The D&O Diary is on assignment in Germany this week, with the first stop for a meeting and a short visit in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg – “Free,” as a free Imperial city under the Holy Roman Empire, and “Hanseatic” for the Hanseatic League, the Northern European trading confederation in the late Middle Ages. Though Hamburg is 60 miles inland from the North Sea on the Elbe River, it is a seaport – the second largest in Europe, in fact. It remains a separate city-state within the present German federation. At 1.7 million people, it is also the second-largest city in Germany.
Water is an important feature of Hamburg, and not just because of the city’s maritime orientation. The city’s waterside locales include, in addition to the industrial Elbe riverside (shown to the left), the Binnealster (“Inner Alster”) and the Außenalster (“Outer Alster”), two man-made lakes formed by damming the Alster River, a tributary of the Elbe. Bill Bryson called the Inner Alster “one of the most arresting sights I have ever seen.” Along the lake’s southeast shore is Hamburg’s most famous street, the Jungfernsteig (“The Virgin’s Walkway”). The view of Jungfurnsteig from the Lombardsbrücke on the opposite side of the lake is one of the great urban views in Europe, as depicted in the first and second pictures below. In addition to the lakes and the river, the city also has more canals than Venice and Amsterdam combined. The third picture below shows the Alsterarkaden along the Kleine Alster, the canalized portion of the river that connects the Inner Alster to the Elbe.
Hamburg is also really far north, at 53 degrees North latitude, a bit further north than Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The air temperature was a relative moderate 40 degrees or so while I was there, but with a cold damp wind from the North Sea blowing off of the river, it was chilly just the same. However, contrary to the weather forecast, it did not rain while I was in Hamburg, and I even had a day of bright, chilly sunshine. So I logged a lot of miles on foot while I was there. I took the picture below while walking along the Outer Alster. It is a little more than 4.5 miles around the lake; I made the circuit in about an hour and a quarter, walking at a pretty good clip.
Just steps away from the Inner Alster is the Hamburg Rathaus (City Hall), as pictured at the top of the post, a massive granite and stone building that was completed in 1897. Though the building is grand and though the impressive façade incorporates a number of locally-related elements (such as the coats of arms of the leading Senatorial families in the keystones of the ground floor windows), the building’s Neo-Renaissance style seemed to me to be a little out of place in a northern and German city like Hamburg.
I much preferred the feel of two of the city’s other architectural landmarks, both made of brick rather than granite and stone. The first of these two is the Speicherstadt (“Warehouse District”), which was built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries along the canals paralleling the river. Though built for strictly utilitarian purposes, the buildings’ austere neo-Gothic style has a simple beauty. Reflections of the buildings’ towering gables off the canals’ dark waters made the buildings seem taller than they are. In July 2015, the buildings were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The other Hamburg building that I particularly admired is the Chilehaus, a brick office building completed in 1924 for a shipping magnate who made his fortune in the South American trade. Historian Matthew Jeffries, in his Hamburg memoirs, called the Chilehaus the city’s “most dramatic individual building [and] a potent symbol of its maritime heritage.” The ten-story brick structure has an uncanny resemblance to an ocean-going liner, complete with tiered upper stories creating the appearance of ship’s decks. The building’s eastern end is drawn to a point like the prow of a ship. Though the building’s roof is flat, the prow seems to soar heavenward, as if it were a massive upward gable, an uncanny optical illusion (as depicted in the picture below).
I was happy to have the opportunity to visit Hamburg, because I have always had an interest in seeing the place where the Beatles came together as a band, honed their approach, and made their first recording. In 1960 and 1961, the band spent two extended stretches in the city. In the course of over 200 performances, the group developed its style and sound. Near the western end of Reeperbahn, a street known then as now for its bawdy nightlife, the city has installed a tribute to the Beatles, in Beatles-Platz. The stainless steel sculptures of the musicians are hard to photograph, but in the picture below you can see that there are actually five figures – the fifth is off the right side. When the group arrived in Hamburg, it actually had five members, with Stuart Sutcliffe on bass guitar and Pete Best on the drums. During their second tour of the city, the group substituted a new member into the group, a drummer from Liverpool who went by the name Ringo Starr, who had also been in Hamburg playing with another band. Sutcliffe fell in love in Hamburg and stayed behind to study art in the city when the others left. He died in 1962.
I wanted to try to find the places where the band had played in Hamburg, but in order to try to discover what has become of the clubs like the Kaiserkeller, The Top Ten, and the Star-Club, I had to go down Große Freiheit (“Big Freedom”), which is an even raunchier street than the Reeperbaum. When I did not immediately find what I was looking for, the street’s depressingly sleazy atmosphere quickly discouraged me from continuing the search. I left feeling a little depressed and disappointed.
The dark mood lifted as I made my way back up Reeperbaum to the St. Pauli U-Bahn station. I stepped into a sports bar near the station and found myself in the middle of a large and animated crowd watching the semifinal, between Germany and Norway, of the Euro 2016 Handball Championship. I have never really watched team handball, and in fact I was only vaguely aware that team handball is a thing. I was not always sure what was happening in the match, but I soon was caught up in the crowd’s enthusiasm. It actually turned out to be quite exciting. Germany scored in the very last seconds of regulation time to send the match into overtime, and then they scored again as overtime expired to win the match by a score of 34-33 and to earn the right to play Spain in the final. I was high-fiving everyone and laughing along with the crowd although I had absolutely no idea what anyone was saying. It was pretty clear that they were happy. The celebration seemed to require large quantities of beer. (Germany beat Spain 24-17 in the finals on Sunday night, but I didn’t get to see it because I was in a reception in Frankfurt.)
