Schleswig-Holstein is all about location, a product of the forces around it: west and east, the North and Baltic seas; north, Denmark. The former is realized as fine beaches and marram-grass dunes, candy-striped lighthouses, commercial ports on deep fjords, and changeable weather. The latter reveals itself as a region that feels distinctly Nordic. Don’t come looking for national stereotypes here. If anything, Schleswig-Holstein, and neighbouring city-state Hamburg, have a Scandinavian liberalism to make land-locked southerners appear prudish. The air of a separate country is compounded by a predominantly fish diet and a local dialect akin to Dutch, Plattdeutsch, that is almost as impenetrable to most Germans as it is to foreigners.
As ever, this distinct character was shaped by history. The peninsula was under Danish rule from the fifteenth century until the mid-1800s, when nationalist fervour inspired calls for independence among its German-speaking population. This posed the Schleswig-Holstein Question, which vexed some of the finest diplomatic minds in Europe. As British prime minister Lord Palmerston is said to have despaired: “The Schleswig-Holstein Question is so complicated only three men in Europe have ever understood it. The first was Prince Albert, and he is dead; the second is a German professor, and he is in an asylum; and the third was myself, and I have forgotten it.”
Nowadays, Schleswig-Holstein is less political poser than bucolic backwater. Notwithstanding the Land capital Kiel, a brusque, working port, it is free of urban development, its gentle Baltic coast notched by fjords, its west coast wind-blown and wild, and everywhere canopied by colour-wash skyscapes that have long captivated artists such as Emil Nolde. Even Lübeck wears its history lightly. Sure, the one-time city-state has a tale as rich and complex as any plotline by local son, Thomas Mann. Yet at the core of its appeal is nothing more complicated than one of the most enigmatic old towns in Germany, with a heritage and sense of cultural worth handed down from over four hundred years at the head of the first pan-European superpower in the region, medieval trading-cartel the Hanseatic League.
Once you’ve ticked off the cultural heavyweights of Hamburg and Lübeck, then (and leaving aside the industrial port of Kiel), Schleswig-Holstein is pure holiday country. With your own transport, you could lose a happy week on a circuit from Lübeck, bowling through a series of small towns where coast meets country; places like cultured backwater Eutin among the lumpy moraine hills of Holsteinische Schweiz (Holstein’s Switzerland), or erstwhile Viking stronghold Schleswig, relaxed, charming and home to a blockbuster art museum that ticks all boxes. Powder beaches have raised the North Frisian islands off the west coast to the status of celebrated holiday playground, even though they are largely overlooked by foreigners in the stampede south. People-watching in Sylt, a sort of German Hamptons, or simply loafing around in Strandkörbe wicker seats in Föhr and Amrum – sleepy sister islands that are all about walks, cycle rides and sand castles on the beach – are a defining part of the German coastal experience.
Even boomtime metropolis Hamburg, a state in its own right, finds space for beach bars from April to September, complementing a year-round nightlife that is as much a reason to visit as some of the finest galleries and museums in the country. Without a car, it is your best transport hub, although rail links from Lübeck serve east-coast destinations as far as Kiel. Remember, too, that ferry services off the west coast permit island-hopping down the trio of North Frisian islands – the intrepid, free-wheeling beach holiday in a nutshell.
As gentle and charming as its “Rosenstadt” (Town of Roses) moniker, EUTIN lies at the heart of the lumpy lakeland of Holstein Switzerland. It is a paean to small-town Germany: a place to potter that retains a modicum of the cultured atmosphere from its blossoming in the late 1700s as a ducal town that nurtured such rare talents as poet Johann Heinrich Voss, painter Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein and composer Carl Maria von Weber.
Aficionados hail Holstein Switzerland as canoeing country, and with stamina or time, you can paddle through an interconnected mosaic of lakes all the way to Kiel – the 50km trip has been done in a long day, but most people allow three or four. A booklet of the route, Paddeln, is available either from the tourist office or as a download from its website. Boote Keusen Sielbecker, Sielbecker Landstr. 17 (04521 42 01, boote-keusen.de), in northerly suburb Eutin-Fissau, has Canadian canoes and can provide boat transport back from wherever you end up. A great trip.
