Wismar: Town has bounced back from a history of changing hands
It is a city with a history that goes back nearly 800 years. And what a history it has been.
A member of the Hanseatic League, ceded to Sweden, returned to Germany’s Duchy of Mecklenburg, damaged in World War II, hidden behind the Iron Curtain and restored in a united Germany. Those are the historic highlights of Wismar.
Each era has left its mark, good and bad, on this city on Germany’s Baltic Sea coast.
The Hanseatic League was a medieval association of trade guilds from powerful cities such as Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, Tallinn, Riga and Wismar. As its trade expanded and its riches grew, the cities blossomed.
Wismar’s residents, to show off their fortune, went on a building spree that made the city the center of a style known as red- brick Gothic.
The Swedes occupied Wismar during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century. After the war, the Treaty of Osnabrück awarded the city to the Swedes. They turned it into one of the biggest fortresses in Europe, a city with 18 bastions, and two citadels, defended by 700 cannons.
But after the Swedes’ defeat in the Great Nordic War at the start of the 18th century, the fortifications were razed. The Swedes deeded the city to the Duchy of Mecklenburg in northern Germany for 100 years in 1803 and waived their claim in 1903, leaving the city in the duchy’s hands.
World War II did much harm to the city, but it was not until the 12th and final air raid of the war that the Gothic Quarter and St. Marien and St. Georgen were heavily damaged.
Following the war, Wismar, along with eastern Germany, fell under communist control. While St. Nikolai was repaired, St. Georgen was left to rot, and in an act of cultural barbarity, the city’s communist government had St. Marien — except for its tower — blown up.
The city blossomed again after unification. The grime of the communist decades has been mostly washed away. St. Georgen is being rebuilt, and tourists once again flock to Wismar.
At the heart of the city is the cobblestone Marktplatz, the market square, one of the largest in northern Germany. Beautiful, gabled houses surround it. On one corner is the Wasserkunst, a Renaissance waterworks, that brought drinking water to the city until the late 19th-century.
Some of the buildings of note are the town hall, the Commander’s House, used by the Swedish commandant, and the Old Swede, one of the oldest houses in Wismar. The Alter Schwede, as it is called in German, was built in about 1380. With its stepped buttress gable, it is one of the finest examples of a secular brick Gothic building in Germany. Though not of Swedish origin, its name is a reminder of the city’s Swedish heritage.
If the Marktplatz is Wismar’s heart, its churches are its soul. The three towering red brick edifices, St. Georgen, St. Marien and St. Nikolai, were built in the 13th and 14th centuries.
St. Nikolai is the only one to survive World War II and communism intact, although its tower, once 396 feet tall, is only about 200 feet high today. Interesting, too, is its ornate south transept, decorated with statues.
While Nikolai’s tower is shorter than it once was, St. Georgen’s is nonexistent. Now being reconstructed, there was not enough money left for a grand steeple when this giant was originally built. Small turrets top its transepts and roof. But if you walk inside, you can get a feel for its towering size and check out the exhibit on its history and reconstruction.
St. Marien, on the other hand, is just a church tower. That is all that is left of what was once considered one of the most beautiful brick churches in Germany. As mentioned, the church met its fate at the hands of war and communism, but what is left is still a sight to see. The tower is 264 feet tall, and its clock, donated by Swedish general Helmut von Wrangel in 1647, is almost 50 feet in diameter.
One can still enter its portals, and inside is room for exhibits, a model of the church and artifacts that have survived. Walk around back and you can see the outline of the church marked with red bricks.
A fourth Gothic church, the Heilig-Geist-Kirche, is newer than the others, dating to the 15th century. Inside, baroque ceiling paintings from 1687 depict scenes from the Old Testament.
It is the nooks and crannies of Wismar that surprise. The Grube is one of the oldest artificial waterways flowing through a German city. Stand on the Schweinsbrücke, or “pigs bridge,” take a slow 360-degree spin and look at the reflections of the gabled houses in the water, the 16th-century Schnabbellhaus, now the Civic History Museum, and St. Nikolai church. And don’t miss the four small pig statues on the four corners of the bridge.
Just inside the Wassertor, the 15th-century gate across from the port, is the Lohberg, a colorful square made up of former warehouses that are now restaurants and cafes.
Near the market, on the corner of Krämer and Lübsche streets, is the original Karstadt department store. The four-story art nouveau building was expropriated from the Karstadt family by the communists, and returned after unification.
The harbor district is being refurbished, and the Alter Hafen — the old port — is again a focal point of the city.
Moored in its waters is the Wismara, a replica of a Kogge, or cog, the typical Baltic Sea sailing ship. A shipwreck found near the island of Poel was used as a model for the building of this ship. You can walk its decks, and a couple of times a year it takes to the sea. Flying from its mast is the Jolly Roger, a reminder that the infamous pirate Klaus Störtebeker once harassed the area.
The Baumhaus is also on the Alter Hafen. Here you can see replicas of the Swedish Heads, two busts that stood on mooring posts at the entrance to the harbor (the originals are in the Schnabbellhaus museum). The Baumhaus, or tree house, gets its name from a pole that once blocked the entrance to the harbor.
The Old Harbor meets the old city center near the Wassertor, where boats dock and fish — mostly smoked — is sold right from their decks.
A freshly made fish sandwich would be an appropriate lunch or snack in this beautiful, old city on the Baltic Sea shore.
Know and go ...• Getting there: Wismar is in northeastern Germany on the Baltic Sea. From southern Germany, take Autobahn 7 toward Hamburg and interchange with A-1 and then A-20 heading east, exiting at Wismar.
• When to go: The city can be visited year round, but because of its location on the Baltic, winters can be quite cold.
• Costs: There is free parking near the Alter Hafen. Admission to the churches is free, however they do ask for a 1 euro donation.
• Information: The city’s Web site is www.wismar.de. It is in German, but there is an English link to reserve accommodations.
The tourist information office on the Marktplatz has brochures in English and is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 3 through Oct. 31, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. June through Sept. 2, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year.
— Michael Abrams