Hamburg: Germany’s Port of Rock ‘n’ Roll

[16 November 2008]

By Karen Zarker and Sarah Zupko

Rockin' on the Harbor

See also Hamburg: Art, with its Sleeves Rolled Up
(January 2010)

Hamburg is a business city going back to medieval times and right through to the present with its world-class harbor and bustling downtown filled with the companies that power Germany’s media and other industries. And yet, like every German city, it is a place of Kunst und Kultur (Art and Culture). Art is highly revered in this country, though there can be quite a divide between the “High” or “Serious” and the “Low” and “Popular”, as we are to discover on this journey.

Hamburg is also a rock ‘n’ roll city through and through. Maybe it’s the sailors and dockworkers or the red light district or just the gritty, working-class vibe of the Reeperbahn environs, but Hamburg is more rock ‘n’ roll than any city in Germany. Berlin is the city of electronic auteurs and musical visionaries. Hamburg is the city of hard-working and hard-living bands that sweat for the crowds night after night doing their version of the old “mach Shau” (“make show”) ethos.

We are in Hamburg for the 2008 edition of the Reeperbahn Festival, a new entrant into the crowded international music festival marketplace, but one that is placed in a perfect location with careful curation that ensures it shall grow and flourish even in these trying economic times. The Festival is held in the historic red light district of the city in the St. Pauli neighborhood, not far from the central business district and its high-end shopping, art museums and opera house.

HafenCity / Photo: Sarah Zupko

HafenCity / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Harbor City
While its Hanseatic League, Old World mariner presence remains tangible in some areas, particularly the harbor, this bustling seaport city is clearly a place of modern business, and all the fixings of modern urban life are found here, in lieu of Southern Germany’s romantic kingdoms and castles. But for Hamburg’s international port of trade, at times the city looks much like today’s Chicago – both cities have suffered devastating fires, albeit of very different natures, and responded with robust renewal. Such is the nature of business.

In the harbor of Hamburg’s picturesque waterfront, dubbed HafenCity, where Hitler’s U-Bootbunkerwerft “Elbe II” once produced submarines, you cross a network of elevated wooden walkways and you quickly find yourself startlingly far away from the familiar comforts of pavement beneath your feet. It’s a strange feeling, standing so far from the city, and above the mercurial tide waters.

Much of this architecture is restored after Operation Gomorrah (“the German Hiroshima”), the devastating Allied bombing campaign and firestorm of 1943, yet the historical activity of the docks and all who toiled there is nearly visible, their ghostly presence almost tangible. It’s easy to imagine the dock houses now vibrant with galleries, businesses, restaurants, and high priced condos, instead busy with sailors and sea merchants, beasts of burden and groaning loading docks.

HafenCity / Photo: Sarah Zupko

HafenCity going up before our very eyes / Photo: Sarah Zupko

More than 60 years after WWII, and this whole area is undergoing major restoration and redevelopment. The industrial look will remain, but married to it will be Kunst und Kultur, highlighted by the development of the new Elbe Philharmonic Hall. By 2011, the entrance to the HafenCity from the harbor will be crowned by a spectacular new multi-use facility with a gigantic crystalline-appearing top that will house the city’s orchestra and jazz and pop concerts, as well as a hotel and luxury residences. Meanwhile out in that frantically busy working harbor, the German language version of The Lion King plays at a floating musical theatre. Even in the water, “Serious Music” and pop music shall sit side by side.

Look to the Elbe River feeding into the North Sea, and you will see enormous, tireless machines of international trade glide through the waters, look up, and cranes hoisting containers slowly swing their heavy cargo with deliberate grace. Turn back to the shoreline and your eye is cooled with picturesque, lush greenery, dotted with the colorful buildings of St. Pauli and then increasingly posh private homes as you continue farther away from the mouth of the HafenCity Even during late September, when the air is chill enough to require a jacket, one sees artificial beaches, complete with fake palm trees, where the natives will spend a day sunning or, now that winter’s coming, just go to gaze out at the lights of the machines in the sea and the men who work them, ‘round the clock. A long-time resident told us he loves to come to the shore some evenings, beer in hand, just to watch the lit up harbor as it works through the night.

