The theme I set this young man was to describe Hamburg as if he had just returned to it. The thread of ideas he followed from the start was the sentimental one of his mother, his friends, their love, patience and help. The Elbe remained a stream of silver, the anchorage and the town counted for nothing, he did not even mention the swarming crowds – one might as easily have been visiting Naumburg or Merseburg. I told him this quite candidly; he could do something really good, if he could give a panorama of a great northern city as well as his feelings for his home and family. - Goethe
'Apparently the people from Hamburg are unfriendly and cold, but those are just lies spread by the Bavarians.' Said Laura matter-of-factly.
We were sat around the table in a lovely wooden family house in the suburban district of Sasel in north Hamburg. Quadrants of big attractive houses with triangular sloped roofs nestled amongst small pockets of extant forest and plots of land where sheds clustered next to tidy lawns. It was winter and the trees were naked. In spring and summer the Hamburgers would escape at the weekend to these sheds, sit out on their lawns, tend to flowers, eat, stay a night or more. Like a small German version of the popular Russian dacha. Now though they sat silent and wet. My cousins filled up my
glass of wine. Red, and slightly sweet.
'So, what do you want to see in Hamburg?'
Hamburg is a big and wealthy port. Jogging around the outer Alster lake, where the mist clung to the water and only permitted milky grey visions of ghosts, I saw the money. Huge lavish houses and embassies set on the waterfront. Dormant bars and restaurants peppered the lapping shores and little barges and boats drifted silently. It was Stygian and I could only imagine its seven-kilometre circumference. Only a handful of plucky runners passed me by. There were no nods of acknowledgment. There were dogs too. The people looked happy and comfortable. The inner Alster, split from the outer by a road, is far smaller. It lies at the feet of the famous skyline. Spires prodded into a sky that was slowly succumbing to a December sunset. The lake became a liquid mirror. A Christmas tree in the centre of it was surrounded by rowers. After the lakes, feet take the visitor into the centre. And it is grand. The Rathaus – town hall – stands gothic and fun. The Hamburgers are proud of the claim that it has six more rooms than Buckingham Palace. Even if it didn't it is far more attractive. Greens and creams and frills in lieu of dull grey blocks. It looked religious. At its base was a Christmas market. Every road had one. Wooden huts, steaming with the heat of cooking. Sausages and mulled wine. Nuts and molten chocolate. The air was a maelstrom of smells and temperatures. It is not the most beautiful city centre – it doesn't hold up against the Madrids or St Petersburgs of the world – but not one corner was unattractive. The whole city was pleasing. Old and new sat side by side like friends. It reminded me of London. Christmas lights twinkled along the streets and candles were suspended in the trees. Legions of overcoats and scarves were huddling around, clutching hot Glühwein and laughing. Here and there a canal would cut up the road and smart flats or old north European style houses would trail off along them with cafés selling Kaffee und Kuchen. Every bridge was confettied with colourful padlocks bearing names; engagement promises. Hamburg is the second largest port on the continent and there is a sense that the city is a slave to water.
Water has been the catalyst that gave the city some of its distinct neighbourhoods. The most infamous is the Reeperbahn, proudly proclaimed as a red light district far larger than Amsterdam's. In the 1930s sailors would come to shore seeking to enjoy land. As well as drink and rest they wanted the flesh of a woman. The Reeperbahn, like many similar districts have, grew out of a need for sex. Today the seediness has somewhat disappeared and a Las Vegian theme park atmosphere has taken hold. Streets are lined with brightly coloured shop fronts: sex shops full of inappropriate toys, blue cinemas, lap dancing bars, peep shows, brothels. In the sky above and on the doorframes neon lights entice the visitor. 'Paradise point of sex! Welcome: open 24 hours' 'kino sex' 'Dollhouse table dance' 'Safari'. It was blinding. The sailors stood no chance. And neither did the girls. One street – Herbertstrasse – is boarded off at both ends. Women and children can't enter. It has been like this since the days of the Nazis who, instead of banning the practice of prostitution, were happy to be nominally blind to it. It is a 30m meat market. Women sit on plush chairs in little booths. Many sit on their phones or talk to their bikini-clad colleagues. The fronts are all large glass windows and doors that swing open so they can talk prices. A few drunken twenty-year olds giggle and flirt with a blonde woman hanging out of the opening. They rap on the glass and call 'hey, halo'. They’re often more beautiful than words. Magazine covers that have fallen into trade. I say hello back.
