When I was writing my Bradt guidebook to Dresden I was always surprised that Lower Saxony was so far away from Saxony and how little its capital Hannover had in common with Dresden, apart from both being on the Elbe river. Hannover is a large city that’s known for its trade fairs and for its grand gardens, but not for a cathedral or other historic buildings – I did stumble across a few, but the city centre is pretty bland. It does have a potentially fine museum (see below), but it’s undermined by information being only in German and by the way that staff have loud conversations as if the museum is run for their benefit.
Hannover was slower to develop than Braunschweig (see below) and the towns on my previous post (Brandenburg and Magdeburg) and my next (Hildesheim), with its main churches and city walls being built only in the fourteenth century, In 1636 George, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, moved his residence here and in 1692 his family became Prince-Electors of the Holy Roman Empire and the dukes became known as Electors of Hannover. In 1714 Elector Georg Ludwig became King George I of Great Britain; as great-grandson of James I he was the nearest Protestant in the line of succession, although the Jacobites of course did not accept him as king. One result was that the armies of Hannover and Braunschweig were the only Germans to consistently resist revolutionary/Napoleonic France, although they had to do it from exile in Great Britain at times. George II, George III and William IV also combined the two realms but Victoria, as a female, was not allowed to succeed in Hannover and the two went their separate ways after 1837, with Hannover being absorbed before long into Prussia and then Germany. The city was heavily bombed in World War II and more than 90% of the city centre was flattened.
The all-round Enlightenment man Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, philosopher, mathematician and much more, spent much of his life here, from 1676 to 1716. He served three Electors as Privy Counsellor and librarian but actually had a rather distant relationship with them; he was much closer to Electress Sophia and her daughter Sophia Charlotte, Queen of Prussia, who was responsible for Berlin’s Charlottenburg Palace.
It was Sophia who in 1683 commissioned the French gardener Martin Charbonnier to create one of Europe’s finest Baroque gardens, the Grosser Garten (Great Garden), which is part of the Herrenhausen Gardens, extending northwest from the centre (a glorious excursion on foot or bike). Other components are the Georgengarten and the Welfengarten, both English-style gardens (ie less manicured and more relaxing), and the Berggarten, now a botanical garden that is also home to the royal mausoleum; and some small palaces – the Herrenhausen Palace, in the Grosser Garten, was destroyed by bombing and reopened in 2013 as a museum and congress centre; the Georgengarten Palais is now the WM Busch Museum of cartoons; and the Welfenschloss (built in the 1860s) has been home to the Leibniz University since 1879.
There’s an excellent little display on Leibniz in the entry foyer of the Welfenschloss, focussing on the calculating and cypher machines that he developed, which are forerunners of modern computers. In addition to working models, there’s the only preserved Leibniz calculating machine, and also panels on his work on politics, economics and philosophy.
Returning towards the centre, just east of the university I came across the former St Nicholas cemetery (now a park) and on Steintor (a triangular plaza) the ruined chapel of St Nicholas; it was more of a surprise to find on the western side of the square the Anzeiger Hochhaus, a masterpiece of Brick Expressionism built in 1928 that somehow survived the war – see my recent posts on Amsterdam and Hamburg (the Chilehaus) for more on this architectural genre. Georgstrasse (named after one of the Hanoverian Kings of Great Britain) leads to the centre, mostly modern shops now, but bits and pieces of old houses that survived the bombing were brought together and reassembled on Burgstrasse and a couple of other streets; there’s also the red-brick Old Town Hall (1410) with its wonderful gable, and the adjacent Marktkirche. South of the centre, St Aegidius (St Giles) is another bombed-out church that’s been left as a war memorial; immediately south is the New Town Hall (1912), a huge and very impressive edifice on the north side of the Maschpark, a delightful park around a lake.
