Wandering between icons of its shining development and its colourful past, Darrel Bristow-Bovey takes a bite out of Hamburg
I have always wanted to eat a hamburger in Hamburg. I have eaten Bolognese in Bologna, Cornish pasties in Cornwall, Wiener schnitzel in Vienna, oranges in the Orange Free State, and I’ve sipped on a Catembe in Catembe. I have not yet eaten a beef Wellington in Wellington, but surely the hamburger is the king of the eponymous foods.
Of course, all of this carries a certain responsibility. You can’t just stop at the first burger bar you walk by – your first Hamburg hamburger should be a truly memorable experience, an authentic time-travel back to the very beginning. Perhaps I could even track down the very establishment that invented the burger?
I could not.
If it had ever existed, it would probably still be there, for that’s just how Hamburg is. It turns out, however, that the hamburger wasn’t really invented in Hamburg at all, but in Chicago – by an immigrant German who happened to put minced steak between two slices of bread.
That was disappointing, but my first hamburger was not – it was a fine and flavoursome thing, served with pickles and good German mustard, and a tankard of splendid German beer. I enjoyed it on a warm summer’s day, sitting at a pavement cafe along Lange Reihe in St Georg, the trendy neighbourhood on the west bank of the Aussenalster – a lovely, large lake a neat 10 000 steps in circumference, formed by the Alster River as it flows to join the Elbe and the North Sea.
Hamburgers like to complain about their weather. In winter, it’s grey and drizzly and the mist creeps down the waterways and swirls through the streets like in a film noir. In spring, winter and autumn, it’s the perfect setting for a spy story: the skies and waters are the same steel grey as a submarine hull; the street corners ideal for lurking in a trench coat with a fedora pulled down low over your eyes. Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File is set here, and so is John le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man.
In summer, it’s far enough north that it seldom suffers the heatwaves of southern Germany, but on a bright, sunny day the water sparkles in the sunshine and the sunlight feels like warm butter on your skin, and the white sails of yachts puff and flit like clouds on the lake.
Hamburg is a port town, which means it’s a sailor’s town, which means it has a long, seedy history of moral flexibility.
I pedalled from St Georg along the Binnenalster and then the Jungfernstieg, where moneyed families would bring their daughters in the 19th century to promenade – and hopefully meet the eligible sons of other rich families – and then I freewheeled my way down to the thoroughfare just one block above the harbour: the famous Reeperbahn.
I’m not sure what I was expecting: painted dwarves performing acrobatic sex acts in the windows, perhaps; and long-legged ladies of the night, wearing suspender belts and red, frilly Wild West bustiers, leaning against the lamp posts.
The Reeperbahn is one of the great, legendary, sinful places of the world; Tom Waits wrote a typically haunting, growly song about it and 007’s Ian Fleming once described visiting one late-night establishment where he drank Champagne from a flowerpot while watching three women wrestle in a specially designed mud pit.
It was a red-light district of dive bars and subterranean girlie shows and legal brothels when the rest of Europe was tightening its stays and drawing its skirts around itself. It was like a European Sun City or Las Vegas – a place where the good citizens of the surrounding districts could go to slum it and buy themselves a decadent evening before returning home to their lives of stolid respectability ten minutes away.
The Reeperbahn is no longer what it once was, but then, what is? The locals are always puzzled when visitors ask to see the Reeperbahn, I suppose the way dyed-in-the-wool Johannesburgers frown when visitors want to see Gold Reef City. By daylight, it is really just a long street of takeaway restaurants, shabby cinemas, occasional sex shops, and one ominous establishment offering ‘five floors of international women’. I came back at night when the neon was on – it was a little more thrilling, but not very much.
There’s a cul-de-sac running off the Reeperbahn called Grosse Freiheit (‘Great Freedom’), and the point at which the two meet – a nondescript piece of sidewalk – is somewhat grandly called Beatles-Platz. There are five life-sized metal cut-outs of the original members of the band standing in a semi-circle – which sounds impressive but none of them were very tall in real life, so it’s easy to walk by without noticing. Which I did. Three times.
The Beatles came to Hamburg in 1960 and played their first paid gigs at clubs on Grosse Freiheit: first the Indra Club, then the Keiserskeller, then the Star Club. The Star closed in 1983 and later burned down, but there’s a plaque commemorating where it was. I went down into the Indra, with its dusty red walls and low ceiling, and had a beer and attempted to imagine five scruffy English boys on a low stage, near enough to reach out and sip my drink. I went to the Keiserskeller, but there was a Serbian heavy metal band playing, and there’s only so much you can ask of me.
In the ’60s and ’70s, Hamburg was still fumbling for an identity, still rebuilding. Today, though, it is reinventing itself in a thoughtful, stately way that other cities would do well to emulate.
The past never disappears in Hamburg – there are always traces of it – and the new grows up alongside it. Downtown is St Nikolai Memorial, one of the most effective war monuments I’ve ever seen: a memorial that doesn’t glorify but shows the cost of war.Bombed out in the Allied firestorms of 1943, with only the spire still standing, it has never been rebuilt. I paid for my ticket and rode the elevator up the spire, 75m high, and compared the cityscape with photographs showing the devastation.
At the harbourside, I walked through Speicherstadt, the Victorian district of red-brick warehouses that have now been converted to apartments and theatres, and on to HafenCity, the biggest inner-city rejuvenation project in Europe, with its neat canals and wharves, interior-design stores in moored houseboats and great seafood restaurants on tethered barges. The centrepiece of the project is the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, a beautiful scalloped glass box on the water’s edge, atop old red-brick warehousing, its roof curved like the waves of the river in a winter storm.
It’s a concert hall capable of holding 2 500 people, a hotel and a complex of penthouse apartments. Inside is 82m of curved, moving walkway. The great glass panels are all inset with individualised chrome dots to reflect the sun like facets and make the whole edifice glimmer and shimmer without blinding. I instantly fell in love with it.
Hamburg isn’t a flashy town, it isn’t hip like Berlin or beautiful like Paris, but it’s a gentle, thoughtful place – human and liveable. It reveals itself softly and what it reveals is rewarding. Of all the places I’ve travelled in recent times, it’s the place to which I most look forward to returning. And it makes a good burger.
Photography: Gallo/GettyImages, iStockphoto