Almost exactly three hundred years ago to the day on 1 August 1714, George l of Hanover took over from the House of Stuart to become the first Hanoverian monarch to rule over Great Britain. This came about because the rule of Settlement (1701) decreed that no Roman Catholic could reign over England, so following the death of Queen Anne and despite there being over 50 descendants of James l with far closer blood ties to the throne, the King of Hanover, in fact a great grandson of James l, was the most senior eligible Protestant descendant. Aged 54 and unable to speak English, he moved from Hanover to St. James’s Palace in London to take up his reign. The English were not exactly delighted to be ruled by a German King and his coronation was accompanied by rioting all over England. George l was succeeded by his descendants George ll, George lll (Mad King George), George lV, William IV and finally Queen Victoria. She was the last British monarch of the House of Hanover and, married to her cousin, another German, Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg and Gotha, her son King Edward Vll took his father’s title. In 1917, due to the British Empire’s Anti German sentiment during WW1, King George V changed the British Royal Family’s name to make it sound more English, the current British monarch, Queen Elizabeth ll and her family are therefore now known as members of the House of Windsor.
I bring you this little snippet of historical information not only to gleefully highlight that in essence the UK which prides itself on not having been invaded since the Norman conquest in 1066, has, in fact, been ruled by thinly disguised Germans for the last 300 years but also to explain why this little north western German town of just over half a million inhabitants is justifiably proud of its special status and connection to the British Monarchy. Hanover, or Hannover as it is spelled in German, is the capital of the German federal state of Lower Saxony (pretty much the same area as the former Kingdom of Hannover), a relatively flat agrarian area bordering the North Sea and not far from the Baltic coast. Lower Saxony boasts a mountain range, the Harz Mountains, a 7000 sq km heath area, the Lueneburger Heide, and is adjacent to the Hanseatic ports of Hamburg and Bremen. Altogether different from the familiar German icons of Alps, Lederhosen and Sauerkraut which are often informed by Bavarian or Southern German imagery , this area is defined by apple orchards, beer, silver and iron ore mining, fisheries, farms, Friesian cows, Hanoverian horses and VW manufacturing. Much of it is sleepy and old-fashioned with Anglo Scandinavian influences but, of course, always underscored by German efficiency.
Germany’s 13th largest city, Hanover’s major claim to fame apart rom the British royal connection, is its Annual Industrial Trade Fair, the Hannover Messe, and its Information Technology Fair, CeBIT, both leaders in their fields worldwide, as well as the world’s biggest marksmen’s festival, the Schuetzenfest, a quaint affair which involves many marching bands in traditional marksmen costume and a huge fairground. The world renowned medical centre and hospital, the MHH, is here and Continental Tyres, Bahlsen Biscuits, Sprengel Chocolate, TUI Tourism and the Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles factory, to name a few, all have their HQs in Hanover. It has a relatively vibrant art scene with street art and sculptures evident throughout the city centre, most particularly the colourful oversized fertility ‘goddesses’, the ‘Nanas’, by the late Hanover resident Niki de St. Phalle, dotted around the banks of the river Leine and a pretty ‘Schloss’, Herrenhausen, formerly the seat of the Kings of Hanover, with its lovely baroque gardens and open air theatre.
Hanover prides itself as the place where the best German is spoken, Hochdeutsch, equivalent to Oxford English in the UK, and has produced such luminaries as the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, author, cartoonist and poet Wilhelm Busch, artist Kurt Schwitters, Gerhard Schroeder, former German chancellor and Christian Wulff, former president of Germany, not forgetting the rock band The Scorpions and Eurovision Song Contest Winner (1991), Lena Meyer-Landrut and, naturally, Prince Ernst August of Hanover V, cousin to the British Queen, married to Princess Caroline of Monaco who therefore also carries the title of Princess of Hanover.
Heavily bombed during WW2, Hanover was swiftly rebuilt in a clean but somewhat bland 50s, 60s and 70s style but it managed to retain some very pretty residential areas with impressive art nouveau villas as well as its very picturesque medieval Old Town area, now pedestrianised and chockablock with pubs, cafes, restaurants, galleries and museums. 1600 acres of city forest, the Eilenriede, run through the town like a green lung and offer not only plenty of jogging, cycling and recreational facilities but also completely untouched areas of wild bluebell and mushroom picking opportunities. Finally, almost bang in the centre, there’s the Maschsee, a natural looking manmade lake of 2.6 km length, crisscrossed by sailing boats, canoes, rowing boats, pedalos and small passenger ferries, a delight for residents and visitors alike.
Forgive me if I have rambled on and perhaps told you more than you might want to know about Hanover but you see, this is where I grew up and went to school, where I roller skated on the street, ice skated on the frozen lake, skived off school, had my first snog (yes, you guessed it, in the Bluebell woods), visited discos deemed undesirable by my mother, attended my first pop concert and my first demonstration. It is the hometown of my German family and I lived here from the age of 14 until I went off to university to the far more sophisticated Hamburg, just 82 miles to the north. Despite my part German heritage, German cuisine has never much appealed to me. I adore the freshly harvested white asparagus which is served by the pound literally everywhere and in every conceivable permutation in May and early June and the German bread, especially the onion bread and the crispy white breakfast rolls, as well as the tiny pinky brown comma shaped shrimps caught in the North Sea but all the heavy meat, the sausage, the Bratwurst, Bockwurst and Currywurst and the cooked to death vegetable stews, thick potato and lentil soups and bun-less burgers, Frikadellen, leave me cold. As a rule, Germans are not keen on garlicky or spicy ‘foreign’ food but they do love their Italian. These days, the more typical German specialities are served in Pubs (Kneipen) and Beerkellers but the successful restaurants are more often than not Mediterranean.
