A quaint town in the off beaten track of Germany’s Lower Saxony region, Osnabrück is not easily found in guide books. Hardly any traveler raves about it and the city is a secret treasure trove of history and culture waiting to be discovered. Osnabrück’s proud residents like to boast, “Zum Glück komm’ ich aus Osnabrück” which literally means ‘Thankfully I come from Osnabrück” and it is indeed, one of Germany’s most charming cities. Founded in 780 by Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, Osnabrück is the oldest bishopric in Lower Saxony and its rise had been pretty phenomenal. What had once, been a market place next to the bishop’s cathedral, had quickly grown in importance and sometime around 803, Prince Bishopric had made the city his base. Over the period of time the religious seat had also become commercially important and in 889, King Amulf of Carinthia had presented it with merchant, customs and coinage privileges.
The little town had first been mentioned as a city in 1147 and 10 years later, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa had given it fortification rights. Parts of this fortification is still visible in Osnabrück and it is rightly said, that history had been made there. A lot of its early modern history, however is not very pleasant and the city had bled rivers from 1561 to 1639. Social unrest had caused by Protestant Reformation, tension due to Thirty Years War and witch hunting had rocked Osnabrück and during that time as many as 276 women had been executed for alleged sorcery. This unstable situation had improved with the ending of the Thirty Years War and the signing of the Peace of Westphalia Treaty in 1648 had heralded a new era of prosperity for the city. Incidentally, Osnabrück along with neighbouring Munster, had been the places where the treaty had eventually been signed and the town’s wealth had boomed again with the post war revival of linen and tobacco industries. After that, except for the World War II destruction, the lovely willful city had never much looked back and its ‘Old Town’ is a lively hub of restored history, cafes, shops and sunlit lanes.
I had no idea of the city’s existence or its heritage before my Osnabrück visit had happened and that day trip had made me consider Middle Germany with a fresh perspective. Mostly overlooked by tourists, the region is blessed with relatively flat landscape, bucolic rural charm and around 100 castles and palaces call it home. Some of them are atmospherically surrounded by water filled moats and the region is a cyclist’s dream. Numerous beautiful sign posted trails crisscross the area and the scenic 100 Schlösser Route links all the 100 palaces. Osnabrück had been a quintessential city of the region and complete with moats, crumbling city walls, old half timbered houses, cobbled paths and tolling bells, it had been picture postcard beautiful. My visit to the city had been most unexpected and I guess that had also added to its charm. Positive surprises go a long way in travel memories and I had no idea of what to expect, when Tarek and I had landed there on a crisp Monday morning.
My personal life, when not working (read traveling) is pretty much non exotic and my days at home are filled with household chores. Simple activities like cooking, ordering the house, walking the dogs etc make my daily routine and visits to the supermarkets become my bi weekly highlights. Trips outside town, usually entail meeting friends and family and I definitely do not go exploring on my own. Thus, it had been a big surprise when Tarek had suggested a day trip to Osnabrück and I had immediately pounced upon the idea, before he could change his mind. Located around 2 hours away by express train from Cologne, Osnabrück had been his town of birth and he had spent early childhood there. That had been more than 40 years ago and he had not gone back to the city ever since. Work had made him cross paths with Osnabrück again and this time I had tagged along with him to discover the city of his birth. It had been early autumn when our express train had raced past graffiti etched German towns and the morning sun had dappled the interspersed countryside golden. Harvested hay had lain rolled in neat bundles and the softly rolling hills had still sported a green cover. The sky had been clear blue with not a single cloud in sight and the day had promised to be beautifully sunny. Autumn colours had slowly started to make their presence felt and only faint hints of red and gold had been visible.
It had been a perfect day for a small excursion and Osnabrück had arrived without much fanfare. We had disembarked at a typical, nondescript station, where another short train ride had taken us to the heart of the city. While Osnabrück’s suburbs had seemed too industrial to be likable, the city’s Old Town had been like a mirage and my first step into its historic center had transported me to another era. Being a Hanseatic City, Osnabrück’s Old Town had been both quaint and atmospheric and its wealthy mercantile history had echoed through its sunny lanes. The Hanseatic League had once been of utmost importance and the commercial-defense confederation had included merchant guilds and their market towns. It had been created to protect economic and diplomatic ties between cities and countries along the trade route and the Hanseatic cities had their own legal systems, armies etc. Osnabrück had once been an important member of the League and its trading wealth had been clearly visible throughout the Old Town. Centered around the beautiful Marktplatz, the Old Town had been very romantic and the early autumn sunshine had made it look all the more prettier.
A slightly cool breeze had whispered through its old lanes and time had slowed down amongst its dark, angular Gothic shadows. In olden times, the square (Marktplatz) had been the meeting place for merchants and their pretty half timbered houses had still lined the trading lanes. Nowadays considered to be monuments, rather than houses, the Romanesque vault houses in the Old Town had been breathtaking remnants of medieval and early modern ages and.the 13th century buildings had their own unique architecture. Because of their first floor entrances and small windows, the Vault Houses had also doubled up as safe houses and for many centuries, they had kept people and their wares secured inside their dark interiors. Germany is generously bedecked with such postcard pretty Vault Houses and Osnabrück has some of the loveliest ones. Although most of the city had been flattened during the WW II, around 35 original Vault Houses had remained unharmed and nearly all of them had been opened for public. With the fading of the Hanseatic League’s glory, Osnabrück’s Old Town had quietened its pace and from its once exalted position of an important trading hub, the city had long retired to become an offbeat tourism jewel.
Nevertheless, it had still been breathtaking beautiful and the quiet hushed tones had done it good. Nowadays, the Old Town welcomes dawns with its cafés and restaurants setting their furniture outside and the square’s ruby footed pigeons clucking along the polished cobble stones. On quiet weekdays, breeze blows off petals from bright geranium splotched walls and early noons bring out people to enjoy their coffee and cakes in the warm sunshine. That becomes the busiest part of an Osnabrück Old Town day and the little historic square buzzes with lunching office goers, returning school kids and hassled mothers. Souvenir shops and wine put out their prettiest wares on display for shoppers and the Old Town’s skyline etch out clearly against the blue sky. The historic city center has a pretty interesting skyline and I remember staring at its peaks and gables in awe. They had come from the numerous beautiful churches that had cloistered around the Market Square and the spectacular Stadtwaage (City Scales), St. Marien-Kirche (St. Mary’s Church) and the late Romanesque Dom St. Peter (St. Peter’s Cathedral) had been within walking distance of each other.
Crammed with glorious religious relics and lovely stained glass windows, the churches and cathedrals had created cool spots in the warm sun and the newly wed couples posing for wedding photos had completed the idyllic picture. Happily tired and sated from the Old Town’s quaintness, I too, had sat at one of the street cafés and enjoyed the lovely combination of cool air, tolling bells and aromatic coffee. Sitting in the relaxed sun, it had been easy to imagine what life would have been like in Osnabrück, when the Hanseatic League had been at its peak during the Middle Ages and the surprisingly the scene had not differed much from the current situation. My imagination had painted ruddy faces, clip clop oh horse hooves, loud cries of vendors and bustle of a prosperous market and the Market Square’s wine stands and souvenir shops had still emoted the same aura. Perhaps it had been the Old Town’s Vault Houses that had created the timeless magic or the buzz had come from too much beer on a sun soaked afternoon, but till today Osnabrück remains my favourite travel surprise. After all, “Not all those who wander, are lost.”
Click here for Osnabrück travel guide.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE.