Getaways: From Bremen to the Baltic Sea

Germany’s UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites offer historic treasures and gorgeous landscapes.

Barefoot, my pants legs rolled up to my knees, I survey the horizon of mud, sea, birds and crystal-blue skies before focusing on biologist Heike Niemann as she scoops tiny snails into a screened colander. “Living in these sand grains are more than 800 species,” she says.
This is the German Wadden Sea, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world.
Germany boasts 39 UNESCO sites—places deemed to have special cultural or physical significance—situated along eight routes. The country’s excellent rail service makes it easy to find your way to these fascinating destinations. Here’s a look at a few I visited:
The Wadden Sea is one of the stops on the “Wonders of Nature and Wonderful Cities” trail, which curves around Germany’s northern coast. The trail begins in Bremen, a city founded more than a thousand years ago.
Walking into the heart of town, I find Bremen to be energized with heavy pedestrian traffic and street musicians. Centuries-old buildings that house shops, restaurants and offices line its roads. My destination is the market square, home to the UNESCO-designated town hall and a 16-foot-tall stone statue of Roland, a popular figure in medieval Europe who is said to have been Charlemagne’s nephew. The statue, erected in 1404, and the town hall serve as symbols of liberty.
The town hall dates back 600 years. Curving arches front the building below a gloriously carved facade of figurines and flowers. Inside the oldest part of the structure are paintings depicting the history of Bremen alongside richly carved wood and decorative reliefs. Below town hall is the Ratskeller, Germany’s oldest wine cellar, which was built in 1409. It is the largest repository of the country’s wines, with 650 varieties.
Bremen is also famous for Town Musicians of Bremen, a fairytale that the Brothers Grimm published. A bronze statue of the unlikely quartet is at the side of town hall, a popular photo spot.
The Wadden Sea has two distinct personalities, depending on the tide—mud flats or bathing beach.
I first witness people walking on the hard-packed mud sea bottom, then several galloping horses. This is when I take off my shoes and socks and join the biologist.
“It’s a dynamic landscape, changing all the tidme,” says Niemann as she picks up a crab, then sets it down and watches it skitter away. She explains how people can walk along the mud flats to the island of Neuwerk; they walk back when the tide goes out again or take a boat to shore. As if on cue, water appears on the horizon. Quickly it begins to rise over my feet.
Within minutes the beach starts to transform as sailboats appear, families with kites and beach balls arrive, and children begin building sandcastles. The mud flats are now a bathing beach and everyone is taking advantage of the sea’s new persona.
From the Wadden Sea, I head for Lubeck, which was the Queen of the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns along the coast of Northern Europe. It was created to protect economic interests and diplomatic privileges in member cities and countries, and along trade routes. The league’s business and political influences stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland between the 13th and 17th centuries. It had its own legal system and furnished its own armies for mutual protection and aid.
What visitors find in Lubeck today is a direct result of the league—economically with its major port and, more literally, the brick and mortar of its historic structures, including the famous Holsten Gate, which dates back to 1478. Marking off the western boundary of the city, the gate, with two round towers and arched entrance, was named a UNESCO site in 1987 (along with Lubeck’s city center).
There are many other standout attractions here. Three I visit are city hall with its ornate 12th century interior; the Church of St. Mary, considered the mother of all brick Gothic architecture; and Niederegger Marzipan.
Whether you’re a fan of the almond-and-sugar confection or not, the marzipan shop, which opened in 1806, is a must see. A museum here features marzipan-made life-size figures as well as replicas of such landmarks as the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower and Big Ben. Make sure to take a break for a delicious piece of cake featuring marzipan or a marzipan cappuccino.
Wismar and Stralsund, designated as one UNESCO site in 2002, were major Hanseatic League trading centers during the 14th and 15th centuries. Each of these cities has its own personality and appeal.
As soon as I leave the train station and start to walk to my hotel, I know I will love Wismar. Dating back to the 13th century, its cobblestone streets and alleys lead me to one of the largest open-air markets in northern Germany. This was a rich merchant town in its heyday and there’s plenty of evidence of this in the pristinely preserved homes and storehouses. There are also signs of the city’s communist era in the treatment of its historic churches.
The 265-foot-high tower of St. Mary’s Church is the only reminder of the original brick Gothic edifice built in the first half of the 13th century. It suffered heavy damage in World War II, and the communists destroyed it in 1960. St. George’s Church, also heavily damaged during the war, was left to decay until after the fall of the communist government in 1990. Residents and other preservationists stepped in to save the church, which now serves as a community center. A highlight is the view from the top of its tower, which you can reach by elevator.
After touring the city, I settle in for an interesting and relaxing harbor cruise that provides a clear vision of what was and what is in this lovely little community.
Stralsund, my next stop, also offers many charms as well as communist-era haunts.
Here, I meet a young woman who tells me that when she was a girl the heart of the city was rundown. “Everything was painted gray,” she says. “Now it is vibrant, colorful and restored.”
Stralsund lives up to her description. I particularly appreciate the harbor side, where sailing boats glide by and guests enjoy many attractions, including Ozeaneum, an aquarium that provides a captivating look at life in the North Sea and Baltic Sea.    
The last stop on my trip is at northernmost Germany’s Ancient Beech Forests, which offer a great place to reflect and unwind. The landscape is representative of the woodlands that once covered most of Europe and supplied its residents with the timber they needed to build their homes, cities and businesses. A bonus to hiking through the forest and enjoying its serenity are the island’s famous chalk cliffs jutting out over the Baltic Sea. They’re yet another example of the exceptional natural beauty you’ll find at many of Germany’s UNESCO sites.


