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Few towns on the North European coast preserve a sense of the glory of their medieval selves like LÜBECK. For over two centuries as flagship of the Hanseatic League, it was one of the richest and most powerful cities in Europe, a Venice of the Baltic that lorded it at the head of a medieval trading-cartel with nearly two hundred members, and which challenged policy of the Holy Roman Emperor himself. Mercantile wealth found its expression in architecture: from the oldest Rathaus in Germany – an expression of civic independence from the bishopric – to churches crowned by soaring spires or a streetscape of merchants’ mansions. The highly decorative red-brick Gothic pioneered here served as a blueprint for the entire North European coastline, and it’s a measure of the enduring splendour that Lübeck was the first town in North Europe to make it onto UNESCO’s list in 1987. The league imploded in the late 1600s, puncturing Lübeck’s status as a regional superpower, but by then its artistic legacy was as valuable as its architectural one.
The flipside of stagnation is preservation, and the delicately crumbling past is the town’s main draw – Lübeck’s appeal lies as much in side streets where houses lean at crazy angles as its architectural show-stoppers. It’s no stuffy museum town, however. While it can be terrifyingly cultured, a vibrant university life balances the opera and classical music served in concert halls, and 20km north lies the chirpy resort of Travemünde for sand between your toes.Read More
The Hanseatic League
The Hanseatic League
When the European Union was just a twinkle in history’s eye, the Hanseatic League acted as a powerful pan-European bloc whose reach stretched from England to Russia, from Scandinavia to the German Alps. Such was its power, it issued ultimatums to sovereign states and launched its own fleet when diplomacy failed.
Saxon duke Henry the Lion’s guarantee of mercantile independence from the Church in 1159 established Lübeck as a base for North German trading guilds (Hanse; Hansa in English), and prompted mutual security deals at a time when there was no national government to safeguard trade. The momentum for a league proper began in 1241, when Lübeck, with easy access to Baltic trade routes, struck a deal with Hamburg on the North Sea to tie up exports of Lüneburg salt – a smart move in an era when states waged war over the “white gold”. As their influence grew in a fragmented Europe, towns from Belgium to Poland signed up to benefit from the collective bargaining power, and league colonists established Hansa outposts in cities as far away as Aberdeen and Novgorod, trading league bills-of-exchange to the chagrin of commercial centres such as London. Throughout, Lübeck remained the headquarters for annual meetings and was the arbiter in Hansa law.
The league’s primary directive to maintain trade routes inevitably led to its emergence as a political and military force. The merchant cartel fixed prices of essential commodities such as timber, fur, tar, flax and wheat. And after an international fleet of Hansa members united in 1368, Danish king Valdemar IV was forced to cede Scandinavian trade rights (and fifteen percent of his own profits) to the medieval superpower. The victory proved a high-water mark. Strong-arm tactics inevitably bred resentment, particularly among the great seafaring countries like England and Holland which had been deliberately excluded to favour the league’s chosen markets. Both nations nurtured fleets to defeat the competition. New World trade routes leached away more influence and the chaotic Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s was the final nail in the coffin for a league that was already crumbling from internal tension. Only nine members attended the last annual meeting in 1669, and when the league was formerly wound up in 1862 only Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen remained, which perhaps explains why each still declares itself a Hansestadt.
Lübeck’s lucky escape
Lübeck’s lucky escape
The night before Palm Sunday, 1942, war finally caught up with Lübeck as the Allies unleashed the first major bombing campaign on a German town. A U-boat training school and docks for Swedish iron ore provided a fig leaf of legitimacy, but in reality the raid was in retaliation for the Luftwaffe Blitz on British urban centres. The target was the Altstadt itself, its timbered buildings a trial run for a newly developed incendiary bomb. Nearly a fifth of the town, including showpieces like the Marienkirche, was destroyed in two days of raids, and Lübeck might have gone the way of Dresden had a German Jewish exile working as a liaison officer not tipped off his Swiss cousin about plans to raze the Altstadt entirely to sap public morale in 1944. That cousin was Carl-Jacob Burkhart, president of the Red Cross. Thanks to his efforts Lübeck was nominated as an official entry harbour for gifts to Allied POWs, and Bomber Command looked elsewhere for targets. Burkhart was later made an honorary citizen of Lübeck.
The romantic courtyards and mews secreted behind the street fronts are one of Lübeck’s most charming features. Though much of this housing was – and some still is – charitable, many developments were a ploy by landlords to develop the space between houses as the population exploded in the 1600s. By the end of the century, Lübeck’s streetscape was riddled with 190 passageways like woodworm holes, into which were shoehorned tiny Buden (literally, booths) for artisans and labourers; the smallest in Lübeck, at Hartengrube 36, was 3.5m wide, 5m high and 4.5m deep. Charity seemed lacking even in some almshouses: during meetings in Haasenhof, widows enjoyed soft chairs while spinsters were only permitted wooden stools.
Today ninety or so courtyards remain. The most picturesque in the Altstadt are Hellgrüner and Dunkelgrüner Gang off Engelswich in the northwest, and Der Füchtingshof and Glandorpsgang off Glockengiesserstrasse in the east. Tourist information organizes the occasional courtyard tour – useful as entrance gateways can be locked – and some houses are available as idyllic holiday lets, again sourced via tourist information.