Lübeck: Queen City of the Hanseatic League

When Natasha and I learned we would be in Hamburg, we realized we would be close to a UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Hanseatic City of Lübeck! Since the train ride between the two was less than an hour, Natasha and I squeezed a day-trip into our time in North Germany. My most distinct memory of that morning was when I reached over to hug Natasha on the train platform, when a hidden wasp nailed me on my right wrist!

Walking from the Lübeck train station to the historic city center takes very little time, since the first bridge to the island is just a couple hundred meters from the train station. Immediately, we were treated to the classic view of a fifteenth centry gate to the city wall. The Holstentor has its own museum inside, but we had our minds on a different museum for our limited hours there. The former city gate is just as irregular as heck, with slumpy walls and asymmetries in the conical roofs. It’s full of personality, though, and I am delighted we could pass through to the city beyond.

The 1464 Holstentor was the western city gate of medieval Lübeck. The twin towers at the left are Marienkirche, and the tall steeple immediately to the right is St. Petri.

If you like classic horror movies, you might have encountered “Nosferatu.” The location scout had a stroke of luck in spotting the Salzspeicher, the warehouses that held salt for export to the Baltic region. We encountered the “Speicherstadt” in Hamburg, representing a “warehouse city,” so the same root term shows up here, too. There’s a lovely viewing platform across the Trave River for a good morning gaze.

The Salzspeicher (16th-18th c.) were warehouses for salt, a sought-after commodity in the Baltic.

The international trade network centered in Lübeck was at the heart of our interest in the city, so we made our way clockwise around the island to come to the European Hansemuseum. I hadn’t purchased tickets in advance, so we reserved a pair for the early afternoon. We left ourselves a couple hours to lunch and visit the city interior.

The Heiligen-Geist-Hospital (constructed 1276-1286) featured a church and dormitory for patients. It continued in use until after World War II!

Our feet first brought us to St.-Jakobi-Kirche. The stately church stands much taller than everything else in the neighborhood. It is worth mentioning that while in France it is natural to assume the largest church in town is Catholic, in northern Germany you might make the assumption that the biggest churches are Lutheran. Natasha’s attention, however, was drawn by a massive raised-bed flower garden on exhibition in the square. While she moved from planter to planter with a contented smile on her face, I snapped some photos of the Heiligen-Geist-Hospital, a building which first entered service as a hospital in 1286 CE. It’s the oldest elder care facility in all of Europe (thought Santo Spirito might contest that title).

Marienkirche (constructed 1250 and 1350) coexists with modern business blocks.

Natasha had read about a noodle restaurant with gluten-free options near the town hall of Lübeck, so we marched south in search of it. We found some really nice views of landmarks along the way. I particularly liked spying Marienkirche from the east, since it is very hard to photograph up close; I craned my head way back to see the tops of those towers when we were across the street from it. The Kleines Nudelhaus in Fleischhauerstraße was a revelation for Natasha. The way the manager presented her with the gluten-free noodles was like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. I was really happy with a photo Natasha took of me eating noodles. I recently replaced my Twitter profile photo with it!

With a few minutes to spare, we made it back to the northern edge of the island for our scheduled visit to the museum.

Hanse Museum

The reason we prioritized visiting Lübeck relates is the same reason its historic core is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In many respects, Lübeck was the center of the medieval “Hanseatic League” trading network. One might think of it as the 12th-16th-century successor to the first-millenium Viking trade networks. It was dominant in the North Sea and Baltic Sea at roughly the same time as the Silk Road was resurgent under Mongol rulers. I mentioned that Lübeck and Hamburg were not far from each other, and the watercourses on which they are sited flow to different sides of the Jutland Peninsula (which houses all of Denmark), so a short land transit between the cities could substitute for a relatively long sea transit.

The cog was an ideal vessel to handle coastal trade in the northern waters of Europe, transporting up to 90 tons of cargo while retaining the ability to operate in shallow waters.

The five most-developed trade centers in the Hanseatic League were Novgorod, Lübeck, Bruges, Bergen, and London. These cities developed “kontors,” cities-within-cities specialized in trade, often with some degree of extraterritoriality; trade disputes might, for example, be governed by Lübeck law even if the contested events took place in Novgorod, Russia.

This depiction of a Russian fur trader from Lübeck Cathedral refers to the centuries-long contact between Lübeck and Novgorod.

I was really pleased to see how much Novgorod was emphasized at the museum, since I had the chance to visit that city back in 2017. Its kontor was located across the Volkhov River from Novgorod’s historic center, adding physical separation to legal separation. Novgorod was a supplier par excellence of furs to the Hanse, and its exports of wax were also notable. I liked the idea that Novgorod could export hunting birds via its connection to the Hanseatic Leage; just how do you convince a falcon to stay on a ship?

In Medieval times, tools like these enabled cities to construct massive churches and palaces!

