I have never seen a Harry Potter film, but I assume they look like they were filmed in Lübeck. It’s got medieval brick buildings, narrow streets, corridors leading to unknown destinations, etc. It’s a LARPer’s wet dream. Lübeck was unknown to me till I came to perform at the 2010 German National Poetry Slam in Hamburg. I tried to milk the free flight for all it was worth by booking a show in Lübeck the night before I had to be in Hamburg. I arrived late, went to the show, and left early the following morning. I only got glimpses of what this medieval city had to offer, so when I was asked to perform there as part of the inaugural Spoken Word International Festival, I was bout-it bout-it.
Let’s start with the basics: Lübeck is located in the northwestern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. I bet you didn’t know Germany had states. Neither did I because I, too, am an ignorant American. Lübeck is about an hour, hour and a half from Hamburg. Like most German cities, Lübeck is easily accessible by regular trains and buses. You can drive, but keep in mind that just because you’re in Germany it doesn’t mean every highway is the Autobahn and you will be ticketed accordingly.
For this trip I was arriving from the home base for the festival, Kiel (a cheap-ish bus ride from Hamburg Airport). The Festival’s fearless founder/promoter/host/foxy dad Björn Högsdal wisely put a German in charge of buying tickets. I fully admit that I’m a spazz when dealing with machines in other countries. I can figure it out with enough time, but if someone gets behind me in line I panic, push some buttons, and hope for the best. Hanover’s finest Tobi Kunze bought a 5 person pass for 40 euros. I always buy my tickets from the ticket counter because almost everyone in Germany speaks English and I need constant reassurances from strangers.
With someone else doing the heavy lifting, I engaged in my favorite form of sight-seeing: convenience stores. I love that shit. It’s like the Twilight Zone. Everything looks familiar, but instead of strawberry flavored Starburst they have Klügenberry or Glockenberry. Neither of those are real, but you get the point. This is where I load up on soccer magazines, iced coffees, and postcards I probably won’t send.
The train was not the luxurious kind with reclining chairs and first-class cars. It resembled a cleaner and quieter Chicago ‘L’, but nobody was selling loose squares or socks, so 1 point for Chicago. The ride takes an hour and snakes through areas with lots of forests, lakes, and tiny towns. The leaves were starting to change color, and if I wasn’t sitting under a standing passenger’s armpit it would’ve been very romantic.
When we arrived at the Lübeck Main Station, Bas Böttcher snagged us a cab to take us across the Trave River and into the old section of the city. Lübeck has some sprawl, but if you’re coming to Lübeck, you’re coming to explore the old town. The old town is an island surrounded by the Trave River and canals. Though the Allies bombed the shit out of it during WWII, it has been painstakingly restored and the whole damn place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The cab brought us in via a bridge that took us past the old city gates, “Holstentor.” The gates are flanked by two thick-ass brick towers. They are impressive, large, and look like they are going to fall on top of you if the wind blows too hard. They’re dope, but I was glad to already have them checked off my must-see list on my last trip.
The poets were staying in a couple different places. I was staying at a flat with Harry Baker and Monsieur Mouch in a place called Boardinghouse Refugium. It was a building built in the 13th Century, and it had the crooked-ass floors to prove it. We set a ball on the floor and it rolled down to the wall, hitting it with a smack. It’s that crooked. I’m not complaining, though. The spot had a kitchen, living room, and we each had our own bedroom. Compared to some of the cat-filled hellholes I’ve slept in during my early touring days, this place was the penthouse at the Bellagio.
Bas’ family lives in Lübeck and they invited all of us over for coffee and pastries. With Bas’ little brother Jakob’s help, we were able to navigate the gangways whose entrances pockmark the facades of the brick row houses. Story goes: they had a population crisis in Lübeck. There were too many people and not enough homes. They blasted through the front of some of the buildings and made narrow passages that led into the courtyards. In those courtyards, they built small cottages that are now some of the coolest places to check out. What were once working-class hovels are now Airbnb money machines.
