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.
It was the Grimm Brothers, during their collation of Lower Saxony folk tales, who popularized the age-old story of the Bremener Stadtmusikanten (Town Musicians of Bremen). The story goes that a donkey, dog, cat and cockerel, fearful of the slaughterhouse and cooking pot in their elderly years, journeyed to Bremen to seek a future as musicians. At nightfall they sought shelter in a house only to discover it was occupied by thieves. Undeterred, our heroes form an animal pyramid, the cockerel at the top and donkey at its base, and unleash their first performance – a caterwaul of brays, barks, meows and crowing. The robbers flee from the banshee outside the door and the four settle down to live happily ever after.
Ludwig Roselius, who made his fortune through decaffeinated coffee, Kaffee Hag – the story goes he stumbled upon the secret using beans that had been soused in sea water – commissioned a team of avant-garde artists, notably sculptor Bernhard Hoetger, to jazz up the then-derelict Gothic houses of Böttcherstrasse with cutting-edge Jugendstil, Art Deco and Expressionist styles. Soon after the opening of his 110m “Kunst Schau” (Art Show) in 1931, the Third Reich condemned it as degenerate. Only Roselius’s wily suggestion that it should stand as a warning against further cultural depravity saved it from demolition.
As its port silted, Bremen petitioned the King of Hanover to acquire the land between the Geeste and Weser rivermouths and so was founded Bremerhaven in 1827. The largest working port in Germany after Hamburg, it’s no charmer – the centre was thrown up at rapid pace after 95 percent of the port was obliterated by air raids – and has long had a utilitarian air. This is, after all, the town that has the world’s longest quay (4.9km) and is Germany’s premier fishing port. Yet “Fischstadt” is raising its game. Central harbours have been renovated as a focus for two superb museums, the Deutsches Auswanderen Museum and Klimahaus Bremerhaven, and billion-euro architecture projects such as the Atlantic Hotel Sail City (viewing platform €3), modelled on Dubai’s signature Burj Al-Arab hotel.
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.
After nearly a millennium of habit Braunschweig routinely tags itself “Die Löwenstadt”. The lion refers to Saxon duke Henry the Lion (Heinrich der Löwe), a giant of twelfth-century Europe who commanded the last great independent duchy of fledgling Germany. His territory comprised a great swathe north to Kiel – he founded Lübeck and Lüneburg among other towns – and much of present-day Bavaria; Munich is another of his creations. His capital, however, was Braunschweig, and the high points of the state’s second largest city after Hannover are intrinsically bound up with its founder despite an illustrious history that again flared into brilliance in the mid-1700s as a ducal Residenzstadt. However, Braunschweig is not the most instantly appealing destination in the state – as the epicentre of Lower Saxony’s industry, it was badly damaged in 1944. But as a major transport junction it is one you’re sure to pass through and there are a couple of appealing day-trips to Wolfenbüttel and Wolfsburg within half an hour.
Celle is just half an hour from Hannover but the distance in atmosphere is centuries. While the bombs rained on the state capital, this small town emerged unscathed, a charming miniature of the seventeenth-century townscape lost in Hannover. As one of the finest half-timbered towns in Germany, Celle gets more than its share of tourists; indeed it’s worth an overnight visit just to enjoy it free of day-trippers. However, it remains – just – more market town than museum piece. Either way, it owes its fame to the dukes of Braunschweig-Lüneburg. Banished from Lüneburg in 1378, the nobles crossed the Lüneburg Heide and made Celle an aristocratic Residenzstadt for nearly three centuries, encouraging the prosperity that built its streetscape. Celle is a testament that feudalism starts as a street plan: the ducal Schloss lies at the western edge of the Altstadt, whose parallel streets to the east run up towards it, a gesture of submission to the ducal yoke.
The Weser River, the arterial waterway of the Weserbergland, forges south of Hameln into countryside pillowed by woods and rolling fields. It provides a great excuse for touring, swinging alongside the Weser on the B83 for much of the way to Hann. Münden, swooping around broad meanders and hauling over wooded hills. Indeed, the journey is as much an attraction as the destinations en route.
As the marketing blurb mawkishly puts it, HANN. MÜNDEN, 40km south of Bad Karlshafen, is sited “where the Werra and Fulda kiss” to flow into the Weser River. Naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who knew a thing or two about the world, having explored Russia and Latin America, declared it “one of the seven most beautifully sited towns in the world”. Never mind the scenery, it’s the Altstadt that wows in Hannoverisch Münden, to give it the full and rarely used title; a picture-book-pretty jumble of over seven hundred half-timbered houses clustered beside those burbling rivers and largely still girdled by its medieval fortifications. A tourist office booklet guides you around every carefully carved beam.
Göttingen calls itself the “City of Science” (Stadt die Wissenschaft); it has nurtured forty Nobel Prize winners and institutions such as the German Aerospace Centre and the Max-Planck-Institutes. But don’t let that put you off. For most visitors – and probably the majority of locals – the town is more about its café and bar culture than high culture. The root cause of both is the same: the Georg-August Universität. Founded in 1734 by Hannover elector Georg August, also known as King George II of Great Britain, the university grew into one of the intellectual think-tanks of Europe and boasted a roll-call of distinguished professors, among them Brothers Grimm, Jakob and Wilhelm. It also brings a city-sized vibrancy to a medium-sized town. One in five of the 130,000-strong population is a student, nurturing a free-thinking liberalism that harks back to the Göttingen Seven, an academic grouping that dared to question the authority of Hannover king Ernst August in 1837. Students and easy-going attitudes also mean nightlife – perhaps the primary reason to visit, whatever the value of the Hanseatic heritage.
Like Bremen with its town musicians, HAMELN must say a daily prayer in praise of fairytales. The rat-turned-child-catcher not only gave the small town international fame but a ready-made promotional angle. A Piper fountain gushes rodents and the tale is re-enacted weekly in summer. Even the Marktkirche has a Pied Piper window. Whatever the yarn would have you believe, the town has more than its fair share of children, too, because the ploy works. Such is its popularity – the town receives over 3.5 million tourists per year – that Hameln isn’t always the “pleasanter spot you never spied” as American Robert Browning describes in his poem of the tale. It is a good-humoured place, however, with few pretentions to greatness other than its historic Altstadt. It also serves as gateway to the lovely hill-and-river country of the Weserbergland south.
Hameln, June 1284: a stranger in multicoloured clothes strikes a deal with the town council over payment to lift a plague of rats that has infested the town. He pipes the rodents to their deaths in the Weser, yet the council renege on payment. The stranger returns while the citizens are in church, and, dressed in a hunter’s costume, exacts his revenge – 130 children follow his pipe from the town and are never seen again. Just two boys remain, one lame, the other deaf. Germany’s most famous legend was recognized in a stained-glass panel in the church as early as 1300. Academics agree the yarn is rooted in history – it is surely not coincidence that Hameln town records commence with the tragedy, which is reported as straight news a century later in a manuscript and given a date – June 26, 1284 – but hard facts remain elusive. The most plausible theory proposes nothing more fantastical than an exodus of citizens, Hameln “children” all, during colonization of eastern nations such as Pomerania and Prussia – the finger is often pointed at Count von Schaumberg who moved to Olmutz, now Chechnya. In the Grimm Brothers’ account, compiled from eleven sources, the children found a town in Transylvania. However, the presence of rats has led some scholars to propose a mass migration during the Black Death, a baton taken up by a theory that suggests the tale remembers an early plague in which the piper represents Death.
“Is Hannover the most boring city in Germany?” news weekly magazine Der Spiegel once asked. In a word, no, although the capital of Lower Saxony can appear every bit a faceless modern metropolis. When five of the world’s ten largest trade fairs roll into town, up to 800,000 businesspeople wheel, deal, then disappear, the majority probably unaware that they had been in a state capital which, from 1815 to 1866, ruled a kingdom in its own right. Eighty-eight air raids reduced the city from elegant aristocrat to war-torn widow and, with ninety percent of the centre reduced to rubble, the city patched up where possible, but largely wiped clean the slate.
It was some past to write off, too. The seventeenth-century dukes of Calenburg revitalized the former Hanseatic League member, and Ernst August ushered in a golden age for his royal capital in the late 1600s. Court academic Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wowed Europe with his mathematical and philosophical theories and the arts blossomed, as did a Baroque garden seeded by the regent’s wife, Sophia; Hannover’s prize, it ranks among the finest in Europe. More significantly for British history, Sophia’s parentage as granddaughter of James I of England saw her son, plain old Georg Ludwig, metamorphose into George I of Great Britain in 1714 to begin the House of Hannover’s 120-year stint on the British throne.
Even if the city’s EXPO2000 exhibition turned out to be something of a damp squib – it attracted less than half the forty million people hoped for – that it happened at all sums up a vigorous, ambitious city. It’s a place with the bottle to reinvent itself through street art, from the Nanas at Hohen Ufer to the wacky bus- and tramstops commissioned to cheer up drab streets before EXPO. Similarly, there are some vibrant art museums and a bar and nightlife scene that is anything but boring. What it lacks is a landmark. Wartime destruction, then postwar planning, conspired to erase the coherence of Hannover’s core. Instead, the city may be at its best outside the centre: around the Maschsee lake for its art galleries or in the celebrated gardens, to the northwest. And it’s at its most fun in outlying neighbourhoods: in gentrifying restaurant and residential quarter List, seedy bar strip, Steintor, or in multicultural hipsters’ quarter, Linden-Nord. It’s a fair bet Der Spiegel didn’t visit.
