Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The Free Cities

Over the last couple of days we've visited the last two remaining free cities in Germany - Bremen and Hamburg. Both are essentially states with Federal Germany with their own Landtags (Parliaments) meaning that they enjoy the same status as huge states such as Bavaria or Saxony (Berlin also has it's own Landtag but for more recent historical reasons). In British terms that's kind of like giving Liverpool and Newcastle their own Parliaments with the same powers as the Welsh Assembly. The reasons for these cities retaining control over their own internal affairs is ancient, dating back to the origins of the Holy Roman Empire when the Free Cities were self-governing bodies that owed allegiance directly to the Emperor rather than local princes or bishops. By the time Napoleon abolished the Empire in 1806 there were only 6 remaining; now there are only two, Bremen and Hamburg, great port cities of the Hanseatic League. They are quite different.

Bremen, on the Weser, no longer seems to be much of a port, the river undoubtedly too narrow and shallow for modern shipping, but there was plenty going for it. We had a lovely time wandering around the beautiful old town square, chocolate box Schnoor district and a crazy Art Deco street, before befriending three Canadians (Matt, Monica and Thor) and sharing a few beers with them.

Hamburg, on the other hand, is very much a working Port, with the huge cranes the line the wide and choppy Elbe dominating the skyline as you approach on the autobahn alongside huge stacks of shipping containers. It's the richest city in Germany and my friend Franziska, currently living in another old Hanseatic Port, Kiel, has just landed a job there. Inviting us to tag along as she went flat-hunting we were introduced to the joys of speed-limit free autobahns as she bombed along in her Alfa Romeo at speeds of 160kph (100 english). The working nature of the city was evident in the throngs on the High Street, the huge (but attractive) brick warehouses and the Reeperbahn - the biggest red light district in Europe!

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