Some of the gangways are simply alleys that connect one side of a block to the other, but others are supremely badass. I had ventured into some on my own, but I never found anything too impressive. Jakob took us to a gangway called Ragel’s and we found ourselves in a tiny public park surrounded by buildings straight out of a fairytale, but a good kind of fairytale, not a “kids getting murdered to teach a lesson” kind of fairytale.
Another one led to a cul-de-sac of cottages complete with flowing ivy and unlocked bicycles. It’s funny: walk down a dark alley in Lübeck and you enjoy a beautiful site. Walk down a dark alley in most other cities and someone makes you run your pockets. Our next stop was the Schleswig-Holstein Landesmuseum. Though the museum was closed, the grounds offered some impressive views of the canal and the orange-bricked roofs of the Old Town. From there we strolled past the world’s first retirement home and a couple of the many churches whose steeples create a crown around the city. One of those churches is St. Mary’s. If you look at a picture of Lübeck, St. Mary’s is the one with two towers. When Lübeck was bombed, the bells fell from the tower and smashed into the ground. They were left where they landed to serve as a peace memorial. There are also restored frescoes, a 2-story astronomical clock, and stained-glass windows. You can enter for 2 Euros complete with an English guidebook.
If you’re a cheap bastard and you wanna save those 2 euros for half a beer later, you lush, you can still swing by St. Mary’s and pay a visit to the Devil’s Stone. On the outside of the church, across from the black-bricked Rathaus, is a large rectangular stone with a little devil sitting on it. Rub his horns for good luck, or his tiny junk if you thirsty.
Pick up any guidebook about Lübeck and you’ll read about their famous marzipan. Marzipan is a sweet made out of almond paste that is covered in chocolate or sculpted into a bust of Bastian Schweinsteiger. You will read about it, and you will want to eat nothing but marzipan. You will imagine yourself gorging on marzipan at all meals. Then you will try marzipan and you will feel betrayed. You ever read The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe? Remember how they talked about Turkish Delight, and then you tried Turkish Delight in real life and wanted to chop off your tongue? It’s like that. It’s not bad, but it’s definitely not worth the hype. If you feel like you gotta buy some, go small. They sell this stuff by the loaf if you want to get something for someone you hate.
UNPLANNED MAGIC ALERT!
I fully admit that I am not the bravest traveler. If I’m by myself I will choose the least complicated option. Part of this is because I don’t like veering from my plans, but the other part is because I’m certain that if I take that risk, I will end up totally embarrassing myself. I’m already uncomfortable communicating with strangers without a language barrier.
On our way back to our apartment to change and eat before the show, someone noticed music coming from a darkened gangway. We paused and could tell that it was live music and there was definitely a party going on. If I was by myself, this is where the story would end. I’m like a poorly dressed vampire; I need an invitation to go in an unknown space. Thanks to the power of peer pressure, I ventured in to get a closer look.
Gangways are way creepier when it’s dark. I treated it like a haunted house and made sure there were people in front and behind me just in case a drifter started chasing us with a chainsaw. We emerged from the tunnel and entered a courtyard bash.
The courtyard was lit by a single lantern and tables decorated with candles. The twin spires of St. Mary’s were silhouetted in the twilight-heavy sky. There was a makeshift stage featuring a jazz band comprised of Swedish octogenarians. I don’t like jazz, but it was perfect for the time and place. I’m not a huge Notorious B.I.G. fan, either, but if I get picked up at La Guardia I fully expect my Lyft driver to be blasting “Juicy.” It just makes sense. To our immediate left were a couple tables covered in every type of beverage you could imagine, mostly booze and wine. I fished around my pockets for some coins (coins are worth more in euros so don’t judge me, bro) and dropped them in the donation bucket set amongst the booze. I would later regret that decision when a woman came around with another donation box. I felt like a jerk because I had nothing more to contribute. I didn’t want to reinforce the negative stereotype of American tourists, but the damage was done. Now I was free to demand McDonald’s and Starbucks for the duration of my stay.
