Baltic Beauty

Judy Bryant shares the nautical delights of the north German coast


North Germany



South African Garden and Home February 2020


February 2020


Judy Bryant

While exploring Germany’s northern-most province of Schleswig-Holstein, I discovered one of the most typical ‒ and evocative ‒ emblems of its rich seafaring tradition in a simple, stark Protestant church. On the antique linen altar cloth was a long row of ship’s anchors, each painstakingly hand-embroidered in red thread.

There are similar symbols of this maritime heritage wherever you look: weather-beaten lighthouses, rows of red brick merchants’ warehouses, and ‒ on a more light-hearted note – chocolates in the shapes of starfish, shells and anchors.

My trip began in Hamburg, where I was met by friends eager to view the city’s new landmark, the Elbphilharmonie. Named after the Elbe River that connects the city to the North Sea, this huge building, on an inimitable waterfront site, encloses music performance halls, a public plaza, apartments and a hotel.

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The “Elphi” architects have retained the exterior of a huge 19th century warehouse that once housed shipments of tea, cocoa and tobacco. Above it, they have positioned a massive, glittering iceberg of over 2000 curved and flat planes of glass. Its wave-like façade has been portrayed in everything from handbags to cookie cutters in the visitors’ shop.

The wraparound observation deck was the perfect spot to view cruise, container and historic ships, and church spires and old town landmarks. Then, as the sun was out, and so were the buskers, we wandered through Hamburg’s fish market that’s been established for over 200 years.

Next we explored the “Speicherstadt”, or City of Warehouses. There were rows of beautiful buildings, with small windows surrounded by intricate brickwork, and topped with green oxidised copper gables. We passed numerous canals and I was intrigued to hear that Hamburg has more bridges than Venice.

Then we drove about 100 kilometres north to the provincial capital, Kiel, on a motorway that spliced through vibrant green forests thick with beech, oak, ash, alder and spruce trees. Much of Kiel’s industry and business revolves around the 17-kilometre Kiel Fjord, a huge natural harbour; it’s also at the eastern lock of the world’s biggest artificial waterway, the Kiel Canal, linking the North Sea to the Baltic.

We passed enormous cruise liners on our way to a popular Sunday lunch spot, where a crowd was seated under trees listening to jazz. I settled down to a plate of spring “spargel”, thick white asparagus traditionally served with baby potatoes, ham and hollandaise sauce.

Kiel has loads of attractions for nautical buffs, from a wartime U-boat transformed into a technical museum, to a Gothic Revival fish auction house with exhibits on fishing and seafaring history. Kiel was also gearing up for its annual “Kieler Woche”, welcoming sailors from around the world.

About 4000 old and new vessels anchor here at this time, and some atmospheric evenings were spent enjoying fish soup in candle-lit restaurants, then strolling along the promenade viewing old sailing ships. Once we peeked into an old victualler’s store, full of memorabilia ‒ now a snug restaurant.

My goddaughter introduced me to her favourite coffee haunts.  Café Resonanz was adorable: the entire ceiling was clad in pastel-painted doors, copper kettles hung from the ceiling, and the bathroom entrance was a wardrobe piled with vintage suitcases.

This area was once ruled by Denmark and we gazed at gorgeous Scandinavian products in the shops, from candles and glassware to soft rugs and cushions. Clothing boutiques sold fine linen garments printed in colours of moss, strawberry, sky-blue and hay. In the main street countrywomen in little red huts offered mounds of spring strawberries.

I stocked up on foodie presents: coffee in brown or blue printed packaging, old-fashioned jams with white cloth ‘hats’, and chocolate fish in wooden boxes, a culinary play on Kiel’s traditional delicacy of smoked fish (sprats).

We often headed for the beach in a camper van, parking in a spot where the Baltic Sea was a metallic grey-blue, and pink roses rambled over crumbling stone barriers and bunkers. I was intrigued by the beach chairs, with padded seats and woven tops and sides, so you could stay cosy.   These were apparently invented in the 19th century by the imperial court basket maker.

Eckernförde, north-west of Kiel, has narrow cobbled streets in the old town centre.  Roses ramble up the ancient walls of converted fishermen’s cottages and I was nearly fooled by a life-size model of a pipe-smoking sailor. A carved wooden bench was reminiscent of a Viking boat’s prow ‒ you can visit the museum site of a large Viking city nearby.

It was a delight to cross the wooden harbour bridge, peering down on mottled rocks and floating jellyfish. Perfect for a promenade, with stops at shops selling nautical-inspired gear such as navy and white striped T-shirts, and finely crafted boat shoes.

The local museum had charming displays such as a replica of a traditional shop, black and white postcards, old-fashioned ruched bathing costumes, and harbour panoramas, with the artist’s box of oil pastels displayed below.

The countryside was planted with rape, and maize for biofuel, with red poppies and blue cornflowers dotting the fields. Groups of cyclists pedalled from village to village while hikers explored the forests. Sometimes we bought organic eggs, vegetables and honey.

An architectural highlight was Lübeck, famous for seven church steeples and its concentration of Gothic brick architecture. Allied bombers pounded this port city in 1942 and I found the most poignant reminder in the Marienkirche (St Mary’s Church). In the south tower area, two enormous broken bells have been left where they fell after the bombing.

The Schiffergesellschat building has housed a restaurant for the past 150 years. It harks back to the 15th century when Lübeck reigned as the queen of the Hanseatic League, a powerful confederation that dominated Baltic maritime trade. Shipping moguls met at this building to discuss business, and we were entranced by memorabilia gathered over centuries.

Our Dutch-born waiter explained that “everything that is older than the tenants themselves is not touched, but sheltered lovingly.” Models of wooden ships hung from darkened beams, while stained glass, intricate carvings and company crests added to the atmospheric surroundings.

Such trade not only enriched the region but also ensured a steady supply of sugar and almonds for Lübeck’s famous marzipan. Covered in chocolate, wrapped in red foil with gilt lettering, it’s a sweet temptation to take home.

North Germany comes highly recommended, whether you’re a nature lover, a maritime enthusiast, in search of architectural gems, or simply enjoy good food and wine and browsing around beautiful shops and weather-beaten buildings.

First published in South African Garden and Home, February 2020

Images Judy Bryant