It was 1700 and the English were in a bind: Queen Anne was old and her last child sickly. Parliament had scoffed previously at talk of a link between the Crown and the House of Hannover. But the legitimate claim of exiled Catholic James Edward Stuart, “the Old Pretender”, had concentrated Protestant minds. In 1701 the Act of Settlement declared the crown to “the most excellent princess Sophia, electress and duchess-dowager of Hannover” on the grounds that Electress Sophia von der Pfalz was a granddaughter of King James I, adding a caveat that “the heirs of her body being Protestant”. No matter that her son spoke no English, nor that his slow pedantic manner was spectacularly unsuited to the rough-and-tumble of the contemporary English court. Georg Ludwig, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, elector of Hannover, became George I in 1714 to begin 120 years of joint rule by the House of Hannover.
Of the four Georgian kings of Great Britain, George III was the first to take any interest in his new territory. George I and II were content to appoint a “prime minister” to rule as their representative, accidentally taking the first step towards the modern British political system. Indeed it was only with English-speaking George III that the Hanoverian dynasty got hands-on, but by then it was too late. A now-powerful parliament and fate – social unrest, the loss of the American colonies, not to mention the king’s mental illness – got in the way. Those woes conspired to make him the most abused monarch in British history. Shelley wrote about “an old, mad, blind, despised and dying king”, and liberal historians of the next century competed in their condemnation of him. Yet it was not bad press that did for joint rule. Salic law forbade the accession of women to head the kingdom of Hannover, newly declared at the Congress of Vienna in 1814. So when William IV died in 1837, Ernst August took up the crown in Hannover while his niece, Victoria, settled on to the throne in London.
The highlight of the festival year is the largest Schützenfest (Marksmen’s Festival; hannover.de/schuetzenfest) in Germany, held over ten days over the end of June and into July. Similar but more restrained is the Maschsee festival over nineteen days from the last Wednesday in July. Late May to early June brings world-music beano, the Masala Festival (masala-festival.de).
For centuries HILDESHEIM, 30km southeast of Hannover, starred on the check-list of every cultured Grand Tour of Europe. It was medieval Germany writ large, its two Romanesque churches among the finest on the continent and its Altstadt a half-timbered fairytale. So a night of firebombs on March 22, 1945, which ravaged the centre as the Allies targeted prestige cities to sap German morale during the war’s end-game, struck particularly hard. The town salvaged what it could and erected typically monstrous postwar rebuilds until, in 1984, the council took the unprecedented decision to re-create the former townscape. Uncharitably, then, the architectural highlights of Hildesheim are conscious antiquarianism at best, glorious fakes at worst. Yet UNESCO deemed the efforts worthy of its World Heritage list, an unexpected fillip to a beautification programme that seems likely to continue. Aside from the architecture, Hildesheim is a relaxed university town, pleasant, certainly, but also fairly provincial.
Few small towns in North Germany are so improbably picturesque as LÜNEBURG. Almost anywhere you go in the Altstadt will be a small-town streetscape of film-set looks. Yet despite the richness of its architecture, the small town is founded on the prosaic. Local salt mines were already being worked by the monks of St Michaelis here in 956 AD, and when Lüneburg’s citizens wrested independence from the Guelphic princes in 1371 and signed up to the mercantile Hanseatic League, exports of its “white gold” via Lübeck catapulted the town into the highest echelons of affluence. In its Renaissance golden era, Lüneburg was Europe’s largest salt producer, only to shrink suddenly into obscurity as its Hanseatic market waned. Salt production ceased in 1980. The flip-side of stagnation is preservation, however. Without funds for building, Lüneburg has had to make do with an Altstadt full of Hanseatic step-gables and brickwork like twisted rope. Indeed, salt continues to shape the town – subsidence of underground deposits causes the Altstadt to lean at decidedly woozy angles. Lüneburg’s Altstadt is ordered around two squares: Am Markt, the civic heartland above its historic port, the Wasserviertel; and elongated Am Sande at its southern end.
Welcome to the happiest town in Germany. Last decade a nationwide poll found citizens of OSNABRÜCK, the largest city in western Lower Saxony, more content than those anywhere else in Germany, inspiring a marketing campaign in Stern magazine that declared “Ich komm zum Glück aus Osnabrück” (I’m lucky to be from Osnabrück). A friendly small-scale city of modest charm and with a university to prevent it stagnating, it has much to be happy about.
