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  • Writer's picturePeter Antonucci

Wismar, Germany (I)

Thursday | June 2, 2016


Today was my first day of true sightseeing since I rejoined the ship in May.


Early in the morning, we arrived in Wismar, Germany, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2002. This charming city retains many reminders of its days as a member of the Hanseatic League and over 250 years years of Swedish control. The area surrounding the medieval harbor and Old Town are especially rich in the red brick architecture so emblematic of that era, including old warehouses, the elaborate water works at Market Square, and three landmark churches. Brick was so prevalently used because there is no natural stone in northern Germany. On occasion, we came upon black bricks, which denotes a more expensive method of construction. The black bricks are burned seven times, making them more of a status symbol than the simple red bricks.

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The Old Town (or in German, Altstadt) was fortunate to have avoided major damage from bombing raids during World War II, leading to an inviting scene of well preserved, gabled storefronts, and half-timbered apartment buildings.

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After breakfast, we mustered and headed out for our tour of this delightful city.


We had a tour guide who was animated and well informed throughout the 3 ½ hour tour.

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Wismar was founded in 1226. For over 300 years, dating until 1803, the city was under Swedish rule. After that, Napoleon led his army into the town and it took on a French culture for several decades. Part of Germany during World War II, Wismar came under Soviet rule as a result of the Anglo– American– Soviet peace agreements. Accordingly, it remained part of what became East Germany, from 1945 until the reunification of the German state in 1989.


We were told that most of the city was not rebuilt until after reunification, and those who live here are glad for that. Had the city been rebuilt under Soviet rule in the 1950s or 60s, the buildings would have been Soviet style, and not very attractive or well constructed. Instead, the buildings have been rebuilt with strong construction, and painted in vibrant colors so that it almost appears no war was ever waged here (but for the bullet holes here and there).


Our guide told us that things were remarkably different when she was a little girl. When she first came to Wismar, as part of East Germany, many of the buildings had no glass windows, but rather plywood nailed where the windows had once been. In addition, most of the buildings, like this one, were in a state of total disrepair.

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This house was barely better.

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In the days of two Germanys, residents in the city had to put their names on a list and wait 8-10 years before they could buy a car, and the cars that were eventually delivered were cheap Russian cars. The cars were notorious; they were actually heated by coal-burning furnaces! As a result, they stank, as did the passengers who endured any long ride during the cold winter months; and it led to the country’s air being one of the most polluted in Europe.


As a little girl, our guide and her family lived a few miles from Wismar, but that area was part of West Germany. During the Christmas season, her family sent packages to their East German relatives, but it took months for them to get there and the packages were usually opened before they were received. (To this day, stores in this region of Germany begin to sell their Christmas products in September, as a vestige of those times when West German residents began to pack their Christmas bags to be sent to East Germany and to allow them several months to make the less than 20 mile trip.)


Our guide also told us that when the Berlin wall collapsed and reunification occurred, East Germans were shocked to see that towns and stores in West Germany were actually real, and not simply built for movies and television shows. They were most fascinated with fresh fruit, especially oranges and bananas, which they had never known prior to the reunification of Germany.


Germany now imposes a 9% “Solidarity tax” that is assessed to residents in order to modernize the former East Germany. (In addition, the German citizens pay a 7% “Church tax.”) The total tax burden for a German citizen is approximately 38%. A sales tax of 19% is also imposed upon all goods purchased.


Upon unification, many young German citizens immediately left East Germany for West Germany. For example, she told us about a neighboring town that boasted a population of 210,000 people in 1989, and that has been reduced to only 92,000 people today.


As we all know, Germany has become a world leader in taking on refugees from Syria and northern African countries. Today, over 1 million refugees have come to Germany and most are ensconced in West Germany because the former East Germany does not want anything to do with them.


Asparagus and backfish (whatever that is) are very big here. They are seen on almost every menu, and featured on almost every fishing boat.

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As we left the dock area, we came to Wasser Tor, the Water Gate, one of the major arched entry points into the Old City.

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One of the first major buildings we came to was the Hospital of the Holy Ghost, apparently constructed in 1228 to “keep the old and the sick off the street.”

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Parts of the outside of the building give away its age, and are testament to the construction that has lasted over 800 years.

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Inside the church is remarkable, especially the old wooden, vaulted ceiling, and the hand painting that adorns it.

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Next, we came to St. Nikolia-Kirche, a gorgeous building featuring impressive brick Gothic architecture, built between 1382 and 1487 for all sailors and fishermen.

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This church, like most of the other churches in Germany, was originally built as a Catholic church and was re-designated Lutheran after the Reformation circa 1529. Construction of this, and other churches, was undertaken by single young men from towns outside Wismar. The reason is that construction of the church was dangerous, due to the high steeples and turrets. If a person from Wismar was killed during construction, the city had to make remuneration to his family. So the city chose to use only young men who had no family, and who lived outside of Wismar.


We walked along an ancient canal that runs through the middle of the town.

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Understandably, it is called the Pig Canal.

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For decades, there were no environmental restrictions on what kind of waste would be poured into the Baltic Sea. As result, the water was extremely polluted.  Wismar was the home to 183 breweries and 150 hops gardens at the time and, because beer brewing involves heating the water and disinfecting it, everyone drank beer, including the small children.


We next came upon the steeple of St. Mary’s, or St. Marien-Kirche.

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This church and steeple were constructed in 1339. The building was extensively damaged towards the end of World War II, during a bombing raid that occurred on April 27, 1945, just weeks before the war was going to come to an end. The church remained heavily damaged until 1962, when the Soviet government decided to destroy the entire church. This was the subject of great protest among the townspeople, but we all know that protesting the Soviet government in the 1960s was akin to beating one’s head against that same red brick wall.

Today, only the magnificent steeple remains.

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The only thing that can be seen of what used to be the church is an open area of ground with some small brick structures.

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We walked through the Market Square, which is one of Germany’s most beautiful and largest squares, measuring over 107,639 square feet.

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The historic square is surrounded by buildings constructed in the 19th century neoclassical Art Nouveau architecture. It’s focal point is the Wasserkunst, an intricate wrought-iron fountain constructed by Phillip Brandin and imported from Holland in 1602.

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Our next stop was a brewery– Brauhaus am Lohberg zu Wismar, established in 1452.

Again, brewing beer was the principal activity in the town of Wismar in the 15th century. Because the town was so well known and its beer in demand from all over the world, ships from this port transported locally made beer to Holland, Flanders, England, Portugal, Spain, Scandinavia, and as far as lower India, creating wealth and prosperity for the city of Wismar. Following a colorful history stretching many centuries, this same building served as a brewery and then a supply store for Sweden for a few years, before becoming a warehouse in the early 20th century. In 1980, after extensive renovations, it was converted into a brewery and restaurant which reopened in 1995. At the time it was opened in 1452, each German consumed an average of 351 liters of beer per year. Today, each German consumes “only” 107 liters per year. This particular brewery brews 4,000 liters per week. Fortunately, under the terms of the German Purity Law of 1516, beer brewed in this site only contains water, malt, hops, and yeast.


After the end of the tour, I grabbed a lovely lunch on the waterfront– at yet another restaurant whose menu was printed entirely in German.

I had an amazing dish of five different types of local fish.

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By this point, the early-morning drizzle had ended, the sun was shining, and it was hot. We had a lovely walk to the ship.

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We even saw a pirate ship sailing out of the harbor.

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Back aboard the ship, it was time for a workout, a nap, and dinner - obviously in that order!

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