Trip part 3: Lübeck

March 26th, 2010

Note: This post was written in March 14-15 and posted after our return.

When I think about Lübeck, the first thing that strikes me is the feeling of history underfoot. It struck me most when we set foot inside the Marienkirche. I had never quite felt a wave of a feeling of stepping back in time like that before. The stones on the floor were uneven and imperfect. Lübeck has had a wet and snowy winter, so the city had spread sand everywhere: sidewalks and roads. Walking into any grand church, I could hear the sound of sand under the shoes of everyone nearby, and feel it under my own shoes. I think I will long associate with Lübeck the feeling of walking into a grand old church, looking up at the top of the old building at seemingly impossible heights, while feeling the grit of sand and uneven stone beneath my feet.


Marienkirche isn’t perfect, like some American churches I’ve been in, such as the Basilica of Notre Dame. It doesn’t have a lot of gold, either, and both of these attributes are wonderful. Look at a column of bricks, and you can see that each brick isn’t exactly like its neighbor, and the entire column isn’t perfectly straight. Lots of things in Lübeck are so old that they aren’t perfectly straight, and it made me think that our American notion of always having to “fix” such things might be somewhat off sometimes.


Look up, and you see the frescos from the 1300s, revealed after many years after the building was struck by an allied bombing raid in 1942. This heavily damaged the building and knocked down plaster from the walls and ceiling, revealing the old artwork. Many parts of Marienkirche were lost as a result of the bombing, which perhaps adds to its slightly sparse and ancient feel. The church bells were sadly melted and crashed to the ground due to the bombing, and have been left exactly where they fell as a memorial.


Look down, and you see the uneven floor, and the concrete slabs above where important people were buried under the floor — an attribute common to many of the churches we visited. It was common to see dates of graves from the 1600s and 1700s, though in some places it would go as far back as the 900s.

The main part of the church has no heating or cooling, and visiting it on a day just a bit above freezing adds to the feeling of, well, old. Marienkirche has to be my favorite sight in Lübeck.

Walking around the city, I get a similar feel. Many streets and sidewalks are made of stone. The streets that weren’t damaged in the war have rows of beautiful old facades. Walk down many streets, and every so often I’d see a little tunnel (“just wide enough for a coffin”) that goes under the street-facing houses to a nice little inner courtyard. These are open to the public, but tend to be very quiet and somewhat private. In the courtyard are smaller houses, which would have originally been used by the less wealthy.

We also saw the Lübeck Dom (cathedral), which had a small museum about the destruction due to the Royal Air Force bombing in 1942. It was very sad to see the photo of the Dom in ruins, still smoking, even now.

Burning Lübeck Cathedral after an air raid in 1942

I can only imagine what it must have felt like to residents of Lübeck to wake up to see many of their priceless centuries-old landmarks and places of worship so horribly destroyed — and all of this for little strategic purpose — really focused on the “morale of the enemy civil population”. It’s sad that the allies would do such a short-sighted and terrible thing. Europeans have long had to live with the legacy of war upon war, while we Americans have rarely had to see the consequences of war up close. I think it would be good for more of us to visit these sites and come up face to face with what a bomb can do, and then perhaps we will be more judicious with them in the future.

Shifting gears now to where we stayed: Andreas & Sigrid, with whom we stayed, have a beautiful 500-year-old house, with lots of original wood beams exposed, and some very old paintings on the walls and ceilings. Nearby were excellent bakeries and a chocolate shop. Terah and I visited it today and bought some very good chocolate.

And this brings me to the second thing I’ll remember: Andreas & Sigrid’s children, Lukas and Rahel. Now, Terah knows no German, I know only a little bit, and the children know no English. So it was a bit slow getting to know each other to start out, but we managed to work around the communication barrier and had a great time. Terah played board games with Rahel, while with me, she kept inventing games to play: hiding somewhere, saying “Hallo!”, and laughing at how many unsuccessful attempts I might make to find her. I showed Lukas the camera on my Droid, which he used a lot, though a racing game on Terah’s iPod Touch was more exciting. They both enjoyed looking at videos of American trains a bit, but especially pictures of our house and yard with Jacob and Oliver. They tried to teach me the German words for things, and also made futile attempts to correct my pronunciation!

