Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg

Trip Start Sep 07, 2010
Trip End Aug 21, 2011

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Before Michael returned to America, we decided to see what deals we could get through Ryanair to take a short weekend trip somewhere. As it turns out, flights to Hamburg, Germany were a mere £12 return so we decided to take them up on their offer and fly on over. 

Hamburg is officially titled the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg due to the fact that Hamburg is both a city and a state of Germany.  It is the second largest city in Germany (eight in the European Union) with about 1.8 million people and also boasts one of the largest ports in Europe situated along the River Elbe.  The city draws it name from the title of a fortress built by Charlemagne in AD 808.  Incidentally, the castle was one of the reasons why Michael wanted to visit Hamburg, but, after doing my research on what attractions there were in Hamburg, I didn't find one thing about a castle being there.  That is when I learned that there is absolutely no trace of the castle today, and, in addiction, no one knows where the castle was once located either.

In the city’s lengthy history, it has changed hands many times, including briefly being part of Napoleon’s French Empire and Russia before finally being incorporated into a unified German state in the 19th century after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire.  Unfortunately, Hamburg received a fair amount of devastation during World War II, though this time by Allied Forces.  Over 80% of the city was destroyed leaving behind only a few dwellings, churches, and political edifices in the city that were able to persist into the 21st century. Today the cityscape and skyline of Hamburg is dominated by bridges and church spires respectively.  Hamburg has more bridges within its city limits than any other city in the world.

One of the buildings that did survive, and the first building we were able to see on our tour of Hamburg, was the Rathaus (or, City Hall in English).  Built at the end of the 19th century to replace the former city hall which was destroyed in a fire, this massive building holds the parliament and senate of Hamburg.  In front of the Rathaus lies Binnenalter which is a small artificial lake.  Today, this lake is lined with ritzy hotels and embassies (including the American Embassy).

We next went to visit St. Nikolai’s Church a bit south of the Rathaus which was completed in 1874 and was the tallest building in the world for a few years but today remains the second tallest in Hamburg.  Unfortunately, the church wasn’t able to be used for long because it was largely destroyed during an air raid in World War II; however, the tower still stands and is accessible.  Being one of the tallest buildings in Hamburg allows for amazing views to be had of the city from the top of the spire.  Beneath the remaining floor of the church which is exposed to the elements now, is a small museum dedicated to the history of the church featuring many pictures of the church prior to the war.

From there we walked through part of the city and over some bridges to reach the historic street Deichstraße. There are a few streets hidden within Hamburg that are lined with original buildings predating the war and each of them are like little European treasures tucked away in an otherwise modern city.  Another traditionally German street we visited is Peterstraße.  Speaking of which, the "ß" letter is a German letter called an eszett.  In pronunciation it can generally be replaced with an “ss” or “sz” sound.  Apparently in 1996, there was a bit of German spelling reform to standardize the language which is spoken quite widely in Europe.  This reform lead to many signs in Hamburg being written in two different ways to reflect the older and newer signs such as Peterstrasse on a map and then Peterstraße on the actual street sign (straße meaning street in German).

Along our route to the Reeperbahn, we passed a massive statue of Otto von Bismark, the man responsible for the unification of Germany at the end of the 19th century.  It is probably one of the largest statues of him, and the largest monument of its type in Hamburg.  There weren’t many dedications or monuments to anyone in Hamburg, so it was unusual to find one of such stature.  Further on passed the statue is the Reeperbahn, a street famous for its nightlife.  We arrived there at dusk, so the streets hadn’t gotten too out of control yet, but people were already frequenting the bars and clubs in the area.  There are also theaters and restaurants in the area as well.  In Germany, prostitution is legal and we did notice various ladies standing around looking for customers.  Prostitution on the street itself is only allowed on certain streets and certain stretches of streets, most are on “display” in the front windows of brothels similar to the red light district in Amsterdam.  After a busy day of sightseeing (not to mention having to fly out to Hamburg at 5 AM that morning), we were ready to crash.

In the morning we headed straight to another church that has survived the test of time (only by constant rebuilding), St. Michaelis Church.  This Baroque church is the largest and most recognizable in Hamburg and has been reconstructed three times.  The first church was completed in 1669 but was destroyed in 1750 by a lightning strike.  The church subsequently rebuilt but burned down again in 1906.  Again, it was replicated only to be destroyed in World War II; however, it was quickly resurrected again.  The church is absolutely stunning on the inside.  It is more like a mansion on the inside than a traditional church.  This may be because it is a protestant church as opposed to a catholic church and wished to differentiate itself further.  As with St. Nikolai’s Church, we were able to go to the top of the copper-plated spire and see the entire city from a different angle above.  Also, beneath the church in the crypt is buried Carl Bach, the famous composer, who is the son of the slightly more famous composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

We walked from St. Michaelis down to the riverfront along the Elbe River.  We enjoyed a schnitzel for lunch, and watched the ships pass down the river, including the Louisiana Star steamboat (everyone just loves American culture!).  We also took a brief glimpse at the Elbtunnel, a pedestrian footpath (though it can accommodate motor vehicles) that runs underneath the river and provides access to the other side without obstructing the river.  There are four huge elevators capable of lifting vehicles from the ground level down to the bottom of the tunnel.

Afterwards, we decided to visit the suburb town of Blankenese via the S-bahn (or tram).  On our way out there, I couldn’t help but notice how much bigger the average home was than those in England.  Also, the houses usually had quite large yards.  Blankenese is a wealthy area with high real estate values along the River Elbe.  It was a nice place to relax in the afternoon.  There were large mansions (large by European standards) all along the riverfront. The whole area was very charming and the weather was perfect to enjoy it all.  A lot of people were out taking walks along the river or in the parks, and one man was even practicing his slack lining skills in his backyard.

We took the S-bahn back to the city center to briefly visit the Warehouse District (or Speicherstadt).  All the buildings here were formerly warehouses part of the Port of Hamburg (and many still are), and today many have been transformed and renovated into apartments and museums.  Across from the Warehouse District lies a building called the Chilehaus.  Built in the 1920’s, it was commissioned by a wealthy Chilean trader (hence the name, “Chile House”).  Designed by Fritz Höger, it is meant to resemble an ocean liner.  It is a very large and grand building occupying almost the entire block on which it was built, and I’m thankful that this work of architecture and engineering survived the war.

Our last stop in Hamburg before our trip ended, we visited the Ohlsdorf Cemetery.  It may sound a bit morbid, but we almost had to visit it because it’s the largest cemetery in the world (in the non-military category as the largest military cemetery in the world is on Long Island).  Being the largest, it is just under 1000 acres in area and over 1.4 million burials.  Many of the gravesites were extravagant, as you can imagine, and many areas were largely reserved for a single family.  There are numerous memorials for WWI and WWII and other events scattered throughout the cemetery, but the only one we ran into was one dedicated to those lost at concentration camps during WWII.  There was a plaque that listed all of the concentration camps at the foot of the monument.

As the sun set, we headed back to our hotel to wake up early for the flight the next morning.  This was first time in Germany, and I must say, it exceeded my expectations.  The people were all very friendly and nice, customer service at restaurants was excellent, and the price of things was very good (so good that I started calling Germany, Little American).  Hamburg was beautiful and clean, and the public transit was very easy to use and cheap.  It was only a small taste of Germany, but Hamburg definitely made me want to see much more of what Germany has to offer!

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