On top of the world


January 2002

We’ve decided to visit the German seaside community of Lübeck in the dead of winter.  Looking at that last sentence it doesn’t seem the wisest of plans.  But there is wisdom here. We only have a weekend to work with and we don’t want to spend most of it traveling. This limits our choices from Copenhagen.  As veterans of the travel scene we both prefer to visit off-season.  We won’t be going to the beach but can hope the folks we meet will have time for us instead of the usual crowds.  (Having lived in the Caribbean for years, I suspect that German beaches would be a disappointment in any weather.) Finally, it doesn’t hurt that, with unused capacity, there are train and hotel bargains to be found.

In addition to being a seaside resort, Lübeck is famous for its Marzipan which is a sort of Almond paste used in chocolates.
The town is somewhat sleepy. A great place to relax and meet nice people but not the place to go if your idea of fun is cultural extraveganzas or upscale shopping.

It all works out.

The most interesting part of the four hour train ride was crossing the Baltic sea.  A ferry swallowed the entire train!  This was somewhat of a surprise.  At first, the view of a wall outside our window suggested that we had just pulled into another station with an unusually long stop and close walls.  We knew something was different when the lights went out and passengers started leaving without their luggage.  There was no panic and, if there was an announcement, it was in a language that we did not know. Then the train started to slightly sway even though it wasn’t moving in relationship to the wall outside. It was time to investigate.

Our train parked next to a truck

Outside the train we discovered a large deserted underground parking lot.  There was another train, large trucks and such all around us but no people.  No signs or arrows either. We eventually found an obscure door that lead up a long narrow stairway that exited out an unmarked door into splendor.

Suddenly we were in what might be an upscale mall. There were restaurants and a variety of shops selling everything from clothes to liquor. We turned to look at the door we had just left and, yes, it was still unmarked.  It could easily have been a service entrance to a broom closet.  It was easy to imagine losing our way home so we very carefully noted its location.  We felt a bit like Alice just down the rabbit hole but decided to act more like sophisticated James Bond types as we explored our floating world.  I shall look at service entrances with greater interest in the future.

The ship was designed for larger crowds.  Beyond the sparsely populated restaurants there were many rooms full of padded chairs and tables that were not in use. Having brought our usual European travel supplies with us from the train, we happily claimed a room with a view of the ocean for a nice wine and cheese picnic.  Our timing was perfect, there was one sip left in our glasses when the it was announced (in an impressive number of languages) that it was time to go back to whatever transportation you had started on.  We found our door with no trouble.

Street View of Lübeck Street View of Lübeck

The overall ambiance is good. The city is clean and well maintained. But we have been spoiled by Copenhagen so, while clean, we notice the minimal trash and graffeti on the streets.

One of our first thoughts on entering Germany is to wonder why do we call this country Germany.  Everyone here calls his or her country Deutschland. We did not see the word Germany anywhere.

Another country, another word for thank you: Danke or if your really mean it Danke shön.  We need the word often as we are clueless as to where anything is.  Even late at night in this sleepy town there is an information booth where the language barrier does not prevent us from getting a map with the appropriate spots circled with lines between.

Park Hotel Park Hotel Entrance

Our hotel was a five minute walk from the train and they had no problem with our late check in.  Alex has found another great deal. About seventy Euros (sixty US dollars) a day with breakfast and at the center of town.  The room is small but modern, the bed very comfortable and the comforters warm and fluffy.  A smart sample of German engineering is the radiator in the bathroom which doubles as towel rack. Our towels are warm and fluffy and we decide to look for something similar to install in our Copenhagen pad. Despite the name there is no park that I can see. Maybe this is a reference to Monopoly?

The Town Clock Doesn't have a minute hand. This shows a relaxed attitude that I can appreciate. Who needs to know the minute anyway?