When we were leaving today, Rahel came over and gave me a kiss on the hand, then the same to Terah’s hand, then a little kiss on one of our suitcases. It was touching and sweet.

This was one of those experiences no guidebook prepared me for, and no tour bus would have provided. It is something neat to make friends with children despite the large language barrier.

On to the rest of the visit…

We had arrived a little late into Hamburg. After getting our bags and some Euros at an ATM, the next step was to find the bus to Lübeck. No signs for it were evident, so I found an information desk. The person at the desk was carrying on a conversation in German with the person ahead of me in line. I figured an information desk person in a busy airport would speak English, and was all ready to ask “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”, but when I walked up, he got a polite smile, and said, “Good morning! How can I help?” Guess I’m obvious.

He directed me to the bus, gave me a brochure about it, and told me what time it would leave. Terah and I found the spot to wait, and for a moment I stepped inside the airport terminal. Terah won’t let me forget that someone came up to her and asked a question in German, whereas I was spoken to in English. Anyhow, we found the bus, managed to communicate with the driver that doesn’t speak English, and sat next to the friendly person that was talking to Terah. He turned out to be a violin player from Munich, and we had a great conversation for the next hour — he asking questions about the USA, us asking questions about Germany and Munich. At one point, he commented, “You two are so open minded… and you’re also Americans!” He sounded surprised. We exchanged email addresses at the train station.

Andreas found us there, and we walked through the city to his house, with him pointing out the sights along the way. Lübeck is a beautiful city, and though it was damaged in World War II, much of the really old parts still remain. The famous Holstentor Gate has a museum inside, which was fascinating to visit.

On Sunday, we went to church with the family we were staying with, Andreas helpfully translating for us. There I met a British Python programmer, which was fun. His wife is a social worker, which was fun for Terah.

Monday it was time to get on the train to Berlin. We again walked through a cold and rainy city to the Hauptbahnhof, ready to head to Berlin. There we got on a train to Hamburg, then an ICE train to Berlin. Despite having just a few minutes for a connection in Hamburg, it all went perfectly smoothly. The train left Leipzig about 10 seconds late — the clock inside turned over to the minute, then the doors closed and we were off. Impressive.

Note: the rest of my photos from Lübeck are available on Flickr.

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  1. Cùran

    Just a short note: you shouldn’t use the abbreviation “RAF” for something concerning Germany unless you mean the “Red Army Faction”, which wasn’t operational in 1942. Most of your German readers will first think of the Red Army Faction when they read RAF. So maybe another abbreviation or the full text would be best.

    Apart from that: I always enjoy it to read about my country as seen by foreigners. It adds to the perspective. It makes you remember and see things you didn’t notice before or have long forgotten because it’s quite normal for yourself.



    John Goerzen Reply:

    Thanks — I’ve expanded that abbreviation.

    I’m curious what things I mentioned struck you as long-forgotten or unnoticed.


  2. Cùran

    Even though this remark was more a general statement about me liking to read other peoples views on things, in this particular case I thought it interesting that the “sense of history” or the age of the various parts of a city struck you as something special. I’m more or less used to it (not only from Germany but also many other European countries), that you don’t note it as something particularly outstanding. Sure, when I visit a city it’s interesting to see their history, but I seldom felt awed by the age of a city.

    Then you remarked on the punctuality of the ICE, which made me laugh, because if you’re travelling regularly with the Deutsche Bahn you’re accustomed to delays and see punctuality as what it is: almost an exception.



    John Goerzen Reply:

    Heh — I suspect you might not be aware that in the USA, a train in the northeast is officially late if it is 10 minutes late, and in the rest of the country, if it is 45 minutes late. Nevertheless, being an hour or two late is not uncommon. Something tells me that DB is more punctual than that, perhaps?


