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A Very Hamburg Christmas

"Not getting many hops off this." Xmas Eve 2019, and the view from the loft conversion at BrewDog St Pauli, or 'Clouds' as everyone insists on calling it. Photo by The BBG.A Tale Of The Before Times (#1 of 5)

I posted the following on February 23rd, at the end of a post about BrewDog Hamburg and our Christmas 2019 holiday: "...would seem like the perfect lead-in to a discussion of... non-BrewDog things in Hamburg generally. But let's pause for now, and we can talk about that sort of thing another time. You know how it works around here, it'll probably be Easter by the time I get around to posting that."

Well, that didn't entirely go to plan, did it?

Let's just forget for now that the world has gone to shit in the last three months, and instead recall a time when you could travel to a foreign country and mingle with people you didn't know. Here, as promised, is a discussion of non-BrewDog things that you could do in Hamburg as recently as last December (though probably not now).

Our starting point is drinking, and where to do it in Hamburg (apart from the obvious, of course). It's tempting to think of Astra Brauerei St Pauli as being the anti-BrewDog - a brewpub belonging to one of the city's most ubiquitous brewers, symbolically placed at the opposite end of the Reeperbahn - but it's a fun place to hang out late on a Saturday night, and beers from the tank like Inkasso IPA and Weizen Beisser aren't bad at all. Out by the harbour you've got local crafty types ÜberQuell Brauwerkstätten, with a complex that combines a brewpub and a pizzeria. If you're looking for somewhere more traditional with beer in tanks, the lovely old Gröninger Privatbrauerei has decent Germanic pub grub to go with your pilsner - and if you ask them nicely, they'll give you a helping of fried potatoes that doesn't have the usual meat scattered all over it.

If you're somehow not completely wedded to the concept of beer, there are also a couple of more general bars that we can recommend. Kyti Voo is a properly lovely dive bar on the Lange Reihe, primarily there for cocktails but with a nice selection of craft beers as well - on the night we were there, they had a few brews from local brewery Ratsherrn as well as some naughty high strength ones from Warpigs of Denmark. And if you're looking for a proper pub-type pub, head out to Altona and the atmospheric delights of Aurel, although it's possible that I'm using 'atmospheric' as a euphemism for 'more full of cigarette smoke than any other bar I've visited in the past decade'. There are plenty of quirks accompanying the standard beer: a music policy that swung from the Austin Powers version of Just The Two Of Us to Scott Walker's The Old Man's Back Again without a pause, and toilet decor that features psychedelic lighting and nature sound effects.

Moving on to food: our breakfasts were largely taken at the Motel One where we were staying, which was inevitably useful during the days in the Christmas period when everywhere else was shut. There are quite a few places on Lange Reihe worth checking out, though. If you're okay with chain cafes, then Campus Suite will do you various combinations of yoghurt, muesli, pastries and coffee. For somewhere a bit more properly Hamburg, though, you want Frau Möller, a restaurant recommended in our Lonely Planet guide for when "it's 2am Saturday and you can't live without a pork steak." But they also have a huge range of cooked breakfasts: I went for their Englisches Frühstück because I'm just a bad person, while The BBG had the salmon/trout/rollmop-based option they call the Sailor's Breakfast on the English language menu. (On the German menu, it's Frühstück Ahoi! Yes, including the exclamation mark.)

The rest of our Hamburg meals could be classed as either Casual or Fancy, although it has to be said that the excellent fish and chips in the charming building of Fleetschlösschen hover on the border between the two. Fish suppers were also had at harbour restaurant Fischerhaus (embarrassingly, we didn't realise until we'd walked through the door that we came here before back in 2007) and the even more casual Meeres-Kost (a dockside stall serving traditional Bismarck herring sandwiches). The best place for hamburgers in Hamburg - well, it had to be done - is apparently Otto's Burger, but that was closed for the holidays, so we had to make do with Peter Pane and its ridiculously huge dining room. Their Frucht Fleisch jackfruit burger proved a decent veggie option, while I went for their festive special of grilled beef with raclette cheese, walnut seeds, bacon and red cabbage marinated in plum cinnamon. For pizza, try heading out to Altona and the artisanal delights of Eisenstein, which was satisfyingly rammed even at 6pm on Boxing Day. I had the Pizza Blöde Ziege (i.e. Stupid Goat, a mix of goat's cheese and bacon) while The BBG had Pizza Fliegender Händler (Flying Dealer, apparently, which is what they call shrimp and olives).