HafenCity / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Hamburg’s hard-working harbor / Photo: Sarah Zupko

HafenCity / Photo: Sarah Zupko

And a bit of leisure amidst the industrial bustle / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Hamburg is heavily invested in cultivating business alliances with China, especially since its sister city is Shanghai. China is an undeniable presence in the Hamburg harbor, its ships clearly marked in English and Chinese characters. A small Chinatown existed in Hamburg until 1944, when Hitler had its occupants detained, tortured and sent to labor camps. None has been rebuilt since, and if Hitler’s army didn’t eradicate every trace of the Chinese presence, Operation Gomorrah certainly did. We wonder about the Chinese and others from various countries throughout this visit. We will meet two cultural representatives from Shanghai later in our tour, lugging camera equipment and interviewing various people who cross their path for their travel TV program. Hamburg is but one stop on their busy itinerary, which has them globe hopping. They had hoped for my modern high-rises, they told us. We’ve grown accustomed to America’s towering high-rises, and so we’re happy to spend four days in a human-scale European city.

Like our acquaintances from Shanghai, we, too are in this city as merchants of culture, if you will – another form of modern business – but we come with dual intentions. Yes, we come to hear the musicians at the Reeperbahn Festival, and we hope to discover some new, exciting music—but we also come to experience, first hand, History. That is, History as it permeates the very air one breathes and as it reverberates in the very ground below one’s feet. History that makes you stop, and look, and think. And we came for Gemütlichkeit, the manner of living one’s life well, with pleasure and often simply, and thus, our experience takes us to, and beyond, the Reeperbahn Festival.

The Reeperbahn Festival / Photo: Sarah Zupko

The Reeperbahn Festival / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Hamburg’s Reeperbahn Festival
The Reeperbahn Festival is, in sum, the European South by Southwest (SXSW), but with world-class shopping nearby in the central business district, fine dining, art museums – and clean bathrooms. We experience the Red Light district in the St. Pauli parish neighborhood the very evening of our arrival, and to our sleep-deprived, jet-lagged brains, it is lovely, all lit up at night.

Imagine three nights in late September devoted to 150 bands playing on 20 stages. Indeed, the Reeperbahn Festival is intense. In addition to the natives, bands come from the parts of the UK, Scandinavia, North and South America, Western and Southern Europe, Africa and Asia. As if to bolster the cross-cultural offerings during the rich fall season, Hamburg happened to be running their annual Filmfest Hamburg concurrent to this large and growing music festival. For pop cultural travelers, Hamburg is a scintillating place to be in late September, and it’s easy to get around the interior of the city, where all these activities take place, via foot or train.

At night the fall air is cool but electrifying. The Reeperbahn is colorful and welcoming. A center meridian holds two, empty outdoor stages with schedules posted. Oddly we never see any music performed on them. Merchants sell wurst and beer out of brightly lit kiosks. It’s a perfect beginning.

The Reeperbahn Festival / Photo: Sarah Zupko

The Reeperbahn on our first night / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Rockin' on the Reeperbahn

First stop, Josefine und das Meer at Angie’s, a small, upstairs space of with a popular reputation. There are saxophones on the bar that serve as beer taps and a wisp of Weimar era glamour in the air. Surely this cozy space was a cabaret in another time. The small stage is empty. We snag the last available table and wait. Eventually, a fellow comes on stage and begins setting up. His jeans fall halfway down his ass, showing his boxers. Sigh. One of the worst aspects of hip-hop fashion has infected the Germans. He and another guy on bass began their set. Their sound, non-descript indie.

Grosse Freiheit / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

Nneka, a singer-songerwriter who mixes rap and soul, is at the top of our must-see list. We find her at Schmidts Tivoli. We make our way to this medium-sized but intimate-feeling theatre space (it’s very easy to walk from one venue to another on the Reeperbahn). Small circular tables with glowing candles fill the ground floor. The balcony above is empty. It’s a good-sized audience, but the space could hold more. There’s a light dustiness to the air that gives the theatre a delicious, aged taste. Ute Lemper would look good in this theater. Well, Ute Lemper looks good anywhere, but that’s another matter.

