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BREMEN (article first published : 2005-01-8)

I was lucky enough to visit the Free Hanseatic city of Bremen recently as part of the KZN Philharmonic’s European tour which took in performances in the United Kingdom at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra and in Bremen in Germany at St Ansgari’s church. (See articles in Music)

I know London well, but it was my first visit to Germany and, hopefully, not my last. I was covering the tour in my capacity as a video producer and was accommodated, along with my cameraman Chris Coombes, in the Park Hotel. Situated in beautiful parklands and fronted by a splendid lake, the Park Hotel reflects classical splendour combined with modern efficiency.

The oft-heard phrase “You are welcome” sums up the hotel – and the city’s - response to its citizens and visitors. Bremen is the oldest city-state in the world. It is also the smallest state of the German Federal Republic. The Mayor, Dr Henning Scherf, is a man of impressive stature and this is not just because he stands over 2 metres tall! Durban can be proud to be twinned with a city that is run by arguably the most popular mayor in Germany. He is in his third democratically-elected term and it’s easy to understand his popularity. This is a man of vision who comes from humble beginnings and appreciates what it feels like to grow up in a dictatorial and unjust regime (Nazi occupation of Germany). His infectious love of music and dance bubbles to the fore on most occasions and the KZNPO, Serenade Singers and Imilonji KaNtu delegation to the mayoral function were enchanted by his sincerity and commitment to their project.

Volker Schütte, the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of South African for Bremen, is a considerable force. Nothing was too much trouble for him. With his wife Bettina, they smoothed the administrative process of the concert which was a first for everyone. Future cultural exchanges between Durban and Bremen will benefit from this experience.

Volker generously gave up some of his valuable time and took Chris Coombes and me around the city so that we could get shots of landmarks. The city traces its origins back 1,200 years and, while it respects and values its culture, it doesn’t dwell in the past. In the Marktplatz opposite the City Hall and St Peter’s Cathedral, which dates back to 789, is a glass-covered building which seems at odds with the ancient edifices surrounding it. Volker explained that this was where civic matters were discussed and the reason for the glass was to represent the transparency of the political process.

The market place in Bremen (Marktplatz) is a World Heritage Site and here stands a statue of Roland, Bremen’s most famous citizen, who was one of the Knights of Charles the Great. The figure is armour-clad with two vicious spikes on his knees, an unpleasant reminder that these were used to pierce the enemy’s steeds in battle. However, the spikes have a more pleasant connotation in that the distance between the two knees measures one Bremen ell. Housewives used to measure the cloth they had bought from the merchants against the knees to make sure they had not been cheated. Makes for a lovely story!

Round the corner from the Town Hall is a statue of the famous four Town Musicians, an image which Bremen has claimed as its own. For those unfamiliar with the story: an ass, a dog, a cat and a cockerel apprehended robbers in their farmhouse by standing on each other and peering through the window. The resulting apparition of four pairs of eyes of varying sizes and heights coming out of the night looked like a monster and put the robbers to flight!

Bremen is a two-city state with Bremerhaven which is situated 60 kilometres to the north on the Weser estuary. Bremen was formerly a maritime city, before the days of larger seagoing vessels, and its maritime mile, the Schlachte, hosts most of the city’s sought-after restaurants.

To see the old town, one must visit the Schnoor which has been awarded the “Europa Nostra” for excellent restoration. It’s a delight to wander down these old passages where the houses crowd on top of each other. I spent a highly enjoyable hour or so – and a lot of money! - at Weihnachts Träume, Bremen’s well-known Christmas decoration shop! The Schnoor also hosts the Hochzeitshaus, which is effectively the smallest hotel in the world. Known as the “wedding house”, it only has one room to rent and is popular for short honeymoon stays!

One thing that struck me about Bremen – I didn’t see a single bashed-up car in the streets. Unlike in South Africa where most of the vehicles look considerably unroadworthy – and that’s purely from the outside! Volker Schütte believes this may have something to do with the fact that Mercedes Benz is the biggest employer in Bremen so many people are very "car conscious" there. However, the more important reason is that a federal law in Germany stipulates that all cars must go through a very thorough technical check up every two years. “If a car fails,” explains Volker, “the owner has a chance to fix the problem, but if he does not or cannot fix the problem, the car is taken out of circulation by the authorities.” Sounds like an easy system for South Africa to copy. It would surely be worth while as it would go a long way towards reducing our car accident rate.

Bremen is a beautifully-preserved, ancient, dignified and well-run city. I’d go back any time! And if my budget allows, I’ll head for the Park Hotel. For more information on the Park Hotel visit www.park-hotel-bremen.de – Caroline Smart




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