By Claudia Fischer and Roger Holiday
The German port city of Bremen is in fairy tale country. The town is at the very start, or finish, of Northern Germany's picturesque Deutsche Märchenstrasse, The Fairy Tale Road -a fact that is played to the hilt by the city's tourist officials and merchants. The Bremen Town Musicians - a brave foursome of donkey, dog, cat and cockerel who, according to the Brothers Grimm, outwitted wicked robbers - emblazon everything from coffee mugs to matchboxes. But it's all done a notch above the usual tourist hype, in part due to the presence of sculptor Gerhard Marck's acclaimed bronze statue of the animals that has graced the west side of the Rathaus on the Marktplatz since 1951.
Also standing proudly in the center of the square with a watchful eye fixed on the modern Parliament Building, is the 30-foot statue of Roland, ancient protector of Bremen, nephew of Charlemagne and powerful symbol of the city's fiercely guarded sovereignty. As long as Roland remains in the Square, so the story goes, Bremen will remain free and independent. Needless to say, during the heavy bombing of the city in World War II, extreme measures were taken to protect the statue of Roland, while all about him fell.
Between the Marktplatz and the River Weser is Böttcherstrasse, a narrow cobbled pedestrian street constructed early this century as a cultural center for the city. The thirty-year project was the brainstorm of Bremen coffee merchant, Ludwig Roselius, who bought up the buildings and hired the architects to create this charming 100 or so yards of rustic red brick façades and simple gables that now house museums, shops, restaurants and galleries.
Roseliu's other contribution to humanity? He invented decaffeinated coffee in 1907!
An even more atmospheric area in Bremen is The Schnoor, where 15th and 16th century houses and fishermen's cottages have recently been restored under the auspices of the local preservation society. The colorful district encompasses a small patchwork of narrow streets and passageways lined with high quality artist's studios, shops, cafés and inns.
The Schnoor is a fine place for browsing at any time but our favorite, and least expected, find was the Hochzeit Haus, proudly touted as the world's smallest hotel. With just one bedroom, it has to be!
In the Middle Ages, the Hochzeit Haus, or Wedding House, served an important function for couples who came in from the countryside to be married in the cathedral and needed a temporary address in the city. In keeping with tradition, owner Herr Fritsche still gives booking priority to guests either honeymooning or celebrating important wedding anniversaries.
A bit of a gimmick to be sure, but the hotel is actually quite lovely, spread out over three floors and smartly decorated in light colors and stylish Italian furniture. The ground floor has a high-tech kitchen and eating area. The next level up provides a small bit of living space but also includes a big bathroom with a whirlpool tub built for two. On the top floor is an elegant four-poster bed and a great view of the entire Schnoor.
• Address: Hochzeit Haus, Wüste Stätte 5, D- 28195
Reservations: Book through the Konditorei im Schnoor (phone 0421/32-45-32), the Bremen Tourist Office (phone 0421/3-08-00-0) or through any of Bremen's leading hotels.
Location: The Schnoor
Rooms: One three-level suite
Proprietors: Family Fritsche
Prices: Single 420 DM ($248), double 560 DM ($331),
Meals: Champagne breakfast daily.
Facilities: Patrons who book through one of Bremen's leading hotels have full use of that hotel's guest facilities.
Disabled: Not suitable
Parking: Street or at certain other hotels (see facilities)
Rating: In a class of its own.
Separating the old town from a newer part is a beautiful green belt of open park land, canals and lakes. Called the Wallanlagen or Wall Parklands, the 200 meter wide strip of greenery follows the line of the medieval fortifications and moats that were dismantled in the beginning of the 1800's.
Near the point where the main city gate penetrated the old ramparts is a windmill whose long sails still sometimes turn gently in the wind. Once there were over a dozen such windmills in Bremen, providing flour for everyone who lived inside the city walls. The view of the windmill from the Herdentorsteinweg bridge as you walk from the Marktplatz to the railway station is quite picturesque.
