Münster is one of those north-of-Frankfurt towns most Americans don't get to. Our Jim Johnson spent a few days there last month and says we're missing something.
By Jim Johnson
Near the end of World War II, 92 percent of medieval Münster was destroyed. Many cities in the region - like Düsseldorf, Essen and Bochum - decided to create something new from the rubble. The citizens of Münster, however, known as traditionalists, decided to rebuild their Old Town as it had been, a decision derided outside the city with jokes about "conservative Westphalians" and how they wanted to make believe that Nazi times and World War II never happened.
Today, few would doubt the wisdom of their decision. The Altstadt is a marvel for both residents and visitors; a place that celebrates peace, tolerance and understanding. After all, this is the town where the Peace of Westphalia was signed, ending the Thirty Years War and marking a rare time (perhaps the first in Europe) that peace was reached by negotiation and compromise rather than by domination and defeat. The site of the negotiations and signing is the Friedenssaal, the Hall of Peace in the Gothic Rathaus, where the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia put an end to the extended war.
The Rathaus is in the heart of the Altstadt, the Prinzipalmarkt, part of the medieval street lined by buildings that form a thick and high ring/wall around the earliest town center. A few defensible passageways allow access to the center through the 14th century arcade. This wonderful medieval arcade contains some of the city's brightest architecture and most upscale shops.
From the Prinzipalmarkt, visitors can crane their necks to see three iron cages hanging from the tower of the late Gothic Lampertikirche (St. Lampert's Church). They were used in 1536 to make an example of three Anabaptists, whose bodies were placed in the cages for the populace to view and for birds to ravage. At night, a single light in each casts an eerie glow over the street cafés. Every evening except Tuesday, from 9 to midnight a trumpeter continues a 500-year-old tradition by blowing his horn on the hour and half-hour to signify that all is safe. (Don't expect heraldry: the horn sounds more like a dying cow than an all-clear signal.)
In nearby St. Paul's Cathedral - one of the city's 90 churches - visitors find superb examples of a 13th-century church making the transition from Romanesque to Gothic. But the greatest attraction for many is the astronomical clock, built in 1540 and designed to tell the time, date, day, season, orbits of then-known planets, phases of the moon and position of the sun - for 532 years. On the quarter hour, Chronus, the Greek God of Time, rings a bell and flips an hourglass. Every hour, a wooden watchman blows his horn,
If the Altstadt is the heart of the city, the Promenade is its gentle embrace. The 3.5-mile ring, built when the city ramparts were removed a century ago, surrounds the old town with a three-lane path - one dedicated to cyclists (nearly a third of the city commutes by bicycle), the other two to walkers - with a canopy of trees and a border of meadows. Early in the day it brims with office workers and students, but by mid-morning, shoppers and tourists take over. In the evening it takes on a more romantic air. Couples walk hand-in-hand and unabashedly show their affection. It's no coincidence that a stretch of the towns greenway has been dubbed the Schmusepättken - the smooching path.
Greenways are everywhere in Münster, sometimes called "The City of 1000 Gardens." Many are on the River Aa, which flows around and through the Altstadt. Others are along the Aasee, an artificial lake built to control flooding and now a refuge bordered by a tangle of tree-lined walkways. On summer days, a rainbow of sailboats puffs from one bank to the other.
Visitors to Münster are often surprised by the amount of Baroque architecture, since the style rarely made it this far north. Fortunately, one of the towns prime architects, Johann Konrad von Schlaun, was quite taken with Baroque styles and often visited Italy to learn its techniques. Three outstanding structures make up the so-called Baroque Island: Erbdrostenhof Palace, Clemenskirche and Dominikanerkirche. Münster also offers an eclectic range of museums: Picasso, Carnival, Bible, Organ, Lacquer Art, Geology-Paleontology, Railway and Leper.
Though the Altstadt was rebuilt as faithfully as possible, much of the architecture lacks the decorative elements of the original. For example, while a roof, gable or façade may follow the original architectural lines, it may not display the former detailed carvings - locals call it "simplified reconstruction." But building owners don't hide it and proudly show two dates on their buildings: the date of original construction and the date the rebuilt structure was finished.
