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Travel

Wolfenbüttel - From medieval to modern

What do Jägermeister, the Holy Roman Empire and Casanova have in common? DW's Barbara Woolsey goes to Lower Saxony to discover Wolfenbüttel, an old town with a few new tricks.

The first time I learned about Wolfenbüttel was long ago, but I'll never forget it: It was a chaotic evening fuelled by Jägermeister shots dropped into Red Bull. I remember reading about the German town on the bottle, and thinking, "So that's where they make this diabolical stuff." A few years later, I've stopped drinking Jägerbombs but I do live in Berlin, only a three-hour bus ride from the Lower Saxony town.

Wolfenbüttel is indeed seeing a fresh run of young tourists thanks to the herbal liqueur, but amongst Germans it's been well known for a while. The town has an old world aesthetic and a deeply intellectual history - after all, this is where Leibniz and Lessing once lived and worked and even Casanova briefly came in for a traipse.

Being baroque

Wolfenbüttel Palace Copyright: dpa

Wolfenbüttel's landmark: The Palace

Wolfenbüttel's history goes all the way back to chivalry. From 1283 to 1753, the Dukes of Brunswick and Lüneburg held court at Wolfenbüttel Palace, the town's biggest tourist attraction today. It's a 400-room Baroque masterpiece, decorated with elegant turrets and façades. The present-day museum takes up 20 rooms, while the rest is now a high school and education center.

Visitors can see how the ducal apartments used to look, from thick, plush tapestries to decadent furniture. The details of royal life are what make the castle so interesting, like antique backgammon boards and exquisite dresses and wigs on mannequins. One of the most interesting pieces was a set of porcelain china bowls used to distill rose scent into the air, since showers weren't exactly all the rage back then. Unfortunately, photography at the museum isn't allowed as some of these items are on loan from private collectors.

Only a few steps from the castle there's another big treasure, the Herzog August Library, one of the oldest and most important in the world. It's home to over 900,000 books, a little less than half of which were printed between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Famous German writers, the philosopher Leibniz and the dramatist Lessing both served as librarians here, and even Casanova made it his "home away from home" for a time. He even wrote about Wolfenbüttel: "I spent eight days in the library, and I didn't leave other than to eat and sleep in my room…I lived there completely happy, didn't think either of the past or the future, and my spirit, which was totally sunk into my work, didn't realize the present."

Copyright: Jochen Lübke/dpa

Centerpiece of the library: The illustrated manuscript The Gospel of Henry the Lion

If there was anything the famous author loved more than women, it was books - so knowing his words cast the library into a deeper admiration for me. I wandered around the main room, a massive, dimly lit book cave with spiral staircases leading up to rows and rows of towering volumes with yellow pages. In the corner in a glass case stands a facsimile of what's supposedly the world's most expensive book, the illustrated manuscript The Gospel of Henry the Lion. The real thing spends most of its time in the vault due to legalities, and comes out just once a year.

My favourite part of the library was the Globe Room downstairs. That's where the former Duke of August's massive globes are, and they show how people thought the earth looked before exploration (Asia was pretty accurate, but the Americas were a total mess!).

Small-town jewels

Despite much of Lower Saxony being destroyed in World War II, Wolfenbüttel was left nearly untouched. Its those beautiful, old half-timbered houses and 17th-century churches that give the town so much character today. The wood and stone used to make such structures mostly came from the surrounding Oker River.

market place in Wolffenbüttel Copyright: Barbara Woolsey/ DW

Market time in the center of Wolffenbüttel

In Wolfenbüttel, the busiest days are Wednesdays and Saturdays, when the town square turns into a farmer's market. There's a butcher with horse roulade and wild boar salami (the nearby forests are famous for hunting game), locally made cheeses and vegetables.

Wolfenbüttel also has a lot of great little cafés, where you can drink coffee or devour treats like cinnamon ice cream and cherry cake on the cobblestone. The most unique was Antiquitäten and Kaffeestube, just opposite the marketplace. It's a tiny antique shop with a 10-seat café squeezed in amongst racks of golden trinkets and old cupboards.

When I came in, there wasn’t a free spot, so owner Ilona Fricke pulled me up a chair inside a bar covered with antiques. I ate mango torte cozied in between a ticking antique clock and a 185-euro porcelain teacup from Meissen. It was a feast for the senses, from watching a little boy fascinate over a drawer of old foreign currencies to Ilona darting back and forth serving tables.

"It’s always full in here," she told me with a smile. "We could add more tables and chairs, but it’s so much nicer smaller like this." She clued me into a nearby spot called "Little Venice" with houses built over a tiny canal. I headed over and it did look just like a slice of Venice, modest still somehow romantic.

The Kräuterlikör

A worker at the factory of Jägermeister in Wolfenbüttel checks the bottles during production process. Copyright: Peter Steffen/dpa

A worker at the Jägermeister factory checking the bottles

Outside of Old Town, there's one massive building that's a tourist hotspot in its own right: Jägermeister headquarters. Tours only started a few years ago on informal customer request, but now they give three a day. It's free, and the company sees it as a way of treating customers.

Before going into the factory depths, I was first asked to leave my mobile phone in a locker. Entering the stock room, I immediately understood why: The alcohol fumes are so intense. Apparently, electronics could cause an explosion.

Only by standing beside those gigantic oak barrels filled with 56 herbs and spices, I honestly felt like I was getting drunk. Afterwards, the tour guide told me that I wasn't the first - in fact, more than a few buff young men have nearly fainted.

The tour was really laidback, winding around offices, laboratories with test tubes of brown liquid and guys in black-and-orange coats operating grinders and mixers. But if you're hoping to drink Jägermeister, prepare to be disappointed. For safety reasons, the company only gives out a little take-home souvenir at the end.

So my time in Wolfenbüttel didn't end with a symbolic shot of kräuterlikör like I thought it might, but after all those fumes I really didn't mind. Instead, I indulged in a few Jägermeister chocolates from the gift shop on the bus ride back.

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