Most of my travels to Germany have taken me to the South — into the natural beauty of the Bavarian Alps, the Black Forest, or vineyards of the Rhine valley.  Nearby, too, beckoned the castled charms of towns like Heidelberg and Rothenberg ob der Tauber or vibrant cities — Munich, Frankfurt, Stuttgart — that engineered the post-war economic boom.

The Holstentor in Lübeck.

Baltic sailing in modern Lübeck.

The agricultural hinterland of the North, fronted by fog-bound Baltic ports, seemed to offer much less of the old-fashioned gemütlichkeit that I usually sought out in Germany.  Indeed much of that region, including Berlin, was shrouded behind an Iron Curtain, which sealed it off from the curious traveler.

I am not sure what has lifted the northern gloom.  I suspect the disappearance of barbed-wire border crossings has something to do with it (and, who knows, perhaps a touch of global warming?), but a recent jaunt through a handful of Hansa towns has left me impressed with the fresh feel of the region.

The merchant class still thrives.

For me the word "Hansa" suggests merchants in starched ruffs poring over ledgers amid mingled odors of sawdust and pickled herring.  The history books tell of a mighty Hanseatic League of German traders who dominated the economic life of the Baltic basin in medieval times, cornering the rich markets on Scandinavian fish products, German salts and grains, Belgian cloth, and Russian pelts and lumber.  All of which they sent crisscrossing the Baltic and North Seas from London to Riga by way of heavy-laden cargo ships.

The Hansa cities are
major ports of call.

This tightfisted guild of entrepreneurs set up headquarters in a number of small cities — principally German ports like Lübeck, Rostock, and Hamburg, but also far-flung outposts in Scandinavia and the Netherlands — along the way generating considerable economic and cultural wealth for those regions.

Eventually new economic models based in nationalism doomed the Hanseatic League, but its influence echoes to this day in the architecture and atmosphere of old Hansa towns and, one imagines, in the psyches of their inhabitants.

In any case, I determined to explore a few of these German Hansa Centers — specifically Lübeck, Rostock, and Münster.

I began in the Baltic city of Rostock, which, I could tell at a glance, had come a long way since my last visit.

The University of Rostock.

Back in the early '90s I'd encountered plenty of long faces in Rostock.  Sure, the Berlin Wall had been torn down and this former East German port was ready for a new day.  But where were the jobs?  Where was the investment money to transform its urban blight — the communist government had done little in forty years to spruce up the place — into anything like a progressive German city?  It wasn't helpful that roughly one-fourth of the population was decamping to more prosperous parts of western Germany.

Festivities during Hansa
Sail in Warnem

But investment has come, along with an influx of youthful spirit and plenty of fresh paint.  Today the waterfront sparkles with life — new shops and restaurants, restored monuments and plazas.  Uphill from the port the cobbled lanes are swept clean of debris and the dominant sense is one of color and light, tangy salt air and open spaces.  One can imagine the Hanseatic traders of old working away in the Hops Market. (Rostock's primary trade product in medieval days was their fabulous beer, which, by the way, is still fabulous.)

During World War II Rostock was a major German air and naval base. Thus, the city was heavily bombed, much of its brick gothic architecture eradicated. But the most beautiful structures — including two of the three major churches characteristic of Hansa towns — have been rebuilt, leaving the cityscape a pleasing mix of old and new.  Greater Rostock now numbers a population over 200,000 supporting an economy based in agriculture, brewing, and a major University (the oldest in the Baltic region).

The beach at Warnemünde.

Then there is tourism, thanks largely to the beach resort and deep water port at Warnemünde.  This stretch of dunes and heath where once Luftwaffe warplanes (including the world's first jet) were tested is now devoted to the pleasures of the sea.

Between April and October the Cruise Center welcomes over 100 cruise ship dockings, spilling out 125,000 passengers onto the beaches and into the quaint fishing village of Warnemünde ("mouth of the River Warnow").  From here they mount day-trips: sailing or fishing excursions into the Baltic; bike rides along the dunes; strolls through Warnemünde and Rostock just a few miles distant, or even a quick run into Berlin.