The next morning, I had an early train to Frankfurt. In the Hamburg train station (pictured), I did something I have never done before — I boarded the wrong train. My intended train, it turns out, was running an hour late (though this information was not shown on the public information boards). A different train, that was also off-schedule, pulled into the station on the same track as my intended train was supposed to be on, at the same time as my train had been scheduled to leave. The signs along the track and on the train were confusing but I had to make a quick decision because the train was ready to leave, so I jumped aboard. Almost immediately, as the train pulled out of the station, it appeared that something was not right. Fortunately, the conductor spoke English, and we quickly figured out that I was on the wrong train. Also fortunately for me, the train I had boarded was going to be going to Frankfurt anyway, and the conductor didn’t care that I had a ticket for a different train. He shrugged as if to say, “Shit happens.” I was grateful that he didn’t make me feel like an idiot for getting on the wrong train. In the end, the train I took arrived in Frankfurt at just about the time my intended train had been scheduled to arrive (and about an hour before the intended train actually did arrive). So all’s well that ends well, I suppose. I will say that the countryside between Hamburg and Frankfurt is beautiful, even in January.
Frankfurt, like Hamburg, is also a river city, but unlike Hamburg, where the riverside is dominated by huge containership ports and mechanical cranes, Frankfurt has developed the shores of the Main River as pleasantly walkable parkland. However, a steady rain dampened my interest in any extended walks along the river. Based upon a description in the guidebook, I tried to walk along Berger Straße, a market street in the city’s Northeast end. There was a street market, which under different conditions, I might have wanted to explore. However, the steady rain soon convinced me that it was time to move indoors.
I recalled that the city’s Bundesliga soccer team, Eintracht Frankfurt, was playing in a match that afternoon, so I found a neighborhood bar with a satellite TV to watch the game. When I walked in, it was like the scene from Star Wars. It felt like everybody stopped and looked at me. Just the same, the bartender was happy to bring me a beer, and the game soon began. It was a reasonably interesting game, though it ended nil-nil (or in this case, Null-Null). However, while I enjoyed the game, I found the crowd in the bar even more interesting. This was a crowd of regulars. They all knew each other. As others arrived, the bartender would bring them their drink, without an order or request. Everybody seemed to have their own place in the bar, as well; I became concerned that I might be occupying somebody’s spot. I couldn’t really follow their game commentary, which was in German, but they were all making a pretty steady stream of remarks throughout the game. It was definitely the kind of bar that I most enjoy being in, although the language barrier allowed me only to observe, not to participate. The game’s end in a scoreless draw was kind of anticlimactic, and the bar crowd soon drifted away. Because I liked the place, I decided to stay and have dinner there, even though the place had thinned out. I had some boiled beef and potatoes, with green sauce, as depicted in the photo at the bottom of the post.
When I travel, I usually try to attend a church service, if my schedule permits. It is best way to observe what are often some of the most interesting local structures, by seeing them being put to their intended use. There is often music and usually an interesting spectacle. In general, churchgoers are pretty reliably friendly as well. In Frankfurt, I attended the Sunday morning service at the Liebfrauenkirche (the Church of Our Lady), a church in the city’s Aldstadt that was first built in the 14th Century and subsequently expanded. The service, a Catholic mass, was in German, but the priest spoke remarkably clearly and I was more or less able to follow what was going on. The churchgoers seemed to fall into one of two groups, older Germans, age 65 and up, and a younger more ethnically diverse crowd, age 30 and under. In some pews in the back of the church, there were several people sprawled out asleep, presumably having slipped into the church after the morning sunrise worship service. No one seemed to mind or ever really to notice the sleepers in the pews. At one point, a young man who had been fast asleep in the pew directly behind me woke up with a start and a concerned expression on his face, and he quickly slipped out of the church’s rear doors. The church’s magnificent bells were ringing splendidly as the church service ended, and I allowed the residual good feeling from the service to carry me down to the river, where I finally did get to enjoy my walk in the riverside parks.
Though it rained on Saturday, I otherwise enjoyed relatively good weather for my German visit, especially by contrast to what had been predicted in the weather forecast. I did manage to see quite a bit of both Hamburg and Frankfurt, most of it on foot. I was, however, bundled up against the wind the entire time. Although both cities have an austere kind of beauty this time of year, the dormant trees and the early afternoon darkness were both reminders that the rules of winter still applied. In both cities, there was an unmistakable feeling that these cities would be really pleasant in the warmer months. I can only imagine how beautiful the Auster is in the summer or the Main River walkways are in the spring. But January is not bad either.
At the seaport, on the Elbe River in Hamburg
A very strange memorial to Otto von Bismark, the Iron Chancellor, in Hamburg. Jefferies called it “an uneasy mix of the ancient and the modern, the figurative and the abstract,” looking nothing so much as a night- watchman staring up the Elbe.
In the park where the old city walls formerly were located, Hamburg:
You gotta love German food, though vegetables are rather scarce. In the second picture, the sauce in the gravy boat is the famous Frankfurter Grie Soß (Green Sauce), which is made with parsley, chives, chervil, borage, sorrel, garden cress, and lettuce, together with sour cream, oil, vinegar, salt, and hard boiled eggs. It is actually pretty good, and made the boiled beef it accompanied pretty interesting.