The Myth & Legend
Two hours north by train lies the birthplace of fairytales. Disguised as one of the biggest cities in Germany, Bremen sneaks in little glimpses into its past from behind a modern infrastructure. But this once-small town has a unique celebrity to it: I mean, not every city gets a centuries-old shoutout from the Grimm Brothers.
A weekend in Bremen
Bremen is located on the Weser River in Lower Saxony. Its economy relies on the river, which connects it to other fishing and shipping ports throughout the region, and the North Sea (the trains even have signs that say no fishing poles). On a sunny day, the Altstadt near the river bustles with people milling about enjoying the water, always with ice cream cone in hand.
The weekend surprised with one good afternoon of partial sunshine—enough to get people outside, lazing at café tables and winding their way down the cobbled streets of the city center. I joined in, sans ice cream (I still regret that mistake), and meandered through the old city looking for nothing in particular, but looking nonetheless.
What I found were things unique to Bremen, and seriously rare.
The City Musicians
Once upon a time I had a book of fairytales by the Brothers Grimm. Stories like Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood, and Snow White I had read many times, but I had not heard about the City Musicians of Bremen. The story follows the tale of a donkey, dog, cat, and rooster, who leave their homes and join up to start a band in Bremen. On their way, they come upon some robbers, decide to band together (pun intended?), and scare the crap out of the thieves.
In the story, the animals never actually make it to Bremen, but the city ignores that part. The musicians have become a mascot for the city, with every shop selling kitsch with the animals on it. The Altstadt has a statue of the Stadt Musikanten commemorating the famous fairytale. Around the city are reinterpretations of the famous statue, with colorful animals in different poses.
The Schnoor Viertel
One of these silly statues sits tucked away in the Schnoor Viertel, a mess of narrow streets and even narrower buildings from the middle ages. More than 60% of Bremen was completely destroyed during World War II, but the Schnoor survived, giving us a glimpse into a past that is hard to imagine for an American. Some buildings are hundreds of years older than my homeland. Walking the uneven cobbled paths through the Schnoor makes you feel claustrophobic and a little too big. There are no café tables lining the sidewalks here. Doorways are narrow and low, passing people on the street requires an intricate dance of entschuldigungs and sidestepping. It feels as if the buildings are tilted inward and the ground is moving with you as you walk.
If you’re planning on visiting Bremen, stay near the city center, as that is where most of the museums and Sehenswürdigkeiten (sightseeing) are. Bremen has a well-established Stadtbahn system that runs regularly, but the lines can be confusing. Bring (or rent) a bike. Bremen has bike shops on every corner, and the bike lane is nearly the size of the car lane (the sidewalk is very small in comparison!). Most railway stations will have a bike rental shop, or a Radstation.
Bremen is very different compared to other cities I have visited. It’s not very international, and every time I rode the train or was outside, someone talked to me. This would never happen in Bielefeld or most other German cities. I was shocked by their friendliness, but to be honest, it made me a little uncomfortable. I have gotten used to being able to live silently in public.
Speaking of speaking, it was clear I wasn’t from around there (and not in an Auslander sort of way) when I spoke with the locals. People in Bremen use different words for common things, like “hello,” “goodbye,” and “cookie.” In Bielefeld, we say hallo or morgen, for hello; tschüss for goodbye, and “cookie” for cookie. In Bremen, they say moin, tschau, and Schockosüß.
But a cookie by any other name is still delicious. 🍪