The City of Childe Rolande
By Uma Balasubramaniam | Published: 22nd December 2013 06:00 AM |
The little town of Bremen seems drowsy in September’s late afternoon’s sunshine. It is more of a hamlet rather than a provincial town, one that looks back on 1,200 years of history. For 40 miles, it stretches along the river Weser, which even today is the town’s lifeline. Considered the smallest town in the German Federal Republic, it has much to offer the avid tourist. A short stroll from our hotel takes us to the main flower and fruit market place where a sea of colour and perfume greets us to put us in the right spirit for a walking tour. As we stroll along past the big park with its springy, green turf, we come across a group of bronze pigs in different sizes replete with curly tails and snouts. We are in Sogenstrasse, the German name for street of sows—where the bakers and brewers lived in the Middle Ages. Right next to it is the Knochenhauerstrasse (Bonebreaker street) where the butchers lived. In the main square stands a 13th century church, but with modern stained glass windows designed by the French artist Alfred Manessier. Just around the corner of the Town Hall are bronze statues of a donkey with a dog; above them sits a cat above it is perched a rooster— all in bronze. “Meet the famous four musicians of the town,” an amused passerby remarks laughingly. We are intrigued by the donkey’s forelegs that gleam like gold, sculpted realistically by the Cologne artist Gerhard Marcks. The main market place in the square which the people affectionately call the “living room” of Bremen teems with activity during Christmas, where a gigantic fair lasting a fortnight takes place with feasting and revelry; a time the warm friendliness of the Germans of Bremen is evident, dismissing the cliche of them being stiff and standoffish. We are drawn to the oldest building in the market place, St. Peters cathedral, with its imposing twin towers almost touching the sky. Its intricately designed ornamental façade with a figure of St. Peter on the door on the right holding the keys to the “gates of Heaven”, is regarded as the emblem of Bremen. A statue of Charles “the Great” sits on his throne in front of the façade with a model of the city on his lap. The cathedral was built in the Romanesque style, but in the 16th century gradually acquired a Gothic charatcter. In the northern nave, the gothic vault deserves attention, and in the cathedral museum, centuries old artefacts found in graves are now on exhibit.
In the market place you are greeted by a great statue of Bremen’s first and famous citizen Roland—literally a knight in “shining armour”—paladin of Charlemagne, who fought for Bremen’s independence from surrounding states. His shield featuring the double eagle bears the inscription. “To you, I reveal liberty, bestowed on this city by Charles the great and many a prince. Thanks be to God, that is my counsel.” From Roland’s armoured knees spout two vicious iron spikes for the purpose of piercing the enemy’s horses. Local legend says Bremen will stay free for as long as Roland watches over the city and should the great statue fall, a second one exists in the town hall’s subterranean vaults to take its place. However, all history descends into banality: the women of Bremen check the length of any cloth they buy by measuring it between Roland’s bronze knees to ensure that they have not been cheated by the merchants. Interestingly, both Roland’s statue and the Town Hall escaped the wrath of Allied bombers in World War II.
As Bremen acquired wealth and prospered, the town council decided they needed a prestigious building to hold meetings and conduct their affairs. The existing 15th century Town Hall was changed from a gothic building into a renaissance style edifice with gables and exquisitily carved balconies. Incidentally, it is also the Senate of Bremen. Underneath the Town Hall lies the Bremen Ratskeller, one of the oldest wine cellars in Germany, and furthermore storing wine from Rudsheim dating to the 17th century. The cellar also boasts of a gourmet restaurant maintained in the 14th and 15th century style complete with booths for private rendezvous. The banquet hall is a paen to luxury. Here vintage wines dating back centuries are served by impeccable liveried waiters. The interiors are traditional 17th century. In contrast stands a modern building right opposite, designed by the Berlin architect Luckhardt and called the “glasshouse” signifying that all political discussions held here would be transparent in nature. The market place is part of the Altstadt meaning the “old city”. We turn into a narrow alley which leads to Bremen’s “high street”—the Bottcherstrasse. At the entrance is a relief in bronze of a boy holding a sword named “the bringer of light” greeting visitors entering the altstadt.
A walk down Bremen’s streets is a stroll through antiquity passing ancient, perfectly oreserved brick buildings. The House of the Glockenspiel was the most imposing and impressive feature of the street. In the early 20th century, Ludwig Roselius, a coffee baron who is in a way the father of decaffeinated coffee, owned the entire street. A German sculptor named Bernhard Hoetger, sponsored by Roselius, changed the facades of the buildings; the House of Glockenspiel is one of the most impressive features—30 bells made of Meissen china ring out old melodies of the sea in the summer in homage to great Nordic explorers. Below the glockenspiel is a plaque that commemorates the flight of the three pilots who flow the ‘Bremen’ in 1928 from Ireland to Labrador. The flying machine is kept proudly intact at the Bremen airport. Cornelius had drafted a German sculptor named Bernhard Hoetger, who recreated the street’s the towers, balconies and sculptures. A gabled museum building displays medieval art, porcelain and exquisite carpets. Cornelius was a Hitler worshipper who believed in Nordic supremcy. But as we wander on to other streets lined with ancient houses, cafes and little souvenier shops standing cheek by jowl, we espy a statue of St. James.
Saints apart, the cathedral plays a part in matrimony in Bremen. Often the visitor would come across the sight of a young man in a top hat and tails sweeping the steps of the cathedral while a crowd continues to cover them with bottle tops. He has to keep sweeping until a young girl—preferably a virgin according to tradition—releases him with a kiss. This is a Bremen tradition for any unmarried bachelor who is 30 and above. We stop for a while savouring the medieval charm, sipping German coffee at a quaint cafe and nibble on Apfel strudel. To the dark tower Childe Rolande came. To Bremen we did.