Rostock rooftops.

Warnemünde offers the usual array of seaside lodgings, from bed & breakfast to resort hotels.  The most recent addition,  emblematic of the ambitious new direction of Rostock-Warnemünde, is the luxurious Yachthafenresidenz Höhe Dune, sited  directly on the Baltic across the Warnow estuary from the Cruise Center.

The Yacht-hafen-residenz is just that — a hotel where you can pull up your yacht a few steps from the lobby (no parking problem — there are some 750 berths in the private marina).  They let you register even if you don't have your sailboat handy. In fact this five-star property also caters to landlubbers with superior spa and congress facilities, six restaurants, five bars, and even a multi-storied clubhouse for children.  Rich brass and mahogany furnishings in public areas and throughout the airy rooms and suites give the shape and feel of a Cunard liner from the glory days of ocean travel.  Prices to match, natch, but it is possible to save substantially by booking one of the "residenz" lodgings just outside the main building.  For information or booking go to or

Tips on Rostock-Warnemünde

Hansa Sail brings in ships of old.

Although northern Germany's largest Christmas market is displayed in December, the warmer months are generally best for visiting RostockNautical events dominate the summer calendar, from Warnemünder Week in July (world-class regattas) to Hanse Sail in August (festival of traditional sailing ships) to Warnemünde River Festival in September (markets, music, and evening boat processions).

Zur Kogge festooned
with nautical gear.

Plenty of boating excursions, whether for fishing, cruising or sight-seeing, are available out of Warnemünde.  In Rostock a number of  medieval brick gothic structures are well worth visiting: the St. Mary's and St. Peter's churches as well as the Rathaus (City Hall).  Traditional merchant houses remain near the harbor, notably the wooden Hausbaumhaus and Kerkhoffhaus, which are open to visitors.  The Cultural History Museum of Rostock, newly renovated within the old Holy Cross Convent, is remarkably good.

Baltic cuisine?  An old favorite is Zur Kogge, which has been serving up fresh local seafood and Rostock pilsner beer for 150 years.  In addition to the cruise dock facility, Rostock has extensive ferry links to Scandinavia and other Baltic ports.  There is a regional airport, but the city is easily reached (two hours) by autobahn/railway from Berlin or Hamburg.

Further information on activities and lodgings is available at or

The Cathedral of Lübeck.

In the 13th century Lübeck, an hour west of Rostock by autobahn, was the "Queen of the Hanseatic League".  Lübeck's eminence was dictated by its location at the intersect of the Baltic and river/canal traffic which barged in grain, lumber, and salt from the hinterlands.  Salt was an especially precious commodity, for it preserved the fish harvested in the Baltic and North Seas.  Salted, these tons of mackerel, herring, and cod could be shipped off to feed half of Europe.

Fish was the bedrock of Hansa business and helped make Lübeck merchants very rich.  As in other Hansa towns they built churches dedicated to Sts. Mary, Peter, and James.  In Lübeck they built them, especially the Church of St. Mary set aside for the merchant class, very grandly indeed.

Today Lübeck is a quiet provincial city (pop. 217,000). Despite one destructive bombing raid in 1942 its medieval Old Town, recognized by UNESCO as of exceptional historic significance, survived the War relatively intact.

Lübeck also had the good fortune to fall within the British zone of occupation, enabling it to participate in the dynamic post-war economy of West Germany.

Old salt warehouses of Lübeck.

Beyond its brick gothic public buildings and gabled mansions, Lübeck also claims a monumental literary heritage as the birthplace of Thomas Mann.  His famous novel Buddenbrooks chronicles the rise and fall of a local merchant family. Shorter works, such as Tonio Kröger, also reflect life in the old Hansa town during the late 19th century.  Lübeck has duly preserved the Buddenbrook Haus as both a museum and research center devoted to Mann studies, which has become a small industry unto itself.  Günter Grass, another Nobel Prize winning author, has resided in Lübeck and his former studio (Grass is also a graphic artist) has recently been opened to be public.

