Wednesday, March 5, 2008

20 October, Hanseatic Hamburg

We didn’t want to spend a small fortune on breakfast at the hotel (one of the few places we’ve stayed in Germany where breakfast wasn’t included in the room price, but I guess that comes with the territory) so we went to a very nice Starbucks on the Binnenalster for coffee and sweet rolls while we mapped out our route for the day.

One of the most powerful members of the Hanseatic League (a medieval union of merchant cities that controlled the shipping trade in the Baltic and North seas) and heavily influenced by its rich seafaring history, Hamburg – now Germany’s second-largest city – is still one of Europe’s largest ports, but has been transformed into a modern-day mecca for advertising, media, show business and fashion. We only had a day to take in as much of Hamburg as possible, so we decided to make our way on foot across the middle of the city, from the premier shopping streets of the Neustadt to the historic Altstadt and busy Hafen (harbor), which has embodied the heart and soul of Hamburg for centuries.

It was a brilliant fall day and the views of the downtown skyline across the sparkling waters of the Binnenalster were stunning (photo, above). Hamburg is sometimes called the “Venice of Germany,” and while I’m sure most visitors to the fabled Italian city would no doubt scoff at the comparison, Hamburg is defined by water – from the shores of the Alstersee (dammed in the 18th century) to the countless canals threading through the city, spanned by hundreds of bridges and lined with arcaded passageways and waterfront restaurants.

From the lakefront shopping promenade of Jungfernstieg we headed towards the distinctive neo-Renaissance Rathaus (photo, right), which rises dramatically in front of a square said to resemble Venice’s Piazza San Marco. A bunch of photographers all had their cameras trained on the tip of the Rathaus spire and we thought that something exciting was going to happen when the clock struck the hour, but the moment came and went without incident and we never did figure out what they were all taking pictures of. We walked through the entry hall of the Rathaus (home to Hamburg’s city council and state government, since it is both an independent city and one of the 16 federal states of Germany) and into a lovely interior courtyard dominated by an elaborate fountain. Exiting towards the south, we found ourselves gravitating towards another dramatic black spire, which turned out to be the remains of the 19th-century St. Nikolaikiche. The tower and a few outside walls are all that remain of this impressive neo-Gothic church, which was destroyed in the week-long 1943 fire-bombing of Hamburg known as “Operation Gomorrah” in which more than 35,000 people died and nearly a million residents lost their homes. The spire now stands as a memorial to all of those killed and persecuted during the war, and an elevator has recently been installed that takes you up through the skeleton-like tower to an observation platform high above the city. We decided to make the ascent and were rewarded with magnificent views in all directions, framed by the blackened gargoyles adorning the spire (view of the Rathaus and Alstersee, right). Somber photos posted around the platform tell the story of the fire-bombing, along with a moving account that I have reproduced in part here:

Hamburg is one of the cities that was most affected by air-raids during WWII. Most momentous among the aerial attacks on the city were the bombings that occurred between 25 July and 3 August 1943. The Royal Air Force bombed Hamburg’s residential areas for several nights in a row, aiming to demoralize the German population, while the U.S. Air Force attacked U-boat shipyards and armaments factories during the day. “Operation Gomorrah” reduced large parts of the city to ashes. 35,000 people died in the flames, among them thousands of slave laborers who had been deported to Germany from other European countries and over 5,000 children…

These images of destruction remind us of the cruelty which Nazi Germany spread all over Euopre with its war of aggression and annihilation. It was been rightfully pointed out that the carpet bombings of residential areas were in breach of international law, cruiel, and not the right instrument for breaking the German masses’ loyalty to Hitler. However, the fuse for the firestorm was lit in Germany. The German air-raids on Guernica, Warsaw, Conventry and Rotterdam, London, and many other cities in Western and Eastern Europe preceded the destruction of Hamburg.

The original catastrophe occurred ten years earlier, in 1933, when then the National Socialists with the support of large parts of the elite and the population abolished democracy and the rule of law within a matter of weeks. This catastrophe was to bring on all the other tragedies that followed…Ultimately, the dead, injured, and homelss of the air-raids, too, were victims of Nazi Germany’s politics of aggression, its claim for world domination and its barbarization of war.

Underneath the “floor” of the church is an exhibition center, which was currently home to a moving display of WWII photographs. We spent some time looking at the exhibit and then moved on towards the harbor.

