Europe By Train: Hamburg
[ prologue Paris Milan Venice Vienna Hamburg Amsterdam epilogue ]
As far as journeys go, this is the big one: a Deutsche Bahn Inter City Express that leaves Vienna at 10.30 in the morning and arrives in Hamburg at 7.54 that evening. That's about nine and a half hours on a single train. In practice, it turns out to be an absolute breeze of a journey. Some things I learned on that trip which may be of benefit to anyone else doing a similar run in the future:
- DB publish the layout of all major trains on the platform, so you can see at a glance where your carriage is and how far you'll be from the restaurant car.
- There's a power socket hidden just under the middle armrest on pairs of ICE train seats, ideally positioned for your laptop. (I didn't discover it until halfway through the journey, after a couple of hours of scrimping and saving on laptop juice. Once we found out we had mains power, we were watching episodes of 24, Lost and The Wire on it all the way to Hamburg.)
- The restaurant car has several very decent hot meal options, and an English menu if you ask them nicely.
- If you're looking for somewhere safe to put your belongings while you visit the restaurant car, there are left luggage lockers near the bins on every carriage.
- The guy with the refreshment trolley wears a t-shirt with a list on the back of all the things he can sell you.
All small things, all very useful indeed, and it surprises me that Deutsche Bahn don't yell them from the rooftops. Which is why I'm doing it here.
So despite writing off almost the whole day on just one train journey, we arrive in Hamburg totally refreshed and ready for whatever it can throw at us. The problem is, we're not entirely sure what it's going to throw at us: Hamburg is the only city on our list of six which doesn't have a guide book by one of our preferred suppliers (Lonely Planet, Time Out or Rough Guides). The only book I've been able to find is a Thomas Cook City Spots guide, and it's really not much cop: very little detail, no real sense of local colour, inadequate street maps, and they couldn't even fork out the few Euros necessary for the rights to an HVV subway map. There's a real gap in the market for a decent Hamburg guide book, if there's anyone out there reading who can do something about that.
Having said that, at least Thomas Cook managed to point us in the direction of East Hotel. Remember how our first couple of hotels on this trip were ultra-trendy designer jobbies, and then we had a couple that were just really nice-looking? Well, with East we're straight back to the ultra-trendy again, with incredibly ostentatious design. The restaurant is a two-storey affair whose look leaves your jaw so dropped it's almost incapable of chewing food, which would be a pity given the rather fine Asian fusion cuisine it specialises in. The rooms are similarly swanky: it's nice to see someone finally acknowledging that you may want to fit more than one person into the shower simultaneously. You may grouch about how many of the features are hidden away to stop them spoiling the lines of the room, but at least you get given a list telling you where they are. It's surprising that this is the one hotel we've visited where the staff have had some difficulties with the English language, even though - lest we forget - it's actually trading on the coolness of having an English name. But it's a rather lovely place, which surprisingly seems to attract a lot of business customers, who presumably need all that extra space in the shower so that they can check the markets on their wireless laptops while they wash.
East's reception give us a street and subway map that's, um, streets ahead of the one in our guidebook, and it quickly becomes apparent that we're incredibly close to the Reeperbahn. Hamburg's notorious Naughty District has, if you believe the hype, become all gentrified in the past few years, with many of its seedier elements driven out by steep rent increases. What's left is the sort of watered-down naughtiness that Soho used to offer - sex shops with unnerving devices on display, blacked out windows promising all manner of video debauchery within, and bars with higher-than-average prices. Meanwhile, it appears that all the more dangerous stuff has simply moved over a block or two: even in daylight some of the backstreets can be a little scary. I wish I could illustrate this point with a picture of the man we passed openly having a wee in the middle of Grosse Freiheit, but The Belated Birthday Girl stopped me from taking a photo. (What's the problem? The great thing about public urinators is that if you take a picture of them, you know you've got a few seconds head start before they're in a position where they can chase after you. Half a minute, if they're female.)
Anyway, when you're travelling as a couple, hanging around the sleazier parts of town isn't really what you're there for. (We were only wandering around the back streets of the Reeperbahn because we were looking for a Post Office. That's actually true.) There's still plenty to see and do that doesn't involve fornication. Although let's be frank, the smut in Hamburg is primarily a product of its prominence as a shipping port, as it's been a stopover point for sailors for several centuries now. The best way to get a feel for how Hamburg still functions as a port is to take one of the many boat tours of the harbour area that start out from Landungsbrucken. Apparently there's a tour that leaves daily at noon which features an English commentary, but we couldn't find it in time. No matter: Rainer Abicht do a perfectly adequate one that takes in both the harbour and the Speicherstadt canal district in just over an hour. Even if you can't understand the commentary, the evidence of your eyes should be enough, particularly when they swing past a couple of the gigantic container ships run by companies like the Chinese line Cosco. Interesting to note that with all the high-tech involved in moving containers on and off ships, they spend very little time in port these days before moving on - one reason why the red light district is winding down slowly.
