Hamburg: Germany’s second largest city and full of what at first glance is not a stunning list of attractions. The home of Nivea skin cream, the A319, A320 and A321 range of Airbus airliners, the largest statue of the Emperor Bismarck anywhere, and the world’s biggest indoor model railway.
Wait a minute – the world’s largest indoor model railway, surely that’s got to be a worth a look? Spend a few minutes viewing clips of Miniatur Wunderland on Youtube and you’ll understand. At 8.05 on a chilly March Saturday morning my son Jonathan and I climbed up several flights of stairs in an old dockside warehouse to emerge into the train set in the attic to beat any train set in the attic anywhere.
This is far more than a model railway. There are about half a dozen interconnected layouts, portraying bits of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and – slightly bizarrely perhaps – Las Vegas. HO (1:87) scale trains swoosh past tiny towns populated by tiny people carrying tiny shopping and walking tiny dogs. Remote controlled fire engines race down crowded streets with lights flashing to attend smoking buildings. Little cars wait patiently at little traffic lights and move off when they change. Every ten minutes the lighting is dimmed to create the illusion of night. Streetlights come on, houses light up, you can see the bright interiors of the trains.
All of this computer-controlled fantasy is monitored from a bank of consoles and screens in a special room where five fairly hip model rail enthusiasts hunch over terminals than wouldn’t disgrace Hamburg Airport. Talking of which, the piece de resistance is a 3.5 million Euro model of… Hamburg Airport. This is truly astonishing.
An HO scale jumbo jet backs away from the terminal, taxies apparently by magic down to the end of the 15 metre long runway at the back of the display and stops at exactly the right place. A gap runs down the length of the runway, beneath which is a wire driven catapult. Within the catapult unit two rods rise to slot into the aircraft. The surround sound system gives the impression of the jet engines spooling up. The catapult begins and the jet starts to move down the runway, faster and faster. Then the rods rise further and the plane takes off and rises into the air. It passes through a cloud coloured curtain and is gone.
I could spend pages talking about the detail of the multi-storey car parks, the service vehicles that buzz around and the astonishing level of detail (there are tiny advertising displays outside the terminal that go from advert to advert like the real thing!). If all this sounds a bit nerdy, I should point out that this place is one of Germany’s biggest tourist attractions and has pulled in over seven million people since it opened in 2001, making the two brothers who run it millionaires.
There is, without doubt, a fascination with ingenuity that lies deep in the German psyche – especially if it involves trains, planes and automobiles. I have a 3 hour long DVD about Miniatur Wunderland which I bought in the shop. in case anyone wants to borrow it.
So you find me and my son at large in Hamburg – having flown in from Manchester and London respectively on a Friday night, and enjoyed decent Hamburg lager and French fries in the Cafe Paris, a gorgeous Art Nouveau treasure in the old city centre.
The only guide to Hamburg I could find was the Wallpaper* guide, published by the people who produce a cool and stylish arty lifestyle magazine. So all the places we went to were cool and groovy (apart from Miniatur Wunderland). On the other hand our Laterooms hotel was more 1970s East Germany than anything, but we shan’t dwell on that. It was only for two nights after all and brought back fond memories of exploring the former Stasi secret police headquarters on a previous trip to Berlin.
Thus the Wallpaper* (the asterisk is important apparently) guide introduced us to the delights of the Das Bakhaus stylish coffee bars around town, and a couple of interesting eateries. The first was a cafe in the suburb of Altona, easily reached (like everywhere in Hamburg) by the excellent metro system. Tide is a trendy little place where a Danish chap collects driftwood from nearby beaches and sells it to gullible people who obviously think that driftwood has to be mined liked diamonds, otherwise why would it cost about fifty Euros for a piece the size of ruler? They did a decent sandwich though.
Our dinner plan for Saturday night was to try a place called the Oberhafen Kantine in the old dock area. Having tramped around in the dark for ages down the kinds of streets formerly frequented by spies, and gingerly treaded over a building site that looked like it might have been mined, we found the place. Everything looked jolly and it was certainly buzzing, but we soon discovered it was actually closed for a party. A bit more bravado (“Hey Dieter, great to see you again – yeah, don’t you remember that time in Wolverhampton?”) and we might have got away with it, but we hopped another train and found ourselves in the Bullerie.
This is a pretty in-vogue place slightly out of town. They squeezed us in to eat at the bar and I have to say I had a Boeuf Bourguignon that could have taken on all comers. Here, as in many places, it was very evident that Hamburg is not only the second biggest, but also the richest city in Germany. Lots of people were having puddings. Jon and I discussed the subject of beer. We agreed that German premium lager is pretty damn good, especially on its home turf. But somehow it lacks character: there isn’t the depth or complexity of flavours you get in a real ale, although perhaps the thought of it brings a tear to the eye of a lonely German stranded far from home.
We eventually got to the Obenhafen Kantine for Sunday lunch. In daytime we discovered that this tiny place must have been something like a lockkeeper’s cottage in its day, and due to subsidence it currently heels at an angle of about five degrees. This makes having soup an obvious challenge and so we opted instead for a freshly barbequed turkey salad that had little trouble staying on the plate. It was worth finding.
