This week I took a little trip to Hamburg and Lübeck. I had planned to do a lot of these trips within Germany when I moved to Berlin, but in fact this is the first one I've done since I moved here on 2 July.
No coincidence then that Hamburg is also the easiest German city to get to from Berlin. The high-speed ICE train travels the 260km in just an hour and a half, making no stops along the way. It doesn't make any stops because there is essentially nowhere to stop between these two cities, the train zips across the wide open flat fields of Northern Germany. High-speed lines are always the easiest to implement in unpopulated areas.
Then I looked into going to Danzig (Gdansk), 350km further along the Baltic coast in Poland. That would be six and a half hours by train with two changes. Not so fun. OK...I'd better stick with a Hanseatic town in Germany. Rostock? Four hours by train with two changes to traverse the 220km. This was getting ridiculous.
I finally settled on Lübeck, which was essentially the capital of the Hanseatic League. But when I saw that in order to get there one has to transfer through Hamburg (which, incidentally, was also a Hanseatic city). So I figured I'd make it a dual-city trip.
Hamburg was much as I remembered it - similar to Berlin but with more of a coastal feel. There's water everywhere, and the position of the city against the lake reminds me very much of Zurich.
Almost everything in the city dates from the past 60 years, a consequence of Hamburg being completely flattened by allied bombing in World War II. What's really striking is the two or three spots in the city where they have reconstructed what it looked like before the war. The architecture is remarkably similar to Dutch towns, in fact Hamburg would have looked a lot like Amsterdam before the war, with canals criss-crossing the city (Hamburg in fact has far more bridges than Amsterdam).
So, the city doesn't have the same charm or historical feel as Amsterdam, but perhaps that is a blessing. It's not such a popular place for non-Germans to visit, and you don't see so many tourists on the streets. It's a far cry from Amsterdam which often feels more like a theme park than a city.
Yesterday it was off to Lübeck, capital of the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation that dominated the Baltic Sea from the 15th to the 18th century. The town did not disappoint. For the most part it escaped bombing during the war so it's a perfectly preserved town, something quite rate in Germany. It has the oldest town hall in Germany and also the oldest hospital (pictured below).
Interestingly, Germany has undergone a bit of a fascination with the Hanseatic League lately, and towns along the Baltic coast are starting to play up their Hansa history as a tourist attraction. Lübeck just recently set up a museum of Hanseatic history, but unfortunately it wasn't in my outdated guidebook and by the time I discovered it it was closing.
It's difficult for Germans to find a unifying historical narrative because it was not a country until 1871. Before that it was a collection of independent kingdoms, principalities, bishoprics and city-states (like Hamburg and Lübeck). But the Hanseatic league is a common history uniting all of North Germany, and I think that's why it has grown in popularity in recent years.
Of course, it also has the awkward effect of having been half in the territories from which Germans were expelled after the war. The residents of Stettin, Danzig and Königsberg were all expelled and replaced by Poles and Russians (who quickly set to work demolishing any vestiges of these towns' rich history). A friend told me recently that there has been a big increase in tourism by Germans to Stettin and Danzig, much to the displeasure of the Polish residents. You'd think with that increase in tourism, they might set up some better train connections...
All in all it was a great trip. I'm on the train back to Berlin now, wizzing through the German plains. I'll go straight to German class when I arrive. My first month of courses ends next week, when I'll write a full blog post about my struggles with the German language. It is not an easy tongue to master. Speaking of which, time to do my German homework.