The cozy vibe of Angie's / Photo: Sarah Zupko

The cozy vibe of Angie’s / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Angie's has saxophone taps / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Angie’s has saxophone taps / Photo: Sarah Zupko

We each order a glass of delicious Weiss and watch a young fellow and his small band with plenty of room left on this stage. He sounds like Radiohead, albeit he’s singing in German. It’s a nice crowd, they’re truly listening to and appreciative of the three musicians on stage. A few tables over, two young men cuddle close, clearly feeling safe here, and no one raises an eyebrow. We don’t see that too often in America in mixed spaces outside of gay neighborhoods. It’s a lovely sight. The fellow on stage keeps singing. We check our watches and whisper. Isn’t Nneka supposed to be on, now?  Puzzled, Karen slips away and finds a fellow near the stage who looks like he works there.

“Hallo,” she whispers, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” “Yes, yes,” he says, and leads her to a hallway beside the stage, away from the audience. “Thank you. Uhhh …” she opens her program and show him Nnneka’s circled photo and write-up. “She was already on,” he says, “She was really good.”  It seems our dinner had run over, into the starting time of the festival. We were seeing Phillip Polsel, who came on well past Nneka.

Phillip Polsel / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Phillip Polsel / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Back outside on the Reeperbahn, somewhere between the two outdoor stages and the milling but manageable crowd, we slowly realize that our timing is off – we missed Pete and the Pirates – and the schedule had changed a bit, as is normal at such events, and in our fatigue we had misinterpreted the German custom of providing itineraries on a 24-hour time schedule. We check our watches, adjust our brains as best we can in this state, and make our way to the crowded and very sweaty Molotow for The More Assured for some Britpop. Molotow is the place to be during much of the festival for new British bands and judging by the crowds, they may want to move these bands to a larger venue next year.

Neidklub is a techno bar, but it feels rather like a stripper club, with plastic chains hanging from the ceiling, and neon strips of light along the walls. The place is packed with rude, pushy indie kids – quite unlike the better manners experienced at other venues thus far. Here, the normally rule abiding Germans and whomever else is there ignore the No Smoking Indoors rule (“you can get arrested for that”, a native tell us) and puff away with iniquity.

Our personal space grows tighter as the bouncers outside, “Russians”, we’re told (oooh), keep letting people in. Surely our numbers have exceeded legal capacity. Beside us, a strawberry blonde woman stands close to her date, a half-Asian-looking fellow with dreads. Pretty as nearly every German woman we’ve seen, she looks suburban with her long straight hair and nondescript outfit, but she wears long, pink leather gloves—somewhat incongruous with the rest of her look –a tinge of Reeperbahn kink. She presses close to her man, they gaze at one another, oblivious to the elbows and shoulders of the pushy crowd.

Many sets of young lips, noses and ears are pierced with small pieces of jewelry. The dread-headed fellow is the most radical and “different looking” from the others we’ve seen, thus far, but to our urban eyes his style is mild. Throughout our entire stay there are no garish or spiky/“scary” punk haired people, maybe a streak of pink or purple in a brunette or blond, here or there, but nary a seriously goth girl or mohawked guy, no tattoos peeking beneath shirt sleeves and collars. But for the aforementioned gloved girl, the overall fashion is indie with some “slacker” overtones and not terribly colorful.

At Neidklub the crowd gets tighter and pushier, the air smokier and hotter. The band was supposed to have started 30 minutes ago. Claustrophobia sets in, and we set out. An acquaintance stayed on for a song or two before making his way down the crowded stairwell, into the night. We’ll see him the next day. Crystal Castles, he says, is awful. The size of that crowd indicates most feel otherwise.

