Weekend Wanderlust: Following Dracula’s steps along the water in Wismar

At first glance, Wismar looks like an idyllic seaside town full of historic houses and buildings. Yet it also has a darker fictional past, being a filming location of the 1922 classic 'Nosferatu'.

Weekend Wanderlust: Following Dracula's steps along the water in Wismar
Wismar's impressive Altstadt is a mix of architectural styles, including 'brick gothic.'

It was a bleak, grey day when I arrived in Wismar, a harbourside city in the northeast German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Gusts of wind caused a clamouring of chimes that hung from brick gothic style houses. Church bells resonated across the eerily silent streets as a light mist sprinked down.

I was not surprised to learn I was in Wisborg, Wismar’s fictional name and one of the settings of the 1922 silent film Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens (a Symphony of Horror), to this day a worldwide cult classic.

Based on Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1897), the creepy piece of cinema from the Weimar Republic era follows the blood thirsty vampire Count Orlok as he stealthily searches for his next victim. The town’s people assume the mysterious deaths are a result of the plague, but the protagonist Thomas Hutter soon learns differently.

Seven years after its original release in Germany, the film premiered in the U.S. and paved the way for the horror film industry.

Wismar becomes Wisborg

Flash forward to July 2017, as I climbed to the top of the tower of the 80 metre high Marienkirche in Wismar’s old town. Ninety-six years before, on an equally gloomy day in July 1921, the establishing scene of Wisborg was shot here.

The tower of Wismar's Marienkirche. Photo: DPA

The black-and-white panorama peers out over the Wasserkunst Wismar – an ornately decorated 16th century wrought-iron water fountain – and the Wismar marketplace, a quaint town square engulfed with buildings with architecture styles ranging from 14th-century North German Gothic to 19th-century Romanesque revival.

They include, not surprisingly, the city’s oldest town house, the Alte Schwede (built in 1380), whose name alludes to when Wismar was under Swedish occupation from the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th.

The film’s open scene also spans the Wassertor, the city’s only surviving Medieval Gate. The Count first enters through it, holding his sleeping coffin under his arms. Originally the Tor was linked with five other gates which held together a four metre high wall. They are apparently effective in shielding the Stadt from rising tides, but perhaps not vampires.

A vampire becomes visible

Nearby is the Heiligen-Geist-Kirche (Congregation of the Holy Ghost Church), in which two scenes of Nosferatu were filmed. In the first, the protagonist Hutter departs to Transylvania in order to visit a then-seemingly innocuous new client  who plans to buy a house in Wisborg. In a later scene the ‘client’, then revealed to be a certain Count (appropriately played by actor Max Schreck, or Terror), is gleefully running through the courtyard with a coffin under his arm.

Inside the Heiligen-Geist-Kirche, whose ceilings are painted with religious art. Photo: DPA

I stepped inside the church when seeking refuge from the rain, peering at the painted wooden ceiling which depicts scenes from the Old Testament. The church, built in the 15th century, still hasn’t strayed from its mission of collecting donations for the poor. I purchased a small coffee, glancing out of the foggy Fenster (window) to the courtyard, which church services are uniquely held.

As the rain began to fade, I set out toward the harbour, in which a deadly ship in Nosferatu pulls to the shore. The captain and the crew have become the vampire's latest victims, and the town's people still innocently think they are simply infected by the plague. Orlock further travels into the fear-struck city, into the brick gothic houses, until he has feasted on his last victim.

Vampire on board: In this still from Nosferatu, the Count counts his victims one by one. Photo: DPA

Back to the present

As with many German cities, the summer sun in Wismar emerged again around 5 p.m. The shadow of a vampire began to fade, and my friend and I sought out the seafood stands that lined the coast, as well as the little gift shops there.

Wismar was beginning to look like an cute, Hanseatic German town, a mix of small houses and buildings, with locals beginning to saunter down the now-dry streets.

Wisborg had faded into fantasy again, and Wismar began to shine in seaside splendor.


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Travel: Six reasons why the Spreewald near Berlin is worth visiting

Situated only a 45 Minute train ride from Berlin, this lush UNESCO Biosphere reserve and cultural gem transports visitors to another world.