The Germans are famous for their engineering skill but Lübeck leads me to question their construction abilities.  Almost every building leans, bulges or both.  We are told that Allied bombing in WW2 destroyed a significant portion of the city.  There could well be nuances of architecture that escape us but the city has a feel of a place that has yet to discover the plumb line.  Perhaps it is like the old story of the shoeless cobbler’s children and the Germans save their great works for export?

This is not the way to make a building. Note that the left side of the building is much lower than the right and the entire building sags towards the middle.

Don't go to the Alex Café

After checking in, we take a random walking tour of the city and get royally stiffed at the first bar we walk into. We were charged thirty-five Euros (about US 30 dollars) for four beers at place called “Alexs” but didn’t know enough to question the bill.  Closer examination of the bill showed that we were charged for ten beers instead of the four we drank so it appears we bought somebody’s comp list. We hope that our name was toasted in honor and not ridicule but give the bar name and picture out of spite.  This was the last place where we had any reason to question the tab.  For the rest of our stay we are often embarrassed by how little we are charged.

Church Lasers Church Lasers - If you look close, you'll see this chuch "shooting" four lasers from a window and receiving one on its steeple.

Our first mystery is the green lasers that shine like oversized light sabers through the fog from steeple to steeple.  They originate from sky high steeple windows, cut a brilliant green line across the city to strike another steeple dead center.  Was this some sort of modern war of the churches or perhaps German experiments in communication? We later learned that it was mostly just fun.  They are intended to show that the city is both historical and modern.  Why a thirty-year-old technology shining neon-like lights is considered modern is beyond me but it certainly looks cool cutting through the fog to this geek.

The usual rule of walking slightly off the beaten path and looking in windows found a few nice neighborhood bars for Charlie to hang at while Alex went to look at old oil or whatever it is in museums that interest her so much.  There was no problem with getting permission to pull out the laptop and using a local power outlet.

Navigation is easy - just look for the steeples

In less than a day of casual walking the city changed from large and mysterious to small and comfortable.  The many steeples make for easy navigation through the twisty cobblestone streets.  Alex’s forced marches from one side to the next are not a problem. Oddly enough, Alex was not the least interested in spending the day comparing prices and equipment in the local computer stores. It takes all kinds I suppose. 

I’ve read that the Germans are not a friendly people.  But you can’t prove that by me from this visit.  While we have been spoiled in Denmark where everyone speaks English,  Germans are universally happy to try to communicate and language was not an issue.  The snippets of Danish that we have learned do help.  But are not essential.  I’m constantly amused that the Germans fall into the same American fallacy that, if they will only speak a little slower and louder, we will understand them.  Oddly enough, as both Alex and I have studied German way back when, this proves to be true as often as not.
We find that we are learning German much faster than Danish. Perhaps this is because we must speak it but I think the Germans tend towards a clearer pronunciation while the Danes tend to mumble.

Claus in charge at Bei Werner

We spent a delightful Sunday afternoon “chatting” with a bar keeper and his only other customer at Bei Werner.  The customer had a very modest command of English while the rest of knew about a couple dozen words of the others language. Still by the end of the day, Claus, our barkeeper, had gone on a special mission to fetch and proudly show us pictures of his grandchild.  I know that for many such pictures are a pain to endure but, for me, when a person wants to show pictures of their wedding, children or grandchildren, I know that I’ve been welcomed as family.  This was a high point of our trip.

Bei Werner Bei Werner

A short exploration of back streets on our first day lead to the discovery of a very local spot.  The bartender was a nice lady in her late middle ages who could easily of been a proud grandmother. The beer was warm but I think that was on purpose.  Beers were about a dollar and half US. Including the bartender, myself and Alex there was never more than five people in the bar during the hours I was there.  There was no problem with my request to use an outlet.

Bei Werner Zur Barkasse
Charlie Typing Charlie at work

Both regulars and staff were friendly if somewhat confused about the geek in the corner punching away on a laptop.  Under other circumstances I might have plugged in the headphones but here it was interesting to listen to the German ambiance as the locals discussed their no doubt important and local business. All this was accented by programmed moments when the jukebox loudly kicked in for a song – usually in English. I've long since decided that folks are not playing songs is English just for this American.

