The tale of Bremen's Town Musicians was probably one of the goofier tales that came to the offices of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. Once upon a time there were four animals: a donkey, a hound, a cat, and cock. All faced old age and certain death, either naturally or at the hands of their masters. Somehow the donkey convinced the others to joinetogether on a trek to Bremen to be the town musicians. Finding themselves without food, they come upon a robbers house where the robbers had a full meal in front of them. To drive away the robbers, the animals climbed on each other's backs and began singing... or really, just making lots of noise. The robbers were scared off, and the musicians got their meal. But then the robbers returned, only to be scared off again due to a series of wacky mishaps by the animals that made the house appear haunted. The house soon became the permanent property of the musicians... who never did make it to Bremen.
So, what was the moral of this tale? You either, eh? No matter. Probably a teamwork thing. But as the northwest of Germany became the source of so many of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and the old city of Bremen was so befitting of fairy tales, it was not surprising that the Town Musicians became icons. In fact, the first photograph shows the musicians immortalized in a 1951 bronze sculpture just near the town square, a sculpture also celebrated on the city website.
The average person may find this merely cute, but 1951 was a very significant time for Bremen. Bremen, once a very proud Hanseatic port city with centuries of naval merchant history behind it, was bombed to its foundations during World War II and was recovering. It was itself an old city in tatters, but with the strife of the war behind, it was setting a new (or old) course for itself in the latter half of the 20th century. Would it find a new life?
You betcha. The old city (Altstadt) has been almost fully restored is now one of the great cultural centers in northern Europe. One colleague told me that it was his favorite city when he lived in the region. There was always something to do and the old city was a joy to walk around. Based on my experience there, I must agree.
The Altstadt was an oval region sandwiched between the northeast bank of the Weser River and the Stadtgraben, a series of V-shaped moats that were once part of the city's defenses. The northwest half of the Altstadt was mostly modernized, with beautiful covered shopping galleries. The southeast half started at the main square and ended at the Schnoor district. The part was more old-fashioned, and was easily the best medieval quarter I visited among Germany's larger cities. One could easily spend a full day around the Altstadt of Bremen alone.
My tour began with the main marketsquare, shown in the backgrounds of the first two pictures. Along with the Town Musicians, the points of interest included Bremen's major icon -- the statue of Knight Roland, shown in the right of the second photo. According to Bremen's tourist guide, Knight Roland symbolized civil rights, and had done so since the Hanseatic age, long before human rights came in vogue worldwide.
Not shown in the photographs here were two other icons of the main market, the Gothic town hall and St. Peter's Cathedral. The decoration on the town hall (or Rathaus) was incredibly intricate -- a mosaic of reds, yellows, and greens on a deeply sculptured facade. St. Peter's Cathedral was impressive as well, with golden mosaics of Biblical scenes on its facade. The marketsquare was itself a mosaic of stones formed as a huge compass dial.
The second great point of interest was Böttcherstrasse, whose entrance is shown in the third photograph. Böttcherstrasse was once an original market street, a very tight alley running from the main square to the river bank. Rebuilt and refashioned in recent times, Böttcherstrasse became one of the posh shopping districts and host to the trendiest cafés. It was home to Bremen's main casino, and to a special building called the Carillon. Near the roof, the Carillon has a massive array of bells (called the glockenspiel), about fifty in total, that played a very elaborate melody on the hour each hour. At the same time, a rotating panel on the red-brick facade turned at set intervals to show a woodcarving of famous Germans and others. The panel had ten different stories represented that all appear during the course of a day.
The next part I visited, and my personal favorite, was the Schnoor district at the corner of the Altstadt. As you can see in the fourth photograph, Schnoor was a small maze of tight cobblestone streets and old-style half-timber buildings. These housed mostly cafés and restaurants, souvenir and specialty shops, and museums. Most places catered to the tourist crowd, but there wasn't as much kitsch as I'd seen in similar districts elsewhere. But if you wish to dine at one of the restaurants in Schnoor, you best reserve -- they got crowded quickly.
I devoted the rest of my time on the riverbank -- the Weser Promenade and the Schlachte. On-going at the time was a river music festival, which was attracting huge crowds. The fifth photograph shows the Promenade with red-brick St. Martin's Church in the background. The Schlachte, or boulevard, was the pedestrian district along the tree line just beyond the line of white tents at left-center. Those white tents represented a long market ready to serve beer and wurst to the mass throng of music lovers. I spent a good hour listening to a couple middle-age Germans banging out some classic rock like they were still youngsters! (Great thing about seasoned rock musicians -- they never die, they just round up a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a cock and head to Bremen.) By the way, the Beck's Brewery was on the opposite bank and slightly further downriver from where I took this shot. It was a huge facility, and offered tours during the week.
My tour of Bremen's Altstadt was nothing short of fantastic. I loved it from start to finish. Even if can't carry a tune to save my life, I hope to get back there someday.
Trips taken 6-7 September 2003 -- Page last updated 18 August 2006 -- (C) 2003 Tom Galvin