Sunday, 3 March 2013

Wismar - Haunt of Nosferatu

One of the most picturesque towns in the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is surely Wismar on the Baltic Coast. For sure, MeckPomm's capital Schwerin is pretty enough, especially with  its fantasy castle, but Wismar retains its authenticity as a trading port almost un-touched by the blight of East German -era 'modernisation' (or at least, so the Altstadt struck us). We visited Wismar on a cold but sunny day in early March, in the delightful company of a couple of Berlin friends - A German Photografin originally from Eisenhüttenstadt and a Mid-Western American gal.

The rail journey from Berlin on Regional Express takes about three hours; it is the same route that goes to Schwerin, and then another thirty minutes further. You can get there quicker with InterConnex (two hours twenty-five), but then you can't use the good-value Schönes-Wochenende ticket.

Wismar was one of the founding port-towns of the Hanseatic League, the powerful alliance of merchants and market towns trading in the medieval period across the Baltic and North Sea coasts and inland water-routes. Not only saleable goods flowed along the trade routes, but also cultural ideas such as religion and architecture. It was not surprising then that almost as soon as we got off of the train we encountered ware-houses with elaborate stepped gable-ends that we had seen in other Hansa towns such as Stralsund, Rostock, and Lübeck.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Step-gabled warehouses
Am Poeler Tor
Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
More gabled warehouses, Wismar
The other architectural innovation frequently found in Hansa towns is Backsteingotik ('brick Gothic'). In a flat landscape devoid of natural rock, fired clay brick is the only endurable building material. In the towns of Northern Europe, construction with the simple slab of brick has been elevated to an art-form. Mixed red or black clay bricks, and blue or green glazed bricks, interposed with moulded ornamentation, towering high in gravity-defying emulations of the Gothic stone cathedrals of Southern Europe. And thus producing gargantuan buildings such as the Nikolaikirche (church of St Nicholas - as the patron saint of sailors you also get a lot of these in Hanseatic sea-ports).

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Impressive Backsteingotik pediment on the Nikolaikirche, Wismar
The Nikolaikirche is a truly imposing building that dominates the St-Nikolai-Kirchhof like a moored tanker dominates a sea-dock. The nautical analogy isn't so far-fetched, as the German word for a church nave is 'Kirchenschiff', where 'Schiff' also means boat or ship. The Nikolaikirche's 'Mittelschiff' is a lofty 37 metres high, making it the highest Backsteingotik nave in Germany after the Marienkirche in Lübeck (which is only 1.5m higher).

The tower is no dwarf either, being 120m high.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Nikolaikirche tower
It is a bit dizzying pointing your camera up at that tower, and you can't step too far back because of the rows of gabled buildings crowding around the base, so here is a pleasing composition of brick and stone at the base of the tower.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour

Inside the church there is a forest of brick columns from floor to ceiling, imitating the gothic columns of large carved stone cathedrals such as at Köln. In fact you see that these light bricks mortared together make for better material to solidify the soaring visions of gothic architecture - you can reach these inspiring heights without the need for supporting flying-buttresses holding the whole thing up.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Looking down the nave to the altar in the Nikolaikirche, Wismar
The church interior is a chiaroscuro of impressions, as the high-up tall narrow windows cast piercing sunlight into the darkness, picking out details on pews, altars, and gravestones.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Carved rabbit
The lighting conditions aren't conducive to photography without a tripod (Verboten!), so take these photos as an indicator only. The atmosphere of the place, and the solemn weight of time and the bulk of bricks, will make even the most hardened of atheists pause for reflection.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Light and shade in the Nikolaikirche, Wismar
Over the main entrance to the church a baroque Jesus welcomes the faithful on-board in a striped arch of red and black brick ...

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Entrance to Nikolaikirche.
The inscription reads:
"Ich bin die Tür. So jemand durch mich eingeht, der wird selig werden."
... which is echoed by a secular building on the Marktplatz: der Alter Schwede (the old Swede), formerly a warehouse built around the same time as the Nikolaikirche (1380) and now a restaurant.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Alter Schwede, Wismar.
Arch over entrance doorway with statue of jolly Swede person wearing a bearskin.
"So jemand durch mich eingeht, der wird schwedisch werden."
This might only have been a warehouse, but it shares with the Nikolaikirche the same Backsteingotik ornamentation of towering facades, arched windows, moulded columns, and blue-glazed bricks.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Alter Schwede, looking up.
This unique kind of building style has meant that, along with Stralsund, Wismar's Altstadt has the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you are charmed by the look of Backsteingotik, and haven't done so already, then I recommend a visit to Stralsund where it is even more prevalent (though you will also encounter it in innumerable towns all over Northern Germany).

The Swedish connection exemplified by the name of the Alter Schwede is not just random, by the way. Wismar was militarily occupied by Swedish troops in 1628 and became the heavily fortified capital of Sweden's German possessions until it was leased for 100 years to the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in 1803. It wasn't until the lease was up that Sweden gave up any claim to the town in 1903.

Near to the Alter Schwede is the richly-ornamented Wasserkunst, a twelve-sided pagoda-like building with wrought-iron grill work and a lantern topping a copper dome.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Wasserkunst on the Market Place, Wismar
Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Wasserkunst, Wismar
The Wasserkunst is actually nothing more than a water tank and fountain, built in 1602 and fed by wooden pipes from a water tower to provide drinking water to the town. Actually, I say 'nothing more than' as if fresh clean water wasn't important to the town, and of course it was, especially to a foreign-occupied town always in danger of being beseiged. But, you know. A bit OTT?

