Never mind that the donkey, dog, cat and cockerel celebrated in the folk tale forgot all about their goal as soon as they had a roof over their heads, brochures and innumerable souvenirs cheerfully proclaim BREMEN “die Stadt der Stadtmusikanten” (the Town of the Town Musicians). A more eloquent insight into what makes Bremen tick is that it is the smallest Land of the Federal Republic, a declaration of Bremeners’ independence that is a leitmotif of a 1200-year history. In the twentieth century alone, Bremen proclaimed itself a socialist republic in 1918, and in 1949 it was the only former Land except Hamburg to wrest back its city-state accreditation. Small wonder that Germans view it as a stronghold of provocative politics. Blame the medieval port.
Bremen’s port introduced free-thinking attitudes as part and parcel of the wealth the city enjoyed after it received free-market rights in 965 AD, just two hundred years after Charlemagne’s Bishop Willehad planted a crucifix among the Saxons and Bremen was officially born. By the eleventh century, when Bremen was being acclaimed a Rome of the North, the grumbles of a merchant class about its ecclesiastical governors crescendoed until, emboldened by the city’s admission to Europe’s elite trading-club, the Hanseatic League, in 1358, they flared into open hostility. Its legacy is one-upmanship in bricks and mortar – the Rathaus and chivalric Roland statue, both on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, and the nearby Dom, are a squabble in stone.
Self-confidence and a university have made Bremen a liberal city free of conservative hang-ups. Few southern German cities would allow an architectural fantasy like Böttcherstrasse to be dreamed up in their midst. As appealing, Bremen feels far smaller than a place with a population of one million – only around half that number live within the confines of the city (as opposed to its municipal boundaries) – and the centre feels more like a large town than city-state. The majority of sights are within the Altstadt elongated along the north bank of the Weser, bound to the north by its former moat. When the city burst outside its defences in the nineteenth century, it created the Ostertorviertel, aka “das Viertel”, today the home of a lively bar district whose only rivals in summer are the riverside beer gardens on the Schlachte.