Growing up, I didn’t really care much for my last name. It was long, compared with my friends’ names, and sometimes I would get teased about being old. And it had that “u” in the last syllable, which most people assumed was spelled with an “e,” requiring an explanation or a correction that never failed to embarrass me.
But one day, in what felt like a whirlwind of an instant, a new kindergarten teacher at my elementary school forever changed my perspective on being an Oldenburg.
Her name was Ruth VandenBergh. She was tall and slim, with short brown hair and a German accent that seemed to dance through her smile as she spoke. “I have something to show you!” she said in what may have been the most gregarious voice I had ever heard from a teacher. “Your name is a city in Germany…and it has a castle!”
Mrs. VandenBergh showed me the town of Oldenburg on a map and told me that her parents still lived in Germany. And most impressive of all to my younger self, she explained that burg in German means “castle” and berg means “mountain.” Suddenly, the thought of making sure that last syllable was spelled correctly made perfect sense.
A few months went by, and Mrs. VandenBergh once again stopped me in the hallway. She handed me a small package that her parents had sent from Germany. Inside were several postcards from Oldenburg and two silver charms. One was decorated with the city’s coat of arms, and the other featured my namesake castle. It was the most precious gift I had ever received, and it became the beginning of a charm bracelet that I still have.
It felt as if Mrs. VandenBergh had given me the world that day.
And all these years later, I believe that the world is exactly what was hidden in that little box with the lovely charms from Oldenburg.
* * * * *
Oldenburg At Last!
Oldenburg lies about two hours southwest of Hamburg in the state of Lower Saxony. It’s an easy stretch of highway that passes through verdant farmlands and small German towns. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this place I’d held so long in my heart, but my first reaction was that it was much more of a city than the hamlet I had imagined.
Our traveling foursome headed to the Tourist Information office, a bright modern space housed in an old brick building. “My name is Oldenburg and I have come from California to see your city!” I told the young woman behind the information desk as I showed her my passport. When I got married, Oldenburg became my legal middle name. It’s a bit of a mouthful, especially with a “burg” followed by a “berg,” but it’s who I am.
The desk clerk seemed surprised and interested that I had the same name as her town. Surely there must be other pilgrims who find their way to their namesake cities, I thought. Maybe they simply show up without passports in hand. I had also tucked my childhood charm bracelet inside my purse. I knew that if I was finally making the journey to Oldenburg, I wanted my younger self to be there right beside me.
I bought an Oldenburg mug and a bookmark and picked up a map with highlighted tourist destinations. “Be sure you go inside the church,” the woman at the TI had urged. “It’s a real surprise.”
St. Lamberti-Kirche & A Farmers’ Market
We began our walk in the city center, a mix of modern shops and interesting architecture from past centuries. When we arrived at St. Lamberti-Kirche, I was immediately transported to the day we’d spent a few years ago in Honfleur, France, where a farmers’ market had been set up next in a square next to an old church. The Oldenburg farmers’ market setting was almost identical. Different country. Different language. But so very much the same.
St. Lamberti was built between 1155 and 1234 as a Romanesque hall church. It’s the city’s oldest church and tallest building. At the end of the eighteenth century, a neo-Classical rotunda was constructed inside, creating a circular design inside the angular brick exterior. The church was refurbished again between 2007 and 2009, and it’s a dramatic contrast between interior and exterior.
I was most excited to see the castle, which had been filed away in my imagination since I first knew such a place existed. But when we arrived, what stopped me in my tracks was that the castle looked more like a palace – which it actually was. It turns out that the original medieval castle was built in 1108 by the Counts of Oldenburg, with a moat added around 1400. But in the early 17th century, a Renaissance residential palace was built on the site, and the last remains of the medieval castle were removed in the 18th century due to dilapidation.
Today the palace houses the State Museum of Art and Cultural History.
Just outside the palace, we happened upon a small lake that seemed to serve as an entrance to the palace gardens. Flowering shrubs in shades of lilac and deep purple spilled over the lake, and an elegant marble-looking viewing platform peeked out from between the trees. We stopped at a few spots along the serene summer setting before heading back to the city center.
We turned back into the city center in search of Kaffee Hamburg, known for its baked goods as well as tasty breakfast and lunch fare. Although the patio was inviting, I was intrigued by the charmingly self-described “shabby chic” interior, with its old china tableware and upholstered chairs. After lunch, we ordered coffees and traditional waffles. I knew we would be having a waffle break on one of our upcoming Norwegian cruise excursions and thought it would be fun to compare it with the traditional German variety.
* * * * *
Back outside, it was time to pick up the car for the drive back to Hamburg. It had been an extraordinary day, walking the streets of a town that had helped define my heritage. I thought about Mrs. VandenBergh and wondered if she could have possibly known the importance her kind gesture would have in my life. I took the bracelet from my purse and looked at the charms one more time.