Fate had it in for WISMAR. The first Hanseatic city east of Lübeck has similar looks to the league-leader on which it was modelled in a cobbled Altstadt stuffed with gables and red-brick Gothic. And it retains the backbone of the central harbour that made it a rich port with considerable diplomatic clout during a medieval golden age. Unlike Lübeck, however, Wismar was conquered. Snatched by the Swedes in 1648, it became a southern bulwark of the empire and suffered the consequent woes of siege, fire and pillage – the legacy of their hundred-and-fifty-year occupation is scattered throughout, not least the fabulously mustachioed “Swedish heads” that are a town mascot. Worse still were air raids in 1945 that obliterated two massive medieval churches.
Since reunification, Wismar has taken tourism seriously. It again declares itself a Hansestadt (Hanseatic town), and a major renovation programme has buffed up its once neglected Altstadt, something that elevated it onto UNESCO’s World Heritage list in a joint application with Stralsund. Yet it remains refreshingly untouristy. Away from the set pieces, the historic streets have an air of glories past. It may be one reason why film director F. W. Murnau turned to Wismar as a backdrop for his 1922 Gothic-horror classic, Nosferatu: shots include the prewar Markt and the vampire’s ghostly ship drifting into the old harbour. It also makes it one reason to go. Others include the Hafentage (wismarer-hafentage.de), which brings fleets and a funfair to the harbour in late June, and the jolly, historic Schwedenfest (schwedenfest-wismar.de) over a weekend in late August.Read More
Swedish heads and other yarns
Swedish heads and other yarns
Nowadays Wismar is only too happy to point out evidence of its annexation by Swedish forces from 1648. Most prominent are the colourful “Swedish heads” scattered at strategic locations throughout the town. With their fabulous handlebar moustaches, rakish cravats and lion’s-head caps worn over flowing black curls they present a dashing image in front of Alter Schwede on the Markt and the Baumhaus at the end of the harbour.
Whether they are actually Swedish is another matter. An original in Schabbelhaus is one of a pair that was mounted at the harbour entrance for a century until they were rammed by a Finnish ship taking evasive manoeuvres in 1902. At the time they were known as the “Old Swedes”. But because documents mention “The Swede” harbour boundary from as early as 1672 their origins remain a mystery. Historians date them to approximately 1700, the time of the Swedish occupation of Wismar, and suggest they are a Baroque depiction of Hercules. The most plausible theory suggests they were mounted on a Swedish merchant ship, possibly glaring from the stern or mounted before the captain’s quarters. However, another suggestion moots that their name derives from their “Schwedenköpf” (literally Sweden head) haircut, short for its time and a powder-free style as a sign of modernity and enlightenment.