A weekend in North Germany


St Mary's bells

WW2 tore Lübeck asunder. Its centuries-old buildings, the rich history of the Hanseatic town and the inhabitants' spirits all came down as a heap of rubble in the folly of war. It took decades but eventually the severe wounds inflicted by one single but murderous air raid healed into a scarred urban texture. So, along the streets in the town centre the line of traditional crow-stepped gables is often interrupted by modern buildings that fill the gaps left by crumbled houses. But the devastating effects of war are nowhere clearer than from above: the fantastic view from the St. Peter's steeple reveals the extent of the patches sown over the holes in the extraordinary urban tapestry that this town was. Like a past beauty, Lübeck smiles with a toothless mouth treated by an inexpert dentist, but is still able to arouse admiration for what remains of its former glory.

 In 1942, on Palm Sunday, a fierce bombing hit the Hanseatic town. From the ruins the famed churches were still standing, but stripped of their roofs, with crumbling walls and prey to fires that consumed their towering spires and burned priceless works of art to irrelevant ashes. Lübeck's hour had come. The raid left it in tatters, centuries of prosperity annihilated in one fell swoop, memory relegated only to the black-and-white photos of before.

St. Peter's church is now an empty town building, not destined to religious rites, but an impressive whitewashed space with large windows that let in floods of light through transparent panes where stained glass had been. Its emptiness matches the void brought about by war's destruction.

St. Mary's used to host the celebrated Danse Macabre, a life-size painting that unfolded for 27 metres over the walls of a side chapel. It depicted a procession of dignitaries, starting with the Emperor and the Pope, followed by representatives of mediaeval society, each one coupled with a dancing skeleton. The skeletons are gaunt brown figures from decaying tissues, but dance nimbly in uncontrolled joy over Death's final victory. Their sneering mouths express at best the futility of human ambitions confronted with the inevitability of death; on the other hand, the living can only miserably follow their undesired company. The backdrop of the painting is the Lübeck countryside with the town's skyline easily recognisable, which makes the scene tremendously realistic and powerful. Now the painting is destroyed and only a photographic reproduction is on show at its former emplacement. A disappeared painting in a bombed town: what best could explain the transience of all things human?

A touching detail in St. Mary's are the church bells that used to hang in one of the towers. They crashed to the ground owing to the raid and smashed into a sepulchral stone slab on the floor. They were left exactly where they were found, their bronze thickness shattered by the fall. Now a beam of artificial light creates an atmosphere of vigil, and a plaque dryly remembers the event, carried out retaliation for the destruction of Coventry cathedral. A nail crucifix was later presented by Coventry as the token for a new age of understanding.

Lübeck048The Mediterranean diet

The Town Hall square was the scene of the herring festival. On the first night I was brave enough to order two fish to accompany an excellent pint of beer. The herrings were described as Bratherring which I expected to mean grilled, but in reality they were fried. Because they were so tasty and delicious, I was somehow happy with the misunderstanding, as otherwise I would have avoided eating anything not supposed to be exactly healthy. The next day I was commenting the fact with a German guest at the hostel, who asked me in surprise why I would have given up the herrings. When he realised I was wary of fried food, he said: "I have also been many times to Italy, and never died of all the olive oil I was made to eat!". After this was it any use asking if he had ever heard of the Mediterranean diet?

German rapprochement

A weekend in Germany also served to boost my self-assuredness. When I went down to the hostel kitchen to fetch my cup of tea, the guy who was eating dinner asked me if it was still hot enough. I had been talking to my roommates, an Australian traveller and an Italian weekender, for much longer than I expected when I left my boiling tea to cool. But regardless of the tea, the guy had broken the ice for a successful conversation in German that was resumed the next day over breakfast.

Again, at the Willy Brandt museum the nice ladies at the reception insisted that I follow the guided tour in German, and I was cajoled into listening to a guide who talked for one hour and a half, continually urging us visitors to interact. I didn't speak out, and was happy to process the information on my own and reflect on the proposed themes. The crucial one was Willy Brandt's kneeling in front of the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial. Was it opportune for a head of State to have broken the protocol impromptu and taken upon himself and the nation he represented, the horrible guilt committed by others? Was it a sign of weakness, did it represent disgrace upon the German people? The debate was a serious one. In my opinion it was a compassionate and due gesture, it represented a move to bridge the opening gap between the East and the West. By the way, Pope John Paul II's request to the Muslims for forgiveness for the Crusades went in the same line. But I am not German, so I see things from a different angle, nor am I a politician, so haven't understood that principles are just something to adorn speeches with.

Lübeck153The Baltic sea

The Baltic coast evoked in me a picture of milky light inundating wind-swept coastlines of little appeal for the southern European; an expanse of water tinged in colours picked from a palette of washed-away greys and pale blues; a sea that is too cold to swim in and beaches that are too windy to bask on; salty waters from which no salt can be extracted because the temperature is not warm enough.

In my imagination the Baltic was the antithesis of the lush Mediterranean, so rich in intense colours, summer odours and history that the sight of its deep blue automatically triggers the recollection of Greek myths and the start of Western civilisation. My preference is obviously biased by cultural references and proximity to the "Mare Nostrum", nevertheless, while in Lübeck I was curious to prove or disprove my preconceptions. I therefore planned to spend my Sunday at the seaside locality of Travemünde, only a short distance from the town on the Baltic coast. There the river Trave flows into the open sea in a bay projected towards the Scandinavian coast, for which there are regular passenger and cargo ferries.

Although my mind had refused to call it a beach, a sandy beach it was, and in that sunny weather a very good one too. Patches of light falling from between the scurrying clouds highlighted an area or another as if it had been in the spotlight on an imaginary stage. Rows of Standkörbe aligned on the sand were like a battle formation ready to wage a doomed war against the wind, but all they could do was draw a self-absorbed symmetry of lines and colours. The beach was a pleasure to look at, and likewise the little harbour, the frontline of old houses in the fishermen village, and the Sunday people who had gone there to enjoy a day out on "Their Sea".