If Lower Saxony is little known by foreign visitors, that’s probably because it lacks the sort of definitive city or landscape that helps to cement other German states in the mind. The second largest Land in Germany after Bavaria, it’s a neutral ground, sharing more borders than any other state. Scenically, it’s a region of rolling hills between low mountains and the plains at the Dutch border. Architecturally, too, it represents a middle ground that segues from the half-timbered country to a red-brick coast. It’s tempting to put this lack of identity down to history. Niedersachsen, as Germans know it, only came into being in 1946 through the redrawing of the map by the British military.
Yet Lower Saxony has deeper roots. Though misleading for a state that lies above, not below, present-day Saxony, the moniker is a reflection of the Saxon tribe that populated the region long before Germany existed as a defined entity. This was the stamping ground of mighty Saxon duke Henry the Lion (Heinrich der Löwe), a European powerbroker of the twelfth century, and the state would probably have retained the name “Saxony” had his humbling not led to the slow migration of the Saxon powerbase up the Elbe to the state that now bears its name.
The watchword when touring, then, is diversity – both of attractions and in scenery that morphs from brooding highlands in the Harz via the undulating Lüneburg Heath to the salty air and mudflats of the North Sea coast. While the state benefits from a low population density, its eastern half is the most urban, partly due to state capital Hannover, the hub around which all life (and transport) revolves. But even this city of gardens and art is small fry in national terms, with just over half a million people. The second urban centre is Braunschweig, which preserves the monuments from its era as the powerbase of Henry the Lion.
Yet this most industrialized part of the state defies easy categorization. Within half an hour in either direction of Braunschweig lie destinations as distinct as Wolfsburg, definitively modern as the wellspring of Volkswagen, and the daydreaming former ducal town of Wolfenbüttel. The latter is as good an introduction as any to the small historic towns dotted throughout the state. Places such as UNESCO-listed provincial town, Hildesheim, or Celle, whose picture-book, half-timbered Altstadt stands in contrast with the absurdly picturesque red-brick core in Lüneburg. Hameln, of Pied Piper fame, is another world again in an Altstadt characterized by Weser Renaissance styles as well as its hilly hinterland, the Weserbergland, which swoops south along the Fairytale Road. It’s a popular cycling (and canoeing) touring route, taking in such picture-book half-timbered towns as Hann. Münden, en route to Göttingen, the university town that stops the area south to Frankfurt from falling asleep in a surfeit of sunshine and small-town life.
Separated northwest on the flatlands where North Rhine-Westphalia bites a chunk out of the state is Osnabrück, the hub of western Lower Saxony state whose history of peace-broking may have contributed to its accreditation as the happiest city in Germany. The western half of the state above Osnabrück is the least interesting in terms of scenery – much of the sparesely-populated area incorporates East Frisia (Ostfriesland), which owes as much to Holland in landscape as it does in its dialect, Plattdeutsch. The reason to come north is Bremen, a splendid former maritime power which, with its North Sea port of Bremerhaven, represents a state in its own right – independent and fiercely proud of it.