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(2012 - Fall/Winter Issue)


Thoroughbred and harness races on the muddy North Sea tidal flats lure 30,000 bettors and spectators annually. Sailors, seafood and seaways mark a celebrated maritime culture. Red-brick gothic cathedrals rise from the ashes of war.

My northern German odyssey began at the coolest seafood restaurant—Franke’s Seestern—overlooking the breezy Cuxhaven harbour and shipping channel. Chef Ulf Franke and his Russian wife, Maria (a former KGB agent), trotted out a poster illustrating several dozen North Sea fish, patiently explained what they were and described local ways for preparing them. This was a good omen for my trip, during which I worked my way through many more seafood meals, each prepared in northern German style: fresh, attractive, nutritious.

While much of Cuxhaven was destroyed by wars and other strife, Steubenhöft—a 20th-century passenger terminal for emigrants to North America—still operates as a cruise-ship stop. It recently established an exhibit jointly with the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax, where more than 120,000 German immigrants who sailed from Cuxhaven docked at Pier 21.

Cuxhaven is also home to the Waddensee, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009. Famous for the biodiversity in its tidal flats, the Waddensee has become a major tourist attraction where visitors can walk barefoot in the squishy mud at ebb tide, and kids can kick up a mud storm. Our two-hour tour of the flats was led by a marine biologist, and my feet appreciated the lovely natural pedicure. However, I was sad to have missed the annual mud-flat horse races in nearby Duhnen, so that’s on my to-do list for next time.

Hanseatic History: Lübeck and Wismar

Once the capital of the Hanseatic League, 12th-century, Lübeck remains one of the area’s most important medieval towns, despite severe damage during World War II that obliterated some 20 per cent of its historical monuments. In 1987, old town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site to help preserve and promote its stunning architecture, including red-brick gothic cathedrals with steeples up to 125 metres high.

On our walking tour of old Lübeck, we stumbled upon one of the town’s hidden gems—tiny rose-covered cottages tucked into alleyways behind the main streets. Originally built in Lübeck’s heyday to house a burgeoning population of labourers and porters, these cottages are now coveted real estate. They are home to a fortunate few who sometimes rent them out to visitors.

One of my favourite food groups—marzipan—is another of Lübeck’s claims to fame. At the Niederegger Marzipansalon, named after the merchant who brought this exotic almond-based confection to Germany, we sipped marzipan cappuccino, nibbled on a multi-layered marzipan torte, and drooled over mounds of miniature marzipan lobsters and berries and piglets.

Farther along the coast in the former East Germany (German Democratic Republic) is the Baltic seaport of Wismar, only three hours by boat from Denmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2002. Old town boasts one of the largest market squares in northern Germany that in 1921 served as a backdrop for the movie Nosferatu, adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Wismar’s cobblestone streets are dotted with statuettes of Swedish heads (Schwedenköpfe) poking fun at the Swedish rule of more than two centuries.

In the rural areas around Wismar, many country mansions abandoned during the Soviet occupation are being reclaimed by their original owners or sold to hoteliers. One of these, the seaside Schlossgut Gross Schwansee (schwansee.de), has refurbished the 18th-century castle and stables, and added a modern eco-friendly hotel to the complex. In the village of Stellshagen is the reclaimed Hotel Gutshaus Parin (gutshaus-stellshagen.com), now one of Germany’s organic BIO-Hotels.

Hamburg: Savvy, Stylish, Sexy

After four days on the bucolic back roads, I was ready to rock. And Hamburg, with its cafés and canals and culture, was the perfect place.

From our centrally-located home base at the Lindner Hotel Am Michel (lindner.de/en/LHH), we explored this seductive city in cabs and on foot. In addition to some 106 distinctive neighbourhoods, Hamburg boasts more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined. Along the canals is the old warehouse district (Speicherstadt), which is being re-imagined as a commercial and tourism powerhouse with an assortment of intriguing museums, delightful specialty shops and cool eateries.

Hamburg’s biggest power play is the new philharmonic centre (Elbphilharmonie) in the harbour (HafenCity), slated to open for the 2014–15 season. The Elbphilharmonie will redefine Hamburg’s skyline as did Sydney, Australia’s opera house. It blends the old and the new, topping an historic warehouse with curved glass to emulate a 100-metre tall ship towering over the harbour.

But some things never change. The Reeperbahn (red-light district) is as seedy as it was in the early 1960s when the Beatles lived there, playing strip joints and nightclubs. During that time, they acquired their signature “German-boy” haircut, made their first professional recording, then rocked into Beatlemania history.

I didn’t have nearly enough time to savour all the goodies of this region, so I left craving more. Perhaps my next trip will be with my Canadian friend and Hamburg native, Krista, to shop till we drop—and rock on. 

Travel Planner

Flanked by the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Poland, northern Germany is accessible by sea, air, rail and road. Lufthansa and its Star Alliance partner, Air Canada, fly from Canada directly into Frankfurt, and from there into Hamburg. Inside Germany, travel options include renting cars or taking trains (bahn.com/i/view/USA/en/index.shtml). For more information, visit germany.travel.

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