Baltic ports just miles apart, Lübeck and Rostock share much history, architecture and culture.  Yet Lübeck seems more the graceful dowager, content within considerable beauty and past glories while Rostock capers at her debutante ball, eager to clear the stagnant air of a communist era.

Even Travemünde, the nearby resort beloved of Lübeckers, has a more traditional feel than its sister beachfront to the east. Along its strand Travemünde still sets out the good old Strandkorben, the gaily striped basket chairs favored by those who prefer a lazy afternoon in the shade.

The new luxury resorts mirror this contrast.  The aforementioned Yachthaftenresidenz of Warnemünde is nothing if not state-of-the-art.

Arosa, the sumptuous new spa in Travemünde, offers every modern amenity yet has preserved the Victorian charms of the old Kurhaus it replaced.  One can still imagine sharing the Arosa's grand dining room with the Mann family a century ago.

Tips for Lübeck-Travemünde

Walk Lübeck's quaint
historic district.

For a good orientation take one of the sight-seeing boats which circle the island core of Lübeck.  The tourist office has published guides for walking the historic district, which is easily traversed within a couple of hours.  Majestic St. Mary's, one of the largest Gothic structures in Europe, and the adjacent Rathaus with its medieval arcades should not be missed.  Lübeck is also notable for scores of well-preserved red brick, step-gabled merchant homes.  Distinctive alleyways hidden behind them provide a glimpse into the living quarters of ordinary artisans from centuries past.

Buddenbrook Haus.

The Buddenbrook Haus, next door to St. Mary's, is a major attraction which often mounts temporary exhibits focused on the legacy of Mann and his family.  Scheduled to open in 2007 is the Willy Brandt Haus, in honor of Lübeck's most famous son of the post-War period.

The summer events schedule of Travemünde, with its Grand Prix powerboat races, sailing competitions, and Hansa Sail of traditional ships, goes hand-in-glove with the offerings of Warnemünde to the east.

A fascinating seafood restaurant in Lübeck is the Schiffergellschaft (Seafarers' Society) within the 16th century guild house of ships' captains; stop for kaffee und kuchen at Café Niederegger, where marzipan has been made on the premises for generations.

Lübeck is connected by ferry to various Scandinavian ports, by road or train to Hamburg (one hour), and Berlin (two hours). There is also a regional airport. Information on tourism and hotels is available at

Historic St. Lamberti's
Church in Münster.

"Hansa" suggests associations dear to the hearts of many Germans: smart trading, inventive planning, adventure on the high seas. Hansa cities were often free towns independent of national or imperial governance.  As seaports they were more cosmopolitan  than most German towns. Hansa had the money to raise private navies and, if need be, engage nations like Denmark and Sweden in pitched battle in order to protect its financial interests.  The Hanseatic era of freebooting pirates and bold entrepreneurs represents a romantic past akin to the American Wild West.

But there was another Hansa far from the bounding main — the League's mining and agriculture centers like Münster.

South of the Baltic coast in the heart of Westphalia, Münster was a key center for the transshipment of goods and raw material destined for the Baltic trade.  As such, it developed its own contingent of Hansa merchants who built medieval Münster into a wealthy provincial town.

Home of Annette
von Droste-Hülshoff.

Like Rostock and Lübeck, Münster has been marked by recent history. It suffered heavy bombardment in World War II but like Lübeck landed on the western side of the Iron Curtain and determined to rebuild, brick by brick, in the tradition of its ancestors.

Today Münster is best known for its pork products, particularly the renowned Westphalian hams.  Although a good University (third largest in Germany) generates a deal of urban hum, the populace prides itself on "marching to the Westphalian drum" which is to say not marching at all.  The relaxed rhythms of speech and daily affairs, the hundreds of bicycles which spin quietly through the streets echo a venerable tradition of agrarian life which surrounds and infuses the town.

Münsterland gardens.

Altes Gasthaus Leve.

But to dismiss Münster as a rural backwater would be a mistake.  The city prides itself not only on the intellectual achievements of a University community but also on notable patronage of the arts and, perhaps most deeply, on the city's historic identity as a symbol of peace and renewal of the human spirit.

