The United Nations Environment Programme organises a competition for the International Award for Liveable Communities and in 2004 the German city of Münster won in the category of cities with 200,000 to 750,000 inhabitants against 52 competitors, such as Coventry/GB, Seattle/USA, Okayama/Japan or Posen/Poland. What makes the city liveable for its 280,000 (Men, hark! 148,000 female, 132,000 male!) inhabitants? Münster scored top marks in the five fields that were checked and is understandably proud of the reward.
I visited Münster (pronounced Mýnsta) at the end of August as the first stop of a tour through the north of Germany which I undertook because I felt nostalgia for the north where I used to live during my teen years. I started in Münster because I’d never been there and had heard good things about it. One asset is that people speak standard German there, a fact which doesn’t appeal to foreigners, of course, who don’t know the language at all. German has no class accents, only regional ones and fate has it that I’ve suffered in the south of the country for 40 years among an accent I can’t stand and occasionally my ears need a rest.
Münster is the Bicycle Capital of Germany. If I hadn’t known this already, I’d soon have found it out. Bikes are everywhere. An estimated total of more than 100,000 cyclists are on the move every day. The streets have paths for bikers, yet in the pedestrian precincts of the city centre the cyclists curve around the pedestrians. But they aren’t as aggressive as in Amsterdam where it’s advisable to jump to the side when cyclists are approaching. Wherever it’s possible to park a bike, it’s done, but you never see a single one, they always come in clusters. There are three bicycle stations in Münster, the largest with 3,500 places being the underground one at the train station. There they offer a repair service, a bike washing facility and a rental service.
When you step out of the station and cross the street, you find yourself in the Windhorststraße, walk straight on, turn left into the Loerstraße and you’ll soon come to the Ludgeristraße, which is the main shopping precinct. Following the street to the right you get to the Rathaus, the City Hall, which houses the Tourist Information Centre where friendly women give you ample information, also in English.
The City Hall is an attraction itself. In the entrance hall a model caravel hangs under the ceiling commemorating Münster‘s century-long membership of the Hanse, a merchant association of Northern European towns. History buffs will know that in the Hall of Peace the Peace of Westphalia was concluded in 1648 ending the Thirty Years War. It can be visited, it looks just as it used to, the original wooden panelling, chandeliers and paintings had been removed at the start of WW2, the City Hall itself, as nearly all of the city centre, was destroyed in bomb attacks. A voice from a loudspeaker explains the history of the peace congress which took five years. The sovereigns and envoys (37 oil portraits of the most important ones hang on the walls) squabbled so much that the envoy of Mantua remarked, "Hell must be empty, all devils have come to Münster." How did the Münsteraners cope with all the people for such a long time? The French envoy, for example, came with 1000 people! (Remember Benjamin Franklin, "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days."?)
I was in Münster on a Saturday and could see an artisans‘ market in the courtyard behind the City Hall and later a fruit and vegetable market in the Cathedral Square, they gave the city a lively atmosphere. Following the street leading to the City Hall, which from there on is called Prinzipalmarkt, one gets to the church Lambertikirche built between 1375 and 1450 in the Gothic style. The reason why tourists look up to the tower is that three iron cages are hanging there into which the corpses of three Anabaptists were put after they had been executed in the middle of the 16th century. They had declared Münster to be the New Jerusalem during the Protestant Reformation which led to bloody conflicts with the Catholic clergy.
I like another story associated with the Lambertikirche better. Since 1950 a Türmer (tower keeper) lives high up in the tower just like in the Middle Ages. Each night (except on Tuesdays) he blows a copper horn every half hour from 9 pm up to midnight. There are only two other towns in Europe, Nördlingen in Germany and Cracow in Poland where this custom has been preserved. One day, he bought himself a new sofa in a furniture shop which advertised free delivery. When he had paid the bill and was asked where he lived the shop-assistant nearly got a heart attack. 289 steps up the tower of the Lambertikirche! Very cleverly the shop turned the delivery into an event and when they came with a crane a TV crew was also there.
Back to the City Hall and from the entrance straight on we reach the Cathedral Square.
Before we occupy ourselves with the St Paulus Cathedral (begun in 1225), we have a close look at the gables of the fine city houses on the Prinzipalmarkt. They look rather Dutch with the rectangular echelons going down on either side from the top. With the exception of two houses they‘re all post-war reconstructions without any ornaments, what the original houses like looked can be seen on the gables of the two houses which weren‘t destroyed. The city council decided to rebuilt the centre as it was before the destruction but there was only enough money for the houses proper with simple gables, but not enough for ornaments.
The St. Paulus Cathedral is the largest church in Westphalia. The interior is wide and light, I liked it. A non-religious attraction is the astronomical clock inside from the late Middle Ages. At 12 o‘clock a glockenspiel can be heard and the three magi be watched as they move towards the holy family offering their gifts. A calendar underneath is valid up to the year 2071. Maybe some of the younger readers of this review can go and check then. When we step out of the Cathedral we walk *down* a street which is quite remarkable as the highest point in Münster is only 96,8 m high. It takes us to more fine shops and some pubs. There‘s more to see in Münster, museums, for example, but I don‘t want to copy things you could do from a guide book but tell you what I did. When I‘m in a new town for the first time, I prefer staying outside in the streets to get a feeling for the place to visiting museums.
I was on my own and thought of going to the pictures in the evening which I rarely do at home. I live in a small town and thought Münster would offer a wide range of interesting films. I had asked the receptionist at my hotel where there were cinemas in the centre so that I wouldn‘t have to walk far afterwards. She told me there were none, or rather, none left, after a Cineplex, an enormous building with nine cinemas, had opened in the area of the Stadthafen (city harbour). She had a programme and although I saw at once that none of the nine films appealed to me, I decided to walk to the Stadthafen. Water in a city is always attractive and I had read that there were several restaurants, I had to eat somewhere anyway. Facing the train station one has to turn right, pass a book shop and then walk straight on, it takes about a quarter of an hour. The Stadthafen is rather a small stretch of water, as far as I could make out it‘s used by yachts and small barges, one side is used for industrial purposes, the other side is full of restaurants which have tables outside facing the water. Quite a nice atmosphere. I studied the menues of three restaurants and found to my surprise that they were all orientated towards the Spanish cuisine. The prices are moderate, the restaurants were all full even before the films in the nearby Cineplex had ended. I didn‘t stay until they had ended, I can imagine that then the restaurants are packed and that people sit outside not only on chairs but also on the stone wall at the water‘s edge.
When I returned to my hotel it was getting dark, there weren‘t too many people walking in the street in the direction of the station but I didn‘t feel awkward. I arrived safely at my hotel content with my day in Münster.
It may not be my last visit.