BREMEN: Showing some love to Germany's other northern city-state
One particularly enjoyable part of getting to spend an extended period of time in Germany is having the chance to visit parts of Germany that you otherwise might never have taken the time to see. When you're planning a two-week vacation, there's a lot of pressure to see the only the very best of a country -- with such a short time span, it's hard to justify taking the time to see places that are merely nice and pleasant, rather than those that are distinctly beautiful and exciting.
Northern Germany as a whole is pretty neglected when it comes to tourism and being seen as a worthwhile destination. Certainly, everyone knows Hamburg, and the city has a solid international reputation as a fun, lively city. But when Americans plan trips to Germany, they usually want to go to classically beautiful Munich (and see the rest of stunning southern Germany) or to historic and edgy Berlin or to the modern and worldly Frankfurt. Rarely do I hear Americans plan trips to see what Germany's ports and coasts have to offer.
Prior to this stint in Germany, I had made two trips to northern Germany -- once to a small town on the North Sea called Neuharlingersiel and once to Hamburg. Based on those two trips, as well as my familiarity with the music and culture scenes in this part of Germany (many excellent German bands hail from the north), I've developed a distinct fondness for this region.
When I decided I wanted to see if I could spend the remainder of my Marriott rewards points on a hotel stay for my boyfriend and I somewhere in Germany, I was excited to find that there was a hotel in central Bremen where I could spend my points. Since Bremen is one of Germany's three city-states (the other two being Berlin and Hamburg), making a trip to Bremen would serve two purposes: I could cross one more German Bundesland off my list (five more to go!) and get to see more of northern Germany.
So, for the second week of my easter break in April, my boyfriend and I traveled from his home in Göttingen up to Bremen for a mini-vacation. Conveniently, the DeutscheBahn Niedersachsen ticket covers travel throughout Niedersachsen as well as into Bremen, so we were able to do the trip quite cheaply (26 euros for the both of us).
Upon arriving and getting settled, we set forth into the city center. On the way, we met up with Conor, a fellow Fulbrighter living in Bremen, who was kind enough to give us a city tour.
I was very curious to see what my impressions of Bremen would be, because on the whole it's not a city that gets a lot of love from other Germans. Bremen is often seen as an also-ran to Hamburg, lacking in culture and nightlife, and the fact that it's one of the poorest German states further tarnishes its image. When I told German friends that I was willingly making a trip to Bremen, many looked at me in confusion and wondered why I would bother. Its general image is one of being run-down, heavily working class and even somewhat unsafe.
Overall, however, my impressions of Bremen were overwhelmingly positive. This was probably helped by the fact that the weather was absolutely gorgeous during our stay, but I found the city to be lovely, lively and interesting. Certainly it can't rival Hamburg's nightlife or tourist sights, but why does it have to? Why can't a German city simply be nice and pretty in it's own right and have that be enough of a reason to visit?
In terms of its historic areas, the city itself is quite compact. It doesn't take long to see the highlights -- two days (the amount of time we spent there) was probably just about perfect from a sightseeing perspective.
On our way into the city, we walked through a lovely green park which included a historic brick windmill set against a bed of flowers. It was a nice indication that we were indeed in the north. You just don't see things like that in the rest of Germany. That's one thing I enjoy about being in this part of Germany -- there's a very clear difference in design aesthetic in the north (one major difference is the prevalence of red-brick homes and buildings, which you rarely see in the rest of Germany).
The main Bremen sight is the central town square (Marktplatz), featuring a number of the city's most significant structures. The foremost is the Bremer Rathaus, the city hall that dates back to the 15th century. The facade is gorgeously ornate (Wikipedia tells me the style is known as "brick Gothic"), and in my opinion, it's rivaled only by Munich's Neues Rathaus for beauty among German town halls (at least those I have seen, and I've seen a fair few). Fittingly, it's listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Nearby, there is a large statue of Roland, one of Charlemagne's paladins (one of the foremost warriors in his court). Apparently these statues used to be all over the Holy Roman Empire; the one in Bremen, also dating from the 15th century, is the oldest surviving example.
Also found on this square, somewhat tucked away, is the famous statue of the Bremer Stadtmusikanten. The Stadtmusikanten (city musicians) are characters from a Grimm's fairy tale: there is a rooster, a cat, a dog and a donkey. In the story, the four characters, neglected and mistreated by their owners, decide to break free of their old lives and head toward Bremen, a city known for being a bastion of freedom. Though the characters in the story never actually reach Bremen, it's a story that has become very closely associated with the city, and you can find statues and other representations of the characters (often pictured stacked on each others' backs) throughout the city, though the statue on the main square is the most well-known.
From the main square we wound our way through the Böttcherstraße, a historic street known for its distinctive red brick architecture, dating from the 1920s and 30s. The street features a strip of specialty shops and restaurants. Our tour guide, Conor, showed us one of his favorite depictions of the Stadtmusikanten in Bremen, but sadly it was incomplete as someone had stolen the rooster! Shame, shame.
We then headed toward the Schnoorviertel (Schnoor Quarter), probably the second most-famous part of Bremen after the Marktplatz. The Schnoorviertel used to be home to many of the city's fishermen and shippers; today it is a beautifully preserved quarter full of charming, often tiny homes and buildings (and equally tiny passageways snaking between them) full of adorable shops and restaurants. The area also features a "Geschichtenhaus (History House) that regularly features costumed guides ready to share a bit of the area's history with you -- after I took a couple pictures of the building, one guide came up to tell me more about the building itself so I would have some context to go with my pictures.
After doing some exploring, we bought ourselves some ice cream (later some beer) and sat along the River Weser, enjoying a beautiful, relaxing day.
The next day, Sven and I had no set plans. We wandered through the city a bit more, taking everything in, and later went into the St. Petri Dom, the city's flagship church dating from the 13th century (though the history of churches on that site goes back much farther). Though not as grand as some German churches, particularly since it is now a Lutheran church, I found it to be quite lovely and absolutely worth walking around. Again, we got an unexpected dose of history when Sven started investigating a large chest near the altar, seeing if he could open it, when an older man who worked for the church came up and explained that the chest used to hold the indulgences people would pay to shave years off their time in purgatory. I thought that was quite interesting, and I appreciated that he took the time to come up and explain the chest's purpose to us (perhaps he also wanted us to stop touching it).
One thing I liked about Bremen was the presence of Plattdeutsch (Low German) throughout the city. Plattdeutsch is a somewhat archaic Northern German dialect spoken most commonly by older Germans. However, it's something people in the area are trying to keep alive for younger generations as well, since it's part of their culture. You would occasionally see things written in Plattdeutsch throughout the city, and according to Conor, it's even something they encourage young people at schools to learn and make use of.
Our trip to Bremen was nothing short of pleasant and enjoyable. We had two leisurely days to see what the city had to offer, and it did not disappoint. It was such a good reminder to choose to go places other people ignore, if for no other reason than to give yourself a chance to form your own opinion on the matter. To many Germans, Bremen is just an poor, post-industrial city that's seen better days, and to foreign tourists it's an also-ran that can't hold a candle to bustling Hamburg. But to me, Bremen is a lovely, livable city full of culture and history, and I would gladly return.