For many the Treaty of Westphalia may be little more than an historical footnote, but in Münster, the Great Event still resonates.  The treaty of 1648, ending The Thirty Years' War, negotiated and formally signed in Münster, ended one of the bloodiest conflicts in European history.  The Treaty set a precedent for settling disputes through diplomacy and for the first time established the idea of religious equality in Reformation Europe.

Münster's second "miracle" was the painstaking recreation of its medieval core.  By 1945 the devastation visited upon many cities — Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, et al.— dictated the massive urban renewal projects which modernized much of Germany.  Münster's decision — at the time much criticized as impractical or even politically incorrect — was to rebuild the city just as it had been before the bombs fell.  The project required vast expenditures and years of labor, but today the Prinzipalmarkt appears much as it did centuries ago.  The gothic Rathaus, the churches and gabled town houses, have been lovingly reclaimed for Münsterlanders of future generations.

Whats, Whens, & Wherefores for Münster

St. Paul's Cathedral in Münster.

Henry Moore's "Vertebrae".

Although lacking the festive nautical air of the Baltic ports, Münster also is best seen in summer and autumn.  Winters are grey, early springtime often chilly and wet. (A favorite Münster saying: "Either it's raining or the church bells are ringing.  If both, it's Sunday").

Summer 2007 will renew the Sculpture Projects, an important decennial event where a number of international artists are invited to create works for permanent display around the city.  In past years, renowned figures, like Henry Moore and Claes Oldenburg, have contributed pieces.  A good way to tour the sculptures (there are more than sixty sited around the city) is by bicycle.  Bikes can be rented at a number of locations around the city and while you have the wheels, take a ride around the Aasee Lake and up the Promenade, a lime-tree shaded boulevard encircling the old town.

The Münster Market

Market Day in Münster.

Bakery window in Münster.

Artisan goods at the market.

Every visitor will want to see the restored Prinzipalmarkt, with its arcaded streets. Featured there are the Rathaus, wherein is preserved the Friedenssaal (Hall of Peace) used for signing of the Treaty of Westphalia.  Next-door is a more gruesome reminder of the Reformation: from the steeple of St. Lamberti's Church are still suspended three metal cages, which, in the 16th century, displayed the decaying corpses of three Anabaptist leaders of the Münster Rebellion.

Among Münster's 30 or so museums and galleries note the impressive City Museum, which has extensive displays on the Hanseatic era and the aftermath of World War II.  The Graphikmuseum Pablo Picasso has gathered hundreds of lithographs and etchings by the 20th century master.

Market days (Wednesday and Saturday) in the square before St. Paul's Cathedral are a particular delight.  Displayed is the considerable bounty of the rich Münsterland farms: hams, fresh vegetables, flowers, and cheeses. (But don't go looking for Münster cheese.  That type is produced in another Münster — the word means "monastery" — in the Alsace region.)

The University buildings are everywhere in the city but student life is best experienced in the nearby taverns of the Kuhviertel (cow district).  Tip a few "Alts" at Pinkus Müller, the 200-year-old brewery pub which serves up sizzling Pfannen (pans of sausage, potatoes, onions, etc.) at long wooden tables.  Another delightful restaurant featuring Westphalian cooking is the four hundred year old Altes Gasthaus Leve, just a few blocks outside the Kuhviertel on the Alter Steinweg.

The author bikes Münster.

The Münsterland countryside is readily accessible by car or bicycle.  Of particular interest are the moated castles which dot the landscape.  One of them open to the public is Burg Huelshoff, the childhood home of Westphalian novelist and poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff.

If you are interested in visiting during Sculpture Projects and would like to mingle with some of the artists consider booking (well in advance!) the Central Hotel Münster, a charming boutique hostelry run by Horst and Gabriele Heiringhoff.  Horst is a great lover of art (he's decorated the rooms with parts of his collection) and will regale you with stories of the many artists he's known and hosted over the years.  Book at

Münster is just a couple of hours by car or train from transportation hubs like Hamburg, Berlin, and Duesseldorf.  Münsterland also offers its own regional airport.

For Münster tourist information and lodgings email

Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Las Vegas Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent.

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