Blue-Sky Thinking In Bremen

It rains a lot in this city. Yet whatever the weather the locals love to party. It's a typical response, a sign of the confidence that built a trading centre that has always punched above its weight, as Sankha Guha discovers

In Plattdeutsch they call it Schietwetter Tee - shit weather tea. The aromatic black tea, flavoured with rum, orange and spices, is a palliative against the dumpling grey skies of northern Germany. Bremen lies a few miles inland from the North Sea, a mixed blessing which has given the city its wealth, as well as its climate. True, the dialect word schiet perhaps does not have quite the same edge as its English cousin. You can argue the nuance of translation but you can't argue with the weather. Schietwetter happens.

It happens a lot. Schietwetter takes the form of mizzle - a synthesis of mist and drizzle that doesn't have the strength of character to define itself as schlechtes Wetter. It insinuates itself in the folds of your collar; it weevils through the micropores of the most advanced technical fabric; it condenses on your skin and seeps into your bones. No wonder the good burghers of Bremen have devised effective strategies such as the warming, Caribbean-evoking flavours of their tea to ward off the featureless goo the elements throw at them.

After arriving in the city on a wet and blustery night my first impressions are not formed by the weather, or the sights - but by the smells. The run in from the airport is short and wonderfully odoriferous. As we pull up at an intersection the smell of fresh roasting coffee is wafting - not just across the street from a café but seeming to hang over the entire district. The rich, comforting smell, laden with the promise of cosy candlelit interiors, is escaping from the Tchibo coffee factory that dominates the area. A few minutes later we are enveloped by the equally seductive fumes of barley, hops and alcohol emanating from the giant Beck's brewery on the banks of the Weser.

Bremen's foundations lie in trade. As a member of the Hanseatic League, which it joined in 1358, the city's influence, power and wealth grew with the rise of the merchant classes. The most important commodities passing through Bremerhaven (the city's port) include luxuries such as coffee, wine and tobacco. Industry and business provide a livelihood but there is also a sybaritic core to the city.

They love their gemütlich smoke-filled coffee houses, their beer and their Volksfeste. The biggest festival is Freimarkt (October) during which a 100,000 square metre site on the Bürgerweide behind the main station is occupied by an enormous fairground. While it doesn't quite upstage carnival in Rio, visitors expecting the dour face of north German Puritanism will be surprised by the local determination to party come rain or shine, come Schnee or Schietwetter.

Freimarkt is Germany's oldest and third biggest festival. Spanning two and a half weeks, it attracts some 4 million revellers; given the city's population of 650,000, basic maths suggests many of them keep coming back for more, and some. Festivals of one sort or another punctuate the year - there is even a samba festival (the biggest samba festival in Germany, boasts the tourist board), so a reference to Rio is not entirely specious.

It is the 10th biggest city in the country, the Bristol of Germany, but for a relatively small provincial city Bremen punches above its weight. The football team Werder Bremen is a regular Bundesliga winner and quite capable of holding its own against the Barcelonas and Chelseas of the Champions League. Some of the world's biggest brands have substantial factories in Bremen, including Kraft, Mercedes and Kellogg's. Café Hag, decaffeinated coffee, was invented here. But it is Beck's beer probably more than any other product that puts the city on the world brand map.

Luckily the beer company's international marketing department has very sensibly declined to export some of the more esoteric products conjured by the brewmasters. The locally available diffusion range of beers comes in the familiar green bottle bearing the key motif (borrowed from the city's coat of arms) but has strange names such as Green Lemon (lemon flavoured), Level 7 (sold as an energy tonic and fortified with caffeine) and most bizarrely Chilled Orange (flavoured with essence of kumquat). Curiosity very nearly killed this cat when, driven by journalistic duty, I felt compelled to try the orange brew in one of the trendy bars that line Auf den Höfen. Horrible, horrible, hörrible. Leave well alone.

It seems likely to me that the folks at the brewery have been overcome by their own alcohol fug or they are having a cosmic laugh. A visit to their website suggests the latter might be the case. "Life is what you choose," opine the beer philosophers. "In other words you are the Man. You're the Master of your Universe... This is about the decisions that will shape what is to come. About being true to yourself when deciding whether to have sex with the 'ex' or go home alone." One can't be sure, but this may be an example of that famous oxymoron - German humour.

Ulrich Sasse, the guide who shows me around the magnificent Rathaus (town hall), certainly has a twinkle in his eye confirming that a bit of mischievous fun is not alien to these parts. Leading a tour through the 600-year-old Gothic core of the building, he points out the framed charter that confers Unesco World Heritage status on the town hall. It was granted to Bremen in 2004, he says, peering over half-moon spectacles. He quickly checks there are no visitors from Hamburg in his audience before adding sotto voce that the citizens of the rival port city were gutted by this award.

The Upper Hall runs the entire length of the building and is a showcase of civic pride. Hanging from the ceiling amid the glowing chandeliers are four enormous model sailing battleships presented to the senate by merchants; two of these antique boys' toys can fire salutes from their miniature cannons. Which they presumably do on big occasions such as the historic Schaffermahlzeit (an annual banquet) - above the heads of the gathered dignitaries. For more than 450 years this has been an exclusively male event, but times they are a finally changing, with an invitation to Chancellor Angela Merkel to attend as the first female guest of honour earlier this year. The famously frumpy Frau made a special effort for the occasion, reported Herr Sasse, and dressed to thrill.