    John Goerzen Reply:

    That is also interesting with your comment about the “sense of history.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me, but I understand where you’re coming from — if every city is like that, what’s notable about yet another one? The relative newness of Kansas — it wasn’t permanently settled in large measure until the 1800s — means the *none* of our cities are like that.


  3. Trip part 4: Berlin | The Changelog

    […] this was a walk of about a mile. We had been introduced to excellent German bakeries during our time in Lübeck. So, since we hadn’t had breakfast, when we spotted a bakery along the road, we went in. […]

  4. Cùran

    The Deutsche Bahn AG considers a train late if it’s five minutes behind schedule. On the other hand the official statistic for punctuality claims, that 90% of the trains are on schedule (meaning they’re less than 5 minutes behind schedule), so it might just be, that I have bad luck and the delays are due to the routes I use most often.

    By the way: if a train in the European Union is 60 minutes late you get 25% of the ticket price back and if the train is 120 minutes (or more) behind schedule you can claim 50%. That’s due to a regulation by the European Parliament (). Just in case you might need it someday. ;)


    P.S.: Can you make the “reply” links work without ECMAScript? Would be great!


  5. k

    a post about my home town on d-planet: yay!
    I am happy you enjoyed your trip and looking forward to read the Berlin Part.
    ’cause thats where I am living now ;)
    Lübeck feels very old compared to B., the cities are *really* different.
    Oh, part 4 is already there, off I go…


  6. Face to Face With Destruction | The Changelog

    […] Seeing these church bells in Lübeck wasn’t easy for me. They melted and fell to the ground after an air raid in 1942, and have been left exactly as they fell. […]

  7. John Dinwiddie

    I was stationed in Luebeck from 1960 – 1962, remained
    there for another year, married a Luebecker who had been an infant when the air raid occurred. I photographed three years of the reconstruction of the Dom, Petrikirche, and Marienkirche, taking some chances in fenced off areas as I did so. One of the most astounding moments of my life was the first day that I entered the Marienkirche. It was late afternoon, low sun under black clouds, and the red brick columns were lit like flames. And I saw the bells. What you
    saw, and how it affected you makes us brothers. We are
    going back for a month in June, and I’ll think of what you wrote here when again I look at those bells, which I do
    every time I am there, just for grounding. reality. They have
    never stopped their ringing.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    John, thank you very much for your touching comments. I very much appreciate hearing from you.


  8. John Dinwiddie

    I should add this; Thomas Mann started the restoration of the Marienkirche through fund raising from New York. The dwelling that was the model for the Buddenbrooks residence is across the street. At the beginning decade of the 18th Century, Dietrich Buxteheude had been the music director of the Marienkirche for decades, and no less than the young Johann Sebastian Bach walked over one hundred miles from where he lived in order to study with the North
    German master church composer and organist. This building is history, and it has history. It is the largest brick
    gothic cathedral in Europe. Try building one of those. Once
    I was on the catwalks above the domes over the nave, and
    they looked like kilns, the keystones small and vulnerable
    looking. That is what you walk under. Bomber Harris’s blockbusters shattered them without even a direct hit. Then
    came the incendiaries that ignited the wooden frames
    of the copper towers, burned the lintels supporting the
    bells, dropping them. The next day it started raining and
    the flying buttresses, now having no resistance from the
    thrust vectors of the domes, started the process of imploding
    the building. Resistance beams were rigged, and canvass
    was foraged from all over the district to cover the naked nave
    in a shroud that remained in place until 1950 when the
    reconstruction, which my wife watched from her school
    window, began.


  9. John Dinwiddie

    Oh, yes, reading other comments. To us, to my wife and
    her family who went through that air raid, RAF means
    Royal Air Force. I doubt that any who lived through WWII
    would make the other association. We also have relatives
    in Wuerzburg and Cologne. In March, 1945, 90 percent
    of Wuerzburg was destroyed by Harris in his last raid. It
    took 20 minutes.


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