Lübeck – The Schiffergesellschaft

Anne-Rose and I went to the Schiffergesellschaft, a very old and atmospheric restaurant in the central old part of Lübeck.

This site was first mentioned in writing in 1229, almost 800 years ago, but the current building dates from 1538 when it was built as part of a much larger complex.

On the 26. December, 1401 a guild, the Schiffergesellschaft, was established to ‘aid and comfort the living and the dead, and all who are looking for an honest living in the shipping industry.’ The legal status and physical address of the guild changed over the years to eventually settle as a professional body representing seafarers at its current address at Breite Strasse 2, Lübeck.

Thus, the ‘Schiffergesellschaft’ has two meanings – the name of the guild and also the name of the restaurant in the guild’s former headquarters.

From 1614, the Schiffergesellschaft (the guild) was responsible for much more than its original social contract. It became responsible for safeguarding the harbour, settling legal matters, mediating disputes and even collecting shipping taxes.

Membership of the Schiffergesellschaft for maritime employees became voluntary in 1866 and only a few years later, membership was further reduced by the requirement to have experience as a ship’s captain and to be residing in, or close to, Lübeck.

The reduction in membership brought with it a reduction in the guild’s income. A restaurant was opened in the main hall during the 1860’s to bring in much needed financial resources.

I first came to this restaurant as a wide-eyed teenager on my first trip to Germany. Everything was old and impressive in comparison to the raw newness of Australia but the Schiffergesellschaft with its dark interior and mysterious ambience definitely came first for ‘Wow” factor. It still does.

We entered through the vestibule and allowed our eyes to adjust to the darkness. It was dark inside but not gloomy. Rows of lanterns hang from the heavy oak beams which partition the ceiling, each lantern is a different size and shape but each glows with soft warm light. A much larger lantern has silhouettes of different ships revolving around the outside, another has a range of sea-life spinning gently on a never-ending journey. 

We took our seats at a long table set between two pews, the ends of which are magnificently carved and painted with ships and insignia of Lübeck. Huge paintings of biblical scenes line the walls. Old prophets and biblical characters who watched quietly through the years as captains negotiated contracts, discussed the world, argued, drank and sang, continued to watch as we perused the menu and settled on our choices. We ordered salads and mineral waters flavoured with fruit juices. The captains would have been disgusted!

We were not bored as we waited for our meals. As well as the lanterns, there are numerous model ships hanging from the smoke-blackened beams. I can’t tell a frigate from a cog from a pirate ship but even I could admire the work which has gone into creating each of those models. I wondered who built them and why … maybe those very same captains left idle when their sailing days were over? What better way to remember the good old days in an era before photographs, film and sound recordings made memories obsolete.

After the meal, I wandered around to investigate the room more closely. A number of alcoves set into the walls and fronted with glass showed off their treasures. A collection of silver plates and bowls occupied one such alcove. Another housed some small model ships but the most fascinating alcove held an old rifle, a sword, a carved stick and an hourglass amongst other items. I could just imagine the old sea captains sitting there, smoking their pipes as they listened to Captain Schumann tell his tale of piracy, murder and survival against the odds.