I’ll go just about anywhere to see a good castle, even if it takes almost all day to get there. And after an early morning flight to Amsterdam (in advance of a training course for work there over the coming week), that opened up a whole new swathe of previously undiscovered territory within a day’s drive for me. I hit the motorways in a rental car straight away, and by mid-afternoon I had made my intended destination: Schwerin in the far north of Germany, not too far from the Baltic coast.
From the lakeside at the edge of the city centre, I looked out onto a small island and first laid eyes on my day’s prize, Schwerin Castle, just as the drizzle clouds that had been above all day parted ever so slightly, allowing the sun to bathe the schloss in a rich honeycomb glow.
Crossing the bridge to the island itself, I was pretty star struck as I roamed the grounds immediately outside the castle. The original 10th century Slavic fort may well be long gone, but the blend of 16th-19th century embellishments has created a bit of a stunner that has long outlasted the various dukes that put their minds to improving the property, and it lives on as the seat of parliament for the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Without doubt my favourite part was at the rear of the castle building, where there was a sunken courtyard with formal garden and fountain. It was surrounded on three glassed sides by the wings of a conservatory previously used for orange trees, but now appeared to function as a pretty busy tea room and restaurant.
Without being able to enter the outer grounds without paying to enter some kind of exhibition that was going on there, I left Schwerin’s castle and wandered around the centre of Germany’s smallest state capital (a tagline I somewhat identified with, seeing as how I hail from Australia’s equivalent). With the city centre also bounded by multiple smaller lakes fringed by trees decorated with the changing colours of autumn, it was all very pleasant, and I was very content to later find a cosy restaurant for dinner that served up a sizeable pork schnitzel and very agreeable half litre of dark beer.
But, despite all that, it was the schloss I was still drawn to, and before nightfall approached I couldn’t help but scour the outside perimeter of the castle to see if I could find one more perfect vista. Thankfully, through the boundary fence, I could.
After overnighting in the suburbs of Lübeck it seemed rude not to check out the city proper before I took off. And it was soon obviously clear that the old town, set on an island surrounded by the Trave River, came with some historic mercantile wealth. The narrow dark brick warehouses and townhouses, so reminiscent of other port cities of northern Europe from the Netherlands to Denmark, were testament to that, as were the tall conical spires of the churches and town gates.
But on a sleepy Sunday morning when nothing much appeared to be happening and the drizzle was rolling in, I didn’t hang around for all that long.
At first, my decision to retreat to Hamburg didn’t appear to be much smarter. Not long after finding a parking spot I found myself intermittently ducking for cover in the Botanical Gardens wherever I could in order to avoid downpours of occasional ferocity.
Though I didn’t yet know it, the parkland ring I was following around the west of Hamburg’s city centre was leading me to the Reeperbahn, which must surely compete with Amsterdam for the title of Europe’s Most Notorious Red Light District.
So I headed north until I got to Hamburg, a chilly city suits a troubled soul.
And on the Reeperbahn I paid a woman far too much to kick me out before I’d even reached my goal.
Every F**king City by Paul Kelly.
By the time I did realise I was getting close, a throaty cheer of many thousands of men spontaneously erupted close by. What lewd conduct could possibly have happened to cause such a ruckus? My mind boggled at the possibilities, but the answer was simple – it was a goal. I hadn’t quite got to the Reeperbahn yet, I was instead passing by Heiligengeistfeld and the home ground of the soccer team FC St Pauli. St Pauli is renowned in Germany for being a grunge club with a cult following, where even the corporate suites are nothing more than rough, graffiti covered bunkers. The team is clearly the poorer cousin to the city’s more successful Bundesliga team, Hamburg SV, and St Pauli appears to revel in that underdog status.
The cheers were for a late goal to seal a 3-1 win at home against 1860 Munich in the Bundesliga’s second division, in the early stages of what would be a successful 2009-10 season that saw St Pauli promoted to the German top flight for the following year. And, as I merged into the mass of jubilant home fans leaving the ground after the full-time whistle and assemble at the junction of the Reeperbahn, that was the limit of bawdiness I would experience. The Reeperbahn itself seemed almost semi-respectable, with well maintained pedestrian areas, greenery and the sanitised chains of McDonalds and Burger King (there must be some Hamburgers who like those hamburgers) mixed in with the more adult orientated shops. There were no obvious street workers and no Amsterdam style window shopping – though I suppose a cold autumn Sunday afternoon was not really the time to see the street at its most disreputable.
Unable to find things at their worst, I instead went to church. Nearby St Michael’s to be exact, where the tower afforded a nice view over the city. Hamburg had suffered badly under Allied bombing raids during World War II (this particular vantage point included), but the wealth coming in through the dockyards of the adjacent River Elbe had helped Hamburg play a big part of West Germany’s so-called post-war economic miracle. Even now waterside cranes stretched along both banks of the harbour for some considerable distance, consolidating it as Europe’s second busiest port (and still in the top ten in the world).
And that was where my new wanderings in Germany had to come to a close. I still had a long drive back to Amsterdam, and needed to be back at a reasonable enough hour to be able to concentrate the next day (and week). But I’d like to go back to the dockyard district of Hamburg one day, primarily to visit the warehouse that holds the world’s largest model railway. Yes, despite finding the adult side of Hamburg, the truth is I’m very much still a kid at heart.