We made our way to Deichstraße, one of the oldest residential areas in the Altstadt, dating to the 14th century. Most of the lavishly restored merchants’ houses along this street date from the 17th through 19th century, as many of the older structures were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1842. Behind Deichstraße runs one of the oldest canals in Hamburg (photo, above). We followed Deichstraße to the Zollkanal (Customs Canal) and Binnenhafen (Inner Harbor), and from there walked along the water past 19th-century brick warehouses (photo, right) and dozens of boats of every shape and size, including the Flusschifferkirche, a floating church for sailors. As we approached the harbor the boats got bigger and we started seeing signs for the many harbor tours available. We decided to buy tickets for a one-hour cruise on a Louisiana-style paddlewheel boat. We originally inquired about an English tour but we would have had to wait over an hour, so we settled for a German tour.

Words cannot describe how amazing the harbor tour was! In the first ten minutes we saw an enormous cruise ship and a container ship under construction, the historic St. Pauli Fischmarkt (where you can buy your freshly-caught dinner if you are willing to get up at 4 a.m. on Sunday morning), and a string of modern office and apartment buildings boasting some of the most desirable addresses in the city. One apartment building was designed to resemble a sleek luxury yacht (photo, right). We passed a long stretch of lovely historic homes fronting a stretch of sandy beach, then headed out into the harbor proper. We got a very up-close-and-personal look at the container docks, which are simply awe-inspiring. Picture acres and acres of containers – each the size of a semi tractor trailer – stacked five and six high, awaiting shipment to points around the globe, and row after row of those odd-looking container-loading structures that I have always thought resembled enormous dinosaur skeletons (photo, right). We sidled right up alongside a huge ship called the Hanjin Chicago (photo, below) that was currently being loaded and floated down its entire length while our guide gave us all sorts of impressive statistics about the ship and its load. Another container ship had its compartment doors open so we could see down into the belly of the ship, where more containers are stored. On the way back up the harbor we looked at several more container ships, an ancient oil tanker, and a ship equipped to carry cars, complete with drive-on / drive-off ramp on the back. We passed the city’s wastewater plant with its distinctive egg-shaped structures, and got a better look at the cruise ship and container ship in their dry docks. Finally we passed by a huge new construction project that will eventually boast the largest interior warehouse space of any port in the world.

We finished our tour around 2:15 and looked around the tourist shops along the waterfront for souvenirs, but it was mostly dreck. I couldn’t even find a decent ship-in-a-bottle, but I did buy a cool Hamburg magnet. We made our way back to the Neustadt and spent some time browsing the high-end clothing stores in the swanky shopping district before stopping at Soho (the empty sushi restaurant from last night) for cappuccinos. We walked down Mönckebergstraße, the more middle-of-the-road shopping street, and discovered the Lego store. They had the largest selection of Star Wars sets I have ever seen, including a bunch of large-scale models on display. One whole wall of the store was devoted to round bins of individual Lego pieces that you could buy by the tub-full, including individual body parts like Legoman heads, legs, and torsos so you can mix-and-match your own Legomen. It was very cool.

We decided to have dinner at the Rathsweinkeller under the Rathaus, which was mentioned in Fodor’s. The restaurant has been redesigned and has a new name, but I can’t remember what it was. I was disappointed that the huge ship models hanging from the ceiling (described in Fodor’s) were gone, but it was still an amazing, cavernous room with huge wooden columns and a lively, modern décor, including a very cool floor-to-ceiling bar. We were pleasantly surprised by our meal. John had terrine of buffalo mozzarella and I had Mousse von Ziegenfrischkäse (goat cheese mousse), both of which were accompanied by lovely salads of arugula, frisée, cherry tomatoes, and pine nuts with a sweet balsamic vinaigrette (a little too heavy on the dressing but otherwise great). John’s entrée was medallions of Seeteufel (a fish called seadevil??) and I had the Hamburger Pannfisch which is the local version of Zwiebelrostbraten, with panfish, roasted potatoes, crispy onions, and a sweet mustard sauce. For dessert we both had a jellied blueberry terrine accompanied by mascarpone-peanut butter mousse and fried mint leaves. It was a little weird but quite creative! We decided to finish things off with calvados for me and William’s pear schnapps for John. As we were leaving the lights were turned down and started changing colors, creating a very cool effect. On our way back to the hotel we stopped to take in the gorgeous view of the Rathaus along the canal, gloriously lit against the midnight-blue sky. We’d certainly had a whirlwind tour of Hamburg but we came away with fond feelings for the city. Now I understand why Beth and Axel say Hamburg is their favorite German city!

Lots of photos from today:

No comments: