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Where Traders Trod: In Search of Germany’s Hanseatic Past

by Dorothea S. Michelman

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s subsequent reunification in 1990, our family here in Virginia was affected as well, with one of our children marrying a Berliner and setting up house across the Atlantic. Thus began a new family tradition: regular visits from capital to capital.

This summer we decided on day trips by train as a relaxing way to sample several of eastern Germany’s historic Hansa towns, including Schwerin, Wismar, and Tangermünde.

The medieval Hansa, a league of free towns in northern Germany and adjacent countries, was formed in the 12th century to promote and protect their economic interests. With Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck in the lead, by the 15th century the Hanseatic League comprised 160 cities and links from Paris and London to faraway Novgorod. This remarkable association thrived until the rise of private banking houses such as the Fuggers in Augsburg, coupled with the devastating Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) resulting in the League’s dissolution by 1669. Nonetheless, in Germany the Hansa towns’ colorful past — these days also reflected on license plates and city websites — has certainly not been forgotten. As for the name, you’ll find it in “Lufthansa,” which continues the tradition of linking the world’s cities, although in rather a different manner and to a far greater extent than the original Hansa could possibly have envisioned.

For our first “Hanseatic” excursion, we set our sights on Schwerin, capital of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and a two-and-half hour journey from Berlin. Surrounded by lake and forest — Schwerin proudly calls itself the ‘City of Seven Lakes’ — it’s not difficult to see why the grand dukes of Mecklenburg chose this idyllic spot for their residence.

Originally a Slavic settlement, whose castle on this site was mentioned in 1018, the area came (though not without a struggle) into the hands of Henry the Lion by 1160 and was established as the second German town after Lübeck east of the Elbe River. Although the Thirty Years’ War left the Mecklenburg region in ruins and a subsequent fire twenty years later destroyed nearly all of the town’s houses, a number of magnificent churches from the Middle Ages and other architectural landmarks remain as witnesses to Schwerin’s significance during this period. Not to be missed is the majestic Cathedral of St. Maria and St. Johannes (built 1280- ca. 1420), an imposing example of the Gothic brick architectural style used in northern Germany.

Landmark and symbol of this venerable city is, of course, Schwerin Castle, splendid as ever but without its previous residents since their abdication in 1918. The castle displays a blend of architectural styles, from Gothic and Renaissance to the Baroque, although — inspired by the Chambord Castle southwest of Orleans — most sections were built from 1845 to 1857. Within its walls, we discovered Schwerin Castle’s comprehensive art collection presented in a setting fit for a grand duke, or even a king. When not going upwards to admire a painting, we often found ourselves looking down around our feet, marveling at the delicate marquetry of the flooring. The Baroque-era castle gardens, a welcome sight to tourists in search of quiet respite, form a peaceful backdrop to the island retreat.

Strolling further into the past, we then wandered the cobbled streets of Schwerin’s Altstadt or Old Town, streets adorned with medieval and Renaissance buildings and half-timbered houses from the 17th century, making it all too easy to forget the bustling Berlin we had left behind early that morning. Still, mindful of the Schwerin-Berlin train schedule, we gradually meandered back to the station, eagerly anticipating next week’s
destination: Wismar.

Now a popular tourist destination as well as an economic and cultural center, the seaport of Wismar was first mentioned in 1229. Following its heyday as a major trading center in the 14th and 15th centuries, and in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War it belonged to the Swedish crown. From 1648 until 1803, Wismar become the administrative and defense center for Sweden’s German territories. In 1803, not overly eager to relinquish the city, Sweden entered a one-hundred year pledge agreement with Mecklenburg that cost them 1,250,000 talers. At the conclusion of the agreement, the town of Wismar was finally returned and the long-time southern Swedes became Mecklenburgers once more.

Today, reminders of Wismar’s long association with Sweden can still be found, including the structure nicknamed Alter Schwede, or “Old Swede.” Constructed around 1380 on the marketplace — one of northern Germany’s largest — the city’s oldest residence has to the great delight of locals and visitors alike been a restaurant since 1878. Much of the old part of town has been painstakingly restored, with the entire area under architectural protection, adding to our appreciation and enjoyment of exploring Wismar’s many yesterdays. We were also pleased to learn that 2002 brought further recognition: the cities of Wismar and Stralsund were designated as World Heritage Sites in honor of their contribution to the development of the building styles and techniques typical of Hanseatic trading towns in the Baltic region. From medieval brick churches to the comparatively recent early 19th century town hall, which also contains remnants of the original 14th century structure, we were constantly reminded of the continuity amidst change in this fascinating Baltic seaport.