Münster is neither static nor stuck in the past. Buildings have a purpose, and shoppers, office workers, residents and visitors keep the town alive and vibrant. It doesn't hurt that half of the city's residents are under 25, and a full 20% are students. It celebrates both the past and the future. The City Theater, for example, integrates modern architecture with the single remaining wall of the bombed-out Romberger Hof Palace.
Every 10 years, Münster invites sculptors and other artists to design massive works of art for outdoor display in places of meaning and context. This growing collection can be seen around the city as part of the so-called Skulp-Tour.
Perhaps the most famous work is "Tolerance through Dialog," just behind the Hall of Peace. It's nothing more than two large metal chairs facing each other, encouraging visitors to sit and talk with other visitors.
Skulp-Tour follows a long tradition of pointed symbolism - at least 350 years' worth. In the Hall of Freedom, be sure to look closely at the emblems carved and painted into the walls. One, showing the futility of war, has two headless warriors fighting over a single head.
The Cathedral houses symbolism that transcends Catholicism. Bishop Clemens-August von Galen, the "Lion of Münster," opposed the actions of the Nazis, often in indirect yet powerful ways. In the church, a hammer stands poised to strike an anvil. The bishop's message: the hammer - the Nazis - may have the power, but the anvil - the strength and will of the people - will endure long after the hammer has crumbled.
Minutes from the Altstadt (by any means of transportation), the Aasee provides access to the city's Mühlenhof Open Air Museum and the All-Weather Zoo. The former is a collection of Westphalian farm buildings such as an apiary, a stable, a windmill, a smithy, a shoemaker's shop and a small store. The zoo is a must-visit. There are 3,100 animals including dolphins, penguins, lions, tigers, rhinos, orangutans and many other species. Both zoo and museum can be reached by foot, car or bus or, even better, aboard the Aasee excursion boat, the Professor Landois, which stops at stations around the lake.
A nearby stop on the Skulp-tour seems to summarize the Münster experience. On a peaceful knoll by the Aasee, "Looking Up, Reading the Words" invites passersby to stop and reflect. The sculpture can easily be mistaken as a giant antenna, but upon closer examination the visitor can see the wires form words: "Lie in the grass and look up. No one is around. Look at the open heaven in the blue above where clouds roll across the sky - perhaps the most beautiful thing you've ever done or seen." For some, perhaps, like a visit to Münster.
(In a coming issue, well look at Münsters surrounding areas, Münsterland, an intriguing landscape of medieval towns, small farming villages, and more than 100 moated castles.)
Horst Heiringhoff is not only a hotelier, but a collector of art and a supporter of artists. Some 200 pieces of original modern art and dozens of signed posters fill his friendly inn, both in public spaces and in each guestroom. Many were donated by artists who lived there or whose galleries Heiringhoff visited and supported. In many ways, the Central is an art gallery with 20 guestrooms. It's more personal than most hotels, almost homelike. Guests are greeted in a front parlor; no registration desk is evident. Like much of the art, the hotel is modern and features all expected amenities.
It's difficult to suggest specific rooms; Heiringhoff prefers to discuss tastes and preferences with prospective guests and then make recommendations. Indeed, he doesn't even have a price list, other than one required by law to show the maximum rate ($130 double). "It depends on what I have available, the time of year, but also on how I feel about the person," says Heiringhoff. "What are his circumstances? Why does he want to come here? Do I like him?" A good bet, however, is the guesthouse. It's a wonderful marriage of medieval half-timber architecture and modern steel girders integrated with wood and stone.
The hotel is across the street from the Landesmuseum and barely a block from the new Picasso Museum.
• Contact: Central Hotel Aegidiistrasse 1-3, D-48143 Münster, tel +49 0251 520 250
Daily Rates: Doubles to $130
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 17/20
While the JugendGästehaus Aasee is technically a youth hostel, it's equally appropriate for adults and families. All rooms hold either four or two guests (singles can pay extra for a double), and each has its own shower and toilet. Bed linens and towels are provided. Breakfast is included, and you can sign up for an inexpensive lunch and dinner as well.
The lobby has a bright, cheery, international feel, with guests of all ages sharing experiences. Some foursomes obviously met at the JugendGästehaus and decided to do a days exploring together.
Several rooms offer superb views of the Aasee. They can be requested in advance. It's 10 minutes on foot to the Prinzipalmarkt.