With no shortage of real history and tradition to call on, it is surprising to find the fictional history of the Grimm brothers' tale The Bremen Town Musicians gets such play in the city. The image of the four animals - a donkey, dog, cat and cockerel - standing one on top of the other is ubiquitous. A bronze statue of the four has pride of place just outside the Rathaus, but every shopping arcade seems to have its own version. They even appear in the modern art galleries of the Kunsthalle in two Hirst-lite variations by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan - one composed of stuffed animals and the other of skeletons - facing off against each other.

Maybe it's the historical fear of being overshadowed by Hamburg that propels the Bremischer desire for an identity, but grasping at one conferred by a bunch of folkloric animals seems a failure of confidence. By contrast the Universum Science Centre which opened in 2000 is an ambitious beast that speaks for modern Bremen. The building itself is dramatic - a gleaming flying saucer that seems to have crash-landed in a lake, needing only the arrival of George Lucas and his boffins at Industrial Light and Magic to get the narrative started.

"Science Centre" is a far too grown-up name for this fun house. Inside, excited children are running between the exhibits, arranged as three "expeditions" - Expedition Mankind, Expedition Earth and Expedition Cosmos. Just about everything is interactive. On the "earthquake sofa" you can experience the San Francisco quake of 1906; nearby you can create clouds or set off a personal tornado. And now pay attention children. On the Mankind tier you will find a statistical breakdown of what to expect from an average lifetime; the first display on 10ft boards announces that you will have sex 2,580 times with five different partners but will spend a meagre two and a quarter hours of your entire existence in a state of orgasm. Only in Germany.

Bremen's art credentials are equally compelling. Half an hour's drive north across the flatlands of Lower Saxony is the village of Worpswede, where two young artists, Fritz Mackensen and Otto Modersohn, found inspiration to set up an artists' colony in the 1880s declaring that nature was a better teacher than any stuffy academy. Such colonies were part of a trend that included Barbizon in France and Skagen in Denmark - where artists sought the shimmering quality of light. By contrast, the edge of Teufelsmoor (the Devil's Moor), a peat bog, seems an eccentric, if not masochistic, place to live and paint - it must have felt damp, cold and impossibly remote at the time. Yet they came - a diverse bunch of artists and intellectuals, including the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

Displayed at the Grosse Kunstschau their work suggests an ascetic existence among poor peasants - the landscape colours are muddy, the lives they record are tough. Mackensen's painting of a local family mourning the death of a child, their ashen faces suggesting a shattering grief behind stiff, formal poses, is very moving. But you get the feeling these artists were not a bundle of laughs.

Worpswede's international reputation is ironically most assured by Paula Modersohn-Becker (Otto's wife) whose work was not taken seriously in her lifetime. Her freer, more cosmopolitan style was influenced by travels to Paris, but even her blank-eyed portraits of village girls seem a touch haunted. And PMB (as she is universally known) herself was a tragic character, who died in childbirth, at the age of just 31.

At regular intervals on the way back to town we see small clumps of people in the steady drizzle etched against the low horizon. On closer inspection each walker seems have a piece of glass dangling from the neck. Each group is pulling a handcart. They are doing the Kohl und Pinkel Fahrt - a Bremen institution during winter and spring. Work colleagues and street parties get together for an organised stumble around the countryside fortified by copious schnapps (the necklace is a schnapps glass) and beer (the handcart is packed with bottles and barrels).

Legless and lubricated they will end up in a pub to gorge on steaming hot Kohl (cabbage) and Pinkel, which someone explains is "the rectum of an ox stuffed with oatmeal, onions, meat, fat and spices". Another clever strategy, I conclude. One mouthful of that and all thoughts of Schietwetter are wiped clean from your consciousness.

My top souvenir

The WA24, known as The Bauhaus Lamp, is a must-have for design fetishists. It was created by Wilhelm Wagenfeld for the Bauhaus in 1924 when he was 24 (hence the 24 model number). It is as simply elegant now as it ever was. The lamp is not the cheapest souvenir but it is apt because Wagenfeld was born in Bremen, Tecnolumen (which makes the original lamp) is based there and, at €350 (£238) from Karstadt department store you save £100.

My favourite street

It is no more than a small alley but Böttcherstrasse is central to Bremen's artistic and mercantile heritage. Coffee tycoon Ludwig Roselius (who invented Hag coffee) bought up chunks of the street in 1904; his own house is now a museum evoking the interior of a well-to-do Bremen family home. Next door he commissioned local architect Bernhard Hoetger to create a permanent home for the work of artist Paula Modersohm-Becker. Hoetger's building for the PMB Museum is a tour de force - Gaudi in a cold climate.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE:

Dertour (0870 403 5442; dertour.co.uk) offers a two-night b&b break at the Maritim Hotel in Bremen from £199 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights with easyJet from Luton or Ryanair from Stansted.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

German National Tourist Office (020-7317 0908; german-tourism.co.uk).

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