Germany's Port of Rock 'n' Roll

by Karen Zarker and Sarah Zupko

16 November 2008

Hamburg harbor 

It Ain't Just Fish in This Town

Our home in Hamburg is the surprising stylish and modern Best Western Hotel St. Raphael, just a few blocks from the Hauptbahnhof (main train station). We’re delighted to discover a generous daily traditional German breakfast buffet with a wide array of lunch meats and cheeses for creating open-faced sandwiches upon a range of delicious breads that are frankly very superior and absolutely incomparable in our experience in the US. Hackepeter (raw hamburger) is available for the more adventurous (and everyone who says they tried it swear its delicious). All is washed down with a range of teas, juices, or of course, quality coffee – far better coffee than one is likely to find at a Best Western in the US.

Hamburger Fischmarkt / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

But our first day here, the sun shining incongruously at our befuddled irises, we collapse in the soft beds and rest, but alas, cannot sleep, ‘til we can rouse ourselves to shower, and meet up for dinner. On our first evening in town, the opening night of the festival, we head to the first of many fine restaurants and indulge in a buffet of German meats and breads, and wine (a dry red or white) or beer (a Weiss or a pilsner) at Elbwerk in St. Pauli, an easy walk from the Reeperbahn. It’s a warm, dark place with a view of the Elbe and a hip soundtrack.

Friday dinner is at the very popular Cooper House. The buffet is generous and classy, drawing from a wide range of quality Asian cuisine which Sarah chews carefully (and the tooth holds). We are surrounded by good-looking, wealthy people with healthy appetites.

Saturday we lunch at Riverkasematten, a smart, stylish restaurant within walking distance of the harbor. We top off lunch with a bone-warming, large cup of delicious Milchkaffee (like a café au lait), an everyday staple for Germans but an absolute treat to Americans, who suffer from inferior coffee.

Breakfast at the Hamburg Fischmarkt / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Breakfast at the Hamburg Fischmarkt / Photo: Sarah Zupko

The Hamburger Fischmarkt along the harbor front is very popular (and has been for more than 300 years), as the squeeze-through crowd attests. Locals are busy stocking up on fruits vegetables and flowers, their heavy baskets hooked on their arms, jostling others in the crowd. An array of wurst hang from strings affixed to moveable wagons, taunting those of us who have not eaten, yet. Many types of smoked fish – a favorite of ours— are within reach, if only we had a kitchenette to take them back to. Markets such as these are a tease for visitors, who can only envy the locals their fresh Sunday feast.

Our breakfast is in a building at one end of the fish market with open windows facing the water and a dock where one can stand over the water, have a smoke and watch the boats go by. The building, about 100 years old, is the old fish auction hall. It was used for the fish market until 1940, then renovated to what now is a beer hall, really, that just happens to be open for a Sunday brunch – a brunch quite unlike any we’ve experienced, before. You can pay for a buffet and dine upstairs (a smaller version of the traditional German breakfast experienced at our hotel), but let it be known that this is not a place to relax and have a conversation. In this huge, open room the sound of a dropped fork would resonate—if it could be heard above the raucous band downstairs.

After breakfast you can lean against the railing to watch the crowd below, dancing and drinking. Clearly, the revelers have gone for the liquid breakfast option, where the only ‘food’ to be found on the ground floor is the hops in the beer; their festivities either a continuation of the prior night’s partying or an early start for that day. The band covers a lot of American rock classics ala Creedence Clearwater Revival. And it’s loud. The band is drinking, too. It’s all rather intense for a Sunday morning, appealing to the hardier partiers that are well-represented within our midst.

Even in this place where inhibitions are loosened children are obedient and hushed if they grow too rambunctious. Not once did we encounter screaming children in restaurants and other presumably “adult” spaces, as we’re subjected to in America’s restaurants, pubs and even bars – the latter one would think would be the final refuge for adults but alas, no more. To notice a child only for her charm, and not her vocal capacity whilst in Hamburg, is wonderful.

Last Hours in a Rock ‘n’ Roll Town
It seems no matter one’s budget, a visitor’s desire for Kunst und Kultur can be met in Hamburg. You won’t find Bierstuben (beer gardens) here as in Southern Germany, nor the plethora of cafes as Berlin is famous for. Hamburg’s restaurants tend to be fast or fancy (Low or High, if you will), with little in-between. But you will find beauty and culture, High and Low, virtually everywhere your feet can take you. It’s a fun city to visit, and a perfect setting for the Reeperbahn Festival. Hamburg the first in our two-city tour of Germany. We are headed to Berlin in the morning. Indeed, combining a visit to Hamburg with one to Berlin is ideal as they are only two hours apart by train. With so many cultural and historical offerings between the two cites, a two-week trip is easily packed with fun, engaging and thought-provoking activities.

Our final dinner is at Cox, just a short walk from our hotel. Its high ceilings accommodate a large mirror, and handsome bar, and the colors invoke a cozy feeling on chilly night. The setting rather reminds us of some interiors we’ve seen in Helsinki restaurants, especially from the outside at night, looking in to warmly lit, inviting spaces. The entrees are rich, the desserts richer. We linger and converse with our new friends for hours, as one is invited to do in German restaurants and coffee houses. A chilly drizzle accompanies our quiet walk back to the hotel.

All the while during our stay, we catch snippets of CNN news back at the hotel. The forecast for the world’s financial markets grow dimmer. A German friend tells us that German banks invested deeply in Lehman Brothers. Worries about stocks and global markets grow, and we are reminded of another time when fears of financial calamity were spread the world over, a mere 60 years ago. At the nearby Hauptbahnhof we catch an inter-city train for the comfortable ride to Berlin, where History will shadow our every step.

Hamburg / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

Hamburg / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

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