“SPIEL mich!” (“Play me!”) says the notice on the pavement piano. Who knows what the two young friends are playing, but their finely tuned voices fill the inner passageway and central courtyard of the medieval City Hall in Stralsund, and soar up, beyond the decorative wooden balcony of the gallery above, towards the building’s vaulted ceiling.
Beyond the courtyard, the evening sunlight bathes the cobbled streets of the old market square (Alter Markt) — home to the City Hall and the sea-green domes of the Nikolaikirche.
Within a few yards, the young voices fade, too, and two young buskers on Ossenreyerstraße, Stralsund’s main shopping street, located off the Alter Markt, take over with trombone and clarinet. “Our dream is to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London,” reads a handwritten note on an instrument case.
With buskers and open-air concerts, theatrical productions and theatres, museums, exhibitions, cinema, and cabarets, the UNESCO World Heritage city of Stralsund, on the Baltic coast of north-east Germany, offers much in terms of present-day culture. But its roots are firmly in the past — in the time when it prospered as a member city of the Hanseatic League, a medieval trading organisation that united more than 160 cities in Northern Europe.
In the 14th century, Stralsund was known as the Pearl of the Hanseatic League. Today, the city, together with Wismar, some 150km away, remains a fine example of how Hanseatic towns looked at the height of the League’s influence. The medieval layout of Stralsund’s centre — which is surrounded by a string of lakes and the Baltic Sea — remains largely intact: there are more than 500 listed buildings, including merchants’ houses, monasteries, and historic warehouses along the harbour walls.
From these walls, a comprehensive view of three notable churches can be seen, examples of the red Brick Gothic architecture for which the city is famed. Stralsund is a favourite stopping-point on the 1500-mile European Route of Brick Gothic, connecting the finest examples of Brick Gothic architecture in Denmark, Germany, and Poland.
istock The old market square of Straulsand with its historic city hall and St Nicholas church
IT IS more by chance than purpose that the route, founded in September 2007, should coincide with my tour of Germany’s coastline, which runs from its border with the Netherlands on the North Sea, up to the country’s most northern state, Schleswig Holstein (which borders Denmark and has North Sea and Baltic beaches), further along the Baltic to its border with Poland.
Among the sights along the way are the flower-fringed canals, windmills, and meadows of the German fens; the ancient, half-timbered homesteads and fertile orchards of Altes Land; the sandy beaches and regal resorts on the island of Usedom; and the dramatic chalk cliffs and ancient beech forests of Jasmund National Park, on Rügen island. And yet it is the grand basilicas and simple village churches en route which have the most impact.
In Stralsund, after meandering through the streets around the Alter Markt, it is too late in the day to climb the 104-metre spire of the Marienkirche basilica, to the viewing platform, which has exceptional views over the city. And the Jakobikirche, once used as stables by Napoleonic occupational forces, is now a cultural centre. So, I seek out the oldest of the three parish churches: the 13th-century Nikolaikirche, dedicated to the patron saint of seafarers and tradesmen.
Inside, the 14th-century painted walls and pillars are breathtaking, as are the wooden carvings. An astronomical clock sits behind the high altar. Constructed in 1394, it is the oldest astronomical clock in the Baltic region, and the oldest mechanical clock in the world still preserved in its original state.
During a lunchtime stop in Osten, a small rural village on the banks of the River Oste between Bremerhaven and Hamburg, the scale of the riverside Church of St Peter, for such a small village, piques my curiosity and I venture in to take a look. My surprise does not diminish: inside, an all-white Baroque interior strikes a dramatic contrast with the church’s red-brick façade, and an unusual modern angel hangs suspended from the ceiling above the font.
Built on the site of its 14th-century predecessor, the church is best viewed from the unusual chain transporter-bridge near by (one of only three in Germany), which provides a leisurely passage for pedestrians across the river.
Caroline MillsDecoration inside St Nikolaikirche, Stralsund’s oldest church and a part of the UNESCO World Heritage site
IN HAMBURG, the second-largest city in Germany, where old and new architecture are juxtaposed, my eye is taken not just by the imposing Hauptkirche Michaelis — regarded as the city’s most prominent landmark, it has a spire to climb and the largest crypt in northern Europe. Or, indeed, by the remnant spire of the Gothic Nikolaikirche memorial, once the tallest church tower in the world, whose observation deck can be accessed by lift to view the footprint of the church, destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943.
There is also the vivid blue hull of the Flussschifferkirche (Riverboat Church), Germany’s only floating church, moored in the city’s World Heritage Speicherstadt district, with a backdrop of Hanseatic brick warehouses. The beautiful wood-panelled boat-cum-130-seat-chapel, designed to give pastoral support to mariners visiting the port, opens for weekly services.
But, of all the churches I encounter in the Baltic region, perhaps my favourite is in Wismar. On Lübsche Straße is the Heiligen-Geist-Kirche (Church of the Holy Spirit), found alongside one of the few completely preserved medieval hospitals in northern Germany.
The church’s artworks and frescoes, its medieval stained glass, gilt candelabras, and decorative ceiling set against plain white walls unite grandeur and simplicity. The pews, carved from great hunks of oak, are rustic and gnarled, with centuries-old graffiti that make me smile as I translate messages scratched by generations of churchgoers.
A boat tour along Germany’s coastline enables the traveller to visit its many offshore islands. In the north-west of the country, I visit Spiekeroog, one of the East Friesian Islands and part of the World Heritage Wadden Sea; while in the north-east I explore Hiddensee, off the west coast of Rugen, Germany’s largest island and just a hop from Stralsund.
istock Deck chairs on the beach at the resort of Ahlbeck, on the island of Usedom
Both Spiekeroog and Hiddensee are car-free, and offer walks and cycle rides galore as an antidote to city sightseeing. I pick one of the cycle tracks over the dunes on Spiekeroog. While the charm of the tiny Alte Inselkirche (Old Island Church) and the striking stained-glass windows of the new church grab my attention as I pass by, it is the island’s natural beauty that triumphs.
The track up to the Dornbusch Lighthouse, on Hiddensee, offers similar rewards: incredible views punctuated by hot pink Sweet Briar roses and pin-pricks of orange berries from the sanddorn bushes that flourish on both islands.
Both islands also provide miles of silvery sand beaches, as does the island of Usedom, off the east coast of Germany, where the nine-mile long beach and promenade (the longest seafront promenade in Europe) attracts sun worshippers to the wealthy imperial resorts of Bansin, Heringsdorf, and Ahlbeck. Here, against a backdrop of swanky turn-of-the-20th-century villas, I pull off socks and shoes and sink my toes into the soft sand. While the Baltic Coast’s churches provide a definite spiritual lift, so, too, does the beach, as the waves lap over my travel-weary feet.
I took the car-ferry from Harwich, Essex, to the Hook of Holland, with Stena Line A. A three-hour car journey took me through the German towns of Papenburg and Leer, close to the Dutch border, where I followed the River Ems and the German Fen Route (Deutsche Fehn Route) to the coast, before touring east to the island of Usedom and the border with Poland. If you prefer to hire a car in Germany, flights from the UK to Bremen and Hamburg are frequent. Ferries to Spiekeroog depart from Neuharlingersiel and to Hiddensee from Schaprode, on the west coast of Rügen. For details of the European Route of Brick Gothic visit www.eurob.org. The architecture of North German Brick Gothic churches is highlighted at a small museum (with English translations) in Wismar’s Marienkirche. For further information on Germany visit www.germany.travel/en.