This favorite of U.S. Astronauts Ed Gibson, Joe Allen and others is a short 100 meters from the Wallanlagen and a perfect example of the difficulties of hotel rating systems. The Lichtsinn gets just one roof peak in the venerated Michelin Red Guide, a rating which in no way reflects the distinctive charm and sophistication of this relatively unknown hotel. We suspect the modest rating is largely due to the lack of an elevator - the installation of which is currently underway.
Public rooms are lovely with fresh white walls, deep leather chairs, antique armoires and Persian carpets throughout. The magnificent hotel bar could have been lifted straight out of an English pub with its ornately carved wood and stained glass lighting. The overall effect is one of grace and comfort.
Most of the guest rooms are like small suites with a sleeping alcove and separate sitting area furnished with both a love seat and an upholstered wing chair. The ceramic tile bathrooms in each room are fully equipped and pristine.
Address: Hotel Lichtsinn, Rembertistrasse 11, D-28203
Phone: 0421/36 80 70
Fax: 0421/32 72 87
Location: 100 meters from the Wallanlagen
Rooms: 33 rooms
Prices: Singles 80$ ($104), doubles 105$ ($142)
Meals: Breakfast only
Facilities: Free fitness room, free bicycle loans
Credit Cards: All
Disabled: Not suitable.
Rating: Excellent 16/20 G $
Hotel Zur Post
The main tourist office and several hotels surround the busy Bahnhofplatz, a convenience for those arriving by train.
The Hotel Zur Post, noted particularly for its Michelin one-star restaurant, L'Orchidee, is a good choice for overnight accommodations. The hotel was originally built in the late 1800s but has been extensively remodeled in recent years. The rooms are designated as economy or first class, depending primarily on size, but all have private bath or shower, minibar, phone and color-TV. The management is both efficient and friendly and all the services expected in a large hotel are available.
Address: Hotel Zur Post, Bahnhofsplatz 11, D-28195 Bremen 15
Location: Opposite Bremen Hauptbahnhof
Rooms: 194 rooms, some nonsmoking
Prices: Singles 157-197 DM ($93-116), doubles 187-257 DM ($111-152).
Meals: Breakfast 20 DM ($12) extra. Three full-service restaurants.
Facilities: Sauna, indoor swimming pool, fitness center 15 DM ($9)
Credit Cards: All major cards
Disabled: Limited access
Other: The Post is a Best Western Hotel
Rating: Above Average 15/20
Park Hotel Bremen
Bremen's most luxurious hotel is regally situated at the far end of a formal reflecting pool in the middle of the city's 350-acre Bürgerpark. Before World War II a little-used community center stood on the site and it wasn't until after the war and its resultant bomb damage that the decision was made to build a hotel with public rooms grand enough for important functions.
The Park is a brisk 30-minute walk from old Bremen and perhaps better located for people traveling by car than by train. Whatever your mode of transport, the setting is magnificent with footpaths and cycle tracks, meadows, streams and lakes.
The standard guest rooms open from wide hallways and are well furnished with all the usual amenities, including plenty of space to store luggage. Especially noteworthy are the bathrooms with heated towel bars, high-powered hair dryers and magnifying mirrors for makeup and shaving. And, of course, just about every room has a wonderful view of the park and its forests of native oak, beech, ash and maple.
There are, in addition, six junior suites and seven full suites stylishly appointed with various combinations of fine furnishings, double sinks, marble bath tubs, walk-in closets, televisions and phones in every corner and multiple wet bars.
The public rooms, including restaurants and bar, are elegant indeed and surely everything the founding fathers could ever have hoped for. Also at a high standard is the courteous and well-trained staff, from the reception desk to the cleaning crew.
One interesting touch: the elevator carpeting provides unique assistance to the temporarily challenged. The day we were there the carpet proclaimed, "Today is Wednesday." One hopes they never forget to change it.
Address: Park Hotel Bremen, Im Bürgerpark, D-28026 Bremen
Phone: 0421/34 08 611
Fax: 0421/34 08 602
Location: In the Bürgerpark behind the train station.
Rooms: 150 rooms, including six junior suites and seven full suites
Prices: Singles 135$ to 165$ ($172), doubles 185$ to 215$ ($248-$290)
Meals: Three full-service restaurants and a bar
Facilities: (No pools, saunas, etc.)
