Friday, March 7, 2008

23 October: Lübeck and Schönburg

I took zero notes about this day so this is all going to have to be written from memory. Of course I don’t remember a thing about breakfast at the Park Hotel but I’m sure it was nice. We packed up and checked out but left our car on the street so we could spend the morning exploring Lübeck.

First we walked back to the Holstentor and took some time to really appreciate this magnificent structure (read: we waited for the crowd of Japanese tourists to get out of the way so we could take pictures). This monumental brick gate – one of two original town gates still standing – was built between 1464 and 1478 and fittingly symbolizes Lübeck’s position as the “queen of the Hanseatic League.” The most amazing thing about the gate, other than its sheer size, is the amount of settling that has taken place over the past 600-odd years, which has slowly warped and twisted the brick walls of the structure, giving its surface an undulating appearance (photo, above). The two massive towers must be a good two feet off center at the top – in different directions!

The Altstadt of Lübeck is situated on an island in the Trave River and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its outstanding collection of 13th-15th century buildings. We proceeded across the river and into the old town, heading first for the famous Marktplatz, where Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance influences are evident in the striking Rathaus, dating from 1240. Unfortunately there was some construction going on in the square, so the atmosphere was not at its best.

Next we wandered towards the imposing twin spires of the Gothic Marienkirche, which boasts the highest brick nave in the world and is Germany’s third-largest church (photo, right). The church didn’t open until 10 am so we decided to continue our stroll and return later to go inside. Proceeding down a long, arched arcade, we happened upon Mengstraße just a block away and I finally got to see the Buddenbrookhaus, of Thomas Mann fame. (As you may recall, we read Buddenbrooks in my book club last year and I have been wanting to visit Lübeck ever since.) The house, an elegant white structure that was reconstructed after World War II, was home to Thomas Mann’s family, who, along with many Lübeck personalities, provided the inspiration (whether they liked it or not) for many of the characters in Buddenbrooks (photo, below).

We headed back along the Hauptstraße to Konditorei-Café Niederegger, makers of the most famous marzipan in the world. Legend has it that marzipan was invented in Lübeck during a medieval famine. A local baker, having run out of grain to make bread, experimented with the only ingredients he had on hand – almonds, sugar, rose water, and eggs – and formed the resulting paste into sweet almond “loaves” that we now know as marzipan. (Apparently marzipan really originated a few hundred years earlier in Persia, but the story is good and Lübecker Marzipan is considered the best of the best.) The brightly-lit shop was crammed floor-to-ceiling with every variety of marzipan imaginable: coated with milk and dark chocolate; flavored with orange, pistachio, pineapple, and coffee; and shaped into all manner of inventive forms: fruit, vegetable, animal, flower…you name it, they make it. After some exhaustive browsing, we picked out a few sampler boxes.

It was now time to return to the Marienkirche. The church, constructed between 1250 and 1350, has a stark white Gothic interior adorned with delicate floral designs in orange, green and yellow. It was almost completely burnt out on the night of Palm Sunday, 1942, and two of the mangled bells have been left where they fell as a memorial to the war. The church houses a replica of an elaborate 16th-century astronomical clock, also destroyed in 1942. Reconstruction of the church began in 1947 and was completed only twelve years later.

We left the Hauptstraße to explore some of the curving, cobblestoned streets lined with elegant townhouses, then headed towards the Lübecker Dom, another magnificent redbrick church established in 1173 by Lübeck’s founder, Heinrich der Löwe (Henry the Lion). The cathedral – Lübeck’s oldest building – was also partly destroyed in 1942 and reconstruction was only completed in 1982, as greater priority was given to the Marienkirche (photo, right). Inside, the cathedral’s lofty white interior is virtually unadorned. The Dom is actually shorter than the Marienkirche – a consequence of the power struggle between the church and the merchant guilds that funded the construction of the Marienkirche.

We headed back toward the river and walked along the charming riverfront promenade, lined with more lovely rowhouses, some of them sporting crow-stepped gables typical of 15th and 16th century architecture. From a pedestrian bridge over the river, we enjoyed a lovely panoramic view of the Altstadt, taking in the Holstentor, Marienkirche, and Dom (photo, below). We passed by the Holstentor again on our way out and got some great photos of the memorable “leaning tower of Lübeck.”

We had a long drive ahead of us so we retrieved our car and set out southwards towards the Rhine Valley, our destination for the last night of this memorable German tour. I had booked the Falkonsuite at the Hotel auf Schönburg, a magnificent castle-hotel perched on a cliff over the town of Oberwesel on the Rhine River. We approached the castle from above and behind, rather than from the river, so when we finally made our way up the drive to the parking lot, we had no idea what was in store for us. The sun was just setting behind a thin veil of cotton-puff clouds and cast a warm glow over the immense fortified castle walls (photo, below). What a sight!

Schönburg castle dates to the 10th century and, like so many castles on the Rhine, was the subject of numerous familial and regional feuds. Beginning in the 12th century, the Dukes of Schönburg ruled over the town of Oberwesel and levied customs from ships passing on the Rhine. Not unlike Burg Eltz, the castle passed to multiple heirs, and at the height of its power in the 14th century was occupied by some 250 people from 24 different families. The Schönburg lineage died out in the 15th century and in 1689 the castle was burned down by French soldiers during the Palatinate war. The castle was left in ruins until an American businessman of German descent, Mr. Rhinelander (what a name!), bought the castle from the town of Oberwesel in the late 19th century and invested two million Marks in restoring it. The town bought the castle back from Mr. Rhinelander’s son in 1950, and it has been operating as a hotel under a long-term lease to the Hüttl family since 1957.

We dragged our bags across the moat, through several arched gates, and up a steep cobbled path to the reception area (they do have luggage service for those who want it). We left our bags in the lobby and were led up a marvelous maze of passageways and staircases to our rooms on the uppermost floor of the distinctive red-painted portion of the hotel. The long, narrow suite, consisting of a bedroom, sitting room, and bathroom, was decorated in rich blue and gold, with a beautiful canopy bed, dark antique furnishings, and leaded glass windows. The bathroom was a marvel of white and yellow tile with an arched tub enclosure and a huge black marble pedestal sink. We had views out of both sides of the castle – northwest over steep vineyard-covered slopes, and southeast down a long stretch of the Rhine. The island castle of Pfalz was just visible in the distance.

We had reservations for the Schönburg’s seven-course tasting menu at 7:00, which gave us plenty of time to clean up and prepare for this last great indulgence. We made our way downstairs and found the formal dining room, where we joined a young couple and a party of four Peruvians. Unfortunately my copy of the menu is buried somewhere under two years of souvenir maps and brochures, but suffice it to say that the meal was superb and the service excellent!

More photos from today:

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