'Don't talk them!' Hissed my cousin Chris. 'Don't be so English.'
'You'll only get into trouble.'
I believed him. I made eye contact for only seconds. We returned to the real world again.
'What did you think?' Asked Laura.
You want to look but you know you shouldn't. It is depressing to see them there.
The lumbering waters brought sailors to the streets of Hamburg, but it also brought ships to the harbour. From the top of the St Michel cathedral you can see the extent of the city's industry. About a third of the city is port. In the wintry waning of the day huge container cranes stood like spectral ribs of some wasted giant's skeleton; the controversial new opera house loomed blue and black like the prow of some ship looking out onto the kilometres and kilometres of docklands. The old docks, the Speicherstadt – storage city – lines the waterways with tall terracotta shipyard buildings that are grand and topped with gothic flare. An industrial Venice, Hanseatic style. Now the quiet roads and cobbled streets house boutique furniture shops, flashy apartments and tourist attractions. Above the entrances large cargo hooks still swing. Driving through the new docklands, Germany’s ‘gateway to the world’, one gets a sense of the post-apocalyptic. There were no cars there. A few whizzed past as if fleeing an invasion, but the weekend was dead. The only life could be found on the city-sized behemoths sitting motionless in the Elbe waiting for their boxes to be taken away.
Comparatively few tourists come to Hamburg in December. Sometimes I felt like I had the city to myself. Most, it has to be said, cling to the guidebook lists or gravitate like satellites to the markets. My cousins took me to Schanze. Laura’s boyfriend Tim flung the car into a parking spot on a sleepy road and we headed for a coffee.
‘In Germany Sunday is still really sacred, that’s why nobody’s about. Hopefully we can find an open café. Usually everything shuts down all day.’
Schanze is the Camden Town of Hamburg. It’s hip and trendy and its once handsome streets are now lined with bars and cafés and foreign restaurants. It is also very expensive to live there. This modernity and style is visually somewhat at odds with the surroundings. At ground level all the walls are coloured with graffiti and fat with posters. Schanze is a left-wing political base where demonstrations and clashes with the police are commonplace. I believe my cousin once punched an officer there. By an old theatre, stickered with advertising and political slogans, a community of homeless people, or political activists, have hidden themselves away from the world. On a gate hangs a sheet with the words ‘Fck the SPD’ – Germany’s Social Democratic Party. It was a period of elections in Germany and you could see the divisions on the walls of the buildings.
'What do you want for dinner? We have the Portuguese quarter, there are lots of Italian places, maybe Thai?'
'German. I want German food. Only German.'
Germany is a place where you put food in your face and grumble like a contented bear. It is to cakes what Britain is to desserts. Sweet Stollens and Marzipanzopf mit Rosinen marbled with floral marzipan and juicy raisins are piled high on shop counters. Bratwurst are cooked on outdoor grills and served in simple rolls 'only with mustard'. Currywurst changes my life; a sausage drenched in a piquant curried ketchup and served with Bratkartoffeln – fried potatoes with bacon and parsley – or simple chopped up and given to cold hands in a cardboard tray. Glühwein fills the markets with clouds of wine and spice and is divvied up with warm bags of Schmalzkuchen, little pillowy dough balls dusted with the finest icing sugar.
