The Unexpected Thrill of the Undiscovered Jewel
"What is obvious almost straight away (almost at a primal level, because I felt it the moment I left my hotel) is the city’s ‘10-minute rule’ – a kind of unwritten edict which commands any address be no more than 10 minutes’ walk from either a park or green space."
Hannover makes for an excellent weekend getaway. It’s friendly, open, and full of things to do and places to see, but since it’s not ‘in your face’, it requires a little coaxing and encouragement – a treat for those travellers who like to explore instead of follow. Jeremy Smith spent two days unearthing its secrets and returned home a bit of Hannover luvvie.
Suspicious of booking a weekend getaway to a major European city confused over its own spelling? No one would blame you. After all, would you seriously part with hard earned euros to visit Parris or Romme? Of course not, so just to be clear, Hanover is spelt Hannover (primarily because that’s what it said when I landed at its airport). There is a historical context for the dual spelling, but since it’s rather convoluted, I’m happy, on this issue at least, to simply side with the aviation authority.
With that sorted, what sort of welcome awaits you in the German capital city of Lower Saxony? An excellent one, I’d say, although my stay was just three days and I think that was enough for only a short overview. As a weekend getaway, I’d say it’s perfect but for anything longer, you probably need to be a dyed-in-the-wool ‘Time Team’ fan or ‘Gardeners’ World’ groupie. You see, Hannover isn’t at the top of every traveller’s bucket list. Nor maybe even halfway down. But that for me is its appeal: in my experience, the rough diamond is always more illuminating than the Cartier-boxed bracelet.
What is obvious almost straight away (almost at a primal level, because I felt it the moment I left my hotel) is the city’s ‘10-minute rule’ – a kind of unwritten edict which commands any address be no more than 10 minutes’ walk from either a park or green space. Naturally, this makes for a very green and verdant capital and with 15 regional cycle routes and three circular cycle paths to boot, it’s clear the city wears its ‘Eco-Friendly’ ID large and proud.
It’s a simple one-hour flight from Heathrow and having touched down, a 30-minute taxi ride into its centre, but at first it is easy to wonder just why you’re there. So, do your homework beforehand (my first ever day in Milan was spent wandering blissfully but ignorantly through its business district because I failed to do the necessary research). However, 15 minutes on Google at home is repaid with a 72-hour ‘All Access’ enthusiasm to explore what is often right under your nose, and I was certainly not short-changed. One local told me Hannoverians are proud of their humility, complaining that the city didn’t do enough to bang its drum. A sentiment I too shared come Saturday morning (having arrived only Friday lunchtime). For instance, one of the founding fathers of computers was born here in 1616: a certain Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and no I’d never heard of him either. Last year the city celebrated the 300th anniversary of his birth and after a quick glance at my hastily written notes, it’s easy to understand why (as it is to appreciate the tributes scattered all over with Teutonic abandon).
Overlooking a bad wig even by 18th century standards, this was a man the equal of Isaac Newton. A polymath – which loosely translates as ‘Egghead’ or ‘Geek’ – not only did he refine the binary number system which is the foundation of digital computing but also developed differential and integral calculus (independently of Newton), and anticipated advances that surfaced much later in philosophy, probability theory, biology, medicine, geology, psychology, linguistics and computer science (incidentally, and perhaps not surprisingly, he and Newton hated each other).
Via the city’s ‘Red Thread’ guide – a two-anda- half mile long pavement route or ‘red carpet’ (if you want) that leads you through the city’s architectural and historic sites – you’ll soon find yourself very au fait with their favourite son. Being truthful, I grew up hating museums and places of historical interest; Sunday afternoons spent on forced outings with my parents to myriad National Trust properties quickly left its scars, but in Hannover at least I did find myself surprisingly captivated, especially by the city’s top attraction: Herrenhausen Gardens.
For gardeners, this is Alan Titchmarsh, Monty Don, Carol Klein and Rachel De Thame all rolled into one giant but beautifully baroque orgy of precision, arrangement and colour. Again, as a seventies teenager I’d have rather let my mum cut my hair than face this trial by leaf and bloom, but 40 years on I guess I now see the pudding bowl haircut as more threatening, for I hung around its walkways and topiary-rich paths for almost a whole afternoon. Just the sheer scale of its reach is jaw-dropping, and if by chance you happen to be weekending here with a new partner to boot, you’ll doubtless find good reason to linger longer.
Yet while the Gardens probably remain a favourite for tourists, for locals it has to be Maschsee Lake, a man-made oasis that is as wide and as blue as any ‘Sound of Music’ location. Beer gardens and snazzy restaurants surround, while limitless opportunities to get onto and into it abound (needless to say, the boat trips are very popular). I visited in September but had I arrived in August, the lake would have been hosting its annual festival – a 20-day celebration of music, gastronomy, theatre, sport and art. Unmissable, I was told. And while we’re on the subject of culinary diversions, I must add that the city’s bars and restaurants are very slick and competitively cosmopolitan (I ate at both Hugos and the Sinne Sky Bar and Restaurant, both moderately priced but stylish city centre eateries). However, there’s no question that Hannover’s food temple is its centrally located Market Hall, where it’s de rigueur to sit, sip and swallow while watching the world go by.
The problem with writing weekend getaway reviews is that they can fast turn into travelogues as encyclopaedic and portentous as pocket-sized guides, so I’ll just briefly mention a few other of Hannover’s intriguing must-sees: the zoo, for instance, imaginatively entitled Hannover Adventure Zoo to create that extra frisson of excitement. And certainly it doesn’t lack imagination in its theming (it is also very disability friendly, a fact that’s very true for the rest of the city too).
You might also want to take a look at the New Town Hall (I ticked that box and, hardly a fan of municipal architecture, found myself genuinely moved by its elegance), the Lower Saxony State Museum (super, super impressive and great for kids) and the city’s Old Town quarter (chocolate boxy but charming all the same).
Oh, and as a last thought, try and catch the Saturday flea market too; I could have spent my entire weekend drifting in and out of it and still flown home content. So here’s the thing – would I go back? Yes, in a shot. I liked the city’s vibe, I liked the people I met, I liked the nightlife, the sense of security (it’s a very safe city) but most of all I just felt an unusually huge affection for the place. From an accessibility perspective it was absolutely fine, although one taxi firm did charge me an additional €30 just because of my wheelchair, but that aside, my only lasting grudge is I wished I’d gone in the summer instead. This is a city to discover on foot, on balmy evenings, when the light lasts until almost bedtime. Next time I’ll go in July or August.
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