On the Fancy side of the divide, two of our nicest meals were planned well in advance, and one was a lucky walk-in. The latter was Central on Lange Reihe, uncharacteristically posh for the area but happy enough to squeeze us onto a corner table that was booked for someone else later that evening. Our mains were cod and lemon risotto plus pumpkin and kale ravioli, while the chocolate/chilli/tonka bean mousse could almost have been designed specifically to match The BBG's interests. Our Christmas Day lunch was a traditional affair in the lovely Krameramtsstuben restaurant in the old town. The BBG's tagliatelle with fresh salmon may have been a little disappointing as the non-meat option, but my duck worked out just fine. Still, this is Europe, so the big meal of the season is actually Christmas Eve dinner, which we had at Clouds - coincidentally, on the top floor of the Tanzende Türme tower block that has BrewDog St Pauli on the ground floor. The BBG had seabass, while I had an entrecote steak so good that the sense memory of it sustained me through the whole of the Veganuary that followed. It's intimidating at first, but the incredibly friendly and attentive service wins you over in no time, along with the views over the Reeperbahn from the 23rd floor. (See picture above. As you can see, they also do cocktails.)

According to 'Public Face', this is officially how Hamburg felt on the Sunday before Christmas 2019. Imagine what it feels like *now*.Apart from those last two meals, none of this is especially Christmassy, is it? We're in Germany, so inevitably we had to catch a couple of Christmas markets. Our hotel gave us a map with a couple of dozen of them overlaid on the U-bahn routes. The traditional ones are all well and good (the main one by the Rathaus in particular), but the ones that don't quite stick to the template are more so. There's a real charm to Winter Pride, a queer-friendly Christmas market that only really shows its hand in the choices of acts performing on stage - in every other aspect, it's a delightfully inclusive environment. The one everyone always mentions, though, is St Pauli's infamous 'naughty' market - for the most part, it's family friendly cheekiness like sugar willies and build-your-own gluwein stalls, but there's a passageway down the side where strip shows are apparently taking place, despite the freezing temperatures.

Hamburg's a relatively unfamiliar city to us, so we took a few opportunities to go out on extended walks. On a couple of occasions, these didn't go quite as well as we'd hoped. A Christmas Eve excursion on the S-bahn to Blankenese was a literal washout. The Hamburg Guide magazine promised us that 'in the cold season, the already picturesque district with its famous stair quarter unfolds a very special charm', but never mentioned that traipsing up and down several hundred yards of steps is less fun in the rain. Sure, we eventually got a view of the River Elbe, but we also got to watch the entire town shut down for the holidays bit by bit as we walked towards any of it, until the only place we could sit down was during the final minutes of a gluhwein stall by the station. It was a similar story for our Boxing Day walk around Altona, with most places still shut - apart from the aforementioned Meeres-Kost, Aurel and Eisenstein, and the not-mentioned-yet Fabrik.

In the end, as usual, we stole our best walking route from our guidebook. Specifically, the Follow Heart Of Old Hamburg walking route in Lonely Planet Pocket Hamburg (pages 44-45 if you want to try it for yourselves). A couple of hours strolling around the old town gave us useful bearings for the week, taking in several terrific bits of architecture like the Chilehaus, and passing the eel restaurant Alt Hamburger Aalspeicher where we had a really nice dinner in 2007. (It might possibly have closed for good between Christmas and now, I'm afraid.) We stretched the route to take in the Rathaus market and a diversion through the Speicherstadt, the canal district that's grown alarmingly in those twelve years between our visits (though it's not as alarming as the story behind the art installation Public Face that occupies one of the canal bridges).

Given all the development that's been taking place around the canal, a visit to its Speicherstadtmuseum seemed like a good idea. It's a small museum, but nicely laid out, covering the history of Hamburg as an import hub with special focus on the tea and coffee trades (samples of both are on sale in the shop afterwards). The one oddity there is the video displays, which are basically rostrum camera work of old photos but with Adobe Premiere-added scratches and fluff to try and convince you they're old movies. You can wrap up the Speicherstadtmuseum in an hour or so, but the International Maritime Museum down the road will probably take you the rest of the day - it's ridiculously huge, with nine stories dedicated to all possible aspects of the seafaring life. (On our visit, that included a temporary exhibition called Flight Across The Sea, covering stories of migration from Aeneas to the present day.) We had to be physically removed from the building at closing time before we had chance to see the top three floors: don't make that mistake yourselves, leave plenty of time.

There's one more bit of water-based fun to report on - on Christmas morning, we got the U-bahn out to Landungsbrücken, which is where the ferries go from. Every twenty minutes or so, the 72 ferry will depart from there and make the ten minute journey to Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg's ridiculously flash and relatively new concert hall. It's an enjoyable boat ride in its own right - though possibly because of the day, The BBG and I made up a full two-thirds of the passengers - but the sight of the hall at the far end is even more fun, and that's before you get inside it. There's a wee charge of two euro to go up to the Elbphilharmonie Plaza viewing area, and it's probably worth buying a ticket in advance for it just in case it gets busy. At noon on Christmas Day it was busy but not overcrowded, and the views from the Plaza across the city in all directions started out a bit gloomy but got brighter as time went on. Look out for Theater im Hafen across the water, where the productions of Der König der Löwen and Pretty Woman das Musical look for all the world like they've been dumped offshore for safety, like you would do with nuclear waste.

