A Dutchman in love with lübeck

Lübeck without the status of a UNESCO World Heritage is like a Michelin-starred chef withoutstars, says Jan Kruijswijk. What does Lübeck have in common with the Pyramids of Giza, the Ruins of Olympia, Stonehenge and the Great Wall of China? They all belong to the group of over 1,000 historic sites around the world that have been given the protection of UNESCO World Heritage status. 39 of these sites are located in Germany, and Lübeck has been one ofthem since 1987.

Lübeck was founded in 1143 as the first port on the Baltic Sea and quickly developed into the rich and mighty "Queen of the Hanseatic League". The Old Town island is one of the most beautiful examples of the red-brick Gothic style of Northern Germany. The seven church spires have dominated the city's silhouette since the Middle Ages. In addition to the famous Holsten Gate, it is worth seeing the historic Town Hall, the salt storage buildings, which were used to store the "white gold", the Hospital of the Holy Spirit, the impressive merchants' houses and the medieval alleys and courtyards. The archaeological subsoil of the Old Town with around three million finds is also part of the World Heritage Site.

Someone who knows everything there is to know about it, is the tour guide Jan Kruijswijk. The native of the Netherlands with his unmistakeable Rudi Carrell accent and beloved Norwegian jumpers has been living in Lübeck since 1991. "I came to Lübeck because of love", he says in reference to his wife Dorit, whom he met while drinking the popular spiced wine "Glühwein"with some colleagues at Lübeck's Christmas Market. At that time he was still working for Dräger as an engineer in Zoetermeer in the Netherlands, but quickly relocated to Lübeck and has never regretted it. "Lübeck is far more than a beautiful backdrop", he raves. "Here, you breathe history and it's at the centre of life." After retiring, he made a new profession out of his hobby of showing business customers "his"Lübeck once their working day was done.

A guided tour in Lübeck - a mix of Entertainment and history

Since 2007 he has been offering regular guided tours, explaining the "Queen" and what makes Lübeck a UNESCO World Heritage Site - in German, English and Dutch, of course. "There was a gap in the market when I started at the Association of Lübeck Tour Guides", he says with a laugh and strokes his greybeard. He particularly enjoyed dressing up for the costume tours as Jan Janszoon van Wijck, a Dutch captain who spent the winter of 1668 in Lübeck with his galleon"Seelöwe". He took a room in the Seafarers'Guild and enjoyed the food and drink, especially the French red wine, which matured in Lübeck's cellars into the now famous Lübeck red wine "Rotspon". "I once got some very special praise from one visitor", laughs Kruijswijk with a wink. "After the walk around the city he said, thanks for the great tour - and you did really well with the Dutch accent!" This Captain Jan Janszoon van Wijck may explain how Kruijswijk manages to make his guided tours so exciting and unforgettable for visitors. He tells stories. "My secret is a mix of entertainment and history. A guided tour only takes two hours, and I don't want to bore my visitors with too many facts and figures. You can find many details on Wikipedia", he says. "But I want to inspire with my stories, so that our guests want to come back to learn more about the city."

And what does the UNESCO brand mean for Lübeck? "It is a promise", reflects Kruijswijk. "Lübeck without the status of a UNESCO World Heritage is like a Michelin-starred chef without stars. Visitors from all over the world can rely on the fact that the UNESCO seal means they will find something very special here. "The most common question on his tours relates to the destruction during World War II. "Lübeck was fortunate in its misfortune", is his response. "Around three quarters of the Old Town survived the War almost untouched despite the devastating air raid of 1942." Then in 1944, Lübeck was declared supply port of the International Red Cross and this made it off-limits to further bombing raids.

Kruijswijk especially enjoys taking his visitors through the old Seafarers' Quarter around St. Jacob's church. The traces of medieval life can still be seen here and this provides great material for his stories. There is, for example, St. Jacob's church for seafarers, St. Gertrude's Hostel for weary pilgrims, the Seafarers' Guild as a meeting place for captains, the Castle Gate that used to be the cause of genuine last-minute panic at times, and the Hospital of the Holy Spiritin which the poor and sick had to make a vow of obedience, chastity and poverty to be admitted. Still, you did get a free meal and three litres of beer every day adds Kruijswijk with a grin, knowing well that it was better to drink dark beer than water during the Middle Ages as protection against diseases. Beer was also part of the crew's daily rations onboard of trading ships, so it was no wonder that there were around 160 breweries in Lübeck in the Middle Ages.

"Many believe that the Middle Ages were romantic", explains Kruijswijk. "But that's not true. It was a daily battle for survival. Disease and death lurked everywhere." That was also why rich Lübeck merchants were so generous with donations, as they were worried about their salvation and wanted to buy their place in paradise. This resulted in many charitable foundations, such as the Füchtingshof, which offered refuge to impoverished widows and orphans. The little alley houses in the rear courtyards of the Old Town are a special tourist attraction - spruced up like little doll'shouses, they make popular holiday apartments. The humble wooden huts used to be home to servants, simple seafarers, or were rented by small businesses, and could not even be heated because of the fire risk. 70 of these historic alleys and courtyards have been preserved to this day and are an integral part of many guided tours. "The alleys are simply part of Lübeck and each one tells its own special story", says Kruijswijk.

He could talk passionately and enthusiastically about "his"Lübeck for hours, but even the best guided tour has tocome to an end. Just one question is left: What is his favouriteplace in Lübeck? "The Christmas Market of course", he replies with a smile. "I found my great love there in the protection of the historic Town Hall." How romantic!