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).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Recruitment Consultant (Trainee), Finchley Central, London

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn