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Sunday, June 14, 2009, in Warnemünde, Germany

Hi all. We’ve been traveling today, and we’ve just arrived at a brand new marina in the eastern part of Germany. Last week, we were still in Neustadt.

Monday brought another rainy, cold morning. It wouldn’t be a good day for travel, but we’d been in Neustadt for nearly a week. We knew we wanted to visit the nearby city of Lübeck, and the docking arrangements there didn’t look promising. Luckily, the train system would dock just fine in the center of town.

To understand about Lübeck, it’s important to remember the Hanseatic League or Hansa, an alliance of merchants in Northern Europe that maintained a monopoly on trade beginning in the late Middle Ages and lasting about 400 years. By 1358, about 200 towns belonged to the league. They had their own system of laws and their own security and protection on the sea and in the guilds in the network of participating cities. L��beck became the base for this League as early as 1159 and was by far the largest and most powerful member.

It's still called the Queen of the Hansa, and the spires rounding the old city into the sky still make up what looks like a crown around it. The main gate into town, the 15th century Holstentor continues the motif of spires around the city perimeter, blending into the triangular rooflines of the adjacent salthouses, where salt from Lüneborg was stored before its export around Scandinavia. The gate��s heavy side spires look as though theyre about to collapse into its own interior, of exhaustion and despair, like Norma Desmond. “It’s the trade routes that got small,” they seem to sigh. This gate caught the attention of Andy Warhol, whose depiction of it now hangs in a church gallery in the town.

Lübeck is a UNESCO World Heritage City, and maintains much of the old-world charm of its heyday. As in so many European cities, there are renovated historic sites sandwiched between buildings recovered from WWII damage and new buildings filling in the holes left from damage that couldn’t be saved. In the main church, Marienkirsche (St. Mary’s), the bells that fell to the ground in the RAF raid of 1942 still lie in pieces in a corner of the cathedral, as a memorial.

A handy map with a walking route led us by nearly all of Lübeck’s attractions. We wandered around the Marienkirsche. At 38.5 meters (125 feet) the brick vault of this church is the highest in the world. We took an elevator to the top of St. Peter’s church so that we could see the Queens crown all at once, from above. We walked by the Rathaus (Town Hall), a building described by my guidebook as a “fairy tale in stone”. And we visited the Café Niederegger, where we could see the whole city all over again in the shop window, constructed entirely of marzipan. The legend goes that the town had once run out of all foods except almonds and sugar, and locals used these to make a sort of “bread”. This explains why marzipan was once considered medicinal, a theory that appeals to me. This does not explain the existence of the confection in Persia several years before it was invented in Lübeck. Later, we tried to visit a puppet museum which, alas, was closed, since we were visiting on a Monday, when museums are nearly always closed. We returned to Neustadt tired, but somehow energized.

Finally, the weather cleared up sufficiently that we could travel. We got a late start, delayed by some necessary logistics involving payment and the return of our electronic key to the marina’s facilities. It wouldn’t be a long trip to Wismar anyway. We left the box where we were docked and motored out of the harbor through the well-marked channel, and headed east.

Wismar was our first stop in what was once East Germany. Our sail was all business, motoring the whole distance in rain or drizzle, protected by the dodger and Karen’s cover. Just before we entered the thin harbor, dozens of white birds with long necks flew silently and swiftly ahead of us. We puzzled over what kind of bird that might have been, and eventually concluded that they were swans. It hadn’t occurred to us that swans could fly, but apparently they’re champions at it, flying fast, high, and for long distances.

The harbor entrance was marked with red and green wooden markers, each topped with a disembodied head, painted in an almost comical way. On top of the head was some sort of headdress, painted in red or green, indicating the channel markings. I learned later what this was about.

We were layered in foul-weather attire when we docked in Wismar’s Old Harbor, or Alter Hafen. We’d motored to the head of the harbor, found a space, and docked. We’d begun adjusting the lines when we realized that this space probably wasn’t available for guest dockage. Art went ashore and looked around and asked around, and he learned that the fishermen tie up to this space on the weekends to sell their weekly haul. Even though we weren’t sure we’d still be in Wismar on the weekend, we thought that it would be prudent to go to the proper guest dock.

The guest area was down the harbor, across the way from the tour boats, which jetted their engines to turn around, creating little eddies but no significant wake. We tied up to the wall, and moved the boat back and forth until we were certain that the widest part of the boat was pressing against the farthest jutting part of the wall. Wismar had kindly placed vertical posts covered with strong yellow rubber caps against the wall so that we’d bump into them rather than the more unforgiving concrete. Art put on a wooden board across two fenders to protect us, and we tied and retied the bow, stern and spring lines until we were placed exactly where we’d be the safest. From the time we’d arrived in the harbor until we were finished docking took about ninety minutes.

We were in Mecklenburg, Germany, once part of East Germany. "When the end of the world comes, I shall go to Mecklenburg because there everything happens a hundred years later," Otto Bismarck once said of this region. And that was before the Soviets came in and slowed everything down. So we didn’t know what to expect.

The harbor Alter Hafen was a featured player in the 1922 Dracula movie called Nosferatu, as even a cheerful harbor will look creepy if filmed with no sound in black-and-white. Apparently it isn’t uncommon to stumble onto a film crew in town even now.

Across Alter Hafen, construction was in progress for the weekend’s Harbor Days, a waterfront festival that we’d just happened to find. A Ferris wheel was in pieces, ready for assembly. I like to look at Ferris wheels; they seem festive, yet quaint, and mysterious, in a The Third Man sort of way. As the day wore on, more pie-slice shaped segments of the eventual wheel would be in place. I was hoping that they were tightening the bolts with power tools. It never occurred to me that Ferris wheels aren’t welded together before they’re transported, though it certainly should have. What it means now, though, is that I’ll never go on a Ferris wheel again.

We walked around the top of the harbor and made our way into the main part of the old town. Remnants of the old, prosperous Hanseatic city, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, were all around us. Some of the buildings had been completely restored, others needed considerable attention. Some of the very new buildings imitated the classical rooflines of the historic structures, sort of like wood-grained Formica, only more attractive.

The tourist information center sits inside a building that once housed the police, on the Marktplatz, which is quite a large town square, one hectare, or two and a half acres. We were there on market day, or, I suppose, markt day. Continuing the Hanseatic tradition of trade after hundreds of years, the square is apparently still host to portable merchants, now selling street food, farm products, knockoff clothing, and novelties. I’m all for commerce, but it is sort of a shame that the trucks, stands, and tents looked a little as if they’d been spilled onto the plaza from a helicopter. Most spots on the square didn’t have an unobstructed view of the lovely Wasserkunst (Water Art or Water Tower), a 16th century tower that supplied the water to Wismar until 1897. On our second day in town, we returned to this spot (it’s hard to go anywhere without stumbling onto the marketplace) and the vendors were all gone, leaving the tower to its rightful ascendancy over the square.

As we had now spent time in three German cities along the Baltic, we were beginning to notice some themes. First, there are a lot of churches, but there are many more pastry shops. You could draw a Monopoly board of a Hanseatic city and put steeples where the board now has railroads, and put cafés everywhere else. Because it’s important to us to respect the local culture no matter how difficult, we’ve gotten into the habit of joining the locals each afternoon for coffee and a cake at one of the many establishments in town. Our sacrifice has already taken us to a café inside what was once an apothecary, complete with a lion statue guarding the doorway and a built-in wooden cabinet, now filled with bric-a-brac. The magic potions are now on offer at the bar, inside the espresso drinks.

We were also intrigued by the traffic lights for pedestrians. As expected, the light has a vertical group of three illuminated sections, each with a cutout of a pedestrian. When it’s okay for a pedestrian to cross, the bottom – green – section is lit. But the other two sections are red, and they’re always lit at the same time. It’s not as though there’s a warning middle red light before the steady top light is lit. The light goes from green to red, really red, two red lights. It’s as if the light is saying, “Vee MEEEEAN ziss. Don’t cross.” I’ve never met a traffic light that seemed so stern.

Last, it became clear to us that America has fallen behind in more sports than soccer. Daily, no matter where we were, if there was water around (and when you’re on a boat there always is), there were canoes filled with young people rowing to the beat of a coxswain’s drum. Very Hawaiian, if you can overlook the chill and the Caucasian faces.

In a development that didn’t surprise us at all, lots of people were walking around with German shepherds and schnauzers.

We also learned of the significance of the sailor’s heads that we’d seen on wooden markers in the harbor as we came through the channel. Wismar was under the control of Sweden, from 1648 until as late as 1903, when Sweden finally renounced all claims. Even as Wismar emerged from Swedish protection, it kept the right to its own flag, a red-and-white striped banner that looks like a square lollipop. In the tourist office are many tee shirts with the two flags, Sweden’s and Wismar’s, in a friendly cuddle, and all over town are these Swedish sailor heads modeled after the ones that used to grace the harbor until one of them was knocked off of its perch the year that Sweden gave up the town. The head itself is nearly a caricature; the sailor has a bushy mustache on his lip and is wearing a cap made of a lion’s head. No offense, but if that’s the guy in charge of my security, it might be better to go it alone.

Weather and our undemanding itinerary kept us in port through the weekend, where the Harbor Days celebration would take place, rain or shine. I was betting on rain. Art knew from the forecast that there would be a lot of wind, and he’d docked us on the side of the canal where the wind would blow us away from the quay. Such a skinny canal meant that, other than a sliver of area open to the sea, most winds would come from land, which would reduce them considerably. Furthermore, he’d set up a fender board across two fenders, and positioned us so that the widest part of the boat was opposite a rubber-capped post on the quay.

So the winds came one afternoon, complete with driving rain. And they originated exactly outside the harbor and blew in the entrance like a funnel. Art put on light foul weather gear to monitor the situation. I was below, but after about a half hour of unrecognizable thuds, I couldn’t stand to be away from whatever was going on up on deck.