Credit Cards: All
Disabled: Not suitable
Other: Member of The Leading Hotels of the World.
Rating: Excellent 17/20
On a quiet residential side street near the train station and the Bürger Park is the much smaller Hotel Residence, family run and very cozy with just 40 rooms. The ceilings of the lobby and lounge area are crisscrossed by dark Art Deco wooden beams that were carved especially for the hotel in 1898. The floors are scattered with richly-toned oriental rugs and big, green plants sit in every corner.
Upstairs the guest rooms all have private facilities, many with tub, shower and bidet. The rooms have TV, phone and minibar and are comfortably furnished. On the down side, the bedside lighting is poor and rather undistinguished artwork detracts from some rooms.
Address: Hotel Residence, Hohenlohestrasse 42, D-28209 Bremen
Phone: 0421/34 87 10
Fax: 0421/34 23 22
Location: Near Hauptbahnhof, Stadthalle and Burger Park, 20-minute walk to old Bremen.
Rooms: 40 rooms, 24 with bath or shower
Proprietor: Herr U. Straten
Prices: Singles: 70$-110$ ($94-$148), doubles: 90$-145$ ($121-$195)
Facilities: Sauna and solarium
Credit Cards: All major cards
Disabled: Not suitable
Closed: December 15 to January 5
Rating: Average 11/20
Bremen is not only a pleasant, busy city with reasonably priced hotels and restaurants, but offers a good, real-life mix of commercial enterprise, historic significance and well-maintained green space. And its location at the center of both rail and highway hubs make it an excellent choice as a base city for touring northern Germany.
That it is often overlooked by tourists only heightens its appeal as a destination.
Throughout the centuries The Free Hanseatic City of Bremen has fought to protect its autonomy from a succession of emperors, bishops, archbishops, prince bishops and assorted foreign powers, and to achieve its present status as Germany's smallest self-governing state. That determination was so fierce, in fact, that Bremen didn't even join the Hanseatic League, of which they are now so proud, until 1358 when political and economic pressures finally prevailed.
It is hardly surprising then that Bremen has clung dearly to its own special cuisine.
Many of the favorite dishes, of course, involve sausage, cabbage and potatoes. For the adventurous, Knipp is sausage made of pork meat, head, lungs, heart, groats (similar to grits) and herbs, stored in bowls and fried just before serving.
Bremen's true national dish comes complete with its own set of rituals. From the middle of November until early March groups can be seen heading into the countryside on Kohl-and-Pinkel Walks, a tradition which seems to involve a great deal of hilarity, odd costumes and a barrel organ. At any rate, the ultimate goal is a hearty meal of Kohl and Pinkel - brown cabbage and a spicy sausage - at a country inn. The key to the success of this event is green cabbage that has been hit by a hard frost so it turns brown when cooked.
Proximity to the sea has traditionally brought all kinds of fish into the market place and restaurant menus today continue to reflect that abundance and easy accessibility. Every fish the North Sea has to offer can be baked, fried, poached, broiled, steamed, sautéed or stewed to your specifications but one local item to try is Bremen Aalsuppe (eel soup). A combination of eel with groats, carrots, peas and fourteen different herbs, the Bremen version is not to be confused with the Hamburg Aalsuppe which pairs eel with dried fruit, red wine and cinnamon.
Something else to look for are granat, small shrimp caught with special tug nets, cooked on board the boat and purchased for immediate consumption from stalls in the market place.
Beck's In'n Schnoor
Good local cuisine and beer is served up every day at Beck's In'n Schnoor on the main street of the historic Schnoor district. In spite of its wood paneling, old-world ambiance and 600 year-old foundations, the building itself isn't that old. Still the atmosphere is cozy and casual and the prices reasonable. Cream of Tomato Soup - a thick broth topped with unsweetened whipped cream and laced with gin - costs 8.50 DM ($5). Also delicious, the White Herring Rolls on apple slices accompanied by cranberry-horseradish sauce and black bread, 8.50 DM ($5).