Finally, on the east side of the park, another imposing pile (built in 1902) houses the LandesMuseum Hannover, which I have mixed feelings about, as I said above, but it does have great coverage of archeology and early medieval history, and then leaps to the New World, with a collection of textiles, ceramics and quipus (counting threads) from Peru, and wood carvings from New Ireland, a gamelan from Indonesia and a good exhibit on Madagascar, thanks to an Austrian anthropologist who spent many years there. On the ground floor there’s a good aquarium, with electric eels, piranhas and deep-sea fish, and coverage of the ecosystems of the nearby Lüneburger Heide. And there’s an art section, including Botticelli, Dürer, Rubens, and Rembrandt, and modern German artists such as Liebermann, Corinth, Slevogt, Paula Modersohn-Becker and others; however it was closed when I visited due to repair work on the glass roof.
Practicalities 1) – Accommodation
I was amused by my Rough Guide to Europe, which said ‘Hannover’s location … and its lack of budget accommodation make it a perfect candidate for a pit-stop…’. I’m still struggling with that, but in fact I stayed at the BoxHotel Hannover, where the rooms really are tiny and very cheap, and brilliantly engineered (look for the shower up the stairs to the upper bed) – I wouldn’t settle down to do paperwork there, but it was perfect for a basic overnight stay.
Hannover sits at the intersection of northern Germany’s main rail routes, from Berlin west to Köln and Amsterdam and from Hamburg south to Frankfurt am Main and beyond. Construction of the country’s first high-speed railway, from Hannover to Würzburg, began in 1971 and it finally opened in 1991, along with a short cut-off from Mannhein to Stuttgart. Those 1970s high-speed lines are now being closed for lengthy spells for some serious maintenance. (After reunification priorities changed and a second north-south spine was built from Berlin towards München.) The main line from Berlin to Hannover was rebuilt for 250km/h running in 1998, and the journey time is now 102 minutes for 248km; the Berlin-Hamburg line was upgraded for 160km/h in 1997, for 200km/h in 2000 and 230km/h in 2004, bringing the journey time down to 90 minutes for 256km.
Back in 1982 Switzerland introduced its Taktfahrplan or regular-interval national train (and bus) timetable – this required the three key cities of Basel, Bern and Zürich to be at most 56 minutes away from each other, which was achieved by building high-speed cut-offs and some major tunnels. Now intercity trains run twice an hour giving easy cross-platform connections across the whole country, and passenger numbers have boomed. The Dutch have done something similar since the 1970s, though at even higher frequencies, with fast trains now running every ten minutes from Amsterdam to Schiphol/Rotterdam and to Utrecht/Eindhoven. Now Germany is planning its own Deutschlandtakt, although it will never be as tightly knit as the Swiss one. It depends on various infrastructure projects so won’t fall into place until 2030 at best – to get Berlin-Köln times below four hours, a new 300km/h line will be needed from Hannover southwest to Bielefeld, and this is only now being planned. This will also speed up the Berlin-Hannover-Amsterdam trains, which are surprisingly slow at the moment.
There’s also an issue with the line south from Hamburg to Hannover (181km by rail, but only 145km by road) – the fastest trains currently take 1 hour 14 minutes, but with some new high-speed line that could easily be cut to under an hour. Unfortunately, the area between the two cities is apparently home to the most intense NIMBYs in Germany and proposals for a high-speed line have been blocked; there’s a fall-back plan for a Y route to link Hannover with both Hamburg and Bremen and to also carry freight, but it seems that the best journey time would be 63 minutes, meaning that Hamburg would not fit into the nodal structure of the Takt.
However, the new timetable from December 2020 was announced as a taster of the Takt, with a half-hourly service from Berlin to Hamburg (from 46 trains and 30,000 seats a day to 60 and 36,000) and nine more Berlin-Hannover-Köln trains (which will finally carry bikes!). The electrification and upgrading of the Zürich-München line is also complete, so there will now be six trains a day taking four hours (instead of three taking 4 hours 44 minutes) – although this isn’t necessary for the Takt timetable.
