lübeck's iconic Holstentor and a couple of the city's churches with their spiky spires (Lübeck is also known as the City of 7 Towers because of them).

At its height the Hansa comprised of almost 100 towns including Hamburg, Bremen, Bergen, Tallinn, Novgorod and Gdansk, but the undisputed queen amongst them all was Lübeck, situated on the strategic waterway linking the Baltic and North Seas. This made the city one of the richest in Europe. After the fall of the Hansa in the 17th and 18th centuries Lübeck stagnated as it was overtaken by its neighbour Hamburg, which is fine by me as it preserved its beautiful medieval core ... until Easter 1942 that is, when, in one night, the British took revenge for Coventry by using the city for the RAF's first firebombing practice, taking out about half the old town. Nevertheless there is still plenty left to indicate what once was, from its grandiose town hall, to its old docks and warehouses by way of numerous churches, almshouses and patricians' residences. Lübeck (as well as its Hanseatic sister-city Bremen), being situated in an alluvial plain, suffers from very much the same problem as Bangladesh in that it has no stones and everything is therefore, by necessity, made of brick. This does, however, lend a certain uniformity to the buildings: bright red bricks predominating, green copper roofs of the churches, and bands of black glazed bricks for the richer public buildings. The city is famed for its skyline which features seven, pointy, Gothic church towers, though personally I feel they're cheating somewhat as easily a third of the height of each of the towers is from the steep spires. I am, however, feeling in a forgiving mood, as I was lucky enough to take part in a tour of the ceiling vaults of the Marienkirche, which is the largest brick church in the world (and pretty high up in the overall list too). Having been inside innumerable churches on my various travels I was excited to finally get the chance to check one out from within and clamber round and explore the various hidden nooks and crannies. I was particularly impressed by the vault, which hangs almost 40m above the ground but is only 1 layer of bricks thick, and yet has been around for over 600 years and even managed to survive the Allied bombing (whereas much of the church went up in flames).

Visiting the Hansa museum in town also highlighted for me the beauty of being able to travel slowly and take my time, as it allows me to see and understand the relationships between the places I visit, like pieces of a jigsaw, each with a common motif. So far over half the towns I've been to in my first 25 days on the road are connected by their Hanseatic past and there almost a dozen more on my provisional itinerary.


Jean-Marc said...

Actually isn't St. Mary's Church (also Marienkirche) in Gdansk the largest brick church in the world? It was even modelled on the Marienkirche you have just visited. I assume Gdansk is on your itinerary? We were there last month, and the church was welcome shelter from the -18c cold and glacial winds. You should check out our CS host there, he is a passionate local historian and expert on Kashubian culture.

Safe travels, my friend.

Erik said...

I suppose it depends what is meant by "biggest". The Lübeck Marienkirche has the highest brick vault in the world. How it fares in length, breadth, number of bricks used, etc. I'm not so sure.

Have just wiki'ed Kashubians. Interesting. Needs further research.