Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hamburg: The Gate To The World

They say you never forget your first. That's certainly true with Hamburg, the first city I ever visited in Europe. It'll always have a special place in my heart. I lived there for a month back in 2009 and have gone back three more times since. This is a slightly altered version of a story that first appeared in the November 2009 issue of Lifestyle Asia magazine.  

Written and photographed By Paul John Caña
Additional photos by Pedi Dela Cruz

Oh Hamburg
Three rivers flow through Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest state: the Alster, the Bille and the Elbe, while the North Sea borders it on the west. There are over 2500 bridges here—more than Venice and Amsterdam combined. 

The natural harbor in the center of this progressive and prosperous city serves as a busy port, the second biggest in Europe after Rotterdam, with ships coming in to pick-up and unload cargo from all over the world. There's lots to see and do in Hamburg, a truly international city worthy of a visit for anyone making their way through Germany.

A closer look at Hamburg's Rathaus
A stop at the Rathaus (or Town Hall) can serve as a jump off point in exploring the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (the name is a reference to its membership in the Hanseatic League, a European trade monopoly during medieval times). Constructed from 1886 to 1897 the magnificent neo-Renaissance façade of the city’s seat of government is best admired from the Rathausmarkt or plaza in front of it. 

In a small tributary of the River Alster flowing adjacent to the square, graceful swans, playful mallards and other water birds compete for morsels from delighted spectators. A late afternoon stroll through the charming Altstadt district, with its high-end shopping boutiques and quaint side streets, is warm-up for a night-out in Hamburg’s world-famous Reeperbahn in Sankt Pauli.

A resident of the Binnenalster

Water fowls compete for morsels of bread from amused residents and tourists
First garnering attention as a notorious red-light district, Reeperbahn is slowly undergoing transformation through a gentrification process. Existing side-by-side with erotic attractions are museums, theaters, shopping areas and restaurants. 


Steel silhouettes of the Fab Four
A museum dedicated to the musical group The Beatles used to stand near Grosse Freiheit, but was closed back in 2012. Diehard fans know that it was in Hamburg, specifically the bars and clubs in Reeperbahn, where the legendary band first built a cult following before exploding into the consciousness of pop music fans everywhere. John Lennon famously said: “I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.”

Me with the Fab Four

Sankt Pauli is where the party's at
In March, August and November of each year, Hamburg plays host to an enormous fair called Dom. Not ten minutes by foot from all the madness in Reeperbahn, the young and young-at-heart will delight in amusement park rides, various food stalls and confections and a general air of pomp and festivity.

Rollercoaster at Hamburg's Dom

Der Fluss, a sculpture by Aristide Maillol 
Once nicknamed the “Gate To The World,” Hamburg served as the port upon which millions of Europeans left for the New World in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, tourists flock to Landungsbrücken to take in the sight of large tankers and smaller ferries scurrying about in the harbor, breathe in fresh ocean air and listen to the squawks of sea birds harmonizing with ships slicing their way through the water. 

No visit to Hamburg is complete without a boat trip, and many tourists might opt to take the ferry from here all the way to Finkenwerder and back.

Landungsbrücken at night
Bicycle riders in one of the city's tunnels
On the outskirts of the city, history buffs will appreciate a tour of the old concentration camp at Neuengamme. Used by the Nazis during World War II, the camp held over 100,000 prisoners from 1938 until the end of the war in 1945. Of this number, 55,000 perished. 

A museum houses a list of the known victims. Outside on a small grassy field, a monument stands tall next to a humanlike figure twisted in an odd angle lying on the ground, a symbol of the suffering and death that happened within the walls of the camp. It is a sad and difficult visit, but one that anyone needs to make in any attempt to understand one of the darkest chapters in human history.

"Your pain, your suffering, and your death shall not be in vain."

"Der sterbende Häftling“ (The dying prisoner) by Françoise Salmon 
Hamburg natives, or Hamburgers, will talk openly about Germany’s past, but this does not mean they are dour and irritable. On the contrary, most Hamburgers are pleasant and proud of their city. Tour guides will nonchalantly state the fact that there are more millionaires in Hamburg than any other German city (although I checked and it seems Hamburg ranks only third behind Frankfurt and Munich for most multi-millionaire residents). 

Forgot where this was, but it looks nice

Hamburg Hauptbahnhof (Central Train Station)
Altona train station

Pedi was nice enough to come visit from Spain while I was there
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the charming suburb of Blankenese. Nestled on a gently sloping plain along the River Elbe, Blankenese was once a fishing village and is now one of the most affluent and picturesque communities in the city. 

The Elsa Brandström Haus in Blankenese was where I lived for a month in Hamburg
There is an amazing view of the Elbe from the house 
There are stately manors and sprawling mansions on either side of the street when you go on a casual drive. You can also get a feel of local life by enjoying a kaffee at the plaza outside the Bahnhof (train station). On summer weekends, Hamburgers will make the trip down to the river and set-up picnics by the riverbank while soaking in the rays. With a cold bottle of authentic German bier in hand, it’s not a bad way to spend the day in this corner of Europe.

I'm assuming these are residents taking advantage of the summer sun

Hamburg is where I first had a taste of Beck's which has since become one of my favorite beers (it's from Bremen though, not Hamburg)

The seal of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg