I didn’t know much about the city of Hamburg before I found myself on a train hurtling across the Danish countryside and sea. I had a vague memory of hearing Hamburg spoken with a Liverpool accent. I also knew it was a big port town. I had a lot to learn.
Part of the reason Erin had encouraged our Copenhagen/Hamburg itinerary was the train ferry. Apparently the Danish and German transportation authorities have decided the best way to transfer passengers across the chunk of North Sea between Denmark and Germany is to employ a ferry. This makes sense for the passengers, but they also insist on taking the train along for the ride. So, periodically a massive ship bellies up to the Danish dock and takes an entire passenger train aboard, bound for Kiel.
You offload from the train, board the boat, and the train follows you in. You’re reunited when the boat docks again. Why you don’t disembark from the train and meet a new one on the other side of the water, I can’t explain. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to experience the full logistical and technical power of the train ferry. Some kind of maintenance was underway, and we had to switch to coach busses at the dock. These followed us to Kiel and drove us to a waiting train. Erin was disappointed. I was excited to put another mode of transportation on the list for the trip (plane, train, taxi, ferry, bus, and counting). Ashlan took leave of our group in Hamburg and continued south to Mainz.
We went out for a drink at a swank bar on the corner. The lights were dim, the liquor bottles backlit, and the furniture low and woody. We stood at the bar enjoying well-made cocktails and watched as all the singles in Hamburg filed in behind us. At first I thought we had found another La Capain as the Y chromosomes piled up in front of me. Then I looked over my shoulder and saw all the women chatting and glancing past me at the men. Our little coed group formed the intersection of the Venn diagram. After a drink we headed back to our monastic quarters so we could get a very early start on the day. We needed to be up with the sun because there is only one thing you must do in Hamburg on a Sunday morning: hit the fish market.
Every Sunday since 1702, the fishmongers hawk their new wares that have just been hauled up the Elbe river to Hamburg. They start at five in the morning. Restaurant owners and other connoisseurs pile up outside the booths, bidding on packages of eel and herring. Slightly later in the morning, families show up on their way to or from church, hoping to snag fresh fish for Sunday dinner. As the people accumulated, bands started setting up. Now the Fish Market is an institution. Stands line the road selling fish sandwiches, fruits, vegetables, cheap t-shirts, and DVDs. In the main auction hall, a band plays and beer flows. The whole event is supposed to wrap up at 9:30 in the morning.
Check the time. Note that I was not alone in my beverage choice. In fact, coffee was harder to come by at 8:15 AM near the market.Every demographic was represented. The kids who had stayed out all night clubbing and were on the verge of drunken collapse, the proper house-wives who needed to pick up some eel for…whatever you use eel for, and young families who wanted to enjoy the spectacle. There didn’t seem to be many tourists as the house rocked to “Hier Kommt Alex” by Die Toten Hosen (or “The Dead Pants.” Think of them as the Guns ‘n’ Roses of Germany that never broke up), “99 Luftballoons” by Nena (yeah, now you’ll have it stuck in your head all day) and a terrible cover of “The Final Coutdown” which featured attempts at harmony. Honest, heartfelt attempts.
After lunch at a fantastic Northern-French style crepe place, we went to the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe. Miya needed to go to see some medieval sculpture. As you may have noticed, I won’t pass on an opportunity to hit a museum and acquire some fun facts. The name of the place translates to “Museum for Arts and Crafts.” Meaning they featured antique musical instruments, and the evolution of the chair with shifting design morays in the 20th century. They also had a special exhibition of Saul Steinberg illustrations. In the heart of the exhibitions was a wide selection of Greek and Roman artifacts. It’s like someone emptied their particularly eclectic basement into a huge building and started selling tickets. It was wonderful.
Eventually our jeans started to pick up some of the damp and we had to retreat to the dry lower cabin to watch the massive tankers and cranes move by the windows from a cozy table. We switched ferries and crossed the river, rolling as we drove lateral to the waves. The boat pitched to a 30 degree angle. It was a blast and it was all for free (or at least included in our ticket).
We trooped back to the hostel to dry off, get some caffeine, and drum up a place to eat. We started at a place called “Herren Simple” but it was too simple. Then we moved to Park Café. The Tai-curry chicken was delicious along with Astor, the Hamburg brew. At this point Miya headed back to the hostel while Erin and I took the drizzle once again to check out the largest red light district in Euope: The Reeperbahn.
The area used to be where sailors went after a long stint at sea. Now it’s an avenue of racy shops and strip clubs. A decade ago the city wanted to class the area up a bit, driving the hard drug dealers out by setting up venues for musical theater and classy restaurants. Apparenty this hasn’t classed things up too much as you can still walk down the street and get tackled by prostitutes (or maybe just extras from the historical epic musicals in town). Unfortunately, Erin and I were walking through the Reeperbahn early on a rainy Sunday. There wasn’t much going on beyond neon lighting and pole dancers warming up so we didn’t get the full effect of the street.
But, there’s more to the Reeperbahn than seediness. This is where the Beatles got their start. In 1960, the freshly named Beatles (no long The Quarrymen, or Long John and the Beetles) showed up at the Indra Club with Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best to play 48 consecutive nights with six-hour sets. Needless to say, they honed their craft. After getting deported for arson, they returned n ’61 and played 92 consecutive nights.
Word spread and the Germans can legitimately take the credit for discovering the Beatles. Now the clubs they played are places of pilgrimage. Last year the city erected the Beatlesplatz to commemorate the birth of group in the seediest part of town. John Lennon once said, “I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.” Apparently he had a thing for industrial dock towns.
We did breakfast at Stadt Backerei, a Hamburg intuition (likely because they offer the cheapest coffee in town). It was pouring and Erin and Miya decided it was time to head home after a week away. I wanted to wander a bit more, so I strapped on my backpack and searched for the Baroque masterpiece that is St. Michael’s Church. It was open, but the interior was undergoing the most extensive renovation I’ve seen in a church, and I think every church I visit is decorated with a little scaffolding. You couldn’t enter the main sanctuary. You just troop up to the choir loft and watch the progress of the workers in the middle. At this rate, St. Peter’s will be enclosed in a massive defumigating tent.
Back into the rain. I trudged next to St. Nikolai’s Church. It used to be one of the five main Lutheran churches in the city, but in 1945 it was practically demolished by Allied bombs. The church was constructed in from 1846 to 1874 on the site of earlier churches that had burned down. For two years it was the tallest building in the world. But now it’s reduced to a tower and fragments of wall, reminders of the horrors of war.
I didn’t know that as I walked towards the spire. I was expecting a 13th century Gothic structure that might offer a place to dry off, but it’s open to birds. The Holocaust memorial and statuary was moving, but I was getting really wet. I needed to get inside, so I headed for the Museum of Hamburger History to get some insight into a city that has ruled itself for a thousand years. But I forgot it was a Monday. Every museum in Hamburg shuts down on Mondays. Standing outside the museum in the drizzle, I decided to head for the train station. It was time to get back to Bonn.
I hope the weather has been behaving itself for you this weekend. Stay tuned for more updates as I wander to exciting destinations: Prague! Paris! Zurich! Work!
Pictures of imposing industry and waves.