In 1648 after more than four years of negotiations here and in Münster 60km south, Catholic and Protestant signatures dried on the Peace of Westphalia and the political and religious inferno of the Thirty Years’ War was finally doused. Osnabrück has treasured its diplomacy of peace ever since. Her two great sons, Justus Möser and Erich Maria Remarque, dreamed of ennobled, free workers and railed against war’s insanity respectively, and today Osnabrück proudly declares herself “Die Friedenstadt” (Peace City), host of Nobel Peace Prize-winners Henry Kissinger and the Dalai Lama, home of the German Foundation for Peace Research and the national branch of child-relief agency Terre des Hommes. Perhaps it’s no surprise that its finest museum-gallery pays homage to a Jewish artist murdered at Auschwitz.
Protestant factions met in Osnabrück’s Rathaus for over four years to broker their half of the Peace of Westphalia (the Catholics were in Münster) and unpick the knotted conflicts of the Thirty Years’ War that had brought German cities to their knees. Once signed by both, city fathers stood on the Rathaus steps on October 25, 1648, and proclaimed the carnage over, a declaration greeted at first with disbelief by the crowd, then by tears and a spontaneous outburst of hymns. As a contemporary pamphlet relates: “Osnabrück and all the world rejoices, the joyful people sing, Flags fly bravely … I am only sorry for the poor swordsmiths for they have nothing to do.”
Spread between Celle and Lüneburg lie the open landscapes of the LÜNEBURG HEATH (Lüneburger Heide). Minimally populated in pretty Lower Saxon farming villages of red-brick and beams, the area has been mostly drained of its original moors to stand as a gently undulating, minimally farmed landscape. The heath is famed for the heather that lays a carpet of dusty purple from mid-August, auguring in a month of village fêtes to crown a Heather Queen: the week-long Heather Blossom Festival at Amelinghausen from the middle Saturday in August is the largest. Being mixed with broom, gorse and juniper, the heather also produces excellent honey and adds flavour to the shaggy Heidschnucke lambs, which are grazed here year-round. Some shepherds don traditional floppy hats and waistcoats for tourists.
Legendary libertine Giacomo Casanova spent “the most wonderful week of my entire life” there and Wilhelm Busch, father of the modern cartoon-strip, declared the place “marvellous”. Yet still WOLFENBÜTTEL is not as well known as it deserves to be. Having escaped war and mass tourism, this small town, with an ensemble of over six hundred half-timbered houses, has an almost fairytale quality, a blend of aristocracy and an erudite mindset that sees its museums publish websites in Latin. Partly to blame is the ducal House of Braunschweig which declared Wolfenbüttel a Residenzstadt in 1432. Under the Guelphic dukes’ three-century tenure, high culture flowered and the royal town metamorphosed into the first planned town in Renaissance Germany. And when the dukes shifted back to Braunschweig in 1753 they sent Wolfenbüttel into a deep sleep from which it seems yet to awake – one reason to go.
Around 121,000 people live in WOLFSBURG, but make no mistake, this is Volkswagen’s town. The village of the mid-1930s was reinvented almost overnight when Hitler’s Ford-inspired dream of a Volkswagen (literally “people’s car”) was realized in 1937 as a sprawling factory that began churning out the “Beetle” designed by Ferdinand Porsche. Aided by the economic pick-me-up of a postwar British military contract, an exception to enforced de-industrialization elsewhere, Volkswagen thrived, a fairy godmother of the German economy’s rags-to-riches Cinderella story. Such was the bad press at a threat to reduce operations at the world headquarters, Volkswagen was forced to shelve the plan.
The vast plant known as Autostadt, spread beside a canal behind the train station, is a rev-head’s paradise. VW’s intended car collection centre has morphed into a futuristic theme park of museums and rides. The five-storey ZeitHaus celebrates milestones in gleaming automotive history (Karl Benz’s 1886 tricycle, a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and Auto Union “Silver Arrow” racing cars or the VW W12 which set a record 24-hour run of 7750km, an average speed of 323km/h) and also its icons (an Art Nouveau Bugatti designed by Jean Bugatti himself, gorgeous Cadillacs and Chevys and the millionth Mini from 1965).
In futuristic pavilions behind, Volkswagen indulges in entertaining self-promotion for its brands: Bugatti’s bling; Lamborghini’s power; reliable Skoda; dynamic Seat; futuristic Audi; and the quality and safety of Volkswagen. If you have toddlers in tow, there’s a good motor-themed crêche, and, for older kids, a computerized driving course to complete in mini VW Beetles. However, Autostadt’s star attraction is the 1930s brick factory itself, which at 8.4 square kilometres is four times larger than Monaco; only from a footbridge before Autostadt do you sense its scale. The most popular tours are made by mini-train around a few sections. Others ascend the company’s landmark cylindrical glass tower in which shiny cars await collection; you can even drive up. Other hands-on attractions such as tackling a 4WD terrain course (GeländeParcours) in a VW Touareg or Tiguan are provided as “training” activities.