Thursday, 1 May 2014

A Tale of Two Cities: Schwerin and Wismar


Mecklenburg State Theatre,
with cathedral spire behind, Schwerin
An easy day-trip from Lübeck, eastwards across the former GDR border into the old dukedom of Mecklenburg (now part of Mecklenburg–Vorpommern/West Pommerania province), reveals a pair of small cities presenting contrasting fates after a century of war and political division. Schwerin, the former ducal seat and now the Land’s administrative capital, is a rare example of a former East German town that was disfigured neither by bombing nor latterly by concrete and the ugly housing developments that surround many of its neighbours. A short stroll down the hill from the station brings one to a formal lake shore and a townscape that looks barely unchanged since the 19th century. Enter the main shopping street and – commercial hoardings apart – the image is maintained. Turn left and one is suddenly surrounded by grand buildings of a scale and magnificence that seem almost too grand for the gentile elegance of the place. These are now Land ministries, and are complemented by impressive public buildings surrounding the main square – the Mecklenburg State Theatre (home of Schwerin Opera) and the city museum – the square itself hosts an annual summer staging of outdoor opera, this year Nabucco.

The Schloss, Schwerin (above and below)

Before long an even more impressive sight presents itself – a fairy-tale castle that looks as if Neuschwanstein and Chambord have miraculously come together in one place. This is the ducal Schloss, built on a small island in the city’s other lake, the much larger Schwerin See, in the mid 19th century, and surrounded by exquisite gardens (recently restored) and connected to the lake shore by a causeway. The building is now the state parliament, though parts of it can be visited. I made do with an amble round the gardens, where formal planting reminiscent of the 19th-century bedding schemes at Waddesdon Manor in the UK sits between romantic grottos and a sumptuous neo-Classical orangery, with the extravagant façades of the palace on one side and the calm waters of the lake on the other.

Houses in Market Square, Wismar
A thirty-minute train ride north brings one to the Baltic coast and one of the main former Hanseatic ports – the first travelling eastwards from Lübeck and once its chief local rival, Wismar. As a busy commercial port this was inevitably bombed in the war, and a couple of raids in 1942 wrecked two of its three great churches. These had been built in the 14th and 15th centuries when rival church organisations – including the burghers and seamen – competed to see who could build higher and bigger in the new gothic style and using the local medium of Bachstein – 'baked stone', or brick. The result was some of the key ecclesiastical architecture of northern Germany. 

St Nicholas, Wismar
Wismar seems to have recovered well in the years following German reunification. The old town has a smattering of freshly restored townhouses in the typical local style with their stepped façades and narrow windows. St Nicholas, the one ancient church that survived the raids is looking spruce, with the narrowness of its nave accentuating its 37m height; only the excrescences of too much Baroquery mars the cool simplicity of its interior. St Mary’s has not been so lucky. Heavily damaged in the wartime bombing, it then suffered neglect and, as an interpretative panel outside terms it, for ‘political reasons’ the remnants of the body of the church were demolished in 1960. Now only the tower survives, surrounded to its east by little more than a shoulder-height ground-plan of the church’s original layout, mere stumps of its outer walls and column piers. The remaining tower, which still dominates the townscape, is now the focus of an interesting Bachstein Trail and the ground floor houses displays and demonstrations on medieval building practices.

Tower of St Mary's, Wismar
Next to St Mary’s is all that’s left of one of the former prides of the city, its church school house, a symphony in red-brick formality as old pictures show. The impression from a hoarding around its foundations is that a rebuild is in the offing. That has already happened to the nearby church of St George, the third of Wismar’s three great medieval church masterpieces. This too suffered in the bombing and was left roofless and in a perilous condition until 1990, when a collapse of part of the building with near-fatal consequences to local residents inspired the authorities finally to initiate its restoration. That took 20 years and some €40m – and work is still in evidence. But the result is impressive and for the moment, at least, the building is an empty shell with no furniture – perhaps the intention is to use it as a flexible performances space or a museum, as it is notably devoid of religious paraphernalia.

The restored St George's, Wismar

Finally, one can’t visit a Baltic port without exploring its harbour. This, frankly, was a little disappointing. Fine if you’re after a lunchtime smoked-fish roll from the rival enterprises selling their wares from boats on the quay, but apart from a handful of surviving old buildings – an 18th-century customs house and an old town-wall gateway – the space seems rather bare and doesn’t look as if it has yet recovered fully from the raids of 1942.

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