Ceiling Shot
Ceiling shot. Notice the size of the people at the bottom. Everything is huge!

We have discovered that, in Europe, music in English does not necessarily mean the singer has a command of the language. They seem to like the sound but not really pay attention to the words.  From our perspective, English would not make the short list of melodic languages.

The bartender made a wonderful recommendation for our first dinner.  Schiffergesellschaft is even bigger inside than its name.  The ceiling was at least fifty feet high and there was a feeling that the Vikings, knights and other historical giants might well have dined in the great hall.  Perhaps the knights were not so giant as there was a suit of armor that would fit a child in one corner – perhaps some knight who could not pay his bill left the armor?  We did not inquire. 

There is a great deal of diversity here.  On a short walk you will easily see fat, skinny, old, young, well dressed, and poorly dressed people.  We even saw a person walking a pig but people were staring and there was TV camera crew following so this was probably not normal.  On thing we did not see a lot of was children.  Perhaps this is because the weather was poor.

I learned later that this was the historical “Convention House of Seamen and Skippers.” Constructed in the 1500’s it was “newly renovated” in the 1700’s.  The sense of history in Europe often gives this American cause to pause and appreciate. (You can figure the bathroom stuff out on your own but go with my suggestion above).

Deciding what to order in foreign land with an extensive menu is a delightful challenge.    We struck gold with our apps: a mushroom soup and a “lambs lettuce” salad.  Both had local ingredients that we could not identify.  The mushrooms were in bite-sized chunks in a cream sauce and the lettuce leaves were small, crispy and delicate complimented by a zesty balsamic vinaigrette dressing.  The main courses of flounder and breaded veal were local and good but not exceptional.  Odd thing was that when Alex ordered weinershnitzle we both thought she was getting sausage. Just goes to show what little Americans know.  The service was excellent and the prices (diner for two about fifty Euro including many drinks) very reasonable.  Perhaps the highest praise is that we went here for diner again.  We ordered the same apps but specified sausage for the main meal.  We got what we asked for but have decided, on this visit, Germany should be remembered for its food.

Ships Model
There were a number of large ships models hanging from the ceiling.
Top Coaster
Top Coaster

It was here that we first noticed the “reverse coaster.”   After some thought, we decided that this was a great idea.  Essentially it is a coaster that fits the stem of the glass and catches the condensation before it hits the table.  Even though the thing looks a bit “funny,” there are no worries about putting your class back on exactly the same spot.

One of the pitfalls for the American traveler is how the bathrooms are labeled.  The male must decide between going to the restroom for the Dames (Dammes) or Her (Herre). I figured that, if I had to mess up, I’d rather go upscale and used the rooms for Herre. These rooms almost always had urinals so I must have guessed right but it makes me wonder what kind of Herre’s they have here.

Like many European cities Lübeck mostly closes down on Sunday. This was a challenge and an opportunity. We found some open restaurants and museums but that was about it.  Do your grocery and souvenir shopping on another day. We spent considerable time wandering about the city looking for a place for me to settle and see how people live now while Alex went into some musty old building and looked at how people used to live.

 We finally found a great little Turkish hole-in-the-wall diner.  They seem the same the world over but this was the first that I'd walked into in years. The counter person was friendly, energetic, and obviously focused on good product while not minding an opportunities to consult with friends.  Gyros were turning in the window (with an occasional shave) and beer was in the public cooler. So there I was prices reasonable, beer cold, food good, while Alex endured some sort of international puppet museum so she could report a more complete experience. Odd to go to Germany to get to a Turkish pub.

Perhaps this is the beer talking but, in a world that seems to have been taken over by American Fast food chains and pizza joints, the Turkish gryo alternative is an unsung alternative.  I spent a wonderful afternoon watching dark haired young men talking very earnestly about things that appeared to be very important. Visions of mafia and such floated through my head as I decided that a visit to Turkey is on our short list.