A Slow Burn

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Flag of Germany  ,
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hamburg has all the hallmarks of a great place to visit. Its an elegant and walkable city, it is set beside a grand old lake, it has a broad spectrum mix of people and lifestyles, and it has the colourful history that can come only from having the bejesus bombed out of it in 1943 by all and sundry.   

At first, Hamburg left me stone cold. Arriving by train should add a romantic gloss to any European location with the grand old stations still standing as cathedrals to the steam age. Hamburg station has the shape and the space, but every breathable space has been sold for advertising, and I found myself keen to get out.  

Hamburg is the original city of merchants: it was built on trade and the merchants call the tune. Despite being more than a hundred kilometres inland it remains one or Europe's busiest ports. However, the harbour on the Elbe River that provides this service redefines ugly. You get off the train to see the view then get straight on with walking away from the harbour.  

Hamburg's merchants also came together to build the Rathaus, the excellent local translation for Town Hall/ place of government. Its a cracker of a building, as you would expect for a building that is in its sixth iteration. The building is imposing and exudes old world wealth and deal making. It was entirely funded by local wealthy merchants, so those who rightly complain about the effect of money in today's politics should continue to complain but perhaps moderate any claim that the practice is worse than ever.  

The history of Hamburg clearly points to a failure in academic circles to teach the Three Little Pigs at school: they kept building of wood and it kept burning town. Five times. Now, sure, the town has been around for the best part of a thousand years, so a few fires is fair enough. But five? The merchants, in their wisdom, donated copious funds but clearly insisted the thing be made of stone.  

The failure to learn much from The Three Little Pigs may stem from the fact this title is apparently a cookbook here. I have been steadily putting away my body weight in various wursts, each one being better than the last until I tried currywurst. Its as ordinary as it sounds, yet I felt compelled to have a go.  

St Nikolai Church sits at the centre of Hamburg. Its 147m steeple was a great idea by religious leaders aiming to awe a public into supplication. However, such a design feature stops being a good idea when your national leader starts World War II and you find yourself the proud owner of the building used as the key landmark for the RAAF. Over three nights in 1943 Hamburg was levelled through bombs and the ensuing firestorm.  

This was my first experience of World War II history in Germany. I found it less than cut and dried. There is clearly a government mandate that they include in every page a reference that the Germans were the aggressors, and that Warsaw, Rotterdam, London and Coventry were indiscriminately and comprehensively bombed by the Luftwaffe from 1939 through 1942. Yet the unmistakable tone and impression is that they are clearly feeling quite aggrieved at anyone bombing them back. Particularly all over their nice church, and particularly as the merchants folded their arms when it came time to pay for rebuilding the church again. The ROI is clearly poor: how many times do you have to get completely destroyed by fire and war before you come to think maybe God isn't on your side.   

As a result, the church sits vacant. Notionally it is as a monument to the victims of war, but all our explorations seem to turn up that the only victim of war they are deeply concerned about is why their church is no longer standing. Dare I say it, but they seemed to have missed the bigger picture. Thats the nice thing with WWII history: at least there the good guys won, even if you did have to lose your pretty church.  

The burned out steeple has provided for an excellent showpiece of German ingenuity, a glass lift that pierces the skyline and deposits you about 80m up. Its not that high, but the sight of the charred and fragile structure passing by you on all sides makes it actually quite an adrenalin ride.  

It was only from atop the steeple that I got a feel for how Hamburg was laid out, and with a bit of geographical understanding I began to enjoy the city a lot more. We more readily found the charms rather than the more rudimentary elements. We found the beautiful lake and the elegant districts which are a pleasure to lazily walk and continuously graze upon.

On our final day, it hammered down with rain, in the volumes only found when I have left a window open. We went out unperturbed, for we are nothing if we consider ourselves made of sherbet and fearful of a little moisture. We got soaked, which means in retrospect it must have been all Claudine's idea to go for that walk. At least I got to find out just how unwaterproof my shoes are before we get to South America.  

Hamburg, somehow, didn't quite gel. It has everything. It should be awesome. And I can only envisage a Hamburg Tourism Official banging his keyboard in disgust at reading this, and screaming 'What do you People Want! We have Canals! We have history! We have dining! Why do you all like Amsterdam so much and not us!'. And I couldn't answer him.  

But there was one immensely redeeming feature of Hamburg. A handful of esteemed gentlemen have embarked on a ridiculous venture to recreate this and other cities in miniature: replete with trains, traffic, people, boats. Claude skipped it in disgust, and it is true that its primary audiences are the under 7s and those with serious social problems. I must qualify on both counts: I was there about 6 hours.   

There are so many odd things at this Miniatur Wunderland. Although aimed at the young, there are more than half a dozen "not for the littlies" scenes - check out the photo attached, yep, its a murder scene. Elsewhere there was a hobo who had hung himself from a railway bridge. Of course this is what you include in your tourist attractions isn't it? 

The few blokes who have put it togther are now the wrong side of 4m euro spent, and they're not even halfway finished. Respect.  

Yeah, I think this tips it over the edge for me. They really can't afford to let that place burn down.

* * *

Hmmmm, the one point Iain left out about Miniatur Wunderland is that Hamburgīs own tourist information leaflet deemed it something that will be "enjoyed only by children under 7 and people who are a bit sad".  The remaining 12 pages of said leaflet were dedicated to glorification of the city....

I think Hamburg is best summed up by the sign on my computer terminal at this internet cafe "Keine pornoseiten erlaubt" (no porno sights permitted).  It is a city of rules, regulations and seriousness. 

We checked into our hostel and we had to ensure we read the 58 hostel rules prior to completion of the formal check-in procedure.  One of them was that our bedroom doors were unlockable and all bags must be stored in lockers.  Huh??!! There were numerous signs in the bathrooms, notices in the halls, requests for hygiene in the kitchen.  "All refrigerated items must be named and dated" or they would end up being given away (as we witnessed during our stay).  (Food was given away even if it had been named.  If it was not named and dated then the [insert strong German accent here] "rules ver being disobeyed").

Even the Reeperbahn (the red light district near St Pauli) had a street where scantily clad prostitutes posed in window fronts.  This is not too different to the red light stretch in Amsterdam with only one exception.  This area was verboten to all females as well as males under the age of 18 years.  I am not sure how this was enforced as we never actually saw this street, but apparently it is fenced off and only adult males are allowed to enter this zone.
The city is quite pretty with scattered relics of the old buildings wherever you turn (many of which have been restored).  It was nice to wander through the city window shopping the charming little boutiques (all unaffordable), people watching at the quaint little cafes, or walking down the modern shopping strips to see the city bustle.  The skylines over here all look fantastic with the pointed Kirche (church) and Dom (cathedral) spires poking up through the cityscape.  There were also canals dispersed through the town, but somehow the canals and bridges were too wide, too square and too measured to have the same quaint charm offered up by the Netherlands.
The Rathaus (town hall) with its 647 rooms is an amazing feat of architecture and interior design, however, despite its uncompromising beauty I canīt help but feel that its construction was simply an exercise in ludicrous extravagance.  Who is using all of these rooms?  Who benefits from the colossal wealth which is concentrated into such an elitist space that the majority of Hamburgians will never even see it?  Even tourist information points out that the Rathaus room count is a total of 8 more than Buckingham Palace.  Who cares?  OK you win Hamburg.
Its a nice enough place, but I think Hamburg needs to chill out a bit.  Really looking forward to Berlin.
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