Travel: Six reasons why the Spreewald near Berlin is worth visiting
Tourists canoeing through the scenic Spreewald. Photo: DPA

Around Germany, the colloquial verb herumgurken (pickle around) has the meaning of traveling around and around when lost.

While I was equipped with a map, the word still seemed the most fitting way to sum up my time in the Spreewald, known not only for its vast pickle production, but also stunning nature and culture to discover by bike, foot or – especially – canoe.

READ ALSO: Travel in Germany: 10 must-see places within reach of Berlin

Here are six reasons it’s worth a visit, whether as a Tagesausflug (day-trip) from Berlin or a week-long adventure.

1. Pickle paradise 

The pickle harvest in Kasel-Golzig in the Spreewald on July 17th. Photo: DPA

Known for some 50 percent of the production across Germany, Spreewalders take pride in their pickles. In the three days I was there, it felt like I sampled every sort of gourmet Gurken delicacy there is, from creamy Gurkensuppe (served both chilled and warm in the summer), Gurkenaustrich (spread) and a surprisingly good Gurken and raspberry Radler

Tucked into the forest, the town of Burg even offers Gurkeneis if you fancy the summer sweet with a green tint. 

2. The Sorbian language 

People going for a Gondola ride in Lehde. Photo: DPA

You might mistake the text under German signs around the area for Polish or Czech. Yet it’s actually Sorbian, an official minority language of Germany spoken by over 60,000 people. 

Many of them live in the Spreewald, and the little village of Lehne – a two kilometre walk or cycle from the old town in Lübbenau  – pays tribute to their way of life and language, including an open-air museum that gives a glimpse of how the Wends (as they are known locally) lived in the 19th century. 

3. Bunte Biodiversity 

Otters are often spotted swimming in the Spreewald. Photo: DPA

With its more than 5,000 species of animals, Spreewald is so rich in biodiversity that the 475 square metre area was given the title of an UNESCO Biosphere reserve in 1991.

One particularly striking species are the white storks, which are often spotted perched atop large nests they’ve created on large protected pillars. The species is critically endangered elsewhere in Germany. 

The Spreewald can also at times feel like the tropics with colourful animals and amphibians like the fire-bellied toad and over 900 species of Schmetterlinge (butterflies).

4. Rural charm

It felt like we were much further from Berlin as we hiked past Hütte (cottages) with thatched roofs and cozy country stores with local products that closed at 2 pm each day. From Lübben, we hiked along a 14-kilometre riverside trail to Schlepzig, known for both its Bauermuseum (farm museum) and Brauerei with locally brewed beer.

5. Water Wanderung

A true streaming service: a postal woman delivers mail by water at the start of the Post's canoe delivery season on May 14th. Photo: DPA

With 1,500 kilometers of waterways, one of the best ways to explore the Spreewald is by water. The area is so-well connected by water that even mailmen and women from the Deutsche Post pragmatically paddle from home to home to deliver post.

We had a sporty Sunday, leaving Lübben at 9:30 am and paddling 14 kilometres to Lübbenau, just in time to a devour a hearty lunch of potatoes and Quark cheese with linseed oil, a Spreewald specialty, at a beer garden affixed to the side of the river. We then headed back for another adventure, as small waves formed amid the windy afternoon weather. 

Families of swans, cranes and ducks joined the journey at times, unfazed by their human companions. 

If you're looking for a more leisurely journey, all sorts of canoes, kayaks and other boats can be rented by the hour, or you can sit back in a Venice-style Gondola as a host in tradition garb guides you through the landscapes.

6. Official bike trail

Bike riders in the Spreewald town of Leipe. Photo: DPA

Distinctly marked by yellow signs of a cycling pickle, the Gurkenradweg forms 260 kilometres of scenic trails that lead through the forest, starting in Lübben and leading to Cottbus, the heart of Brandenburg’s Sorbian-speaking community. Bridges break up the journey (and sometimes, this being Germany, construction projects as well.)

If you’re timid about trekking longer distances, most bike rental shops also offer daily e-bike rentals for around €25 a day. Just be advised, especially in the summer months, to reserve bikes at least a week in advance.