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The Castles and Churches of Schleswig-Holstein: Oy Gevalt in Germany on the Looney Front - Part 1

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Like the Danish cities to the north Flensburg, just four miles into Germany from the now Schengen-agreement non-border, has a large old quarter with picturesque red-roofed houses painted in pastel hues, all dominated by three towering churches from the Middle Ages.

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This is not surprising since it was an integral part of Denmark, and its second largest port after Copenhagen, until Prussia grabbed it and the rest of the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein, now the northernmost of Germany's 16 states, in the 1864 war.

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The names and arms of Danish kings, such as Frederick IV, still adorn buildings along the old town's thoroughfare, now a mainly pedestrian drag about a quarter of a mile long - at this moment frequented by ancient sight-seers, youngsters zipping along on skateboards, and the occasional drunk or looney bellowing out obscenities in various tongues.

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As a historical footnote, Flensburg was home to the last government of Nazi Germany in May, 1945, when Grand-Admiral Karl Dönitz, Hitler's successor, retreated here. That period of glory lasted a week until the German armies surrendered and British troops took hold of old Donuts.

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Just seven miles out of town Glücksburg, considered one of the most important Renaissance castles in northern Europe, rises on the shores of a little lake, its white-washed walls, four turretted corner towers and triple red roofs reflected in the still waters.

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It's the seat of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, a cadet branch of the House of Oldenburg, one of whose scions became king of Denmark as Christian IX in 1863, when Oldenburg ran out of direct male descendants.

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Known as the father-in-law of Europe for marrying off his children to the continent's royal houses he's the great-great-great-grandad of both Queen Elizabeth II of the UK and Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.

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You can tootle round inside and see, among other ducal glories, a full-scale mock up with dummies of a dinner given here in 1902 for German Empress Augusta Victoria, wife of Kaiser Bill of WWI fame, when she visited her sister who was married to the eldest son of Duke Friedrich. They all intermarried like mad, anyway, which explains nicely why they were all mad.

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And now to move a tad further south.

Gott in Himmel, what's happening? The indicator has just flashed that the train from Flensburg to Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein's capital, is 10 minutes late. This is Germany, for Chrissakes, land of rigid precision. Schwarze mark, Deutsche Bahn!

As if that's not bad enough, a man boards with a long feather sticking up from behind his left ear. He kneels and bows down three times - and yes, you've guessed it - sits right opposite me in the virtually empty carriage. He nods and makes hand signals the whole time.

What's worse, he reeks of garlic, so he's not a vampire. Suddenly he rises, raises his hand twice, not Heil Hitler-like, but straight above his head, and alights.

Even worse, we arrive 37 minutes late on a one-hour-13-minute journey. An even Schwarzer mark, Deutsche Bahn.

Kiel, with a population of a quarter million, is home to what claims to be the world's biggest sailing event, Kiel Week, smack into which I arrive. What looks like a brigantine is speeding along the harbour, even as we speak, its white sails billowing fully rotund in the wind.

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The city has a bit of raucous past. It was a member of the Hanseatic League, that Middle Ages trade bloc precursor of the European Union, from 1284 until it did a sort of Kexit in 1518 - it was expelled for harbouring pirates. Allied bombing destroyed nearly all the old city in WWII.

It's also famous for the Kiel Canal, which I learned about in a geography lesson at school about two millennia ago. It was first built in the 18th century while still part of Denmark, cutting some 300 miles off the trip around Jutland by joining the Baltic to the North Sea, partially using the Eider River.

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Kaiser Bill inaugurated the current 61-mile long canal in 1895, in a spasm of modesty named it the Kaiser-Wilhelm Canal, and later had it widened to take Dreadnought-size battleships for his WWI extravaganza.

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The journey south to Lübeck passes through a generally flat land of lush forests and lakes, hosting holiday resorts and spas like Bad Schwartau and Plön, temporary home for a day for Hitler's successor, old Donuts, until he moved on to Flensburg and unconditional surrender of the thousand-year reich.

Now, Lübeck may have an umlaut, but its name isn't even German, it's Slav. Round about 805, Emperor Charlemagne brought in Slavs who built a town and called it Liubice, or lovely. Over the centuries it grew, got Germanised, and became the most important city of the Hanseatic League.

In 1375 Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV called it one of the five "Glories of the Empire", along with Venice, Rome, Pisa and Florence.

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With such a pedigree it's no surprise that its old town, on an island in the Trave River, presents a magical kaleidoscope of the Middle Ages. The lofty green spires of seven hulking red-brick churches from the 13th and 14th centuries, two with twin steeples, tower over narrow winding streets. Many old buildings have tall graduated facades and others are painted in various pastel shades.

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Two of the four old town gates remain - the fairy-tale Holstentor from 1478 with its plump rounded turrets, sagging in on each other like towers of Pisa waiting to happen, and the Burgtor from 1444, more severely Gothic, with a helmet-like roof, added in 1685, that would look better on a casino.

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In 1942, the British Royal Air Force heavily bombed the city, severely damaging several of the churches. They've since been restored. I don't know about Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman's Bells of St. Mary's, but the RAF sent the ones in Lübeck's St. Mary's crashing to the ground, where their shattered shards still remain.

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RAF bombing also produced a human disaster just five days before the end of the war when they sank three German ships in Lübeck Bay, not knowing that they were packed with concentration camp inmates, killing some 7,000.

It's Sunday, the bells are ringing, but there are only a handful of people in the Dom Cathedral and most of the other churches.

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Marienkirche (St. Mary's), which operates more as a museum, is known as the 'mother of Gothic brick churches' for its 125-foot high vaulted nave and 410-foot spires.

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From the narrow winding streets, it's difficult to get a good worm's eye photo of the churches and spires close up, but you can soar like an eagle for a magnificent panorama by taking a lift up St. Petri's (Peter's) tower and doing a 360 degree waltz beneath its still towering spire. Not for nothing is the town a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Despite the excellent restorations, the modern era has intruded with its eyesores across the narrow river just outside the old town - the Radisson Senator Hotel and the warehouse-like Music and Congress Hall. You also pass a large industrial area if you take the boat down the Trave to Travemünde, a Baltic seaside resort since the beginning of the 19th century.

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But immerse yourself within the old town, shut out the monstrosities and you're in fairyland.

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[Upcoming blog next Sunday: Hamburg - of burgers, Beatles and babes]

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.