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Hanseatic Beauty – Pearls Along the Baltic

On my blog I have repeatedly referred to the „hanseatic beauty“ of certain places. I have also frequently linked back my passion for this specific beauty with my home town of Hamburg and the stamp it has left forever on my soul. Now I don’t know how much anyone who is not acquainted with Northern Europe might be acquainted with what I mean by hanseatic, but I think everyone should be, because really, if a city is a Hanse city, in my book it is pretty much down as a must see travel destination.

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany – the city called the Queen of the Hanseatic League

The Hanseatic League, or Hanse, was a trade union in the Middle Ages that linked together different port cities mainly in the Baltic, but also in the North Sea. Between the cities that were part of it, there were beneficial trade regulations and diplomatic privileges. They formed a network of support all over Northern Europe. In some ways, through their mutual history, they still feel obliged and connected to one another today. There used to be very many of them. In Germany, seven cities carry the name Hansestadt, Hanse city, until today: Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, Rostock, Stralsund, Greifswald and Wismar. In other countries, well known cities that used to be part of the Hanse are Gdańsk, Toruń and Szczecin in Poland, Riga in Latvia, Tallinn in Estonia, Stockholm in Sweden, Antwerp in Belgium and Groningen in the Netherlands.

What all these cities share is that they have been places of trade, mainly sea trade, for centuries. That means one thing above all: They are all connected to the water. Every Hanse city is located either directly by the sea or at least by a river, and in every one of them water plays a great role when you look at the city’s general build-up.

Skyline, Tallinn, Estonia

View to Tallinn’s dowtown over the Tallinn Bay in the Gulf of Finland

Where there is water, there are certain other things. Like bridges!! Hamburg, they say, has more bridges than Venice. That might be due to the fact that Hamburg is just a lot bigger than Venice, but it only makes sense that Hanse cities should have a lot of bridges given that their key feature is being built close to water. I have written about some of them in this post on Riga and this post on Greifswald.

My second favourite symbol after the bridge may be the ship, signifying travel, movement, and freedom, and yes, of course there are lots of ships in Hanse cities. I love the port atmosphere of Hamburg’s huge and bustling port, the second biggest in Europe after Rotterdam, with its cranes and its overall industrial charm, just as much as I love the cosy and cute museum port in Greifswald with its old sailing boats and wooden masts. Size doesn’t matter in this one, as long as the sound of seagulls is to be heard.

Port, Hamburg, Germany

View of the cranes in the port in Hamburg, Germany – from the ferris wheel at Hamburg’s funfair Hamburger Dom

Next to the water, there is usually another specific feature of a Hanse city – the granaries. Where there was trade, there had to be places where to store the goods. In Hamburg there is a whole district called Speicherstadt – granary city. Now, what could possibly be so interesting about a couple of old storage buildings? The architecture!! The typical hanseatic granary is built from red brick stone. It is my favourite material, above all because it looks different and equally beautiful in any weather. In sunshine it will glow fiery, and in grey and misty rain it will keep its earthy, honest feel.

Waterfront, Gdansk, Poland

Waterfront with granaries in Gdansk, Poland

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Granary City – Speicherstadt – in Hamburg, with the brick stone granaries on the right

Not only the granaries feature red brick stone in Hanse cities. Most landmarks in any of the cities are made from this material. There is a style called Brick Gothic that is predominant along the Baltic Sea. This is of course because in this area, there were no natural stone ressources, but clay from which the bricks are burnt. Although this is not directly related to their hanseatic character, I love this style of architecture and it feels like home to me. Find a few iconic examples here:

Monastery ruins, Eldena / Greifswald, Germany

Monastery ruins of Eldena in Greifswald, Germany

House of Black Heads, Riga, Latvia

House of Black Heads in Riga, Latvia

Holstentor, Lübeck, Germany

Holstentor in Lübeck, Germany – Lübeck was called the Queen of the Hanse in the Middle Ages and the richest and most important city in the league

By these elements – water, ports, and red brick stone architecture – I would recognize a Hanse city at any given moment. But what also factors in my love for these places is the mentality of the people. We are talking about places here that have been connected to the world via trade for ages, and that have therefore acquired an international feel for an equally long time. The Hamburg coat of arms has a city gate on it – the Gate to the World, they say. The Bremen coat of arms holds the Key to this very Gate to the World. Hanseats take pride in being open, curious, and worldly. They are direct, engaging, honourable people who make their word count. Sometimes they come across as a little blunt or harsh, but the warmth they display given a little time is heartfelt and true. They will usually greet you with a handshake – but when they hug you roughly, you will know that they mean it. I know where I am at with Hanseats.

In my honest opinion, all of these cities that I have mentioned here are horribly underrated as travel destinations. Most of them are close to one or even several beautiful beaches that grant you delicious summer fun when you come at the right time of year and that won’t be as overcrowded as Mediterranean beaches. The cities all have a long and proud history and a rich cultural life, of course each in relation to its size. The people are generally friendly and curious for the world, used to visitors and open to whatever travellers have to contribute to city life. Personally, I may at times have trouble with German patriotism, and what I say now may go against all I have said about pride so far – but I am truly proud of being a Hanseat.

Have you been to any of these places? Do you think they make good travel destinations?

8 Comments

  1. I was in a Hanse city once without even knowing what a hanse city is (now I know thanks to you!), that city is Groningen in the Netherlands and I had such a great time there. It is a very small city but it has a lovely canal and beautiful old town with churches and open market. Definitely underrated especially compared to the bigger cities in like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht but I loved the atmosphere there. Will be on the look out for more Hanse cities!

    • bridgekeeper

      Mai 28, 2013 at 7:04 pm

      I’ve never been to Groningen – have you written about it?? Actually I have never been to the Netherlands at all, but I’ll be sure to check out the Hanse city there 🙂 And I hope you get to see more of the great Baltic Sea destinations I love so much, dear Aggy!

  2. honestly I’ve never heard about the term “hanseatic” before, lol. But after reading your post, now I know that the word exists :p
    I’m in love with House of Black Heads in Riga, so beautiful. Hopefully one day I will visit Latvia 🙂

    • bridgekeeper

      Juni 5, 2013 at 3:48 pm

      Hehe, I don’t blame you, dear, I probably wouldn’t know if I hadn’t been beat over the head with it in school and also was from a Hanseatic City. Glad you love the pic from Riga – it is an enchanting place. And it was founded by monks from Bremen, so the hanseatic trail kind of continues there. The two cities are very much alike, it’s freaky and awesome 🙂

  3. Mariella, I just love this post! I admire architectural styles myself but often lack the knowledge and terminology. I was really interested in how you drew together the defining features of Hanseatic cities with their red brick, granaries, bridges and water. Lovely post.

    • bridgekeeper

      Juni 5, 2013 at 3:49 pm

      Thank you, Mandy!! I don’t feel like I know nearly enough about architecture and art history… but some things I just take such an interest in. It is especially fun when I have to explain stuff in English, really, when even the German words are hard to come by sometimes :))

  4. Nice post, and I love Hanse cities. I’m curious about the origin — or history of cross-pollination — of styles among these cities. I *thought* that Amsterdam had its own style, but I wonder if it’s Hanse, or vice versa. Any ideas?

    • bridgekeeper

      Juni 5, 2013 at 3:52 pm

      Thank you, David!! You know, I have to admit that I have never been to Amsterdam, so I am not sure… To my knowledge Amsterdam wasn’t part of the Hanse. Part of the style is of curse just rooted in the accessibility of certain material, like clay to burn bricks – that is not really a Hanse thing, but a northern European thing. But there is certainly much to research on this!

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