Episode 83 – Looking back wistfully: An afternoon in Bremen, July 2016

It seems perversely appropriate that during our current pandemic, when folks are looking back at the 1918 Spanish flu and calling up images of the plague, that my thoughts return to walking through The Schnoor in Bremen with my cousin and her husband.

But I’ll get to that in my usual roundabout way.

Ted and I made our very first trip to Europe for our 35th anniversary, in 2013, taking a Viking River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest. As some of you will know from my family history blogs, my mother grew up just outside Budapest and fled after WW 2, eventually sailing to Canada from Bremen. Because I thought it would be too emotional to make our journey in that same direction, we cruised into Budapest instead of beginning there. The 2 week cruise exceeded all our expectations, as well as helping us decide to which cities we’d like eventually to return for longer stays. July of 2014 marked my Aunt Lydia’s 90th birthday, so we immediately planned to attend her celebrations in northern Germany, with the intent to travel south from there into Austria. Unfortunately, in June of 2014 I tripped at work and broke BOTH wrists, precluding any travel. I’ll leave to your imagination all the things you cannot do for yourself with both arms in casts.

It was July of 2016 before we returned to Europe. (In the intervening summer of 2015 we vacationed in the Berkshires of Massachussetts – that’s a blog unto itself if I can remember all the things we did that year). The plan for our 3 week trip was to spend a couple of days with my aunt and cousins, who still live in the town where my Dad had lived before coming to Canada, and then travel with them to Bremen and Berlin. After that Ted and I would continue on by train to Munich, Salzburg, and Vienna.

Having missed my aunt’s big milestone, we nonetheless began our trip by visiting her, and my cousins, in their home town of Holtum an der Geest in Niedersachsen (the German state of Lower Saxony). I won’t dwell on our family visit, except to say that it kicked off our holiday in the best possible way. We walked off the plane in Bremen mid afternoon (without our luggage – but that turned up later in the day) into welcoming hugs, and were driven straight to another cousin’s 50th wedding anniversary party that had been going on for most of the day in their home town’s community hall. The balance of the day was a blur of hugging, dancing, singing (in German), food, Sekt (sparkling wine) and schnapps shooters. Jet lag? WHAT jet lag?

A couple of days later we took the nearby commuter train to Bremen, folkloric location of the famous Grimm tale “The Bremen Town Musicians” (Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten), and historic seat of commerce for the Hanseatic guilds and maritime trade. It is completely separate from Bremerhaven – the port city, “Bremen’s Harbour” – on the north sea, although connected to it by the Weser River. Officially, Bremerhaven is “the city at the seaport of The Free Hanseatic City of Bremen”, which is a mouthful in either language. We didn’t visit the port, although I hope to do so next year with son #2, so he can see the place from which his forebears sailed to Canada.

But I digress. Back to Bremen.

Since we were only planning to spend a single day, we focussed on the area around the central Market Square, a large (37,000 sq ft) pedestrians-only public square surrounded by ALL of the following amazing buildings:

The Hauptbahnhof – main train station (1886 AD)

Bremen’s “new” town hall (1405 AD), scaffolded for cleaning of the stonework.

The Schütting (guild headquarters, 1535 AD)

Bremen’s almost incongruously modern looking state parliament building (1966), on the left in the photo above.

The Bremen Cathedral (1041 AD)

…and the reconstructed Hanseatic guild buildings (orig 1600-1700 AD, rebuilt aro 1920) which now house shops, restaurants, banks, and apartments.

The area around the Rathaus (town hall) with the Roland Statue (above) was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Roland, paladin of Emperor Charlemagne, is the protector of the city. The inscription on his shield translates to “I manifest your freedom, as granted to this city by Charlemagne and many other rulers. For this, be thankful to God, that is my counsel”

As soon as we arrived at the square it was time for cake and coffee. Clearly, our train ride had been hard work. Actually, we learned very quickly that in Germany and Austria, it is ALWAYS time for cake and coffee, at least if it is before about 4 pm – after that, desserts become scarce and beer and wine take over. Sitting at an outdoor table with our “Milchkaffee” (literally “milk coffee”, the German version of cafe au lait) and a slice of fruit-topped cake allowed us to plan our day. Helga and her husband, despite living quite near Bremen, don’t often visit it, so they were in tourist mode as well. My “wish list” included finding as many statues of the Bremen Town Musicians as possible, and seeing the Rathaus and Rathskeller (the town hall and the beer pub below it) and the cathedral, all of which we did.

Inside the cathedral

Inside the Rathskeller, clockwise from top left: the entranceway’s modern lettering “since 1406”; a beer keg dated 1657 inserted in the original painted granite wall; another of the many ornately carved and coloured kegs; a portion of the main hall showing the buttressed ceiling; one of the private dining areas. “Keller” means cellar, and authentic Rathskellers are always underground. This was no exception.

My favourite of the Bremen Town Musicians statues, with Manny and Ted rubbing the donkey’s nose for good luck.

Beyond those “must sees” we walked out of the market square to the eight-sided Am Wall Windmill, built in 1898 on the site of the original 1699 structure for a quick cousins’ photo.

From there, we entered Bremen’s Schnoorviertel, the oldest quarter of the city. “Schnoor” is slang for a string, as of pearls; this part of town is made up of extremely narrow winding streets of tall thin houses touching each other’s sides like beads on a string. The neighbourhood dates to the 10th century, but the oldest currently surviving buildings are from around 1500AD. This was originally a poorer part of town, crowded with fishermen, lesser-skilled craftsmen, and large families squeezed into tight quarters. Revitalization of the buildings began around 1960, but the roads remain too narrow for cars. In some places, two people can barely walk side-by-side. Oral history has it that in the early 1700’s when the plague hit Bremen, the inhabitants of the Schnoor were particularly hard hit because they could not even stay the suggested broom handle-length apart in the streets. If we were there today, 6 foot “social distancing” would be impossible.

In The Schnoor. Notice the creepy plague imagery on one of the buildings!

Rats and plague. Clearly we had to stop for more cake and coffee at the Katzen Cafe, whose sign shows a dancing rat between two cats. Strangely, the Cafe was not really a cafe at all, but a trendy restaurant extending up into the second and third floors of one of the narrow buildings, a veritable rabbit warren of intimate rooms and an outdoor terrace two floors above a tiny courtyard. No worries – we had a light lunch with local beer AND more cake and coffee, and were quite happy. I recall that Manny cautioned me about my impulse to tip our waiter. Wait staff in Germany are decently paid and have health and vacation benefits; many are as loyal to their workplace as the chef! Anything beyond just leaving behind and coins in your change is actually frowned upon (viewed as a condescending North American habit based on the assumption that wait staff need charity).

We finished our day in Bremen window-shopping at the confectionery, where you can watch all kinds of candy being made, before heading back to Holtum Geest for a late supper. The shop is on Böttcherstraße, which is famous for its many expressionist sculptures commissioned in the 1920’s. I found the one outside the confectioners rather disturbing.

Sadly, the train schedule did not allow for us to stay in Bremen into the evening, but I remember our visit as being a really lovely day. Hopefully 2021 will allow us to go back to visit the city’s famous Christmas market.


  1. As always, a much enjoyed read. I too hope we can experience a visit back in time with you! Can we feel this will be possible in 2021? Fingers crossed.


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