Travel: The historic city of Lubeck is a sweet spot on Germany's Baltic coast
As we in Ireland tuck into our chocolate eggs, a favourite for Germans with a sweet tooth is marzipan. In Lubeck, home to one of Germany's top brands, Fergal Hallahan discovered there's more to the city than marzipan – and more to marzipan than he'd thought
YOU don’t have to be a history buff to get the most out of a visit to Lübeck: with its handsome buildings, cafe-bars on winding streets, art shops, leafy parks and waterside walkways, there’s plenty to take in on the contemporary plane.
But, being one of those cities where past is so obviously integral to present – the spires of its medieval churches visible for miles around; its 15th century defensive gate, the Holstentor, taking pride of place on the main road into the city centre and on official and tourist paraphernalia; its town hall in use since the 1200s – you can’t but be drawn to its back story.
As it turns out, it’s a narrative that’s a central piece of Europe’s jigsaw. (Ah, Europe; do you remember Europe, Ted?) Lübeck is the former capital of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of northern European towns and cities dating from the 14th century that’s often touted as a precursor of today’s international free trade agreements. (Ah, international free trade...)
A Unesco World Heritage Site thanks to the redbrick Gothic architecture of the old town, much of which was badly damaged in the RAF’s only, but 230-bomber-strong, raid on Lübeck in 1942, the city proper is located on an island on the River Trave. Although nearly 20km upriver from the Baltic coast, it remains, as it has been for almost a millennium, an important port, a hub for goods going between Germany and, in particular, Sweden and Finland, and is connected to the North Sea and the continent’s inland waterway system by the Elbe-Lübeck Canal.
In and around the centre there’s no evidence of freight or ferries, though; our hotel, a two-minute walk from the aforementioned Holstentor, looks directly on to a riverscape of moored elegant sailing vessels and barges, together with merchant’s houses reminiscent of those that line the canals of Amsterdam.
The ubiquity of bicycles, cycled by people of all ages and apparently treated by drivers as if they are – hold on to your helmet here – a legitimate means of getting about, is another reminder of that lovely city; unlike in Ireland, where cyclists sport high-vis clothing and flashing lights day and night in an effort to prevail upon intemperate motorists not to run us over, there isn’t as much as a day-glo trouser clip in evidence in Lübeck.
As with any short visit to any city, a guided tour is recommended; Lübeck’s old town being compact (though it has long overflowed the banks of the Trave, the modern city is still relatively bijoux, with a population of 216,000), my companions and I opt for a walking tour, with one Manfred Kolossa. Tall, aged in his 70s, sprightly despite a gammy leg, and with a handlebar moustache, he turns out to be a man with a presence as expansive as his name suggests; just what you want in a tour guide.
Our walk takes us along the river, through cobbled alleys, past a puppet theatre and museum in the shadow of the imposing St Peter’s Church to the city’s ancient market square and, adjacent to it, that Rathaus (town hall), where we get a behind-the-scenes look at where Lübeck’s burghers have thrashed out business for 800 years.
The writer Thomas Mann, he of The Magic Mountain and Death In Venice, was born in Lübeck, one of the city’s three Nobel laureates. The others were Willy Brandt, who was chancellor of West Germany and awarded the peace prize for his efforts to further European cooperation via the EEC (the what?), and author Gunter Grass who spent his latter years here. The Buddenbrooks House, so named after a Mann novel, is a literary museum, located 100m from “the American embassy”, Manfred-speak for McDonald’s.
The last stop on our tour and, not least because walking at Manfred’s pace in a breeze that’s literally Baltic fairly works up an appetite, its highlight, is the Schiffergesellschaft, a restaurant that was formerly home to a seafarers guild and that maintains strong maritime ties and traditions.
In the dark interior of the original guildhall, where big old models of cogs and carracks (medieval ships, landlubbers) hang from the ornate wooden ceiling and biblical and nautical scenes adorn the walls, a group of actual sea captains is dining at the table in front of us.
It’s quite the setting – a secular cathedral – and the jolly and uber-professional waiting staff add to the theatricality of the experience. I honestly think I’d return to Lübeck just to revisit this place.
And the food? Yes, it’s great – for the record, I have a smoky, creamy seafood soup, cod as main, accompanied by a deeply tasty local beer (when in Rome and whatnot), then a rumtopf, which is fruit soaked for months on end in rum strong enough to make you gasp – but the food is just a part of a bigger whole here. A slightly sozzled whole by evening’s end.
LUBECK GOLD: MARZIPAN
DIRECTLY opposite Lübeck’s historic Rathaus and market square is the swish-looking Café Niederegger, which, although merely dating from 1806, is every bit as much of a local institution.
The clue being in the name, it’s a place where you can have lunch. I did – and a very good lunch it was too: pickled herring with red onion, washed down with a tasty local beer. (You could do worse than live your life by 'when in Rome'.)
But it’s also the shop window of a family business that’s one of Lübeck’s best known companies and the pre-eminent producer of one of Germany’s lesser-known – to non-Germans – passions: marzipan.
'What?' you say. That oul stuff you get on your Christmas cake?' Nein, nein, nein; this is a different kettle of fish altogether.
While we in Ireland are busily munching our way through chocolate eggs at Easter, for many in Germany marzipan is the sweet treat of choice – albeit often covered in Belgian chocolate – and on my trip to Lübeck I got to visit the mother ship, the German equivalent of Willy Wonka's workshop: the Niederegger factory.
There we watched some delicacies being hand made, and thousands upon thousands of sweeties mesmerisingly making their way around the lines; being formed, coated in chocolate, wrapped and packaged. We witnessed the almonds – from Spain and California – get washed, roasted, crushed and mixed with sugar (not too much; not nearly as much as in your Battenberg's jacket) and the family firm's secret ingredient.
All of which was, surprisingly, interesting and which fairly worked up an urge to taste Niederegger's wares.
By the time we got to the tasting session the sweet, toasty smell of the production line had already tilted me from scepticism to open-mindedness; the taste of chocolate-covered marzipan that we sampled, in all sorts of shapes and flavours, managed to convert me.
For those of us whose experience of marzipan had been limited to the sugary paste of cake coatings, it was a bit of a revelation. Proof of the pudding and all that: the hefty bag I brought home from the factory shop (where you can buy 'seconds' at a fraction of the price of the gift-box-standard sweets) lasted barely a few days chez nous.
:: Lübeck is an hour from Hamburg by car or train; Aer Lingus flies direct from Dublin to Hamburg (aerlingus.ie)
:: Café Niederegger, Breite Str. 89, 23552 Lübeck (niederegger.de)
:: Restaurant Schiffergesellschaft (schiffergesellschaft.de)
:: Manfred Kolossa gives historical walking tours of Lübeck; he can be booked by calling 0049 4516 01247