The people of Osnabrück are the happiest in Germany, according to a country-wide survey ten years ago which measured living standards, amenities, and public services. That was before the financial crisis and the pan-European austerity drive, and today it’s not immediately obvious why the town would top the happiness charts. But it looks friendly enough, and we’re certainly happy to be there, the first stopover of our four-week road trip to Finland.
Large parts of Osnabrück were bombed during the war but most of the old town has been rebuilt in 17th century style. It’s a pleasant combination of timbered houses with a few classical stone buildings that escaped war damage, and the odd 1950s infill.
As you move away from the centre, the pattern is reversed. The modern shopping streets look like most other thriving post-war German cities: concrete, metal and glass; lively but a bit anonymous. The only reminder of the pre-war era is that the old city’s footprint has been retained, with its meandering streets and the inner ring-road following the old fortifications, now gone.
The Marienkirche too, the large church on the main square, was bombed, in 1944. Outside it’s been rebuilt in the original Gothic style; inside it’s a cooler modern feel, with a 20th century organ and modern sculptures living alongside mediaeval pieces.
We make the compulsory stop at the Ratskeller for lunch and celebrate our arrival in Germany with schnitzel and potato salad, and a glass of Riesling. Even Dr K joins in, making an exception to his usual lunchtime abstinence policy. Osnabrück, despite its 150,000 population, doesn’t feel like a big place, but it has international appeal. Various languages are spoken around us, both in town and at the restaurant. A few tables away an American lady who looks like a semi-retired modern languages professor talks – a bit conspicuously – about “dynamic literature” and “proto-poetic form”. Meanwhile, the three younger German male lecturers who accompany her smile politely and obliviously tuck into their lunches.
The Rathaus itself is an important building, and not just because it dates from 1512. This is where the peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, putting an end to the Thirty Years’ war and setting up a new government system where ‘rights prevent over might’. The locals take this seriously: not only is Osnabrück nicknamed ‘Friedenstadt’ but the claim is that this paved the way for the modern European project. “Europe started here”, says a plaque at the information desk. Much is made of the town’s twinnings around Europe – Angers in France and Derby in the UK – and even in the US (Evansville, Indiana) and Russia (Tver).
From there it’s a short walk across the square to the cathedral, past the family home of Erich Maria Remarque, now a museum dedicated to the author of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. In a shop, there is a double portrait of Angela Merkel: as a fresh-faced East German militant in the 1980s, and today as the chancellor of a united Germany.
Built on the foundations of the old bishophric church founded by Charlemagne, the cathedral too suffered bomb damage during the war and not much is left of the original interiors. As with the Marienkirche, the walls are clean, adorned with salvaged religious artefacts and 20th century church furniture. Two nuns sitting in the stalls are taking selfies on their phones; they’re giggling quietly.
In the afternoon we go in search of the old palace, which is now part of the university. The rain which mostly held off in the morning is now more persistent. The schloss looks like it has seen better days. As a semi-public building, it has been bedecked with access ramps and fire staircases galore. The statues representing the five continents are still there. The gardens, though a little shabby as they appear to be undergoing some sort of refurb, have a set of six square fountains producing a nice splashing soundwall.
We’re back for dinner at the hotel, the Walhalla, an inn from 1690. I am ordering veal roast with wild mushrooms, under Dr K’s shocked gaze: it’s the second veal dish I am having today after the lunchtime schnitzel, but he says he understands that some people have obsessions. More Riesling helps us unwind, followed by Spätburgunder and Trollinger. It’s not a bad first day. Tomorrow: Flensburg.