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Map Bremen Bike It - The River Weser round tour
A football stadium in the middle of the city. A ferry trip over to a sandy beach, that feels like a two-minute holiday. A green dyke as a place where people meet for leisure but which is actually the result of devastating floods, and last but not least: a huge docklands area where art and coffee, hard work and riverside living, the chic and the shabby exist side by side – this tour shows you the many colourful sides of Bremen. One element is common to all: the River Weser, linking Bremen directly to the North Sea and the rest of the world.
Until the 19th century, goods used to be loaded and unloaded from ships along the Schlachte embankment. Today, the boulevard and its many restaurants and beer gardens is one of the favourite places in the city to hang out. Looking at riverboats is part of the deal. The word ‘Schlachte’ derives from the Low German word ‘slait’, which means to ram in piles for riverbank reinforcement. The promenade was Bremen’s harbour from the 13th century onwards. As early as the 16th century, silting of the River Weser made shipping increasingly difficult. Soon, shallower water meant that only smaller ships could moor at the Schlachte. They brought the goods from the large, oceangoing ships to the municipal warehouses.
Further upriver is one of several landing stages for the ‘Hal över’ fleet of ferries and riverboats. Diagonally opposite: the shipyard and headquarters of the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service (DGzRS). The tour then continues along the river, at the bottom of the dyke called Osterdeich. This impressive grass-covered dyke protects the city against floods and in summer is the hip place to be for people in the Ostertor and Steintor district. Of the numerous bathing areas that used to exist along the river, only the little sandy beach on the opposite bank has remained, with its own ferry and café – which makes it one gem of a place.
Up on top of the dyke, the Classicist and Jugendstil villas of wealthy merchants predominate. Close to the bend in the river, one’s eye is struck by a round building dating from 1929. Until the 1980s, this former milk parlour used to be a café run by Bremen teetotallers. Since then, the rotunda has been home to the ‘Literatur-Café Ambiente’. Behind the dyke lies the attractive district of Peterswerder with whole streets of houses built in typical Bremen style. During the football season, the whole area is in a buzz: when cult football club Werder Bremen has a home match, up to 40,000 fans throng to the nearby Weser Stadium.
… that’s where Werder Bremen is…!” is how a stirring football song extols the prominent location of the Weser Stadium, which has grown over a century from a simple wooden grandstand to one of football’s temples. Spectacular and historical artefacts from the SV Werder Bremen football club can be found in the stadium’s own museum. In addition to jerseys, cups and many football stories, the ‘Wuseum’ also contains exhibits ranging from fascinating to bizarre, all worshipping the football god in every shape and form. Many other sports are played in the extensive sports facilities dotted around the stadium: from rugby and tennis to skating and bouldering.
About 140 years ago, Bremen started work on a colossal project: the Great Correction of the River Weser was aimed at deepening the river and allowing oceangoing ships to reach Bremen again. This deepening was the prerequisite for building the municipal harbours. The River Weser was straightened and deepened as far as the North Sea. The intervention had impacts further upriver. The water flowed away too quickly, making it necessary to build a weir and lock at kilometre 362. The entire facility was modernised a few years ago and recently equipped with a state-of-the-art hydraulic power station.
One has barely crossed the River Weser before a whole new world opens up. It’s green, expansive and … an island. More precisely, the Stadtwerder district between the ‘big’ and the ‘small’ Weser. What used to be pastureland is now a popular local recreation area with allotments, places to bathe, as well as restaurants and cafés for daytrippers. Right beside the ‘Kinderwildnis’ (Children’s Wilderness), an unspoilt play area, members of the ‘Prießnitz in Bremen’ association used to enjoy healthy, nude sunbathing as early as a hundred years ago. Cultural events are also held here in summer, in the charmingly weathered ‘light and air bath’. Where everyone dresses in clothes, of course.