A happy Reeperbahn Festival crowd / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

A happy Reeperbahn Festival crowd / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

On another night out, it’s all about soul for us. We basically camp out at the Mandarin Kasino for the Sweet Vandals from Madrid and Nicole Willis and The Soul Investigators from Finland. The crowd here is Mod, so we feel at home. One can imagine this dance club packed to the gills night after night, sweating away to old Northern Soul tunes. On this night of the festival, the club stays true to this sensibility with the Booker T. and the MGs-ish groove of the Sweet Vandals. Lead singer Mayka Edjo is no Aretha Franklin, but she’s an engaging stage presence and her roughish voice suits the Stax style tunes and brings a welcome heat to the room. Befitting her Helsinki home, Nicole Willis is a cooler sort, generally more Motown than Stax, more North than South, but she can mix it up, too, and set the dance floor alight.

Ultimately, the real charm of this festival is the simultaneous tight focus and genre variety. Within a small geographic area, you can go from indie to soul to Britpop to emo and discover new European artists across a broad range of styles. We hope the organizers keep the festival at its current size and don’t feel the urge to expand to the size of a SXSW. As it is, it’s quite possible to visit many of the clubs in a given night and sample all sorts of sounds.

See the full list of bands at the 2008 Reeperbahn Festival here.

The crowd at Prinzenbar / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

The crowd at Prinzenbar / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

Appended quite appropriately to the Reeperbahn Festival is the Flatstock Poster Convention, which has appeared at various American music festivals and this is its first appearance on this side of the pond. Featuring silkscreen poster art from more than 50 artists, the prints on display are diverse in artistic style while headed squarely at the tastes of the indie crowd. The posters are on full display nestled closely to the wurst stands in that center meridian between clubs on either side of the street. Only a busy night of club hopping kept us from stocking up on the reasonably priced street art that would have surely been crushed in some of the night’s sweatier clubs. (Readers interested in rock poster art might enjoy Stacey Brook’s “Hung Up: The State of Rock Poster Art” .)

At the end of one long evening, jetlag begins hammering at our brains, and we flag a clean, 10€ cab ride which feels like a bargain. When we enter the cab, the driver turns the music on her stereo down. Was that gypsy music? “Turkish music” she says, in her Turkish/German-accented English. “Please, turn it up,” we say, and sit back to enjoy the ride to our hotel, which happens to be just around the corner from a Turkish neighborhood filled with tempting restaurants and sweet shops which daily lure us in with trays of baklava and other Middle-Eastern treats in the windows.

A wurst shop on the Reeperbahn / Photo: Sarah Zupko

A wurst shop on the Reeperbahn / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Adventures with the Beatles and the German Healthcare System

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

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 Kaiserkeller on the Grosse Freiheit / Photo: Sarah Zupko

The Indra Club 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

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

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

The Beatles Square / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Where the Lights Burn Red and Blue

The Reeperbahn on Friday night is a different animal from the comparably mild night prior. Hetero couples are demonstrably “sucking face” (the behavior is that pronounced, and so the phrase suits). Rough looking kids with beer in hand are clustered on corners. The feel is louder, rowdier, somewhat unpleasant but—perhaps it’s traveler’s euphoria – the kids hanging around are not terribly menacing. Since we’re not part of their scene, we’re not on their radar. We pass groups of revelers unmolested and make our way up and down various blocks of St. Pauli, seeking out venues on our itinerary.

The Lion King in the Hamburg harbor / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

We pass some beautiful young women, all wearing white down coats, propositioning men. It’s painful to see these young people working the streets, girls whom we’d like to put our arms around and say “C’mon, honey, let’s get you back in school.”  Of course they would scowl at such sentiments.

“These girls look a lot healthier than the ones in Amsterdam,” says a journalist colleague. Ah, perhaps that’s thanks to Germany’s health care system, and Hamburg’s interest in perpetuating the Reeperbahn’s longstanding reputation – it is good for business, after all. But alas, in many cities throughout the world including Hamburg, the Internet is a change agent in moving prostitution from the sidewalks to hotel rooms. This spells changes for the Reeperbahn. Changes we’d like to see both as women and festivalgoers.