• Contact: JugendGästehaus Aasee Bismarckalle 31, D-48151 Münster, tel +49/0251/53 02 80, fax 53 02 850
Daily Rates: Singles $37, doubles $53. Must be member of the International Youth Hostel Federations, but memberships are available for $18 for an adult or family. Specially equipped rooms for disabled guests.
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 15/20
The century-old Kaiserhof, just a five-minute walk from the city center and across from the rail station, has been owned by the Cremer family for nearly 60 years. For the current generation, who today are overseeing extensive renovations, it's a work of love. Personally selected antiques, sculptures, paintings, and tapestries fill the public spaces, as do flowers and bowls of fruit for guests who need a snack. The feeling is like visiting some dear, sophisticated, wealthy relatives: you feel entirely welcome and comfortable, but an occasional "wow" may escape your lips.
"I don't want people just to sleep here," Herr Cremer says. "I want them to relax and take in the atmosphere." It's an atmosphere that varies wonderfully from floor-to-floor. The 112 rooms and suites are spread across five themed floors: 1st-Mediterranean, 2nd-Kaiser, 3rd-Art, 4th-Classical, 5th-Avant Garde. If you like history, you may enjoy the second floor. If you like zebra designs in the carpets, the fifth floor may be calling. As each floor is different, each room is individually designed. Number 214 has a triangular bathtub; Number 212 has a bed built partially into two walls. If you don't mind a jungle theme, Number 501 is a large top-floor double. All except the jungle are air-conditioned.
Daily Rates: Singles $75, doubles $98.Breakfast $9.2
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 16/20
The Mauritzhof bills itself as "Münster's Design-Hotel," one of a growing number of hotels that avoid the mass production look and instead use original works of art to create a distinct ambiance in each room.
Entrance is through a modern foyer with reception kiosk in the center, a sitting area to the left, and bar and snack area to the right. All rooms have the usual high-standard amenities, as well as air conditioning or a less intrusive air exchange system.
Nearly 80 percent of guests are repeat visitors, most of whom have become drawn to a favorite room. In the Mauritzhof, the best rooms overlook the green, wooded, quiet Promenade. For friends traveling together, a fun choice may be basement rooms 10-12, which share a private courtyard. Room 79, on the top floor, offers wooden floors and slanted roof.
Daily Rates: Singles $85-90, doubles $95-105, junior suites $125-135. Breakfast $12. Parking $9. Weekend discounts sometimes offered.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 15/20
The Münster Mövenpick has the fine Swiss quality and service for which the chain is famous. The cheery atrium lobby, like much of the hotel, carries sailing and nautical themes. Sails hang from the ceiling, fish shapes appear in the tiled floor and metal wall art suggests smokestacks on old steamers.
The hotel is just a stone's throw from the Aasee, but lake views are blocked by a row of attractive villas. Still, it makes for peaceful strolls along the lake promenade, with downtown only a 10-minute walk away.
Guestrooms are spacious and modern. The most popular, like Number 258, overlook the cemetery, which is more like a wooded park than a final resting place. Half the 224 rooms are nonsmoking, and two rooms are for guests with physical disabilities. State your preferences as to smoking/nonsmoking, balcony/no balcony, shower/tub and cemetery/courtyard to get the appropriate room.
A pair of restaurants (both closed for renovation during a recent visit) offer regional and broader German and international cuisine.
Daily Rates: Singles $128, doubles $153-168. Weekend prices form $82. Breakfast $14. Parking $9
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 15/20
Restaurant Grosser Kiepenkerl
In earlier days, a Kiepenkerl carried goods on his back between the family farmhouse and the city, stopping for shopping requests (and gossip) along the way. The Kiepenkerl took on a symbolism of stability and permanence, an image ironically shattered in 1945 when a U.S. Army tank flattened the restaurant's Kiepenkerl statue.
But the sculpture has been replaced, and the food has never been better. The half-timbered restaurant features regional specialities like Westphalian wedding soup (beef broth with fresh vegetables) or Münsterländer Kalbstöttchen - calf's head simmered to a savory stew - much better than it sounds. Less regional but still delicious dishes include Sauerbraten, chicken breast with chanterelles in cream sauce with buttered Spätzle, salmon filet with horseradish crust, and chanterelles in cream with Semmelknödel (dumplings). Main dish prices are in the $14-16 range.
