Out and about in Osnabruck, Germany

Karen Bowerman went to discover what the medieval city of Osnabruck has to offer

Karen Bowerman went to discover what the medieval city of Osnabruck has to offer

Osnabruck’s historic centre is compact and cobbled and dominated by impressive buildings; its back streets bustle with cafes, pubs and wine bars; there are numerous museums and art galleries and ample opportunities to shop - all of which make this medieval walled city in northwest Germany an ideal (if not obvious) destination for a short break.

A medieval market square lies at the heart of the city. Here you’ll find various vegetable and craft markets from June to September, a Maypole in Spring and a stampede of thousands of hobby horses every October (more on that later).

The gothic style church of St Mary’s with its massive buttresses and charmingly grotesque gargoyles dominates the square. Next door is the 16th century weighing house (Stadwaage) with Osnabruck’s coat of arms - two men and a wheel - clamped to its stone frontage.

The building was where town officials used to measure the quality of merchants’ linen in the Middle Ages, stamping it for approval with the badge of the city.

The other side of the square is lined with town houses with stepped gables, square windows and walls painted ochre, terracotta and various shades of yellow.

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But it’s the 16th century gothic style town hall (which took more than 25 years to build) that really dominates the space. Here, under a massive sloping roof, lined with overlapping tiles reminiscent of dragon scales, the Peace of Westphalia was negotiated in 1648, bringing to an end Europe’s Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The handle of the front door of the town hall is decorated with a dove to mark the occasion.

Inside, a bare, flagstone room, the Hall of Peace, which seems rather inconsequential given the significance of the treaties signed within its walls, displays the portraits of the world leaders involved in the process. Among rows of bearded gentlemen are Louis XIV of France, the German emperor Ferdinand III and just one woman - Queen Christina of Sweden.

Of particular interest is the ornate 16th century chandelier depicting Adam and Eve in paradise at the top (although no one knows why Eve has two apples in her hand and Adam another one) and below, the Madonna and child.

The signing of the peace treaty is marked in style every October, which is where the hobby horses come in. On the 300th anniversary of the signing, children of the city took to the streets on their toy horses to celebrate, an event that’s re-enacted today. Hobby horse riding has been associated with festivities in Germany ever since boys paraded in front of the German Emperor Ferdinand III in the 17th century.

Every year more than 1000 school children ride their own handmade horses round the square, before gathering at the steps of the city hall to receive a pretzel from the Mayor.

Although the town hall marks the centre of the Osnabruck, the surrounding streets are equally intriguing. A stroll down some of the neighbouring cobbled lanes, past half-timbered houses and decorative facades will take you to some of the city’s medieval warehouses with stone walls up to two and half metres thick, built to protect their contents (often linen) from fire.

A short walk (100m) east from the square takes visitors to the city’s cathedral. A stroll north, to a former 14th century Dominican church whose whitewashed walls and arched ceiling make it one of the most stunning modern art galleries I’ve visited.

Osnabruck also has many museums. Perhaps the most thought provoking is the Felix Nussbaum Museum/Memorial.

Nussbaum was a local Jewish painter who during the holocaust wrote, “Even if I perish, do not let my pictures die.” He was killed in Auschwitz in 1944 but his work was saved and is now housed in a striking museum.

The building resembles a massive block of wood splintered by huge shards of glass. It was designed to serve as a reminder of the horrors of the holocaust.

There’s also the Museum of Cultural History, the Museum of Industrial Culture and the Bucks Tower, which was once a watchtower and a prison. It’s one of the stops on the city’s famous night watchman tours.

My group’s watchman was Joseph Kaiser, a history teacher by day and a real character by night. He led us with his lantern through the lanes of the old town, recreating the kind of patrol that would have taken place in the Middle Ages (though probably with less hilarity).

We gathered in the darkness at Bucks Tower as he told us about Osnabruck’s witch trials,  his candle flickering at our feet. Only when we left did someone spot the light switch at the door. But why spoil the atmosphere when you’re taking in the town’s chilling past?

Luckily Osnabruck is a lot more welcoming today!



Osnabruck tourist office www.osnabrueck.de

Night watchman tours: www.osnabrueck-stadtfuehrungen.de (available in English)

Stay at: Steigenberger Hotel Remarque from €106 per room. www.steigenberger.com/Osnabrueck

Getting there: Air Berlin flies regularly from London to Dusseldorf (Dusseldorf is approx 2hrs to Osnabruck by train – tickets from 19 euros one way). www.airberlin.com.

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