While over on http://willowthevampire.com I’m commemorating the anniversary of two famous witch trials and remember the horrible torture witches and sorcerers were subjected to with instruments I once saw at the museum in the Holsten Gate in my home town, I thought I should deviate from castles for a bit to discuss walled fortifications on this blog.
The Holsten Gate (initially called the Holstein Tor but later renamed as Holstentor, which reminds everyone of lager and having a good time) is one of only two remaining city gates that were once part of my home town’s walled fortifications.
It marked the western boundary of the Hanseatic city of Lübeck’s ancient centre and together with the moat and natural river barricades formed a formidable defence system for one of medieval Europe’s most powerful and influential cities.
The Gothic red brick construction, which dates back to 1478, is the impressive brother to the Citadel Gate (Burgtor), the only other survivor of relentless modernisation by 19th century reformists. Holstentor is the emblem of the city, appeared on DM 50.00 notes and on EUR 2.00 coins, is the official emblem of the Niederegger marzipan manufacturers, who gave my friend Carmen and me our very first belly ache thanks to over-indulgence, and together with Lübeck’s historic city centre Holstentor has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.
Nearing Christmas, I occasionally get a brief attack of homesickness. One of my most enduring childhood memories revolves around shopping trips with my grandmother into the city centre, my small gloved hand in hers, our breath steaming in the icy cold air and snow falling heavily on our bobble hats and red noses.
Up by the City Hall we would find Christmas market stalls with toffee apples and spicy almonds, mulled wine and grilled sausages, where we would rest before entering the magical world next door: the Christmas tree “forest”, a long alleyway with pine trees lining either side, which lead to the Children’s Fairy-tale playground.
Here we would marvel at the most charming tableaux of Brother Grimm stories, lovingly recreated with puppets, dolls and teddy bears in display cabinets, kindly donated and sponsored by local companies, and still shown to this day. There are Hänsel und Gretel, der gestiefelte Kater (Puss in Boots), Rotkäppchen (Little Red Riding Hood) and many more famous fairy tales, as much admired by small kids today as they were more than 40 years ago by me.
However, before we got up the icy hill and into the Christmas fair mood, down by the River Trave we would first come across the amazing cheese shop that used to be housed in one of the narrow arcades standing just diagonally opposite from the Holstentor, the lit up gabled houses you see here.
You could smell cheese long before you had reached the shop, for whenever a customer entered or left by the glass door, the strong aroma of Harzer Roller (my grandfather’s favourite cheese – imagine a cross between unwashed socks and the way your outdoor dustbin smells after a hot summer’s day), of Stilton, of Edam and Gouda, of Cheddar and Brie would engulf you and make you either wretch or sneeze.
When I think of the Holstentor its image is invariably accompanied by the scent of cheese.
Images of the Holstentor are in my blood; when I think of citadels, the Holstentor rises up before my mind’s eye and how it seems to protect the city to this day, despite being a “leaning tower” that’s sinking a little every year, despite being surrounded by modern traffic and tourists with cameras and gleaming shop windows and hotels and aeroplanes flying above is turrets and pigeons mocking its cannons with their poo.
To say you were born in Lübeck and not having visited the Holstentor is like being from Paris and not knowing where and what the Eiffel tower is. Its solidity, its blatant statement of wealth and power, of merchant respectability and provincial uppity noses in the air, make the Holstentor the very essence of what walled fortifications stood for, why they were built to surround citadels and the settlements that sprang up around European castles.
Frankly, Holstentor, you couldn’t be more imposing if you carried Thor on your shoulders and had Zeus by your side!
The Wiki page can give you a potted history, but this site is also quite useful and available in English:
Should you visit the city, the Holstentor and Burgtor, do not leave without popping into the Schiffergesellschaft, a historic pub-cum-restaurant. It may be a little expensive and touristy, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a pub with more atmosphere or such amazing models of ships, which dangle from the ceiling and pretty much tell the history of Hanseatic League merchant fleets. Great inspiration for writing a pirate story for children!
You can find out a little more here (available in English) – http://schiffergesellschaft.com/