• Contact: Restaurant Grosser Kiepenkerl Spiekerhof 45, D-48143 Münster, tel +49/0251/40335, fax 518933
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 14/20
You've never seen a Ratskeller quite like this one. A Madonna with red lipstick and toenail polish welcomes guests, and conventionality decreases as you descend to the cellar. Carousel horses stand next to turquoise statues. Monkeys and Murano chandeliers hang from the ceiling. As the menu affirms: "Happiness is the bridge to tomorrow" and "To be able to smile is the guarantee for timeless beauty."
Pfefferkorn is a small chain, so the food is not truly regional, but you'll be happy and smile. Menu items include tapas like fried herring, snails, salmon roll on potato pancake and baked potatoes with herring, lox or shrimp (all in the $5-8). Entrées priced at $14-16, include such choices as pork filet with mango cream and pineapple, filet steak Florida with bananas and pineapple, and grilled pork with chanterelles and Béarnaise sauce.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 13/20
Münster nightlife is in the Kuhviertel (literally, the "Cow District"). Students started the fun at Cavete, a lively pub in the Kreuzstrasse, and it spread through the district. Now anyone seeking an engaging Münster evening thinks first of the Kuhviertel.
Long before Cavete served its first beer, however, Pinkus Müller was already a fixture. The restaurant/brewery offers superb regional cuisine, so regional that the menu includes a glossary of local terms: Surmoos for sauerkraut, Prümkes for plums, and Töttchen for savory pork ragout. Appetizers include regional sausages and Westphalian ham, as well as dark bread with Schmaltz.
Another speciality is Altbier, beer aged about six months to yield a mellow, slightly sweet, almost wine-like character. It's often served with sliced fresh peaches or strawberries at $2.25 for a quarter liter, versus $1.70 for regular Altbier.
Food prices are moderate with entrées ranging from $7 to $19. Typical choices are pork hock with Sauerkraut and pureed potatoes (wonderful, albeit artery clogging), steak topped with baked cheese, medallions of pork, and pork filet with Prümkes and plum sauce. Dessert has to include Rote Grütze - a sweetened ragout of fresh berries, topped with cream or vanilla ice cream.
"Pinkus," known to his parents as Carl, was sixth in a line of nine Müllers since the restaurant opened in 1806. Locals delight in explaining his name, a derivation of the German word "to tinkle." When Carl was a teenager, he and some friends made off with vast quantities of beer from his parents brewery. After considerable consumption, he felt full of both self and bladder and bet he could put out the town's lights. He made a valiant effort and was henceforth known as "Tinkler." Today, the restaurant is owned by Pinkus' son, Hans (no known nickname) and his wife Annemarie.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 17/20
Next to the quirky and fun Pfefferkorn is the more traditional Stuhlmacher, with laid-back but attentive service. Upstairs, the restaurant is somewhat formal and reserved; the downstairs is more pub-like and inspired the immediate downing of a "wild and sweet" Stuhlmacher lager.
The cuisine is decidedly regional and takes advantage of seasonal fruits and vegetables such as chanterelles, lima beans and strawberries. For example, pea soup is rich and hearty with bits of ham, sausage and bacon. Lima beans are in season in August and not to be missed, simmered in rich gravy with ham, thick bacon and Westphalian sausage. Likewise, chanterelles are the rage in midsummer and served in delightful combinations, such as in herbed cream sauce with bread dumplings. Desserts include Rote Grütze and black bread pudding, the moist wedges of seasoned pudding served with a berry sauce and ice cream. Entrées range from $8 to $22.
• Contact: Stuhlmacher Prizipalmarkt 6-7, D-48143 Münster, tel +49/025/44 877
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 16/20
If you're in the mood for something fast, cheap and nourishing, don't care much about the setting and curse every McDonald's you see, then try Patata. It's little more than a storefront, and just about the only item on the menu is French fries, almost all for less than $2. The choice of toppings includes salsa, cheeses, curry, pesto yogurt and "hunters style." The Prinzipalmarkt is just steps away.
• Contact: Patata, 20 Rothenburg, D-48143 Münster
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 14/20