In the interest of fair balance, a few words about cars too, or at least their licence plates – cars from the largest German cities have plates that begin with a single letter – B for Berlin, F for Frankfurt am Main, H for Hannover. Oh, hang on, Hamburg is much bigger than Hannover, what’s going on? The city fathers of Hannover were rather surprised when Hamburg graciously said ‘You can have the H, we don’t want it’. It turned out that Hamburg wanted HH for Hansestadt Hamburg – likewise, Bremen is HB and Lübeck, which was something like the capital of the Hanseatic League, as I noted here, is HL, although at first I wondered why there were so many cars from Holstein in town.
On my way from Berlin to Hannover, my last stop was in Braunschweig – it’s a larger city than Brandenburg and Magdeburg, and more obviously western, although it has less than half the population of Hannover. Of course, it’s widely known as Brunswick, mainly due to its eighteenth-century links with the Hanoverian monarchy in Britain (see above), but the name does derive authentically from the local dialect name of Bronswiek or Bruno’s place.
Henry the Lion became Duke of Saxony in 1142 and made Braunschweig his capital; in 1168 he married Matilda, the daughter of King Henry II of England. The city became a major trading centre, joining the Hanseatic League in the thirteenth century and becoming largely autonomous (the dukes moved their capital to Wolfenbüttel, 13km south, in 1432) – something that was repeated in 1918-19 when it was briefly the Socialist Republic of Braunschweig. The people of Braunschweig had also adopted Lutheranism while the dukes remained staunch Catholics; but in 1753 they moved back to Braunschweig and became genuinely popular benevolent despots as laid out in the enlightenment playbook. Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand (1735–1806) married Princess Augusta, sister of George III of England, and built the charming little Schloss Richmond (1768-9) and its English garden, just south of the centre, to remind her of her home in Richmond Park near London. There’s no connection with Charlotte, Duchess of Richmond, who hosted the famous ball in Brussels on 15 June 1815, the night before the battle of Quatre Bras (and three days before Waterloo) – except that the ‘Black Duke’ of Braunschweig, Friedrich Wilhelm, was killed at Quatre Bras – his father Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand had been killed at the battle of Jena in 1806.
The city became an industrial centre as part of Prussia and then Germany, and was heavily bombed in 1944, with most of its churches and superb half-timbered houses (Fachwerkhäuse) destroyed – much was rebuilt, but I had to get my fill of half-timbering in the towns to the south (see my next post).
Heading north from the station, you’ll cross the river and turn right to enter the old city at the Aegidiuskirche or church of St Giles, rebuilt after a fire from 1278 to 1478 – it has the city’s only pure Gothic choir. Oddly, it’s now the city’s main Roman Catholic church, but the former monastery buildings now house a Jewish museum. Just north is the Schloss or Ducal Palace, built in 1830-41, largely destroyed in World War II but only demolished in 1960 and reopened as essentially the façade to a shopping centre in 2007 (although there is a small museum). Immediately to the west, the cathedral is on Burgplatz (Castle Square), with Dankwarderode castle (a replica built in 1887) hidden away behind it, as well as the city hall (1894-1900), the main part of the Braunschweigisches Landesmuseum (the state history museum, in the Neoclassical Vieweghaus, built 1799-1804), some fine half-timbered buildings such as the Gildehaus (Guild House), and in the centre of the square a replica of a bronze lion that is the city’s symbol. The cathedral was founded by Henry the Lion, who is buried there along with Matilda, their son Otto IV and his wife, the Black Duke, and Queen Caroline of Brunswick (1768–1821), daughter of Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand and Augusta, who married King George IV of England, her first cousin – the marriage was a scandalous disaster, and when she died her body was brought back to her native city for burial. Dating from 1173-1226, it’s still a Romanesque basilica, with some interesting murals that were discovered under the whitewash after World War II. The leading Lutheran choir school in Germany is attached to the Dom, which has an active musical scene (in normal times).