Many centuries ago some Norwegian peoples left a legacy in the city of Liverpool. A stew of bashed up meat and vegetables called Lapskaus. This is why Liverpudlians are called scousers. Locals ate a dish called scouse, derived from lobscouse, and the nickname stuck. During the age of the boat, mariners from Britain who travelled to Hamburg might sometimes take their food with them. A legacy of which is one of the German city's signature dishes, Labskaus: where the stew is blended a little and served with fried eggs and rollmops. Little bakeries serve all manner of breads and put England to shame: Pumpernickel (devil’s farts), rye bead, Zwiebelbrot (onion bread), Dinkel-Kürbis Brot (spelt and pumpkin loaves), sometimes sliced and toasted and covered in Gänseschmalz – rendered goose fat filled with peppers and onions that luxuriously sticks to your teeth. In the millionaire district of Blankenese, where Beverly Hills mansions and twee English cottages crowd around a leafy headland like cold penguins, I sat in a café drinking a perfect coffee and eating a Franzbrötchen, a gooey cinnamon croissant where the sugar has gone crunchy.
Then there's the fish. Early on the Sunday morning we shuffled of our hangovers and drove to the Fishmarkt. It was 8:30 and it was fish for breakfast. A heavy sky hovered proudly over the harbour as wind and rain lashed us. Little stalls, some enormous, some as big as an ice-cream van, filled the Landungsbrücken – the old landing stages. A man, ruddy faced and wearing a red apron, called out to passers by to come and try his eels. Apparently he has become a minor celebrity. Others stood and waited patiently. Windows hid shrimp and smoked mackerel, slabs of tuna and fruit bowls. The champion of Hamburg however is the herring. I opted for a Bismarck – pickled in salt and then vinegar – while Christopher ordered Backfisch.
'It's like fish and chips in a roll, but without the chips.'
The kiosks and fish vans were the only light and sources of cover there. The Baltic Sea was churning and unhappy. Seagulls twirled about overhead like drunken ballerinas and sang hopefully to us.
To leave the north of Germany having only seen Hamburg would have left me happy but not satisfied. It is surrounded by history, filling pockets of woods and lining the rivers that filter out into the wet plains. Driving west through a world of dormant apple trees one reaches the town of Stade, which looks like a child's drawing of a German town out alone in the Altes Land. Hansel and Gretel buildings and half-timbered houses ran around a small rise: brown and yellow and red and pink and green and gingerbready. The old town was encircled by a river that entered to a beautiful plaza. There, a mini harbour sat next to the ubiquitous Christmas market stalls. Festive decorations and lights filled the skyline and twinkled fittingly alongside brick churches. It was a fairytale.
Due north of Hamburg lies the UNESCO recognised pocket-sized city of Lübeck. The whole place was a flurry of more Grimm Brothers chocolate box houses and cobbled lanes, but all seemed pulled inexorably skywards by a confusingly large number of very tall green spires atop muscular brick churches. Once again bridges and water cut you off from the rest of the world. If its city centre recalled a Germanic Oxford then the riverside echoed memories of Henley-Upon-Thames.
Before the sun had time to set there was still an opportunity to surge north to the beaches of the Baltic. Travemünde: where East Germany met West over a thin line of water you could shout over. A line of smart houses, spas for the elderly, woods and fine sands lent a Victorian elegance to a resort where one pays to go on the beach. I ate a Brathering – a fried and marinated herring in a bun with lettuce and raw onion – kicked leaves at Chris and Tim, drank a beer in the warm and headed back to the city. We were lucky to catch the last fires of the day’s end burning up the sky above the Arthurian castle of Ahrensburg.
‘So, in England we have Shakespeare. Who’s your main figure here?’
‘You know Goethe?’Whether Germany’s great writer would be happy at my attempts to paint a portrait of this city I couldn't be sure. I only had seven days. Ultimately it didn't matter. It was an organic, open, imposing, racy, beautiful, scruffy, calm and all together harmonious city. I went in a period of brutal wind and rain and heady Christmas markets and I loved it.