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Germany's Belle of the Baltic

The Hanseatic city of Lubeck, once a European trade giant, proudly retains its medieval beauty

August 18, 1996|LISA MARLOWE | Marlowe is a Malibu-based freelance writer who travels frequently to Germany

LUBECK, Germany — After many trips through the most popular tourist regions of the south--Bavaria, the Black Forest, Heidelberg and the Castle Road--my husband and I wanted to see the Germany where Germans like to go. So we turned to a German friend for counsel.

"Go north," he advised. "Go to Lubeck. It's only an hour's drive from Hamburg. Americans still haven't discovered the northern Hanse cities, which don't have much of that modern touch. They seem to belong to another Germany."

I became more intrigued when he mentioned that Lubeck is the place where novelist Thomas Mann was born. But when our friend added that the city is also the self-proclaimed world capital of marzipan, my husband snapped to attention.

"Marzipan?" he said wistfully. "I haven't had any decent marzipan since Salzburg in '82. Where's the map?"

After looking at one, we discovered why there's a German saying that "all roads lead to Lubeck." Not only does Autobahn 1 lead to this Baltic port city (and thus to the entire European network of highways), but so does the Old Salt Road, an ancient route that winds past secluded villages and verdant farmland. The road's name refers to the salt mined for centuries in Luneburg and transported to Lubeck for shipping.

The entire 700-mile Baltic coast, near which Lubeck is situated, was once West Germany's easternmost outpost on its border with East Germany. The area was mostly forgotten by outsiders after the iron curtain fell just beyond Lubeck's city limits after World War II. (The watchtowers of the former German Democratic Republic were just two miles away.)

Located on an oval-shaped island in the Trave River, off the Baltic's Mecklenburger Bay, Lubeck's roots lie with the Hanseatic League, which began in the 1100s and dominated northern European maritime trade for centuries. (A hanse was a medieval company of merchants that traded with foreign lands.) By the late 12th century, these firms and "free" merchant cities (which paid no taxes to ruling powers) had united to protect their lucrative trade monopolies.

At the height of its power in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Hanseatic League was made up of about 150 northern cities and even had its own navy. Lubeck was the league's capital, minting its own currency, even executing its own foreign policies.

But after Columbus' discovery of the New World, the league's status would eventually diminish as competition from other powerful nations such as England and Spain began to sap its power. The Hanseatic League's last meeting was held in Lubeck in 1669, but because it was never officially dissolved, the northern cities of Lubeck, Bremen, Hamburg, Rostock and Wismar are still referred to as Hanseatic.

The area became a Prussian province after Bismarck's defeat of Denmark in 1867 and chose to remain part of Germany at the end of World War I. But it has retained close ties with the Danes, and Lubeck connects by ferry to Denmark, Sweden and Norway, which explains why so many tourists here are Scandinavian. (Last year only 8% of American visitors to Germany ventured to the northern cities, with the exception of Berlin.)

We discovered what everyone has been missing. Dubbed the Venice of the North because of its many intersecting canals, the city is dominated by Gothic red-brick towers and the massive Holstentor, the most important of the town's two city gates. It looks like the entrance to Oz.

"Lubeck," wrote Mann, "is melodies transformed into stone." Undoubtedly one of the prettiest of German towns, this seafaring city of about 250,000 people is far removed from the cliche castle-filled Germany many foreigners expect.

Its heritage can be traced by exploring the well-preserved buildings that line crooked alleyways and cobblestoned streets. The locals' well-deserved reputation as preservationists does not go unnoticed: Lubeck has more than 1,000 ancient buildings and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. The town council recently spent $50 million just to restore the Stadt, Lubeck's landmark theater that reopened this spring.

This adds up to a town that appears very much as it has for centuries. The view from atop 13th century St. Peter's church shows Lubeck divided into two very differing quarters. On one side is the Gruben section, with its chic mansions, where Thomas Mann was born and grew up; on the other is the less-prosperous but fascinating East Side, which was home to artisans, craftsmen and seafarers. Here, winding streets lighted with old gas lamps still bear their original, delightfully descriptive names: Spinning-Wheel-Makers Alley (Spinnradmachergang), Bell-Founder Street (Glockengiesserstrasse), Bakers' Alley (Backergang), and narrow, half-timbered dwellings open onto peaceful, flower-filled courtyards. Old sea captains' houses have been lovingly tended, and two amusing alleyways--Hellgruner Gang and Berrhansgang--still have the footprints of neighborhood cats and dogs that tiptoed through freshly laid mortar more than 800 years ago.

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