The wind was coming from the wrong direction, and we were being pounded into the dock. Art was holding one of our fenders, anticipating where we’d land, and positioning it for the crash. I watched him grasp the fender’s neck and line, always in fear that an ill-timed bounce would crush his hand between our fiberglass and the concrete dock.

There were three-foot waves inside the harbor. Occasionally one would break just at our bow, showering an already-soaked Art while he was helpless amidships. By the time I thought to look at the wind meter, we were showing forty-knot gusts, and the winds had already subsided a little bit. Every so often, Art would come into the cockpit with me (dry under Karen’s cover), and wipe himself off with a bath towel, shaking uncontrollably from the cold.

It took two hours for the storm to become bothersome rather than terrifying. The fender board that was supposed to protect us had split in two. The stainless steel cap on our rubrail had separated from the rail. Two of our fender covers had slipped off into the sea. But the boat was safe, the lines hadn’t chafed, and the wind had finally moved to the place it was forecast, pushing us out of danger instead of into it.

Though the weather stranded us in Wismar, we had front-seat access to the Harbor Days festival. We’d watch the festival site grow into a fairground. Trucks and trailers would transform into booths, by covering themselves with a trompe l’œil façade of bricks, or flowering planters, or wood, or, in the case of a “try your luck” booth of unspecified gaming, a full Arabian desert scene, in the middle of the Baltic.

When we saw the honor guard, clad in crisp uniforms of yellow and blue, we walked around the harbor and followed the crowd to the stage where the police band was playing. I’m not exactly sure whose colors were honored on those traditional-looking uniforms. Germany’s colors are black, yellow and red. Wismar’s town colors, which are apparently so important to the city that its candy-cane flag was a negotiation issue upon their departure from Swedish oversight, are red and white. So unless they were honoring my high school in Philadelphia, those colors were probably an homage to Sweden. I sure wish that I spoke real German, rather than the very pragmatic menu German that I’ve been able to conquer.

They’d set up two stages for the festival’s entertainment, and the police band performed some marches to a crowd torn between relative comfort on benches and the pleasures of beer and wurst from the trucks all around. A toddler strode toward the stage, clutching his teddy bear, marching to the fanfare, a future police bandleader, Harold Hill. All I could hear in my head while this brass band played cheerful, Teutonic tunes was the voice of Joel Grey, “Even zee orghestrah eez beautifulllll.”

The band finished, and we wandered around the site. The rides were operating, but many of the other booths hadn’t opened yet. A DJ was playing American music from the 1960s. There was a lightship docked alongside the quay, as well as some old wooden ships and a navy ship ready for inspection. The honor guard stood on the aft deck of an old schooner and shot muskets off the stern, thankfully not in the direction of the crowd or our boat on the other side of the channel.

A one-man band had set up shop at the entrance to the fair. He sat at a small piano and next to some sort of programmed keyboard that he played by blowing into it. Another tiny keyboard with a different tone was on the other side of him. He also played a guitar rigged to sound like a bass, and drums that could actually dance, all powered by a small electric air compressor. He kept up a rousing monologue, in the manner of Victor Borge, with rolling r’s and guttural flourishes. I wished again that I spoke German. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a real one-man band in my lifetime, and I began to wonder if Bismarck was right, and that we’d somehow drifted into 1909. As long as I could keep my BlackBerry, I’d be okay with that.

We attended the evening concerts while we stayed below on our boat, since we had no choice but to be serenaded. But we’re not usually bothered, even by discos or other onshore activities, which eventually become a sort of white noise for us, and we both managed to fall asleep to the strains of Boerney & the Tri Tops (The north is rocking!)

The festival ramped up on Saturday, aided in no small part by sunny skies and warmer temperatures. We wandered over again to see some of the stage performances in the afternoon. The city’s dance troupe performed folk dances in traditional costumes, including a long, nearly operatic number involving many flowers and some very large sandals. The local ballet school paraded their little munchkins out to the stage to perform their imitations of deer in headlights, to the adoring video documentation of their relatives.

The evening brought even more ambitious ventures. The crowds were huge and there was an electricity beyond the flashing signs of the games and rides. A crane hoisted willing participants in a metal crate to its top, about thirty stories in the air. Then these people, apparently by choice, were linked to a bungee cord and dropped, boinging about among the crowd until they were gently placed, head first, upon the fairground.

And then there were the fireworks, a very professional display that exploded over the harbor and seemed as if it had been staged exactly for us, the last boat pointing out into the harbor. We could see the last bits of flame as they floated down, extinguished upon contact with the sea. Fireworks displays always seem too short, and the arrival of the best lights (and the imminent end of the show) can be bittersweet, the way a chocolate bar can never really be big enough. This show was consistently exciting, and lasted nearly long enough to satisfy the audience.

We wouldn’t know whether Sunday’s even better weather would bring bigger crowds or new energy to the festival. Finally, we’d have a day with weather that was favorable for travel. It would be more favorable for me than for Art, as the wind would be pretty light, but the strong winds all week had kept us in port, and we were ready to move on.

I’ll hold off on describing this new port until we’ve seen more of it than the docks and the harbormaster’s office. Hope the sun has come out for you guys. We’re still in layers.

Love, Karen (and Art)