On the western side of the old town, the Altstadtmarkt (Old Town Market) is a lovely Gothic ensemble, with the Old Town Hall, the Gewandhaus (house of the drapers’ guild, by 1268), and the Martinikirche (church of Saint Martin, from 1195, converted to a Gothic hall church between 1250 and 1400, although plenty of the Romanesque structure remains. The Baroque high altar (1728) is being restored at the moment, and there’s a fine Baroque organ (1774) too, and an odd pair of galleries.
Just south of the Schloss is the Magni Quarter, where most of the remaining half-timbered houses stand around the church of St Magnus, a hall church built after 1252 and rebuilt after World War II in a more modern form than most. It’s quite a contrast with the Happy RIZZI House (2001), somewhat reminiscent of Hundertwasser’s Green Citadel in Magdeburg, but with more graffiti-style décor. And just to the east is the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, which opened in 1754 and is definitely worth the voyage, as the Michelin guide would say. Based on the collections of Duke Anton Ulrich (1633-1714), expanded by his great-nephew Duke Carl I (1713-80), it includes many superb Old Masters but is also very strong on decorative arts from around the world. Starting on the top floor, the sculpture and applied arts collection has been trendily organised into thematic sections such as Power & Lifestyle or Foreign Peoples: Art, Culture & Tourism, but the real problem is just that there’s too much to take in. There’s chinoiserie, Japanese lacquer, Limoges enamel, Italian majolica, coins and portrait medals, and ceramics, from Carl I’s own porcelain manufactory, Wedgwood from England, and from the Moché and Chimú cultures in preColombian Peru. Highlights include the Mantuan Vessel, made of onyx in AD 54, the gilded bronze Kugellaufuhr (rolling-ball clock; 1601), and Giambologna’s Mars Striding (1590).
Information is mainly in German; upstairs there are room summaries in English, while there’s a useful free booklet describing the art galleries one floor below. The Dutch collection is strong (Anton Ulrich had an estate near Den Haag, and enjoyed the new-fangled Dutch art auctions), with one of the world’s thirty-six Vermeers (Young Woman with a Wineglass – and seemingly a lecherous man), five Rembrandts, others by his friend Jan Lievens and his pupils Flinck, Dou, Bol, Fabritius and Cuyp (I’d seen much more of their work a few weeks before in the Netherlands); there’s also a great Rubens of Judith with the Head of Holofernes (c1618-19), and an astonishingly assured portrait by his pupil van Dyck, aged just nineteen. The German collection consists largely of the predictable (but good, of course) Cranachs and Holbeins, and a Kneller, who was not English but from Lübeck, as I’d discovered a few days before. There’s some fluffy eighteenth-century French art too, Gueuze, Liotard, de Largilliere, lots by Rigaud, and Pesne, who I’d just discovered in Charlottenburg.
The Italian collection begins with a couple of fifteenth-century works by Bici de Lorenzo, then Lanfranco, Luca Giordano, Orazio Gentileschi, Bassano, Bernardo Strozzi, Giorgione’s self-portrait as David, a roomful by the Venetians Tintoretto, Veronese, Palma Il Vecchio and Palma Il Giovane; and a classic Grand Tour portrait by Batoni of Duke Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand.
There are other excellent museums in Braunschweig, notably the State Museum, but they’ll have to wait for another time. I confess I was constantly getting lost as I cycled around Braunschweig, but I did eventually find my way back to the station, which turned out to be celebrating its sixtieth year – it’s a fine piece of modernism, inspired in part by Roma Termini. Interestingly perhaps, for some, it was not a rebuild but a new station, replacing a smaller dead-end station nearer the centre.
[ I’ve just read Duff Cooper’s Old Men Forget (obscure, I know, and dated), and he describes his generation of young men who wanted to join the Foreign Office spending time in Hannover to learn German (just before World War I) – supposedly the best (ie least accented, I think) German was spoken there, although this may just be a tradition from the time of the Hanoverian monarchy. Anyway, ‘I am sure that Hanover in those days was the least entertaining city in the world, and its inhabitants the plainest. It is without architectural or historical interest.’ ]