For three hundred years from the middle of the twelfth century, the Hanseatic League was a major power in northern Europe. It began with the co-operation of trading guilds in a few Baltic ports to protect their seafaring and riparian trade (‘Hansa’ means convoy), and grew to become a loose federation of over two hundred cities, stretching from the Gulf of Finland to the Southern Netherlands. Though never a state, and with few of the members enjoying the independence of Free Cities elsewhere in Germany and Italy, the League had the cohesion and might to wage and win a war against the kingdom of Denmark.
The prosperity that resulted from judicious exercise of their power ushered in an explosion of civic pride expressed in art and architecture. Great churches were constructed in imitation of French Gothic cathedrals, town halls received extensions and decorative gables, and merchants’ houses were magnificently rebuilt. In decline from about 1450, a combination of political and economic factors broke their monopoly. England was partly to blame. Only nine delegates attended the last Hanse meeting in 1669.
This tour traces the growth of this great merchant empire and explores the remarkable building traditions which arose in its wake. In particular, the development of North German Brick Gothic architecture is a remarkable and – outside Germany – little known phenomenon.
One of the reasons most of these remarkable towns have not been visited more – and part of their attraction – is that for forty years they were locked behind the Iron Curtain. That barrier collapsed nearly thirty years ago, and in the meantime huge resources have been devoted to the restoration of the region’s heritage and to the embellishment of the towns. Much of the damage done during the Second World War, and the consequences of neglect during the Communist era, have now been made good.
Ratzeburg. Fly at c. 10.45am (British Airways) from London Heathrow to Hamburg. Drive to Ratzeburg, a charming town picturesquely located on an island in a lake. The Romanesque cathedral was founded by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and of Bavaria, who conquered the area in 1159. Continue to Lübeck for the first of three nights.
Days 2 & 3
Lübeck. Lübeck was the first, the richest and the most powerful of all Hansa cities. Tremendous prosperity in the 13th and 14th centuries led to the construction on a grand scale of civic and charitable buildings, churches and monasteries, mansions and fortifications. Of the brick-built churches, the Romanesque cathedral was founded by Henry the Lion, but the greatest is St Mary, a soaring Gothic construction. St Catherine (1300, now a museum) houses Tintoretto’s Raising of Lazarus, and St Jacob (1334) retains its box pews and historic organ. The St Annen Museum, in a former priory, shows art of the 13th–16th centuries including an altarpiece by Hans Memling. Walks also take in massive city gates and walls, the town hall, market place and picturesque backstreets. A free afternoon allows a visit the European Hansemuseum, opened in 2015, and the Buddenbrookhaus, former home of Thomas Mann’s family.
Wismar, Bad Doberan. The rest of the tour is in territory which until 1989 lay behind the Iron Curtain. The port city of Wismar has two massive late Gothic churches (Nikolaikirche, Georgenkirche), a mediaeval hospital and well-preserved cityscape of Gothic and early modern merchants’ houses. Between 1848 and 1903 it was technically Swedish territory. Continuing eastwards, visit Bad Doberan Abbey, perhaps the crowning achievement of ecclesiastical Gothic architecture in the Baltic. Overnight Rostock.
Rostock, Stralsund. On the banks of the Warnow River, Rostock joined the Hanseatic League in 1253, and in the next century took over the fishing village of Warnemünde 12km away on the Baltic coast. It became the largest city in the Duchy of Mecklenburg. The Church of St Mary was modelled on Lübeck’s church of the same name, the town hall is mediaeval with 18th-century Baroque embellishments. The City Museum, located in the historic Convent of the Holy Cross, houses an extensive collection of art and cultural history. Continue to Stralsund for the first of three nights.
Stralsund, Greifswald. Unspoiled and undamaged, Stralsund commands the Baltic Straits to the Island of Rügen, and was second only to Lübeck during its 14th-century golden age. The legacy is a unesco-listed gabled streetscape where Gothic showpieces are interspersed with Baroque monuments from two centuries of Swedish rule. The Alter Markt is a unique mediaeval panorama combining the church of St Nicholas with the spectacular town hall. Greifswald has a superb hall church and many merchants’ houses with enormous gables, and a university founded in 1456. Close by are the romantic abbey ruins at Eldena, immortalised by Caspar David Friedrich. Overnight Stralsund.
Stralsund. The Catherine Cloister Museum displays Gothic altars and sculptures alongside objects illustrating the life of Hanseatic merchants; mediaeval ecclesiastical textiles are a highlight. The restored chandler’s house dates to the 14th century, and the still-functioning elevator wheel in the attic is one of the oldest of its kind in Northern Europe. The afternoon is free. You may wish to visit the island of Rügen, renowned for its chalk cliffs, silver sands and beautiful, deciduous woodland.
Prenzlau. Drive South to Prenzlau, once also a member of the League; it was badly damaged during the war and rebuilt in typical GDR Plattenbau style, yet the imposing rebuilt Marienkirche can be seen for miles. Fly from Berlin Tegel, arriving London Heathrow c. 6.00pm.
Andreas Puth read history and art history at the University of Freiburg and gained his M.A. in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. He lectured at UCL, Birkbeck College and the Courtauld on medieval and early modern architecture as well as imagery. Since returning to Germany, he has continued to work as freelance academic editor and translator. For three years, he was also a fellow at the Research Centre on the History and Culture of East Central Europe affiliated to Leipzig University.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,760 or £2,550 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,100 or £2,890 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 320); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 5 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Radisson Blu Senator Hotel, Lübeck: a 4-star hotel located on the banks of the river Trave. Radisson Blu Hotel, Rostock: a large 4-star conference hotel on the edge of the old town with views of the harbour. Hotel Scheelehof, Stralsund: a characterful 4-star hotel in converted historic townhouses. Single rooms throughout are doubles for sole use.
You will be on your feet a lot, walking and standing around. The tour would not be suitable for anyone with difficulties with everyday walking and stair climbing. Average distance by coach per day: 60 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.