Greifswald (translation: ‘Griffen Forest’) is the hometown of my favorite Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). A charming, partially fortified town located on the small, lazy Ryck River three miles from the Baltic Sea, it has been one of my occasional homes-away-from home since 2010, when I received a fellowship to spend a year there at an institute for advanced study, the Alfried Krupp WIssenschaftskolleg. In my year there, I made more close local friends than I had in my fifteen years stationed at my university in Purgatory, Indiana. Things are just different in Greifswald, more flexible and friendly. Since then, I’ve enjoyed several other months-long stints—to teach and conduct research—and turn up frequently enough to visit friends that shop owners and restaurant personnel greet me with a nice to see you again.
Although the early twentieth century saw the town expand beyond its ramparts, and during the post-World-War-Two period behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ some of its buildings dilapidated to points beyond recovery and have now been replaced by unaesthetic, modern buildings, it doesn’t look so differently than it did in Friedrich’s time. Much of the original ramparts and fortification wall (constructed with bricks nicked from the nearby monastery of Eldena, built by Danish monks in the twelfth century a bit inland from the point where the Ryck River empties into the Baltic Sea and decimated in the sixteenth century during the Reformation) remain. The salt trade transformed Greifswald into a wealthy town, as evidenced by the three, magnificent Gothic churches within its walls.
If, on a Sunday morning between 9:30 and 10 a.m. you sit in the leafy park of majestic linden trees beside the Nikolai Dom, the cathedral, you will be treated to a symphony of bells tolling from it and Greifswald’s two other Gothic churches: the magnificent Marienkirche (check out the centuries-old whale portrait on its interior wall) and the over-restored Jakobskirche. It’s my favorite moment of the week. Around 9:40, they begin chiming languidly, reminding townspeople that if they’re not already up and dressed, now is the time. After several quiet minutes, they begin again at 9:50 with more urgency—let’s go people, tie those bonnets, button those jackets, and put on those shoes, you don’t want to be late! Then, five more minutes of silence. At 9:55, the bells lose their patience and begin clanging furiously, insistently. Hey, get going! What are you thinking? Your morning coffee can wait! You’re going to be late if you don’t hurry! You don’t want to embarrass your entire family and live in shame for the rest of your life, having arrived late to church, do you? After five minutes of frantic chiming, they give up. The deferential sibling churches fade their bells, and only the cathedral bells remain, tolling the hour in their measured baritone timbre. Friedrich was baptized here, and caddy-corner lay the family home and business (the soap and candle manufacture was in the basement).
If, like me, you’re not a church-going type—although the Lutheran service is pleasant, the singing inspiriting, and the organ soothing—you can relax in one of the sofas left under the trees by the bar across the street, or (my preference) repair to Miramar, the old-fashioned café on the stunning market square, for breakfast or coffee and a slice of their delicious, better-than-any-I-have-tasted-in-Vienna, apple strudel.
The market square is never a parking lot, as is the fate of most of Germany’s town squares. Three days a week, it’s an actual market, with vendors coming from the surrounding region. Lines form at the jovial fisherman and his wife, who sell delicious fried fish sandwiches. At the enterprising Poles you’ll find wild berries and mushrooms at bargain prices. Farmers sell eggs and seasonal produce, butchers offer homemade sausages, and elsewhere on the square, you’ll find flowers, clothespins and tablecloth weights, breads and cheese, Eastern Mediterranean comestibles. On Sunday mornings, however, it is tranquil and vacant. In nice weather, you can sit outdoors at one of the shaded tables and read or watch tour groups learning about Greifswald’s mercantile history and the occasional cyclist crossing to access the path along the Ryck that leads to Wieck, the fishing village on the Baltic Sea.
Friedrich is a virtual industry in Greifswald; one encounters reproductions of his paintings on the walls of shops, schools, apartment houses. His paintings (the best ones are in Berlin, Dresden, and Hamburg) hang in the local Landesmuseum, and Friedrich enthusiasts can follow a ‘Caspar David Friedrich’ trail that leads to sites where he painted, often marked by explanatory texts. My favorite Sunday afternoon activity, however, is taking the Ryck path to Wieck. I keep a bike in Greifswald, by far the most efficient mode of transport—they can also be rented—and ride there, although the walk is also pleasant. Rowers from the riverside rowing club ply the waters, sailboats putter toward the sea for a day of sailing, and trees heavy with fruit quench your thirst along the way in late summer.
Friedrich’s brother drowned in the Ryck, and the artist walked this path many times in his youth, before departing for his studies in Copenhagen and professional establishment in Dresden. He painted the evocative ruin of Eldena’s monastery church but couldn’t have enjoyed the delicious ice cream found at the adjacent Eiscafe. At the seaside, there’re beaches with views of the island of Rügen, where Friedrich wandered and painted during several summers, and of Ludwigsburg, the decrepit, if charming, seaside estate in Loissin, where an aristocrat painter friend of Friedrich lived. According to legend, it was a meeting place of Friedrich, Friedrich von Klinkowström (he painted the Marienkirche altarpiece), and Philipp Otto Runge, a fellow, if short-lived, Romantic painter, who studied in Copenhagen and hailed from nearby Wolgast, gateway to the holiday island of Usedom and reachable by train. You can visit the Runge home, constructed circa 1800 just outside the Wolgast city wall to avoid the higher tax rate paid by inhabitants.
While there’s lots to do in and around Greifswald on a Sunday, nothing beats lazing along the Ryck and the Baltic, watching clouds and boats sailing along.