BREMEN, Germany - Even a casual armchair tourist thinks of Paris when an image of the
Eiffel Tower pops up. And
Dorothy would immediately know she and Toto weren't in Kansas anymore if she spotted the
Stature of Liberty from out of their tour bus window.
Yet a seasoned traveller might be hard-pressed to recognize the surroundings if plunked down in a huge market square in front of a bronze statue of a rooster on the back of a cat on the back of a dog on the back of a donkey.
Brothers Grimm added lustre to this city in northwestern Germany just downriver from the North Sea by making it the focal point of one of their fairy tales. Bremen had already gained fame centuries before as one of the key participants in the Hanseatic League - a confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns that dominated trade along the northern coast of Europe from the 13th to 17th centuries.
Perhaps not as well-known to North American lovers of children's stories as the other Grimm tales featuring Snow White, Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel, Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten - the Town Musicians of Bremen - are the unofficial patron saints of those who champion the underdog.
In a nutshell, the story recounts the plight of four aging characters - sort of the Grimm equivalent of The Rat Pack - who throw in their lot together for one last gig. The donkey has been stubbornly refusing to carry heavy loads anymore and is about to be put out to pasture, the dog no longer has the fire in its belly to go hunting with its master, the cat has lost its taste for mice and the rooster has missed one too many wake-up calls and is headed for the stew pot.
The foursome decide to head for Bremen to try their hand at being musicians - it IS a fairy tale after all - but on the way they discover an abandoned house, use their various skills to drive off some home invaders and live there happily ever after. No one seems to have pointed out to the good burghers of Bremen that the animals never did get to their city, but why let the facts, such as they are, get in the way of a good story?
The statue of the town musicians is one of a number of popular features of the Marktplatz (Market Square) in the heart of the city. Dominating the area is a giant
statue of Roland, a knight protectorate of the city carrying the sword of justice and a shield emblazoned with an imperial eagle. Since the dawn of the 15th century, the Roland statue has been watching over the ornate Rathaus or town hall, built between 1405 and 1410 in Gothic style, with a Renaissance fa&ccedial;ade added two centuries later.
In 2004, the building, along with the 10-metre-high guardian statue, was included in the prestigious list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The Rathaus, the meeting place of regional government representatives, is open to the public for tours four times daily (twice on Sundays) and is a bargain at five Euros (about $7.50) per person, with children under 12 admitted free. The intricately-carved wooden walls are festooned with oil paintings of the various trading ships that plied the North Sea in bygone days. Gilded ceilings are breathtakingly beautiful and an ornate mirror over one entrance, with the visitor's reflection representing today, is bracketed by figurines to the left and right depicting the past and the future respectively.
Should the town hall tour work up a thirst, you need only descend the wide staircase to the Rathaus wine cellar and restaurant - the Ratskeller - for a glass of one or more of the 600 German wines on the premises. The cellar is world-famous for housing 12 gigantic kegs of Germany's oldest wine deep in the bowels of the building. One vat dates back to 1653 and our tour guide took delight in relating a story about a Chinese billionaire who recently offered to pay 150,000 euros for one bottle of wine from this 1299-litre barrel. It was an offer the cellar master was reportedly quick to refuse!
A wine-tasting tour of the ancient cellar - spookily illuminated by guttering candlelight - costs 9.90 Euros (or about $15) for adults, six Euros ($9) for teenagers up to the age of 16 and three Euros ($4.50) for children under 12 accompanied by an adult. Should the youngsters get all excited about being involved in such a grown-up activity, don't spoil their fun by revealing that the "wine" in their glass is actually non-alcoholic grape juice.
Back out on the market square, a rabbit warren of wall-to-wall ancient houses now serving as boutique hotels, trendy cafés and souvenir shops is just a short stroll away in the Schnoor section of the city centre. There are several explanations offered for the name Schnoor. One of these refers to the old German word "schnur" meaning string - with the houses seemingly strung together like a pearl necklace. Another suggestion is that since the area borders on the River Weser, it once was home to net makers serving a vibrant fishing industry.
Whatever its origin, the Schnoor is a great place to while away a few hours sipping a glass of local wine or a flagon of the Bremen-produced Beck's beer - or shopping for a memento of the Grimm brothers' anthropomorphic town musicians that can be had in the form of everything from key chains to wall plaques to postcards to stuffed toys.
Should the magical air of Bremen put you in a romantic mood and you're travelling with the love of your life, you might decide to pop the question or, if already wed, renew your vows. That done, you can celebrate the occasion by staying in what is considered to be the smallest hotel in Germany and perhaps the world - the Hochzeitshaus or wedding house in the Schnoor district.
No need to worry about nosy neighbours because the Hochzeithaus caters to only one couple at a time. Its modernized three floors are a honeymoon delight, boasting a four-poster bed, a whirlpool bath, floral bouquets, bathrobes and slippers, a well-stocked mini-bar and refrigerator filled with a wide variety of German delicacies. An all-inclusive one-night stay runs from 349 Euros ($525) on high-season weekends to 279 Euros ($420) on a weekday in January, February, October and November. All state and city taxes are included.
If you're really in a romantic mood, local musicians might be persuaded to serenade you from the sidewalk outside your window. And they very well could be dressed appropriately as a donkey, dog, cat and rooster.
Tom Douglas is an Oakville-based travel writer with many travel articles published on this website (see: Our Writers) and author of a number of books on Canada's military heritage. Read Tom's bio at:
Considering that Bremen suffered heavy World War II damage, the fact that the 600-year-old statue of Roland and the City Hall, UNESCO World Heritage Site, largely escaped unscathed is noteworthy. Therefore the great hall that welcomed city council meetings for centuries, the fabulously decorated golden room with its awesome massive frescoes, a spectacular spiral staircase, and a most bizarre 1926 painted tableaux showing a dinner honoring World War I leader Paul von Hindenburg all survived intact.
Another reason to cheer the Rathaus' survival is the mural-lined cellar Ratskeller, where...