Thursday, 26 November 2009


Today we had a day-trip to Hamburg to celebrate my dearest's birthday. Hamburg is 286km North West of Berlin, but the journey took only an hour and a half because we travelled it in a sleek, white, bullet shaped ICE (InterCityExpress) train. The ICE was really impressive, more like a jet plane inside - and I don't mean Ryanair. We had a six-seat compartment to ourselves on the way out, but even on the way back the main carriages were spacious and comfortable. A speed display showed we were cruising at 230km/h for most of the time, and the ride was smooth and slick. There wasn't much to look at out of the window; a few deer, cranes, horses etc. but mostly just fields and forests and a reminder of how very very flat the Norddeutsches Tiefebene (North German plains) really are. It's no wonder then that Hamburg, though quite some distance from the sea on the river Elbe, is prone to periodic flooding, the worse being the North Sea flood of 1962 when a fifth of the city was underwater and over three hundred people tragically lost their lives. Maybe we should have packed our life-jackets? But no, though the weather was rather grey and it tried to rain once or twice, we didn't get too wet.

Hamburg is Germany's second largest city after Berlin, but there is a marked difference between the two. Though both were virtually flattened by air-raids during WWII, Hamburg was in West Germany and so didn't get rebuilt by Soviet, plattenbau-obsessed planners like East Berlin was. Instead, the townscape of Hamburg is a mixture of rebuilt neo-gothic blackened sand-stone buildings, and the kind of 1970's shopping centres that went up in England in the bombed-out city-centres of places like Exeter, Coventry, and Birmingham. In fact, I have been to Hamburg before, way back in my teens, and all I can remember of it are the pedestrianised shopping precincts, the Rathaus, and the unexpected Binnenalster lake. But mostly the shopping precincts. Hamburg also feels a lot less German than Berlin, or at least less Prussian. It has a feel of Amsterdam about it, or even a larger version of Liverpool - no wonder The Beatles felt at home here in their early days.

Unlike Liverpool though, the seaport of Hamburg (second-largest in Europe after Rotterdam, stat fans!) seems to be thriving, with many large container ships and cruise liners in the docks, or undercover in the shipyards for renovation. Another river-side area still full of life is the old warehouse district, or Speicherstadt (NB 'Speicher' is also the German word for computer disk storage and memory). Though strangely it smelt of toasted tea-cake when we were there. The rows of many tall, narrow warehouse fronts have both road and riverside entrances, and a pulley beam on the apex of the gables for hauling up goods to the various levels. The warehouses are home to many importers and exporters of goods, including more Oriental carpet companies than I have ever seen in one place. They are also home to 'The Hamburg Dungeon', 'Miniatur-Wunderland' model railway exhibition (the largest of its kind in the world!), and an Afghani museum, but just to wander down the quaysides, and especially see them lit up at night, is enough of an attraction. On a cynical note, if this was England they would have been renovated into 'authentic' loft and warehouse apartments for Yuppies like at Salford Quays. What is incredible is that all these towering red-brick warehouses are built out in the middle of the Elbe on wooden-pile foundations, somewhat like a German Venice (or Venedig). And in fact - or at least according to the Hamburg entry in Wikipedia, so maybe not - Hamburg has more bridges over its canals than Venice and Amsterdam combined.

Like Amsterdam, but not so much Venice (not since the Eighteenth Century anyway), Hamburg is also famous for its red-light district, centred around the Reeperbahn in the dockside St. Pauli quarter. This is of course also the area where those young scousers with the mop-tops played all those years ago, but you'll be hard-pressed to find The Star-Club (it closed in '69 and the building burnt down in 1987). We wandered along the Reeperbahn in daylight so we didn't get the full feel of the place (if you'll excuse the expression), and, well the Reeperbahn is all rather more seedy and run-down than Amsterdam; sort of like Blackpool but without the funfairs. But then it also feels like it actually caters for its originally intended customers, rather than to stag-parties and middle-aged Japanese tourists with cameras, like Amsterdam. My geography reference book 'Deutschland-Atlas für Kinder' (= children's Atlas of Germany) delicately calls the Reeperbahn 'ein Erwachsenenvergnügungsviertal' which is a wonderfully long word meaning 'pleasure district for adults'. It did have a wonderfully quirky and rather different Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) though!

Ah yes, the Christmas Markets. Wonderful the first time you visit them. Maybe also the second, third and fourth time. But after the fiftieth time of the same twee faux-Alpine cabins selling wooden soldier nutcrackers, or candles, or rock-crystal lamps, or woollen hats, or wurst wurst immer wurst, then ... sorry, getting all Scrooge there. Anyway, Hamburg would have been a lot more interesting if all the buildings and views across the river and lakes weren't all lit up like - well, like a Christmas tree. Just saying, that's all! I did get to see Santa fly up to the top of the Rathaus on his sleigh though.

Apart from the Christmas lights and stalls then, the area around the Rathaus and the Binnenalster (the 'inner Alster') were very interesting. Alster, by the way, is the name of the river that's been locked (as in a canal lock) to make this inner-city lake. And Alsterwasser (Alster water) is the name for an alcoholically weak mix of lemonade and beer invented in Hamburg (what everyone else calls a shandy, or Radler in German), just to let you know to avoid disappointment at the Hamburger Bier festival.

The Binnenalster's waterside promenade is good for strolling along, and it has an unusual name: Jungfernsteig, or Virgins' promenade. Apparently in the Nineteenth Century it was the done thing to take your unmarried daughters for a walk along here on a Sunday afternoon, to show her off to eligible bachelors. Another name for it could have been Fleischmarkt, but thankfully not. Also around this area is the picturesquely quaint 'Colonnaden', with its rebuilt colonnades (surprise!) giving it the air of a Regency-period arcade.

Hamburg is dominated by the river, and has a long nautical trading past and spirit of independence. This stretches back to at least 1241, when Hamburg founded the beginnings of the Hanseatic League in alliance with Lübeck. The closeness of Scandinavia is also felt, so much that this is almost a Viking town, though the heathen pillagers have been kept in check by the Lutheran church: there are numerous churches with names such as the 'Danish Seamen´s Church' and the 'Norwegian Church'. A traditional local dish is 'Labskaus', which takes its name from the Norwegian stew 'lapskaus', which also gave its name to the Liverpool sailor's staple food and hence to their nickname 'scousers'. So, another reason why the Fab Four felt at home in Hamburg!

We feel at home in Berlin though, so we caught a late-evening ICE and were soon back with the cats, who were wondering where we had been all day, and why if we'd been to Hamburg we'd not been to the famous Fischmarkt and brought them a fish back. (Because the Fischmarkt is only open on a Sunday, darlings!).

Deichstraße, Hamburg
or Dyke Street.
Oy! No sniggering at the back!

More photographs of Hamburg at Julie Woodhouse Photography, of course!

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