Du glaubst sie liebt nur mich? Gestern hab' ich sie gesehen. Sie denkt ja nur an dich, Und du solltest zu ihr gehen. Oh, ja sie liebt dich. Schöner kann es gar nicht sein. Ja, sie liebt dich, Und da solltest du dich freu'n.Ideally, what we should have been doing was catching an actual performance at the Elbphilharmonie, given the legendary design and acoustics of the hall itself. For a while there, when we found tickets for a Christmas Day concert on sale on their website, we thought that's what we were going to do. We didn't realise - oh, okay then, I didn't realise - until after paying for the tickets that this particular show was at their sister venue: the Laeiszhalle, the old one that the Elbphilharmonie was built to replace. It's a very pretty building from the outside, but inside it's very much showing its age, with confusing section labelling and atrocious sightlines from the Galerie. It's a fairly light programme for a holiday evening, featuring the Symphoniker Hamburg with violinist Adrian Iliescu performing the Four Seasons and Beethoven's 4th symphony. It's a passable enough entertainment for the Christmas Doctor Who timeslot, marred slightly by an audience full of out-of-towners visibly out for their one bit of culture for the year and misbehaving in almost any way possible.

Still, a German orchestra playing Beethoven counts as authentic German culture, in much the same way as a local film with the word 'Hitler' in the title would be. Although When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (which we saw at the Astor Film Lounge) is based on an English language book: Judith Kerr's semi-autobiographical story of her Jewish family's pre-war escape from the Nazis, leaving Berlin and heading across Europe. Not being familiar with the book, I was getting flashbacks to the Estonian film The Little Comrade, a similar story of a young girl trying to come to terms with an invading force taking over her country. The child Leelo in that one is, to be honest, a terrible human being, completely ignorant of what's going on and getting her family into trouble for it. But nine-year-old Anna in this film - the author surrogate played by Riva Krymalowski - has a much better grasp of the situation. More importantly, director Caroline Link makes sure we get to see everything from both a child's perspective and a grownup's, side by side. There's a satisfyingly looped structure to the story - a visual motif of characters disappearing from view as Anna and family move on from country to country, and her constant inability to get on with their new home's people and food. As a Monoglot Movie Club exercise, it's easy enough to follow - scowling at Jews is an international language, sadly - and it's performed with the right proportions of whimsy, pathos and drama. Given that one of the big UK TV Christmas hits while we were away was another Judith Kerr adaptation, this one should make it over here soon.

Hey, you know what other culture they have over in Hamburg that originated in the UK? When we were last over here in 2007, it was an acknowledged failing of the city that they didn't have anything to mark that this was where The Beatles first learned their craft. At the time, there was a lot of talk about erecting a Beatles-Platz, and now it's here. We actually missed it the first time we went past it - to be fair, if you've been caning it over the length of the Reeperbahn for an evening, it's very easy to simultaneously walk over it while looking straight through it. In daylight, once you locate it at one end of Grosse Freiheit, it's actually quite a witty piece of work.

We even managed to catch two separate Beatles tribute bands during our six nights in town. St Pauli Beatles are more of a band performing Beatles songs than a proper tribute: the presence of a female lead vocalist should give you the hint on that one. Performing in sub-optimal conditions (in the open air as the Sunday night entertainment at St Pauli's Dirty Christmas Market) they come across as OK, but they do point up that even a song as apparently simple as She Loves You has harmonic subtleties that could easily be missed.

No chance of that with The Beatles Revival Band, who we catch at the magnificent Altona music venue Fabrik. (When it became apparent that their online booking system couldn't cope with international orders, they obligingly reserved us two tickets with no requirement to pay until the night of the gig, so that counts as magnificent in my book.) The band show they're not messing about from the off - their play-on music is the overture from the score of Yellow Submarine, their first number is A Hard Day's Night, and they nail that opening chord. (It's harder than you think.) We get two complete sets - one pre-acid, one post-acid, with the inevitable costume change in the middle. There's no attempt to recreate the look of the Beatles beyond the clothes, meaning that what we're looking at is a supergroup apparently comprised of Ron Nasty, Noddy Holder, Eric Bana and a young Nick Mason out of Pink Floyd, plus Michael Moore on keyboards. But musically, they've put in the effort, as you'd expect from a band that's apparently been doing this since 1976 (although every single member of the original lineup has subsequently been replaced, a la Trigger's Sugababes).

You could take issue with the fact that both the St Pauli Beatles and the Beatles Revival Band think that Happy Xmas (War Is Over) is a Beatles song... but let's give them the benefit of the doubt, it's Christmas. Or at least it was nearly five months ago, when we did all of this stuff. The world's moved on in an alarming fashion since then: the first big holiday we had planned after this has already been postponed, and we're not sure how things are going to go beyond that. But we had a very enjoyable week in Hamburg (plus short stays in Brussels either side), and it's nice to think back on how that went. Hopefully we'll do it again some time, assuming that international travel's still a thing by then.


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