Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2010-05-10
From 7th to 9th May 2010 the port of Hamburg will be celebrating its 820th birthday: the biggest street festival in North Germany! This is a chance to discover a city going through big changes, brimming with projects and where there is an impressive quality of life.
The original home of the Hamburger with its port and red light light district - it has to be said that the idea of finding myself in misty Northern Germany in the middle of March did not initially fill me with Wagnerian enthusiasm!
But this in itself is a point of interest. As a victim of the usual prejudices, I had no idea of the extent to which Hamburg is a town of the future, a town that is rich, paradoxical and evolving and which beyond all of the touristic clichés has managed to inject into the very heart of its project the only real thing of importance today: the city’s quality of life.
First steps in Hamburg
Upon arrival at the airport you already have a surprise. This is light years away from the habitual pallid, concrete eyesores that greet you in most large city airports. Here it is a pleasure to find a site which is clean, bright, functional and convivial place made of appealing materials (wood and steel.) Germany’s second largest town seems to have understood what most capital cities seem to have forgotten. Namely the first contact with a town is usually at an airport or railway station and that these places should be attractive and welcoming.
A city on the water
What strikes you immediately is Hamburg’s enormous size and its laid back atmosphere - two factors that you don’t often see together. Here there are no tall, arrogant towers symbolising economic success, but a multitude of residential districts immersed in green spaces with white coloured housing blocks that are all of a moderate size. When you come out of the metro in the evening, you can even hear the birds singing in the trees. A hyperactive town which attracts thousands of businesses from all over the world, Hamburg still manages to preserve its provincial charm and a unique brand of nonchalance.
Situated 100km from the North sea, the town stretches along the banks of the Elbe, a river which flows down as far as Prague providing the town with a long history with all of Central Europe.
To get the feel of Hamburg, which is above all a city upon water, the first thing to do is to get to know it aboard one of the cruising boats which are moored on the banks of Alster lake next to the old town (at Jungfernstieg pier.) This immense body of water brings peace of mind to the locals who come to sail or canoe here throughout the year. The excursion lasts an hour and a half and will take you down Alster’s canals along which magnificent villas surrounded by English style gardens have been built.
The third largest port in the world
With its 60 docks and 68 km of quays, the port of Hamburg is the second largest container port in Europe after Rotterdam: 10,000 import and export companies come here daily to tranship their merchandise, 650 cargo ships leave to 1100 ports all over the globe every month. This port is very impressive and can also be visited aboard a boat (that departs from the St Pauli Landungsbrückenquays) even if it is just to admire the construction of the umpteenth yacht for the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovitch, which has been heralded as the world’s longest (167 metres) and also the safest (an armed fortress capable of resisting pirate and terrorist attacks!)
Every Sunday morning from 5.30am to 9.30am, the port of Hamburg’s fish market is an event in local life which has also acquired an accompanying flea market. Its origins go back to the 18th century. Tradition has it that you go and make your purchases before attending mass.
Hamburg by night
When you talk about Hamburg the place that comes to everyone’s mind is obviously the Sankt Pauli red-light district, situated just above the fish market and which itself alone has a population of 200,000 people. Sex, drugs and football have created a reputation for these few housing blocks for which the heart is the Reeperbahn, a wide main street with multicoloured neon lights where fast-food stores, amusement arcades and sex shops line up. Sankt Pauli bears some resemblance to Paris’ Pigalle. However this is a district with widespread popularity where the 'Hamburgers’ like to make family outings once a month to see theatre musicals. In the end it turns out to be anything but a ghetto!
But if you would like to visit two truly unusual districts, I don’t hesitate in recommending a visit to Feldstrasße and Hafencity
The Hamburg you don’t see on postcards
Feldstrasße is situated one metro station to the north of Sankt Paoli, right next to the town's old slaughterhouses in an area that in former times used to be the border with Denmark. This is a haven where all kinds of young libertarians came and decided to settle at a time when the area still had low property prices. The streets are incredibly animated and are swarming with bars, vegetarian restaurants, organic grocers, tea houses and boutiques which seem to compete to be the most outlandish, such as Morgaine Le Faye’s witches specialist shop or Bärbel Dreyer who somehow got it into her head to sell hand-stitched Italian shoes and the finest wines from all over Europe!
The air is filled with smoke from water pipes and with other substances which may or may not be illicit. At number 33 Marktstrasse, a famous German designer has opened a very attractive clothes boutique for men and women called Herr Von Eden, which is inspired by the styles of the 1930s.
On an epic and ‘kôlossal’ scale, the new area which is under construction named ‘Hafencity’ is being presented by the city of Hamburg as ‘the largest urban development project in contemporary Europe.’ In fact, the work which began in 2003 is supposed to last for another 25 years! To get to this gateway district of 157 hectares between the Elbe and the town centre, you simply have to walk to the famous warehouses of the Speicherstadt which make up the border point. These immense brick buildings were built at the end of the 19th century next to the Zollkanal to stock goods arriving from Asia and America such as tea, spices, rugs, coffee and tobacco. As the remains of the town’s past glory they are part of the local heritage and house two museums which are unique in the world and which I recommend you to visit: the miniature railway museum and the international maritime museum.
Once past the warehouses, you should take a stroll along the quays, particularly the one at Strankai, which has the best views over the port and the iron bridges forged in the 19th century.
Here the buildings and roads have been constructed upon columns to protect against flooding which are artificially elevated to 8 metres above sea level. The squares, parks and wooden promenades, pedestrian zones and bicycle lanes all encourage an area of ‘ecological traffic.’ The district is already being lived in and has its businesses, restaurants, a school (with a playground on its roof!), shopping precints, offices and will soon have its own university.
The site's cultural leading light is the construction of the Elbphilarmonie an enormous concert hall conceived by the Swiss architects Herzog and Meuron as a ‘huge glass wave’ riding above the Elbe.
For eating out Carls brasserie, situated right next to the Elbphilarmonie, is probably the best in the town offering cooking of Italian inspiration at reasonable prices.
For dinner, the Krameramtsstuben restaurant, located in Hamburg’s last remaining 17th century house, a stone’s throw from the baroque St-Michel church, is a pleasant and welcoming place where you can sample authentic traditional local cooking.