Hamburg, the epicentre of Beatlemania in its infancy, the stomping ground of Tom Ripley in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), the sailors-and-prostitutes’ stronghold and hotspot of the seedy – the Germanic Amsterdam.
Arriving back in Europe from a 9-month sojourn in Thailand, I propose a reunion on the continent with four friends from the UK. It was a case of “I’m visiting Hamburg, who wants to come with me?” and these four crusaders were game. I’d wandered around Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, and Bremen over the preceding few years. It was now time for the city I was meant to visit during the Klitschko-Haye heavyweight fight way back in the summer of 2011, but didn’t quite manage to acquire event tickets for.
Flights booked, I’m assured to make my belated tour, and I hear further multifarious descriptions of the city’s reverence – that it’s the “Berlin of the West”, “Rough as hell”, and, most memorably, “Modernity but with boats”. Okay ….
I find it’s not overwhelmingly seedy. Granted, it has the Reeperbahn in the St. Pauli quarter – Hamburg’s own Red Light District – and this, like many other hovel dwellings masquerading as adult entertainment playgrounds, most certainly lies up to its billing. It’s dirty and decadent, and I suppose that’s the point.
On first impressions, Hamburg appears to be without an obvious candidate for city centre, but then I see it’s the port (as the primary landmark) that was, and indeed still is, catalyst for this city-by-accident, that without its ships it just might possibly regress into some strange, disconnected backwater ripe for social realist cinema.
Though the port’s industrial edifice, the ‘Gateway to the World’ (Tor zur Welt), is more gentrified, I imagine, than yesteryear, there’s further dirty to be found in the district just east of Hauptbahnhof on Steindamm street. A variegated array of groceries, takeaways, and denuded supermarkets, a few crazy characters loiter around their entrances making noises and generally scaring tourists. This writer unfortunately witnessed a gentleman … relieving himself outside Lidl.
Now then, let us briefly touch upon Lidl. As a Lidl aficionado, I made it my quest many years ago to frequent every Lidl in as many cities and countries as possible. The store on Steindamm street was, save the exterior bathroom incident, sublime: it’s cheaper than my local in Edinburgh, and stocked with guilty treats – knock-off imitation Kahlua and Baileys, and 50cl lemon liqueurs I have never encountered before (in a Lidl) the most gnarly discoveries, and to my joy I am not asked for identification. This only seems to happen in Scotland where we have contentious alcohol issues.
Not content to wallow in such trivialities, the museums are a necessary cultured antidote, and they do not disappoint. Kunsthalle Hamburg museum on Glockengießerwall, featuring paintings – masterpieces by Rembrandt amongst them – from the Medieval period right up until the modern day, is well complemented by The Deichtorhallen, a contemporary art centre at Deichtorstraße, one of Germany’s largest.
Once again, my German is atrocious; I cannot string a sentence together save “Ein Pils, bitte”. Once again, it doesn’t matter. The locals’ English is just superb. How I spent four years in High School ‘studying’ German only to emerge with a paltry batch of words is an embarrassment. On the Tuesday evening, the barman at The Cotton Club on Alter Steinweg conducts an all-encompassing 20-minute monologue in perfect English about the evolution of the smartphone before conversing in Spanish with two visitors from Seville. After this polyglot display I make a solemn promise to muster the effort to at least grasp the German language basics upon my return to Edinburgh.
A stroll around the gargantuan Planten un Blomen offers another leisurely alternative to the underbelly, a serene enclave far away from the hubub and frenzy, despite being slap-bang in the city centre. The next day at St. Pauli Fischmarkt we find the anachronistic presence of a permanently docked Soviet submarine, a B-515 Tango-class built in the ’70s. It is now a museum, and a member of our party makes sure to play Basil Poledouris’ The Hunt for Red October (1990) theme through the muffled speaker of his Blackberry as we explore the vessel’s interior.
It’s axiomatic that every German city is accompanied by an enviable transportation network, and Hamburg is equipped with a most … esoteric U-Bahn; one could spend hours on there acting the part of the right proverbial geek, mapping courses and comparing routes to a destination relative to time requirements. Hamburg’s underground carousel is just as splendid as Berlin’s. Every train arrives as scheduled and departs so, the maps are legible to even an intoxicated eye, the sign postings and directions catering to the boorish Brit as one would expect.
And the craic on these trains. In the course of about nine journeys over the five days I bear witness to treats aplenty: your usual cacophony of drunks, young professionals ignoring their every intimation; three singing nuns, though I’m sure this was a fancy dress party; a bloke who I am for at least a minute convinced is Jürgen Klopp; a man oblivious to social norms reading a nudie mag; and the pièce de résistance – a Rocky Balboa act doing press-ups on the 9:20 p.m. U2 to Norderstedt Mitte. All of this is taken for granted; it just seems to be the standard way that Hamburg operates.
High above the grid, Church St. Michaelis offers stunning panoramic vistas of the city. A baroque construction from the mid-1600s, its interior is a splendorous design of gold and white, and can seat 3000 visitors. On a hungover Thursday we venture inside and do our best to converse with a group of curious locals querying our country of origin and why we’re in town.
Beer was of course a prerequisite, and the bars of Hamburg do the business. Nagel on Kirchenallee opposite Hauptbahnhof serves hot food to go with your morning beer; in the evenings we find it packed to the rafters so proceed next door to Block House, another spot for Erdinger and various Dunkel Biers. We sit down and masquerade as connoisseurs, pretentiously placing our hands to our ears à la Paul Giamatti in Sideways (2004) in order to enhance the tasting experience – this is our own wine vineyard in Deutschland.
I cannot attest to the political leanings of the city, and any frictions or factions these may encompass, but we do see a rally as we emerge from the Block House after our second visit, the marchers carrying banners and protest boards with a figure on them who looks very much like Stalin. I tell myself this must be a coincidence, or that I have imbibed far too many Erdingers.
The Generator Hostel where we’re staying on Steintorweg street has its own bar, a vast array of local delicacies on offer, and at a very reasonable price. Notably, it’s blessed with a beer garden/smoking area, a quiet retreat for when the live band hit crescendos a little too loud. We retire here every evening, and by the fourth night we’ve seen what we intended and more so. It’s been some trip, and I pinpoint where in the lexicon of German cities I’d place the vast port dwelling. That’s the thing about Germany, I tell myself: it’s cubistic in nature, each region as singular and unique as to be another world; ranking them would be too much hard work, and that’s a good thing, I think.
I depart Hamburg on the 5th day, heading southwest on the train to Osnabrück for a quainter experience after what has been an occasionally riotous campaign. A last stroll around the Haubtbahnhof and I say my goodbyes … to the buildings, to the bars, to the sun-kissed roof of the Museum für Kunst, to my friends, and to the scary yet delightful singing-lady waltzing in circles by the train station’s entrance.
I nestle down in the rear carriage of the 12:46 p.m. Intercity train, put my headphones in, and listen to AC/DC’s Hells Bells, apropos of nothing, as the train begins to ease out of the station and churn away from the city-state and south into the open country.