As for the young women, well, one can’t be a prostitute forever. What becomes of them?  Are there programs to educate them and integrate them into society?  Ah, but if they are on the streets like the women in white jackets that we saw, they “want” to be there, we’re told. If a woman is good, she can make a lot of money. Good at … prostitution. OK. Per our guide at the Emigration Museum (Ballinstadt), there are social organizations to help women who are enslaved in prostitution, but funding for those programs is very poor under the current political party in rule.

As we ponder this while watching the women proposition shaggy-haired indie kids, yet another taxi bearing the lewd visage of a David Duchovny on its side drives by. Californication, America’s latest cultural import, is slapped on nearly every taxi and bus – this in lieu of billboard advertising.

TUI Operettenhaus / Photo: Sarah Zupko

TUI Operettenhaus / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Where the Light Burns Red, Another Burns Blue
Right across the street from hipster haven, er, the Neidklub, an operetta is letting out. From the TUI Operettenhaus middle-aged and elderly “blue hairs” spill out onto the Reeperbahn sidewalk, directly into the busses waiting just for them.

A German friend tells us his mother would never come to the Reeperbahn until they opened the German-language operettas. Now she comes frequently. Notably, this crowd doesn’t stroll down the Reeperbahn after this evening’s show lets out, but rather, they head directly for the busses awaiting them.

We’ve enjoyed the Pop and now it’s time for the other side of the German cultural equation. We’re craving music from the other end of the artistic spectrum, which we naturally find at the Hamburg State Opera in the form of Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. The opera season is deliciously long in Germany and Hamburg is no exception. It’s quite possible at most times of the year to find an opera or symphony performance to attend, often many in just a short time period. On this night, we pass a pretzel vendor outside the opera house steps, a line is forming at her portable pretzel stand. Our fellow opera goers at the nearly full house are primarily middle-aged and elderly, of course, but there is a healthy sprinkling of young adults, too; couples, it seems, on a date. We realize that the elders in our midst were kids or teenagers during the Second World War. What have these people lived through, we wonder? These are suitable thoughts for this opera, one of the darkest in Verdi’s esteemed canon and given compelling treatment by this fine opera company.

Kunsthalle and Gallery of Contemporary Art / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

Kunsthalle and Gallery of Contemporary Art / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

Another day and we are traversing the hallowed halls of the Kunsthalle and Gallery of Contemporary Art, Hamburg’s premier art museum. Sarah is a major geek for both art from the German Romantic era of the 19th century and 20th century Expressionism, so the bevy of Caspar David Friedrich paintings in a single room, including the iconic “The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”, satisfies that first craving. The Kunsthalle is smaller than the National Gallery in London and at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but it’s a carefully curated collection and anyone with even a passing interest in German cultural history will find it well worth an afternoon. Hamburg is home to 45 museums, including a very well-regarded House of Photography.

Caspar David Friedrich / The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog / Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Caspar David Friedrich / The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog / Kunsthalle, Hamburg

A Green and Blue Metropolis

Hamburg is a city state, but instead of being a towering metropolis like New York, it’s a comfortable, human-sized city of tight-knit neighborhoods and lots of trees. Thus, it is green and chock full of low-rise buildings, which makes for pleasant walking. Oh, there are some areas redolent of Chicago, with its comparable “el” train circling a loop above ground, its viaducts sporting wall murals, and power lines scratching the sky. But unlike Chicago (or virtually any American city), many Germans prefer to bicycle about, and so the roads are not as congested.

Hamburg folks chill on the Outer Alster / Photo: Hamburg Marketing GmbH

Bicycle paths are delineated by a red stone pathway on the wide sidewalks – safe from automobile traffic, their boundaries understood by pedestrians. Autos, scooters, bikes and pedestrian traffic intermingle seamlessly. People will drive fast, but not aggressively – nary a horn did honk, a tire did skid, a driver was heard cursing out his window during our visit.