For some reason, I was really struck by the display of medieval building construction equipment at the Hanseatic Museum. I don’t think anyone who reads this blog would be surprised that I marvel at the rude tools used to create massive structures like Notre Dame Cathedral. When human-power was the only force available for construction, it is not surprising that major projects could require decades for completion.

Amber results from the fossilization of tree resin. These fragments are 14th-15th century production waste.

When we hear the term “Crusade,” we often imagine armored knights en route to Jerusalem. If you have read more broadly, you might know that the Reconquista in Spain also pitted Christian armies against the Muslims of Al-Andalus; the Pope used the term “Crusade” there, too. I did not expect to learn about “Northern Crusades,” though. As trade developed with the areas now occupied by Baltic States Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, amber exports revealed considerable wealth in the region. The Northern Crusades sent Teutonic Knights to the Baltics to convert pagans at the edge of the sword; naturally, one could imagine that the real goal was to increase the area under control by Christian rulers.

Jürgen Wullenwever (1488-1537), Dr. Heinrich Sudermann (1520-1591), and David Gloxin (1597-1671) each presided over different aspects of administering the Hanse in the centuries of its waning power.

I hope it will be okay for me to offer a criticism of the Hanse Museum. The last parts of the tour might logically be assumed to cover the loss of dominance suffered by the Hanseatic League at the end of the 16th century. One of the rooms did discuss the on-and-off status of the Steelyard kontor at London as the kings and queens of England attempted to regain tax authority over trade (as early as the 14th century until expulsion of Hanse merchants by Queen Elizabeth I in 1598). As the museum is structured, we were sitting in a small mockup of the Lübeck Hanse meeting hall in one room and then stading next to a bunch of wax clergymen in the next. If one is sleepy from travel, one might get the mistaken impression that the church ended the trade dominance of the Hanse. The London story is actually the more correct explanation; other trade groups, tied to particular nations, became jealous of Hanse profits and found their own ways to muscle the Hanse aside.

A return to wandering the city

Having finished our circuit of the museum, Natasha and I spent a moment exploring the Maria Magdalene Monastery, also described as the “Castle Friary” on the museum website. The oldest part of the structure dates from 1229 CE (it replaced a ruined fortress at the point of the island that would be exposed to ships coming in from the Baltic). The beautiful vaulting of the chapterhouse was delightful. We could only see the sacristy through glass, but the fresco work was on point. I recall that the paint work was much more recent than the structure itself, but it complements it beautifully. I liked the pair of Dominican friars carved in stone that we saw in the long hall; they date from 1400 CE. Natasha captured a photo of me with two friars molded in wax that appears at the top of this post.

Sacristy of the Maria Magadelene Monastery

We continued back toward the center of the island, passing on the eastern road (Große Burgstraße) rather than the western one we had followed to find lunch. It seemed like every building had some sort of interesting gable or architectural history or some famous German (the town was home to three different Nobel Laureates).

The detail work on the Lubeck Rathaus is subtle and beautiful.

The rathaus complex at roughly the center of the island is really eye-catching, having almost 800 years of history behind it. Adjoining the massive 13th-century Marienkirche, the complex sprawls through a variety of galeries and courtyards. Just walking past it on Breite straße, I loved an ornate projection on the building and a delicately carved staircase climbing the exterior.

The Rathaus complex completely surrounds the plaza, so this is one corner of it!

As people who know me well will attest, I am a fiend for sugary treats. As a consequence, it was clear that I must visit the Niederegger Marzipan Museum! The ground floor shop had me drooling right away. We picked up a few presents for our loved ones, certainly (and my wife found some treats for her beloved husband), and then we passed upstairs to see the museum. The first floor above the salesfloor was a cafe, and we continued to the second floor where we found the museum. We were the only people upstairs during that visit, so perhaps not many tourists know about the site.

Marzipan started as a medicine of sorts, with early production largely sited in monasteries. By the 16th century, apothecaries began supplying the candy medicine. Only in 1714 did confectioners in Lübeck gain approval to produce it themselves. Marzipan could only become a widely-enjoyed treat after sugar beet factories were established in 1801. In the 19th century, Lübecker Carl Schröder gained renown as an artist with marzipan, crafting sulfur molds with rich detail for his creations. For me, the highlight of the museum was an amazing array of twelve life-size statues created by Johannes Kiefer. I do not think I could eat my own weight in marzipan, but at least I know what that would look like!

Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen is part of a table full of life-sized figures crafted from 500 kilograms of marzipan by Johannes Kiefer

Natasha and I were pretty tired after our romp through the historic island of Lübeck, and we made our way back to the train station. I paused as we passed a monument to Otto von Bismarck. A group of young people had gathered around the plinth on which his statue stood. It seemed like a good reminder that the past meets the present all around us!

Otto von Bismarck stands next to the walking path from the train station to the old town.

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