A main dish that appears frequently on local menus is Labskaus, simple sailor's food that makes a sustaining meal even for non-seafaring types. Labskaus - Bremer Art, of course - is a chunky hash of corned beef, herring and potatoes garnished with sour pickles, beets, bits of cooked pumpkin and a fried egg, 17.50 DM ($10.35). Another hearty entrée is the Herring Pot with white herring, shrimp, leeks and cucumber all in herb cream with boiled potatoes alongside, 22.50 DM ($13.30). A full range of pork, veal, lamb and beef items are also available.
Breads at Beck's are wonderful and come with a ramekin of Schmaltz, a concoction of lard drippings and butter that takes the place of plain butter as a spread. Not recommended by the American Heart Association but quite tasty.
Contact: Beck's In'n Schnoor, Schnoorgasse 34-36, Bremen, Germany, phone (0421) 32 31 30. Open every day 11 am to 1:30 am. Moderate. Major Cards.
Rating: Above Average 14/20
More elegant - and more expensive - is the Bremer Ratskeller on the Marktplatz, an historic wine bar since 1405 that boasts 600 different German wines hidden away in its cellars, perhaps the most complete selection of German wines in the world. No beer is served at the Ratskeller.
The enormous restaurant is divided into three separate vaulted areas, the first of which features several antique wine barrels and a long wall of priöken - tiny individual dining rooms or alcoves. Sort of a cathedral crypt with food.
The main dining room is lovely with crisp, dusty peach linen tablecloths, fresh flowers, tall thin-stemmed wine glasses placed beside silver serving plates and napkins so intricately folded as to be reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House.
An assortment of bread and three colorful herb butters arrives with the drink order, both much needed for sustenance during a serious study of the menu not to mention the lengthy wine list.
Typical appetizers on the a la carte menu are two kinds of melon with prosciutto for 18 DM ($10.65) or a plate of assorted smoked fish at 19 DM ($11.24).
Also on the menu is Bremer Chicken Ragout, an up-market version of a local specialty, that's made up of crayfish, veal sweetbreads and tongue, mushrooms and sausages, served with vegetable risotto for 38 DM ($22.48). Red Snapper Filet with Mango, Papaya Sauce at 37 DM ($21.90) and Fillets of Beef and Veal in a creamy morel sauce for 42 DM ($24.85).
On Tuesday evenings there's an extensive and well-prepared fish buffet that's a good value at 42 DM ($24.85) but only if you're really ravenous. Highlights of the first course table included gravlax, poached salmon and caviar, smoked dog fish with various mustards and horseradishes, cream of shrimp soup and a court bouillon fortified with mussels, tiny shrimp and julienne vegetables. The salad of fresh spinach and four kinds of leaf lettuce was good but the featured fish of the evening, whole salmon baked in puff pastry and served on a rich cream sauce, was the least interesting part of the meal. For anyone still vertical, the dessert table offered an array of puddings and mousses as well rote grütze, a thick mixture of various red berries that's popular with the local citizenry.
Contact: Ratskeller, in the Rathaus, D-28195, phone 0421/32 16 76, fax 0421/3378121. Major cards. Moderate to Expensive.
Rating: Above Average 15/20
Beer: A Bremen Tradition
Beer and Bremen just seem to go together. Perhaps it's because the first German Brewers Guild was organized there in the 15th-century, or because beer has been exported from the city's port for more than 600 years. Or maybe it's that some very well known brew houses are still operating there, the most familiar to U.S. imbibers being Beck's and St. Pauli Girl, both fairly light pilsners by German standards.
A lesser known brewery, Haake-Beck, uses traditional copper vats to produce a complete range of beers, each one served in its own distinctive glassware. For something unusual order Kräusen Pils. It's a cloudy, unfiltered beer that arrives in cracked-glass pattern glasses. In summer, Bremer Weisse, a beer brewed with wheat rather than barley, is a tart and slightly fruity hot weather favorite. Expect a bowl-shaped glass.
Other labels to look for are Hemelinger Spezial, somewhat sweet, and a malty flavored, Remmer Altbier.
The newest entry on the scene is a brewpub where fresh, real ale is produced naturally on the premises. The tavern, Schattinger, is appropriately located on Wachstrasse behind the Schatting, the medieval guildhall on Marktplatz, and open every day for food and drink from 11:00 am to 2:00 am.