Friday 9 December 2016

Breman: A German fairy tale

Bremen, Germany

Jamie Blake Knox

Published 07/09/2015 | 02:30

Reach for the sky: The stunning City Hall in Bremen. Bremen is famed as the home of Becks.
Reach for the sky: The stunning City Hall in Bremen. Bremen is famed as the home of Becks.
Jamie Blake Knox toasts the Ratskeller which houses some 650 different German wines, including the oldest in German which is dated 1653.

Bremen is the one of the largest ports in Germany. It was precisely because of this that it was almost levelled by Allied bombing during World War II.

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I must confess that this did not initially fill me with hope as to what I might find there. But I needn't have worried; there is certainly much more to Bremen than heavy industry, ships, cargo and freight. For over a thousand years it has embraced not only a wealth of goods but a wide range of cultural influences.

I was staying at the Maritim Hotel which is located within easy walking distance of the Old Town. It was late evening as I entered the Market Square and I was immediately struck by the soaring Gothic spires of the majestic Saint Peter's Cathedral. For much of Bremen's history the Church vied for power and dominance with the guilds and merchants. This tussle can be seen in the architecture, on either side of the square competing for supremacy are the Schütting or guild house and the stunning City Hall. For some 600 years there has also been an armed medieval knight called Roland directly facing the cathedral - a monumental stone reminder to the Church to keep its ambitions in check.

Famished and slightly overwhelmed by the sheer scale and orgy of decoration on the buildings, I headed to the Ratskeller - the city's ancient wine cellar. The hall dates back to 1405 and on the left hand side there are huge vividly decorated wine casks. If you're planning an intimate meal, you can book a private room at the edge of the restaurant. These are designed like compartments in an old-fashioned train, but, beware, you are only allowed to close the door if there are more than two people.

Legend has it that this custom was introduced in the Middle Ages to prevent conspirators using them to scheme and hatch plots. I sense the reality has rather more to do with excessive consumption of wine and public decency. Although Bremen is famed as the home of Becks beer, the Ratskeller houses some 650 different German wines, including the oldest in Germany - a wine from Rüdesheim which is dated 1653. While that was slightly outside of my budget, I enjoyed a crisp Riesling which perfectly complemented my meal - a regional speciality of white asparagus, pork schnitzel served with a tantalising hollandaise sauce. Fully sated I stumbled back to the comfort of my hotel.

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Jamie Blake Knox in Bremen

One of Bremen's most famous sons is Ludwig Roselius, a local merchant who made his fortune as the inventor of decaffeinated coffee. At the start of the 20th century he began to buy up all the houses in a dilapidated street which connected the market square and the Weser River called Böttcherstrasse. He then had it completely rebuilt, resulting in one of the most complete and remarkable examples of German expressionist architecture.

Roselius is not free from controversy: at the entrance there is a gold relief called the Lichtbringer ('Bringer of Light'); it was intended to glorify the "victory of our Führer over the powers of darkness." Ironically, despite Roselius' Nazi sympathies, in 1937 the street was listed as an example of degenerate art. It was largely destroyed during the war, but I was taken aback by the manner in which it has been painstakingly reconstructed. It houses a number of small but significant museums.

I was particularly enamoured with the Ludwig Roselius Museum, which contains a valuable collection of Northern European fine and decorative art, including paintings by Ludger Tom Ring and Lucas Cranach the Elder. There are two very striking, if unsurprisingly stern, portraits of Martin Luther and his wife.

Another architectural gem is the town hall. Constructed over many centuries to fit in with prevailing fashions, it is a dizzying mixture of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. It is difficult to fathom how a building so beautiful and delicate managed to survive the war when all around it was destroyed. It is a testimony to the tireless work of some of the locals, who dutifully extinguished countless incendiary bombs, that it is here today.

Inside, there are four six-foot-long replica warships made in the 16th and 17th centuries which hang from the richly decorated rafters. Their miniature cannons can even be fired if the occasion demands. There are huge paintings of whales and naval battles, enormous chandeliers and intricately carved wooden gargoyles. There is also the magnificent Guldenkammer or Golden Chamber, which is an exquisite examples of German art nouveau. Its wall are lined with gilt wallpaper; even its door handle is in the shape of an ornate peacock.

In need of some retail therapy, I headed to Bremen's oldest district, the charming Schnoor quarter. It is a warren of rambling lanes lined with achingly quaint and colourful 15th and 16th century houses and cottages where fishermen, artisans and sailors once lived. They are now home to boutiques, bakeries, restaurants, chocolate shops and scores of small cosy pubs, the perfect places to relax and enjoy a Becks or two.

A few hours north of Bremen is the small picturesque town of Itzehoe. This is where the Czech Expressionist painter Wenzel August Hablik lived with his wife for much of his life. A museum in his honour located in an old townhouse was opened in 1995. I had only seen a few isolated examples of Hablik's work before so it was a real delight to be able to see such an extensive collection. His painted work is characterised by intense geometric lines and vibrant colours, but he also produced a vast array of designs for furniture, textiles, tapestries, jewellery, cutlery, and wallpapers.

Bremen is the setting of one of the Grimm brothers' most enduring fairy tales, The Bremen Town Musicians. In the story, a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster who are all past their prime decide to go to Bremen, to live without owners and become musicians there. On their way, they outwit some thieves and take possession of a vacant house. They stay there and ultimately never make it to Bremen. I would advise that you do not repeat their mistake.

Getting there

Flights: Lufthansa (lufthansa.com)

Accommodation: Maritim Hotel Bremen (maritim.de)

Mercure Hotel Klosterforst (mercure.com)

Food: Ratskeller. (ratskeller-bremen.de)

General information: (germany.travel)

Restaurants: Becks im Schnoor (becks-im-schnoor.de); Restaurant Luv (restaurant-luv.de); Kolles alter Muschelsaal (kolles-alter-muschelsaal.de).

Museums: Museumshafen Büsum (museumshafen-buesum.de); Museum Prinzesshof (museum-prinzesshof.de).

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