On the east side of the Wasserkunst are a bronze mermaid and merman (Nix und Nixe) from which the fountain pours. However, the originals were later removed to the city museum during more prurient times, and these are copies re-erected in 2005.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Nix and Nixe
aka Adam and Eve
aka Frauloch & Mannloch (!)
The one-acre square Market Place in Wismar is a mix of architectural styles, ranging from the Backsteingotic through the neo-classicism of the Rathaus, to Jugendstil/Art Nouveau.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Wismar's Market Square.
The streets off of the Market Square also have their fair share of interesting old buildings of different styles, sometimes all within the same building. Also lots of places to stop for a coffee too.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
That's not us, by the way. Too busy snapping photos.
And why were so many apothecaries in Germany named after either lions or eagles?
Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Hanseatic gabled town-.house with Gründerzeit additions,
in-between a basically Jugendstil building and timber-framed Fachwerkhaus.

You may wonder why I have titled this blog 'Wismar - Haunt of Nosferatu'. It is because I had seen this market square before, quite a while ago in a blue-tinted German black-and-white movie, starring Max Schreck with bat-ears and unfeasibly long fingernails. I am talking about the 1922 film Nosferatu, directed by F.W. Murnau, and featuring the famous scene with the shadow of Nosferatu climbing the stairs, then with the shadows of his fingers reaching out for the prone sleeping body of a female victim. You know the one. (If not, do a google for 'Nosferatu online' and you will find lots of opportunities to watch the full movie for free). The film is based on Dracula of course, but as the production company didn't have any right to Bram Stoker's creation - it being still under copyright with royalties going to Stoker's widow- the screen-writer Henrik Galeen had to be carefully inventive with the vampire plot.

Anyway, 19th century Wismar became the setting for Count Orlok's (Nosferatu to his mates) reign of terror after he traveled by sea from Transylvania, presumably taking the place of Whitby in the novel. As you wander around Wismar's narrow cobble-stoned streets with its old gabled buildings, you can well imagine that you have been transported back to the 19th century. Above all, Wismar is a Romantic and Gothic place, which engages your senses and makes a tear in the hurly-burly of the modern world.

But though long-fingered vampires (probably) don't still haunt these alleyways, the spectre of death does still make unexpected appearances. This small street is named 'Sargmacherstraße' - coffin maker street.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Sargmacherstraße, Wismar
The street perhaps came by its moniker because of its proximity to the graveyard of the Marienkirche (St Mary's Church). There isn't much to see of the 14th century church except for its 82.5 metre bell-tower constructed - you guessed it - in Backsteingotik. It was badly bombed during 1945, and then everything except the tower demolished in 1960. The story goes that the 32.3 metre nave and choir were in reasonable condition and could have been restored, but the East German authorities (this was DDR time) deliberately blew them up and reduced them to gravel to be used in construction. This was supposedly a lesson to those of the town's citizens who kept clamoring on about 'history' and cultural heritage'. The authorities allowed the bell-tower to remain as it was a beacon for shipping.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Bell-tower of the Marienkirche, Wismar
Nearby is the third of Wismar's medieval churches, the cruciform St Georgenkirche. Despitze being heavily damaged by the British RAF, it also survived the Soviet regime (though in a dilapidated state) and was restored to its Backsteingotik glory between 1990 and 2010. Like its sister churches it was built tall and massive.

How tall? The tower is 59 metres tall. That's over twice the height of the Brandenburg Gate.

How massive? 78 metres long by up to 57 meters wide by 35 meters to the top of the roof-vaults. That means the main part of the church could be filled by about 4,446 ping-pong balls in my estimation. Yes, the train journey back was long.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Transept of Georgenkirche, Wismar.
Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Georgenkirche. Enough internal space for 4,446 ping-pong balls. Maybe.
Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Georgenkirche, Wismar
It's another big un.
Growing slightly weary of churches, and dizzy from looking up at Backsteingotik towers, we decided to take a trip to the seaside. So, we took a bus heading NW, and after thirty minutes got off near Leibeslaube Campingplatz. There we had a relaxing walk along the sandy beach, surveying the Ostsee (Baltic) and listening to the gentle lap of water as the sea-wind blew through our hair.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour

Totally blissed out by our short excursion we returned to Wismar and the harbour area near the Wassertor, and indulged in Kaffe und Kuchen. Or heißer Sanddorn mit Schuss. Or a great big Becher of ice-cream. What we could have done with were pizzas, but the Italian place we went to didn't start doing them until 5pm. It was 4.30. Still, the Sanddorn was lecker!

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Italian restaurant by the Wassertor.
Don't ask for a pizza until after 5pm.
Soon we would have to catch the train back to Berlin, but first we had a quick look around the docks. They seemed to have nicely renovated buildings amongst modern container storage and lifting cranes, but crucially it felt like a living, working port still, right there on the edge of the Altstadt.

Photo of Wismar by Andie Gilmour
Ship masts in Wismar harbour.
You might just make out the red and white striped pennants; as a remnant of the town's independent status its shipping is still allowed to fly the red and white flag of Wismar.


Another wonderful Tagesausflug, proving once again that: though you might be based in Berlin, there is much more to discover beyond the Berliner Stadtring (A 100).

So don't be afraid of venturing into Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern - the locals don't bite you know.

Not unless they are called Count Orlok anyway.


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