Bicycle in St. Pauli / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Bicycle in St. Pauli / Photo: Sarah Zupko

As we make our way about the city streets, quite unlike our German counterparts, we jaywalk. It’s a sensible way to get about on foot whilst in American cities, providing one is constantly vigilant about the cars that speed, push a light, or “roll through” a stop sign. Crossing the streets in our city is a matter of common sense and nerve and requires perhaps, our German friends might think, a bit of foolishness.

At first while in Hamburg, we stand at a traffic-free street with our fellow man, some amongst us quite clear-headed like us, probably going to / returning from work or an errand, others inebriated on a Friday or Saturday night, open bottle of beer in hand (quite legal, so long as one is at least 16 years old) – but all waiting for the pedestrian light signaling it is safe to cross the street. Gradually, we wonder why we are standing at a traffic-free intersection we could easily cross and so – looking both ways—we begin to defy the pedestrian signal. And every time we set foot into the street, damn if that signal doesn’t change from red to green before our second step. It’s as if we simply cannot break the rule, no matter how we try.

It seems we are lucky in our transgressions, as we might have been fined for violating the pedestrian Don’t Walk signal, should a Polizist (policeman) nab us. Nor does anyone in Hamburg openly scold us for our transgression of the rules, as we understand Germans might do. Apologies to our German friends for this rather childlike rule breaking, but it feels as if we’re getting away with a little something … this time, anyway.

St. Pauli area / Photo: Sarah Zupko

St. Pauli area / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Our colleagues head for a weekly flea market and the trendy boutiques in the Karoviertel at St. Pauli where they will find: the latest from Beifall, Hamburg’s oldest textile supplier and first Vintage shop; Sium Slinky; Lucky Lucy, gothic punk and rock ‘n’ roll clothes; Kissy Suzuki; Tazuma and Goldmarie at Decoy;Anna Fuchs; Evangeline van Niekerk’s designs at Krefeld; and many more. We veer off to find the Rathaus (Hamburg City Hall), a beautiful combination of Italian and northern German Renaissance architecture. Within walking distance of the Rathaus, wealthy tourists and comfortable locals stroll the posh Europapassage and Jungfernstieg shopping areas, eyeing the latest from high-end designers. Outdoor cafes are crowded on this cool, sunny day and in typical German style, those lucky enough to snag a table are encouraged to linger, to indulge in a bit of Gemütlichkeit.

Courtyard of the Hamburg Rathaus / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Courtyard of the Hamburg Rathaus / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Inside the Hamburg Rathaus / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Inside the Hamburg Rathaus / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Knocking at the Doors of History
The BallinStadt: Port of Dreams – Emigrant World Hamburg is off the beaten track, but accessible by bus and train, and well worth the effort. Housed in two remaining “Emigrants’ Halls” where immigrants, many of them economic refugees from Central Europe, were processed. The museum is deceptively simple in its presentation, and slightly dated (the identity of many ethnic groups processed are still being collected, and an image of New York still shows the Twin Towers – the irony is not lost on us, as some of the 9/11 pilots resided for a time in Hamburg).

The BallinStadt: Port of Dreams - Emigrant World Hamburg / Photo: Ballinstadt

The BallinStadt: Port of Dreams - Emigrant World Hamburg / Photo: Ballinstadt

The story of Albert Ballin who saw a need for safe clean shelter, food and medical care for immigrants, is dovetailed by his creation of the first luxury cruise ship. From safe passage to luxurious transit, Ballin’s vision of what could be done for travelers of all stripes is a wonderful story. The stories of people who passed through these doors will absorb one’s entire afternoon and resonate long after, especially for so many Americans whose ancestors came through the port of Hamburg on their way to America. So much of what the American people and their history are comprised of can be traced to this very place.

Computer terminals accessing the Ancestry.com databases are available for anyone who wants to type in a family name and trace their ancestry. Meanwhile, the archive continues to grow.

The BallinStadt: Port of Dreams - Emigrant World Hamburg / Photo: Ballinstadt

The BallinStadt: Port of Dreams - Emigrant World Hamburg / Photo: Ballinstadt

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

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/65652-hamburg-germanys-port-of-rock-n-roll-1/