Traveler Fast Facts

WHAT IT IS:
A string of German cities and natural attractions curving along the Baltic Sea.
LANGUAGE:
Many people speak English as well as German.
CURRENCY:
Euro.
CLIMATE:
Hot summers, generally mild winters.
GETTING THERE:
Bremen City Airport accommodates international commercial flights as well as private aircraft and is 10 minutes from the city center. Lubeck Blankensee Airport also accommodates private aircraft and is 10 minutes from the city center. After flying in, you can rent a car or follow the UNESCO trail by using Germany’s excellent rail service. Hotels are easy to reach on foot or by taxi from train stations (acprail.com).


Traveler Report Card
ACCOMMODATIONS (A):
In Bremen consider Hotel Residence (A). Once a Patrician mansion, it’s a five-minute walk from the train station and a 20-minute walk from the heart of the city and the UNESCO sites…Hotel Wernerwald (B-) in Cuxhaven, although basic, offers the advantage of being within a five-minute walk of several restaurants, shops and the Wadden Sea…The beautiful Treff Hotel (A) in Lubeck City Center boasts an excellent restaurant and is next to the train station and within walking distance of UNESCO sites…The attractively restored Steigenberger Hotel Stadt Hamburg (A) faces the city market in the heart of this medieval community…Scheelehof (A) in Stralsund is four historic buildings connected by an underground passageway. It features four restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Zum Scheel…Jasmar Resort Neddesitz (B+) is in the country. Reached by car, taxi or bus from Sassnitz, it is family oriented and offers shuttle service to the nearby Baltic Sea.
CUISINE (A):
Many of the restaurants hugging the Baltic Sea feature fresh seafood. Sidewalk cafes are common and service is excellent. Many offer hearty meat-and-potato entrees, expertly prepared, as well as vegetarian dishes.
ACTIVITIES (A):
Tour guides, available for hire in Bremen, Lubeck, Wismar and Stralsund, provide information on UNESCO sites as well as other historic attractions. When in Bremen make sure to visit the Schoor, a small, well-preserved area of narrow lanes lined with fishermen’s and shippers’ houses from the 17th and 18th centuries now occupied by cafés, art galleries and shops.


Editor’s note: The German National Tourism Board provided the author with transportation and accommodations.


Marilyn Jones is a Texas-based writer specializing in travel features.

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