We board a bus for a tour through Hamburg’s posh neighborhoods along the Outer Alster, where the Alster River comes into the city. Now if we were to live in Hamburg, this is where we’d like to be: elegant private homes with lovely landscaping face the lake-like mass of water dotted with boats. A polite, two-lane road winds along the shore, along with the omnipresent bike lanes. Hamburg is a bicyclist’s paradise, at least to the bike-lane-deprived American eyes. The bus driver lets us out to stroll for a while and enjoy the surroundings. It’s a hazy day and the view is impaired, but it feels good to stretch our legs.
On the Grosse Freiheit in the tracks of the Beatles / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH
We lunch on delicious Italian fare at the lovely Café FEES, an enclosed garden space at the Hamburg History Museum. Sarah bites into a piece of soft bread then abruptly holds her hand to her mouth. “Oh my gawd,” she says, and spits into her napkin, “I just broke a tooth.” Fortunately, we were in good company, surrounded by international journalists and various arts and business representatives from the City of Hamburg. We’d soon learn that one of our hosts had a guest who claimed to be having a heart-attack. It turns out he only drank too much beer, and was perilously low on sleep. But this would be the first time she would be confronted with an American and her broken tooth.
Café FEES at the Hamburg History Museum / Photo: Sarah Zupko
Those of us who were able to eat finish an elegant lunch, board the bus, and continue on with the guided tour “on the tracks of the Beatles”, where our charming, somewhat quirky Beatles enthusiast, Stefanie Hempel, tells animated stories of the Beatles’ pivotal time in Hamburg. She interrupts her story several times to strum her ukulele and sing Beatles songs, right there on the sidewalks of the Reeperbahn. She sings for us outside the location of the famed Star Club, where a wall plaque is the only remaining echo that the Beatles once rocked this place.
The Kaiserkeller on the Grosse Freiheit / Photo: Sarah Zupko
The Indra Club on the Grosse Freiheit / Photo: Sarah Zupko
We stroll down the Grosse Freiheit past a series of clubs where the Beatles honed their performing chops and developed their signature sound and look. They may have met in Liverpool and grown up schooled in skiffle, early American rock ‘n’ roll and British vaudeville tunes, but Hamburg is where they endured punishing nightly 12-hour performing marathons that turned them into real musicians. It’s also where original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe met Astrid Kircherr, and their classic mop top hair cut made its debut. This is also the neighborhood of St.Pauli, a bohemian artistic area going way back, and so the residential vicinity around the Reeperbahn is quite colorful and full of lots of interesting nooks and crannies.
St. Pauli near Grosse Freiheit / Photo: Sarah Zupko
St. Pauli near Grosse Freiheit / Photo: Sarah Zupko
Along the Reeperbahn at a “Western” store, the Beatles discovered their Cuban boots and leather jackets, while down on the Grosse Freiheit, they played at the Indra Club, Kaiserkeller and the Star Club. You can’t miss the entrance to the Grosse Freiheit these days, as it’s marked by a Beatles square with hollow, metal Beatles figures that you can stand inside for the requisite photograph. This is the first step on the part of some local Hamburg musicians to develop a more robust effort at Beatles commemoration in this town and remind the world about Hamburg’s role in the refinement of the “beat” sound of the 1960s.
Where the Beatles bought their boots and leather / Photo: Sarah Zupko
We stand outside the faded venues where the Beatles once were, hear stories of their ventures, and gaze at photographs Stefanie carries in a shoulder bag next to her ukulele while our host tracks down a Zahnarzt (dentist) just two blocks from where our Beatles tour ends. Meanwhile, thus far unmentioned, the sinus cold Karen picked up on a prior trip in Nashville has intensified. Dizzy with fatigue and cold symptoms, she leaves Sarah lying prone in the Zahnarzt’s chair and finds a nearby Apotheke (pharmacy).
In Germany, one cannot buy over the counter cold medicine, or aspirin, or even a plaster (Band Aid) from the same store one might buy shampoo. All drugs are found only at the Apotheke, where the white-coated staff oversee their sale. Karen speaks pathetically little German and the Apotheker but a smidgen of English. A cough like the call of a sea lion easily bridges any language difficulties. She’s quickly handed a cup of water and a pill from a packet of ‘Wicks’ daytime chest cold medicine. For 18.20€, she’s sent off with a friendly nod, the rest of the pill packet, and a small bottle of liquid nighttime medicine.
Meanwhile at the Zahnarzt, literally located on the Reeperbahn above a shop, Sarah lay immobile with terror. But for a wee little test to determine if that nerve is live – ZAP! – she is treated very well. In just over one-half hour, she receives a temporary cap, two pills of pain killers, and is sent on her way—all for a mere 17€. Stunned at our good fortune, we pay the Zahnarzt 20€ (3€ goes toward the office coffee till) and thank him and his assistant profusely.
Now for our first dose of German public transportation. Much to our surprise, we walk right into the station and onto the train without encountering a turnstile or paying a fare. We hold three-day passes for the public transit system, but one only need present a pass if asked. Otherwise, we’re free to enter trains, busses and ferries unchallenged. This is quite different from our experience in London or Chicago, where one must put a prepaid ticket through a turnstile before being allowed to pass through, and we are bemused. What keeps the Germans honest and compels them to buy tickets and keep them current? A hefty 50€ fine, which increases incrementally, with each violation, should a rider be asked to present a ticket at any time and not be able to produce a valid one.
The Beatles Square / Photo: Sarah Zupko