During the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ years of the 60s and 70s, the first wave of foreign immigrants was from Italy, swiftly followed by Greeks and then Turks. Poles and other former Eastern Bloc nationalities joined them more recently. Nowadays, the Turkish population in Germany makes up just over a quarter of the total and Germany has the second highest immigrant Italian population after Argentina. It is therefore not surprising that in a small provincial town like Hanover, you will find few if any Far or Middle Eastern restaurants. There is a tiny sprinkling of Chinese and Japanese eateries but you will be hard pressed to find Indian, Vietnamese or ‘exotica’ such as Peruvian or Caribbean places to eat.
Hanover’s four best restaurants, I am told, are all Italian. During our recent weekend visit, we tried two of them, Gallo Nero (Gross-Buchholzer-Kirchweg 72) which is in a typically Lower Saxon farmhouse and Tropeano di Vino (Kleiner Hillen 4). Both are set in leafy, almost countrified suburbs and have wonderful gardens to eat in which was just as well, since it was absolutely scorching when we were there. Both offered up some delicious fare which was perhaps not altogether outstanding but certainly prepared well. There were all the usual typically Italian dishes, of course, with some excellent fish choices too. The tuna carpaccio was possibly not sliced thin enough and the pasta could have been fractionally more al dente, there was almost no vegetarian choice and the ‘piquante’ Spaghetti Aglio e Olio required several extra doses of chili and garlic but the calves liver, fish dishes and tuna tartar were quite spectacular. The welcome was warm and friendly in both restaurants and the service good. Personally, my somewhat more reserved Brit side could have done without the double kisses for the proprietor on arriving and leaving The Gallo Nero, nor was I particularly enthralled by the waitress’s (owner’s wife) need to sing while serving us but that’s just po-faced me, I suspect.
A most integral part of German life is the afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen, coffee and cream cake ritual. Naughty but very nice! This we took at Pier 51, a nautical café/bar/restaurant on the shore of the Maschsee lake. Clearly very trendy and where the ‘beautiful people’ hang out, this has a fabulous vista over the water and the afternoon cake orgy smoothly segued into sunset cocktails while just chilling out on the decking overhanging the water, people and car watching. We saw several Ferraris, a Bugatti, a Lamborghini, a Bentley, a Wiessmann, an AMG Mercedes and several other very high end motors. The Hanoverians, it seems, are an affluent lot! Another cute tea room is the Teestuebchen in the medieval Old Town area. Cosy inside and fresh and airy outside, it specialises in serving teas from all over the world with a small selection of scrumptious homemade cakes for good measure. Service was atrocious but strangely charming in its chaotic approach.
The one and only five star hotel in Hanover is the Luisenhof/Kastens Hotel. It ‘s in a prime position right in the centre opposite the opera house and has been the town’s top hotel forever. It tries very hard to be Hanover’s answer to the Dorchester but is severely outdated and in need of a complete overhaul and update. The rooms are comfortable but red zebra chairs, anyone? Then again, at a room rate of under E100 per night including breakfast, you can’t really complain. For comparison, we had a look at two four star hotels, both equally well located, the newly refurbished Hotel Mussmann and the just about to be renovated Hotel Merkure. Both were typical businessmen’s hotels, reasonably comfortable but very much no frills and negligibly cheaper than Luisenhof/Kastens Hotel.
Georgstrasse, Luisenstrasse and Karmarschstrasse are the main shopping streets, mostly populated by typical high street shops and department stores with the odd boutique in-between. There are some smart designer shops and concessions but these seem to reduce every year. Hanover, from being a rather classy little federal state capital, is gradually becoming just another average provincial town, its inhabitants heading to Hamburg for more quality purchases, a notable exception being the wonderful jewellers Kroener (www.juwelier-kroener.de), proper watchmakers, who specialise in top of the range watches, beautifully designed jewellery and antique collectors’ pieces. The flea market which takes place on Saturdays on the banks of the river is another small but outstanding shopping opportunity, albeit at the other end of the scale. Here you can still find interesting items straight out of granny’s attic at bargain prices.
Unless you are a business traveller, you are unlikely to visit Hanover, bypassing it in favour of elegant Hamburg, funky Berlin, charming Munich or the picturesque vineyards and castles of the Rhein and Moselle far further south. Still, if you do find yourself here, you will enjoy its green and pleasant small town ambience, the pretty countryside and the impressive leisure facilities it offers. Whether the future British King George who has just turned one and whose Hanoverian bloodline is now well diluted by Middletons, Spencers and Mountbattens (Battenbergs) will ever visit the home of his ancestral namesake remains to be seen. When he gets to his teenage years, I can certainly recommend the bluebell woods for romantic trysts away from prying eyes!