The picturesque old harbor, its colorful boats bobbing in the water, together with an array of waterside restaurants proved irresistible, succumbing to temptation we enjoyed a leisurely seafood repast before resuming our exploration of Wismar, past and present.

Our search for the medieval was soon rewarded by an encounter with remnants of the city wall and — particularly impressive — the late Gothic Wassertor [water gate] constructed in the mid-fifteenth century. Somewhat closer to the present day is the Wasserkunst pavilion (1580-1602), which until 1897 supplied Wismar’s drinking water by means of wooden pipes, when its tasks were taken on by a more modern water supply system. With seven streets leading into the marketplace, no matter which you choose, you cannot possibly overlook this beautifully designed and once essential
structure, complete with two water sprites ((jokingly named “Adam and Eve”), originally the system’s terminus and responsible for distributing the precious liquid resource.

Completing our visit with a ramble down Lübsche Strasse and Krämer Strasse, two lanes lined with carefully preserved buildings including the Zum Weinberg restaurant built in 1575 (and an excellent excuse for a return trip), we headed back to the train station, reflecting on the day’s adventures and wondering what treasures might await us in Tangermünde.

Travel to Tangermünde proved to be a bit less direct than with the regional trains we took to our first two destinations, but the roundabout way revealed a few unexpected joys of its own.

The first leg of our journey brought us to Stendal and a 40-minute wait — long enough to realize that here was yet another city worth a special visit, but far too short to attempt it just then. Even before we actually arrived, Tangermünde promised to be a destination on a delightfully smaller scale, made to order for the pedestrian with visions of seeing everything in a day. Tangermünde has its own track at the Stendal train station, complete with a shuttle resembling a miniature version of the double-decker regional train for the Berlin-Schwerin-Wismar route. For the fifteen-minute ride from Stendal to Tagermünde, we had a fine view of the passing scenery from our perch at the front of the shuttle.

Situated in the northernmost region of Saxony-Anhalt, visual reminders of Tangermünde’s nearly thousand-year-old history are strongly evident today, and, surrounded by half-timbered houses and Gothic brick style buildings, our initial impression was that of stepping into the pages of a picture book. To my eyes the perfect embodiment of a medieval town, Tangermünde could perhaps be called the “Rothenburg” of eastern Germany.

Thanks to its location on the Elbe River and along important trade routes, Tangermünde was a valued member of the Hanseatic league, flourishing in the 15th century only to slip into insignificance throughout much of the 19th century in the wake of a series of calamities ranging from catastrophic fires and the bubonic plague to the Thiry Years’ War.

One unusual feature of this medieval gem is its nearly completely preserved medieval fortification including the city wall. Primarily of brick construction built around 1300 with several of the city gates, the wall dates back to the 1400s. Armed with a self-guided tour brochure (available in English from the tourist information office) and aided by the thoughtful inclusion of clearly marked signs throughout town, we had no chance of getting lost. We followed the past of the city wall visiting each intriguing sight, from the majestic Nikolai Church, appropriately dedicated to the patron of merchants and traveling traders to the lovingly restored and preserved half-timbered houses on Kirchstrasse (Church Street). Several have carved portals, intricately designed and beautifully painted. Whereas the brick churches survived a horrific fire which swept through Tangermünde, two-thirds of the town’s other buildings did not. In consequence, most of the houses we so admired were first built in the 17th century.

Tangermünde’s medieval treasures are not its only tourist attraction. The town also hosts eight stork families and their highly visible nests — a rare treat for Virginians — so amidst sightseeing and sampling local delicacies, we often scanned the skies for these beloved winged visitors to northern Germany.

Back in Berlin, we marveled at how, despite the vagaries of history, each of the Hansa towns we visited has retained so much of its earlier characteristics and sounds of the distant past while looking to the future.

And we’re looking to the future as well, as we plan next year’s visit!


For further information, contact the German National Tourist Office
122 East 42nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10168-0072
Tel.212-661-7200; Fax: 212-661-7174
or, www.visits-to-germany.com

Tangermünde’s website: www.tangermuende.de; includes info for English speakers

For information on train travel and rail passes, including special rates for travelers under 26, families and seniors, consult: www.bahn.de which also provides info in English.

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