Cauldrons of soups and platters of bread were chilling on the other side of the stage. I’m not proud about how much soup I ate. I tried to be chill about it. I was moderately successful. I watched an older couple dancing in their bedroom window that overlooked the party. The windows were open wide as they swayed from side to side, grinning ear to ear. The dude spun his lady around, dipped her, and kissed her before bringing her back to her feet and into a loving embrace. Homeboy was most def knocking boots later.
We hung out for about an hour and none of the locals gave us the stink eye. Through conversation we found out this is an annual party, kinda like a block party. Every year the same Swiss jazzmen descend from their ice caves just to play it. Reinvigorated by bread and tomato soup, we headed back to the apartment to get ready for the show at Filmhaus Lübeck.
This was a “gala” style show. This means instead of a slam, everyone had a chance to go up for 10-15 minutes and do whatever they wanted. We put on an excellent show. We were so excellent, the audience carried us on their shoulders and paraded us through the streets of Lübeck before giving us keys to the city and declaring us their new overlords. Not really, but the kind staff of the Filmhaus gave me a grocery bag full of popcorn on the way out, which is equal in my book.
Tilo Strauss, commander of the Lübeck slam scene, took us out for drinks afterwards. I don’t drink but I’m not a narc, so bars are fine with me. The first bar of choice was called Kandinsky. Unfortunately, it was the first choice for everyone else in Lübeck, so we hopped into the Irish pub across the street. If you’re wondering, an Irish pub in Germany is similar to an Irish pub in America, only they have a foosball table in the back and no assholes wearing “Chi-Rish” shirts. I don’t drink alcohol, but I do drink the magical elixir known as Schwip Schwap. It’s a mix of orange soda and cola with a dash of lemonade and some other unknown pixie dust unavailable in the United States. I’ve been recorded on many a gas station security camera cursing at the fountain drink dispenser when my attempts at recreating the drink have failed. We stayed till closing, our conversation fueled by alcohol and my endless bag of popcorn.
The next morning, I got out of bed and staggered backwards into the wall. I felt like someone spiked my Schwip Schwap. Then I remembered our apartment was built in the 1300s and uber-crooked. The most fun was stepping out of the shower and onto the slick, tilted, linoleum tile.
Showered and packed, we stepped out into a perfect autumn day, but we had to catch a train back to Kiel to finish out the festival. Our last stop was a garage sale across the street that I was hoping might have something fun to bring back for my son. Evidently, folks love their wetsuits in this neck of the woods because they had a wide array for sale. Like an unnecessary amount of wetsuits. Like they murdered whole families and stole their wetsuits.
The taxi brought us back from whence we came, each of us carrying our bags and hangovers/jetlag of varying degrees. As I entered the train station, I heard jazz music emanating from the old town, snaking through the streets, and crossing the river. It was a siren song calling me back to set new roots in Lübeck. Actually, it was just a broken down Mercedes-Benz blasting dub-step. It was tempting, nonetheless.
Would I go back?
Do frat boys love plaid shorts? Does Donald Trump love shitting on the proletariat? I’m gonna keep going back till I find a wealthy patron looking for a poet that writes up to 2 poems a year.
How Long Should You Stay?
Lübeck is not very big, so you could do it in a couple days. If I was in Germany for a week, I’d make a day trip out of it or stay overnight. If I was in Germany for a couple weeks, I’d stay for 2-3 days, although the thought of renting out a little cottage set back in a courtyard for an extended period of time is appealing.
If you’re staying in Hamburg and have spent too much time in the red light district, Lübeck could serve as a soothing day trip to recalibrate your moral compass.
Staying outside the Old Town. This is especially true if you don’t have much time. It’s not much cheaper and it will take longer to see the stuff you want.