The canal district is apparently where it's all going to be happening in Hamburg in the next few years: currently its distinctive warehouses are the home for copious carpet import and export companies, but there's a lot of new building work taking place. Aside for the usual pleasures of a canal wander, there are quite a few tourist attractions already parked in the area. One of the smallest, but most disproportionately delightful, is Spicy's: a museum taking up the second floor of one of the warehouse buildings, dedicated to the history of spice production and transport. As The BBG notes, it's one of those places that you smell first before you can see it: there are about fifty sacks of miscellaneous spices scattered around, which you can feel, sniff and (if you're feeling adventurous) taste. There are also bilingual displays showing where the spices came from, and the various ways they've been packaged and advertised in Germany over the years. It's a little gem of a place, though I probably would have enjoyed it more if I wasn't still bunged up with a cold from the Easter weekend.
Paradoxically, the big attraction in Speicherstadt is Miniatur Wunderland - one of the most outrageously huge model railways in the world. It's spread over several rooms, each one depicting a particular geographic area: Hamburg itself, Scandinavia, America, the Alps and so on. In each case, tiny trains whistle through lavishly detailed environments, where it's obvious that the model makers have been having lots of fun burying tiny jokes and stories inside the tableaux. A family of penguins wait on a railway platform in the Alps: a fire engine roars through the streets, stopping at a tree with cat noises coming from it: a Hamburg city train has graffiti spraypainted on the side enouraging faredodging. Every so often the lights go down, and the whole thing changes into a nighttime panorama for a few minutes before we go back to daytime again. As you'd expect, the place is crammed with visitors: the website contains terrifyingly detailed predictions of expected visitor numbers for the next few weeks, and allows you to book online to avoid queuing for an hour or more. Be sure to grab a coffee in the nearby Speicherstadt Kaffeerösterei afterwards, and have a look at their small display of caffeinated memorabilia.
The perspective that Miniatur Wunderland gives you on Hamburg is rather cute, but there are a number of options available if you want to see the real thing from an elevated height. The one we missed out on is the Highflier Hamburg, a tethered hot-air balloon which was grounded for the duration of our stay owing to high winds. A more solid alternative is the tower of Mahnmal St Nikolai, pretty much all that remains of the church after aerial bombardment in 1943: a few Euros will allow you to ride a lift to the top of the tower and look out over the city. (At the time of writing there's also an exhibition of photos depicting Hamburg both before and after the air raid: as a concession to balance, it also shows the similar treatment the Luftwaffe dealt out to Coventry Cathedral a couple of years earlier.) Depending on the season, you may also be able to ride a big wheel in the St Pauli area as part of the Hamburger Dom, the gigantic funfair that runs several times a year.
With all this water nearby, it's no wonder that Hamburg is well-off for seafood restaurants. A few recommendations for you: Fisherhaus is a two-level fish restaurant with a less formal downstairs bit (where we had a rather good fish platter with potatoes and mustard sauce) and a more restrained upstairs section. Alt Hamburger Aalspeicher is a smaller but much more charming place with a chatty owner ("if we were a meat restaurant we'd have a dog, but we serve fish so we have a cat") and a fascinating-sounding eel speciality. Restaurant Überseebrücke is so centrally located near Landungsbrucken that you assume it's just a tourist trap, but the food's fine - I had Hamburger Labskaus, the dish that Scousers may or may not be named after - and the views over the harbour are lovely as the sun goes down. All of these are recommended with the accompaniment of a glass of Duckstein beer, our main liquid discovery of this part of the holiday.
The movie project is progressing nicely, you'll be pleased to hear: Germany has a reasonably robust domestic film industry, so we have a couple of choices of films to see in Hamburg. Reading through the listings in the splendidly useful Kino-Fahrplan Hamburg, the prospect of seeing 300 made even shoutier by a German dub is rather appealing, but the plan is to see something actually filmed here. Although I've said in the past that trying to understand domestic comedy movies is a bad idea, I'm a little tempted by Neues vom Wixxer, a wacky Edgar Wallace spoof featuring Hand Inspector Very Long and Chief Inspector Even Longer in a case featuring English celebrity Victoria Dickham. I have to admit, the trailer does have a few laughs in it, but there's no guarantee they can sustain an entire feature. So instead we end up seeing Die Fälscher - actually a German-Austrian co-production, with what I'm happy to believe is enough German blood to satisfy our needs.
Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is the master forger of the title: unfortunately, he's working in Berlin in the late thirties, a bad place and time to be a Jew in a criminal profession. During his early years in the camps, he survives by using his art skills to ingratiate himself with the guards, painting propaganda posters and family portraits. Then, in 1942, he's shifted to a new camp along with several other artistically talented inmates, and given a new task to perform - forging Allied currencies for the Nazis. If they don't do the job successfully, they'll die: if they succeed, there are a whole other series of moral dilemmas to consider. Stefan Ruzowitzky's film tells this old-fashioned story in a strangely modern visual style, almost like a more restrained version of Tony Scott - there are sudden zooms, changes in film grain, and lots of hand-held camera. But it gets across the claustrophobia of the camps, along with a cunningly mixed soundtrack which means we're constantly aware of the atrocities going on around the forging team, even when we can't see them. Again we're watching this film without the benefit of much of the dialogue, but what comes across is what a gifted visual storyteller Ruzowitzky is - as in the scene when the forgers are delighted to receive new clothes to replace their uniforms, and how they discover where those clothes came from.
Still, Hamburg doesn't really have a reputation as a film town, does it? Music, that's what people think of when you mention the place. (Okay then, music and porn.) I wish I could follow up on Suze's choice of comment usernames during the Europe tour by announcing this as Vol 0: The Hamburg Years, but I'm afraid I can't. Surprisingly, there's very little evidence that this is the city where the Beatles carefully honed their strategy for taking over the world. The Hamburg Museum - on the whole a fine collection of historical artefacts from the city, let down a little by a very dry presentation style - apparently covers the Beatles era in its 20th Century wing, but unfortunately that's closed for refurbishment for the first half of 2007. Some of the clubs where the Fab Four played are still surviving (notably Grosse Freiheit 36, with its occasional Beatles cover band nights), but there's very little to commemorate what they did there. Plans for a dedicated Beatles memorial - Beatles-Platz - have been in a state of flux for several years now, but there should be something there within the next year or so.
For now, all we can do is go out into the clubs of Hamburg and find some ROCK. This should really involve us walking round those backstreets of the Reeperbahn cocking an ear to the noise emerging from the cellars, but it's actually easier to just log onto the German affiliate of Ticketmaster and see who's in town. And the answer to that question for tonight is Juliette And The Licks. Yes, that's Juliette Lewis, Hollywood actress and - true fact - distant relative of my mate Sergeant Todd, playing with her band at the Docks nightclub. It's the best option we've got, so we put on our black t-shirts and join the cool kids. Everything goes well up to the point where I head to the bar to buy our first drink. Looking at the beer list, I go for Alster, which sounds like a local beer. It isn't. It's the local name for beer mixed with Sprite. Our ROCK credentials go spiralling down the toilet as the barmaid pours out two shandies and hands them over to me with a look of pity.
Apart from that, it's a fun night. It's run with a scary degree of efficiency - doors open at nine, the place is packed by the time we arrive at 9.30, the band comes on stage at ten. Prior to this, the only real musical experience I have of Juliette Lewis is watching her crucify some perfectly good PJ Harvey songs in Strange Days. She's playing a stereotypical rock chick in that film, and really is just continuing that pose in her hobby band, throwing Jaggeresque shapes for the duration of the set. But as The BBG astutely notes, given the heavily theatrical environment of a Hamburg rock club, all the posturing and boysie noise seems to work just fine - you'd be deeply embarrassed for her if she was performing like this in an arena like it was her real job. Musically, it's all enjoyable enough, with a couple of surprises like a raucous cover of Hot Stuff, the song made popular by Donna Summer and then made unpopular again by Arsenal Football Club (amusingly, my Gooner companion denies all knowledge of the latter version). It's a night of ROCK, and that's pretty much all we're looking for here, topped off by a walk home through all the brightly lit cheekiness of the Reeperbahn. I don't know why there's a shop there called Fashion And Tools, and I don't want to know: I'm just grateful that we're moving on to another city tomorrow where we can avoid all of this sleaziness and filth. Where is it we're going again?
Well say the word and I can email you a MP3 of the Beatles Star Club Hamburg album. That is if your dial up/wind up creaking internet PC can cope with a 42.7MB download.
Posted by: Suze (The Star Club Hamburg Years) | April 12, 2007 at 06:53 PM
The movie we saw in Hamburg, Die Fälscher, has been retitled as The Counterfeiters for English-speaking audiences - it opens in the UK on October 12th.
Posted by: SpankTM | October 03, 2007 at 08:17 AM