Though just 30km north of Schleswig, the commercial port of FLENSBURG is centuries apart in atmosphere. Pressed hard against the border of former owner Denmark, the “southernmost town of Scandinavia” is shaped by the deep-water port through which it has prospered; first as property of the Danish Crown – for centuries Flensburg outranked Copenhagen – then the German; it was claimed by Prussia in 1864, then threw in its lot officially in a plebiscite in 1920. Labels of cult local brew Flensburger Pilsner, with their royal Danish lions and merchant ship, sum up the history as succinctly as any icon. The trading past is also evident in the warehouse courtyards that burrow behind street-fronts, relics from an eighteenth-century rum trade founded on raw spirit imported from the Danish West Indies (now the US Virgin Islands).
Notwithstanding these pockets and the yuppification of wharves on the east bank, Flensburg has few airs or graces. It is a typical small port: knockabout, straightforward and host to a weekend pub-club scene fuelled by the local brew. Everything of interest in Flensburg is in the Altstadt on the west bank of the Flensburger Förde harbour.
Long tradition obliges that HUSUM is described as “the grey town by the sea”, which seems unfair for a quietly colourful North Sea harbour 42km south of Niebüll. Paradoxically its local hero is to blame. Nineteenth-century author and Husum resident Theodor Storm coined the tagline with Die graue Stadt am Meer, an affectionate poem that describes the spring and autumn pea-soupers that blow off the North Sea to enshroud the town in grey fog. Yet the town’s inner harbour is all about local colour. Houses painted in a palette of bright yellows and blues jostle for space behind fishing boats moored in the heart of the town as they have been since medieval days, when Husum was used by the Dutch as a short cut between the North and Baltic seas.
Land capital KIEL around 90km from Lübeck on the Baltic side is a gritty urban sprawl in this region of coast and cows. Over ninety raids in 1945 alone unleashed such devastation on what was Germany’s principal submarine base that the port at the end of a deep firth had to start from scratch when the smoke cleared. Its lumpen concrete blocks built at speed in the 1950s are not the place to look for history – when brochures flag up the first pedestrian street in Germany (Holstenstrasse in 1525), you know tourist authorities are struggling.
Though lacking the looks of Lübeck – the more obvious candidate for capital – Kiel has instead the port which made its fortune. It became the imperial war-port in 1871, and when the Kiel canal (Nord-Ostsee-Kanal) opened to link the Baltic and North seas in 1895, Kiel controlled what was the biggest man-made waterway in the world. It remains the busiest, and shapes modern Kiel: workaday and resilient, with a knockabout, unpretentious air, especially during international sailing regatta Kieler Woche in late June, a must for any sailing fan if only for the chance to sail aboard historic windjammers (booked via tourist information; note also that accommodation reservations are needed at this time). The town’s few museums will pass a morning, but the self-styled “Kiel Sailing City” is at its best around water: seen from the Kiellinie footpath or on cruises on the Kieler Förde and canal.
The city centre is unlovable but unavoidable along pedestrianized high-street Holstenstrasse two blocks back from the harbour.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The finest day-trip from Lübeck is RATZEBURG, 23km south. Approach by boat in a summer heat-haze and it seems almost like a mirage: a cluster of red roofs and a green copper tower afloat in a lake. The trick is that the town is clustered on an island at the south end of the elongated Ratzeburger See. Indeed the geography inspired the town – the island’s defensive possibilities caught the eye of Saxon duke Henry the Lion as he marched north to found Lübeck in the mid-1100s.
SCHLESWIG should be one of the region’s premier tourist destinations. That it is not is one more reason to make the journey. One of the most distinctive small towns in North Germany, it dozes peacefully on the banks of the broad Schlei fjord as a provincial backwater of around 25,000 people. Yet until the tenth century, Haithabu on the south bank of the Schlei was a hub of the Viking world. Founded in 800 AD, the “colony of the west” flourished at the crossroads of trade routes to North Atlantic and Baltic settlements, populated by a cosmopolitan cross-section of Europe and serving as a base for Christian missionaries to Scandinavia. Indeed, it is only due to its destruction in 1066 that Schleswig emerged opposite, roots that the town celebrates with rollicking Wikingertage (Viking Days; wikingertage.de) at the end of July/early August on odd-numbered years. With a bit of poetic licence there remains something of the Scandinavian about the manicured Altstadt where red-brick fishermen’s houses exude village charm. That its holy trinity of must-see sights – cathedral, palace and the Viking past – is spread over a wide area only serves to underline that Schleswig is a town best savoured at leisure. Take your time and make a day of it – ideally two.