Bremen’s oldest water tower, now out of service, rises 47 metres high from the Stadtwerder river isle and is colloquially known as ‘the upside-down dresser’. Its architect, Johannes Georg Poppe, had anything but a chest of drawers in mind when designing the structure. The architectural model on which it is based was a 14th-century castle. Its outer facade hides an engineering construction – the water tank in the upper part of the tower, standing on legs. New houses and apartment blocks are meanwhile grouped around the age-old building. A little further on is the Nautical Science Faculty of Bremen University of Applied Sciences.
Time to back-pedal for a second! At Franzius-Eck stands a monument to its namesake, the hydraulic engineer who permanently deepened the River Weser. On the other side of the bridge, one cycles onto the ‘Teerhof’ (lit. ‘tar yard’), where ships were built back in the Middle Ages, outside the fortified walls of the densely built-up city. This is where ships were coated with tar – a very dangerous business due to the risk of fire, so it was not permitted within the city walls. The warehouses at the top end of the Teerhof were used for many years to store tobacco, then coffee. In 1991, Europe’s first-ever collector’s museum for modern art moved in – the New Weserburg Museum. Definitely worth a look!
Even the prosecco drinkers of the world don’t need to be told that Beck’s beer is Bremen’s export par excellence. At the end of the 19th century, the Beck & Co brewery, which was mainly geared to exports at that time, moved to the Neustadtsdeich. The Neustadt (‘New Town’) district came into being along the south bank of the Weser in the 17th century. Few people settled there at first, so there was plenty of room for breweries, coffee roasting plants and chocolate makers. From here, one can see the tower of St. Stephan’s Church on the opposite bank – since 2005 a ‘church of culture’. The route takes us back to the other side via the bridge: traffic thundering overhead. The cycle path on the lower deck compensates with a fantastic view over the River Weser and the silhouette of the city.
Once on the other side, we cross an invisible border: from the old, fortified city to the harbours of the industrial era and the ‘Überseestadt’. Up to a few years ago, customs gates had to be passed to enter the free ports. The imposing landmark at the transition is Bremen’s tallest office building – the ‘Weser Tower’. The next stop is the Europahafen, first inaugurated in 1888. Flourishing overseas trade led to further harbour basins being built, such as the ‘Overseas’, ‘Timber’ and ‘Factory’ harbours. By the end of the 20th century, this system of harbours for general cargo had become obsolete, and the dockland areas became an urban development project.
Past a new marina, converted warehouses and storehouses now home to innovative companies, museums, restaurants and cafés, and past stylish apartment blocks, the outward journey ends at the old ‘Molenturm’, nicknamed the ‘Mouse Tower’. This charming old lighthouse used to guide ships into the Überseehafen. One’s eye is caught on the bank opposite by Europe’s biggest redbrick colossus – parts of this listed granary building are still in operation. Right beside it stands the ‘Waterfront’, a large shopping mall on what used to be part of the historical AG Weser shipyard.
Returning to the city, we cross the former ‘Overseas Harbour’ without getting our feet wet. It took 3.5 million cubic metres of sand in 1998 to fill in this piece of Bremen’s history. The Harbour Museum, in the oldest storehouse to survive, tells us more about the days when Bremen had its own harbours. The same ‘Speicher XI’ building also houses the Bremen College of Art. Still on topic, many creative people have set up business here in the new Überseestadt, alongside the industries that have remained. Lunch breaks are gladly spent in the ‘Hafencasino’, a snack bar for truckers, or in the former fire station for the port. A final pinch of dockland flair awaits us still: we pass through a small dock workers’ housing district, surrounded like a sleeping beauty by an embankment, that projects into the old dock area.
The ferry chugs from the ‘Mouse Tower’ over to Lankenau and the harbour on the Neustadt side. The ferries used to be an important means of transport for dock and shipyard workers. The Weseruferpark was created as compensation for loss of the Pusdorf beaches due to riverbank reinforcement. Hohentorshafen is situated close to the city centre and is now used by shipyards and moorings for smaller craft. In the 19th century, innumerable emigrants began the first step in their long journey on shallow-draught Weser barges that took them to Bremerhaven, where the oceangoing ships were berthed. Just before the Stephani Bridge, a longing for sea air returns at the sight of ‘De Liefde’, a windjammer ship that makes you ‘want to go down to the sea again’.