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There are harmless and legal vices: to see a person move their finger across a map displayed on a table, guess the capital of a strange country and recite the list of merchandise from an old trade route. They are pleasures shared by the nerd and dreamer schoolboy with the clerk locked in a screen. If you belong to one of these two categories, you will know that the Hanseatic League is not a dark order of Templar cavalry, but a commercial confederation of Baltic cities and the North Sea that, since the fourteenth century, grew, were ruined and reinvented transporting wood, amber, wheat, skins or linen between the coasts of Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Russia . Read again, out loud, this last sentence, with the enumeration of merchandise and countries. If you are not pleased or at least curious, you can leave this report.
The family of Thomas Mann, a native of Lübeck - the medieval Gothic city of red brick, narrow streets and severe Lutheran discretion - was for several generations one of the thriving protagonists of this commercial Baltic saga. The decline is a more powerful narrative material than success and Thomas Mann had the 'luck' to attend the collapse of the family emporium and the talent to tell it in his novel 'The Buddenbrok' . He won the literary fame and contempt of his neighbors. Nobody likes to air the familiar dirty rags in a novel, and even less when those secrets serve to make the spokesman conquer the Nobel Prize for Literature (1929) .
At present, with the Hansa already disappeared, with commerce playing a secondary role in the economy of the area and tourists replacing amber as merchandise for ships from Finland, the inhabitants of Lübeck carefully pamper the figure of Thomas Mann . The writer has become part of the catalog of local monuments, next to the church of Santa Maria, whose 125 meters high were funded in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by the proud merchants of the city as a symbol of Hanseatic power.
Lübeck bird's eye view © Corbis
The decline of Lübeck, which served as inspiration for the narrative saga of Mann, also adopted in the 20s an expressionist patina, to the point that the old commercial buildings, such as the House of Salt, next to the river, became cinematic sets, where Murnau shot some scenes of 'Nosferatu' . The decline and avant-garde expressionist twists marked the transition between the old commercial city and the current friendly tourist destination of marzipan museum, music conservatory, outdoor concerts and puppet museum.
Thomas Mann liked to escape from Lübeck to the nearby Travemünde to chat with the practical, those professional hosts who teach the way to port to the newly arrived ships. In those days, Travemünde was a luxurious resort for the Baltic commercial bourgeoisie, with playful bathers in striped suits entering the water in a closed car, to avoid prying eyes. On the beach that car is preserved, along with rows of wicker armchairs covered by colored stripes that should be admired at sunset, during the blue hour (as the locals call it), in which ferries from Finland look like colossal blocks to drift This type of armchairs, called strandkorb, are typical of the entire Baltic coast and the North Sea, and constitute a refined adaptation of the swimmer to the local inclemencies. The depth of the chair and the size of the deck, as well as its reclining footrest, provide a comfortable shelter against the north wind and create the illusion of turning the beach into a lounge. The reader can accommodate in one of these wicker seats and look at ships with an empty mind.
Colorful display in the form of bathhouses on Travemünde beach © Cristóbal Prado
Sometimes the mathematical routine of port schedules and routes is broken: recently, one of those ships from Finland collided with another ship at the entrance of the port. The pilot did not follow the instructions of the practitioner, because he had already sailed through these waters more than 60 times, a magic figure that allows the captain to face the maneuver alone, that is, to enter someone else's house without ringing the bell. But something went wrong and the ship crashed into another guest. The residents of Travemünde say that the Finnish crew, completely drunk as it corresponds to those who do not travel seas, but duty frees with cheap alcohol, was unable to evacuate the ship and had to resort to the port staff. The wreck was in farce.
From the small lighthouse of Travemünde where Thomas Mann was chatting with the practicals of the port you can see the virgin beaches of Macklenburg – Pomerania, the German land adjacent to Schleswig Holstein, to which Lübeck and Travemünde belongs. History shows us that the best way to prevent urban sprawl is to plant a beach of mines. This is what the GDR (East Germany) did during the time of the wall to prevent its citizens from fleeing to West Germany. The cold war passed, the wall fell, Germany reunified, the mines were dismantled and the beaches of Macklenburg came virgin to the 21st century. A lesson to be taken into account by the Spanish Ministry of Environment.
This article was published in number 54 of Condé Nast Traveler .
Boats in the port of Travemünde © Corbis