Perhaps at this point I should drop in a few factettes about Hamburg beyond its significance in the world skin cream industry. It lies about 60 km up the River Elbe, which flows into the North Sea between the Netherlands and Denmark. It was a member of the Hanseatic trading league in the Middle Ages and so has a long history of looking outwards. This independent outlook means it is as proud of its distinct identity as Scotland is in the United Kingdom.
There are about 1.8 million Hamburgers and the city remains Germany’s largest port. At right angles to the river lie the Binnen Alster and the Aussen Alster, conjoined lakes formed by damming a small river long ago. These have created a beautiful backdrop to the city centre and lots of shoreline along which to build expensive houses for rich industrialists.
Architecture-wise, Hamburg has quite a few treats for the discerning tourist. Alas the RAF and the US Eighth Air Force did a pretty good job of obliterating much of the older stuff in 1943, but there is still lots to see.
A giant and imposing 1907 brick water tower has been converted into a swanky hotel. Unfortunately this water tower is in a less than salubrious park full of litter, growling dogs and what my dad would call ‘layabouts’, and several of the windows in the fancy restaurant looked like they had been the subject of airgun practice, so the impression was less of a hotel and more of a fortress.
Talking of fortresses, in anticipation of the wartime bombing, a number of massive concrete flak towers were built in Hamburg to hold anti-aircraft guns and provide shelter. One of these remains and we went to see it. It is about ten stories high, roughly 40 metres square and is simply massive, with tiny windows set into the 3.5 metre thick walls, and gun turrets round the top.
What was extraordinary was that this huge sombre building was surrounded by the largest mobile fun-fair I have ever seen. It went on for about a mile, with hundreds of stalls and rides. Some of the rides were colossal, including a five loop roller coaster to celebrate the Olympics. At the other end of the scale were the roundabouts with little vehicles for small children to ride in. The German psyche engages early. The cars and motorbikes that British children would fight to get into were not as popular as the replica fire engines, dustcarts and fork lift trucks. And wandering around were groups of good-natured lads eating not greasy hamburgers but hot mushrooms.
There are lots of other buildings worth seeing. The Chilehaus is a very large and modern-looking office block shaped like the prow of a ship, built in the 1920s. The Funkturm is a 270 metre high telecommunications tower built in the 1960s, which is white and elegant. It’s a shame that the observation deck is closed, probably for ever, because it’s full of asbestos.
Much older is St Michael’s church. Unlike the scaling down of Miniatur Wunderland, this Lutheran church seems to be a model of a church built in a scale of 2:1. In other words is twice as big as it logically should be. Everything about this church is huge – huge tower, huge pulpit, huge organ, huge statue of Martin Luther outside.
Equally imposing is the Rathaus, which is Hamburg’s seat of both city and regional government and is a rather fine building (but thankfully on a scale of 1:1). There is a nice little micro-brewery round the corner by the way, where the wheat beer and dunkel challenge the notion that all German beers are boring.
After that refreshment we took a ride in a lift up the tower of St Nicolai church. If you have been to Coventry you will remember the site of the old cathedral – a standing tower and spire next to bare ruins of the nave. St Nicholai is the same – it stands as a memorial to the 43,000 people killed in the air raids in July 1943. You ride a modern lift to the base of the spire where you have a fine few of the modern city, and can also look at photos of the devastation immediately after the raids. It is sobering.
And what is most remarkable is that the narrative next to the pictures basically says: ‘this was awful but we have to accept that the Nazis started it all.’ Poignantly perhaps, this church was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, who designed the Albert Memorial and the St Pancras station hotel in London.
Hamburg bounced back and continues to be a city that moves forward. The great project now is Havencity, which is the redevelopment of a huge area of old docks adjacent to the city centre. Over a period of twenty years, homes for 12,000 people and places for 40,000 jobs will be created. The architecture is sympathetic to the height and scale of the old warehouses, many of which are being converted. It all looks bright and pretty high tech, but I worry a bit that over time the rigid height limits and building standards will make the place a bit dull.
That said, at one end of Havencity is a development that looks like breaking all the rules. The Hamburg Elbephilharmonie is a gigantic glass walled structure plonked on top of a large 1960s warehouse. It will house a concert hall, a hotel, fancy flats and lots more cultural and other venues for the well-heeled. The ambition is jaw dropping, but the project has spiralled out of control and promises to be up there with Sydney Opera House as an example of how technical audacity can run away from financial prudence. In Germany even.
The early start on Saturday (to catch the trains) was repeated on Sunday (and made worse by the clocks going forward). We struggled out to get to one of Hamburg’s big traditions, the Fischmarket.
Fish does not play a huge part in the proceedings other than it takes place in the old wholesale fish market by the river. In truth it’s a mixture of street market, bric-a-brac sale and chance to grab a bit of fresh air. Some of the folk there were obviously at the tail end of an all-nighter in nearby St Pauli. In the big hall there are coffee stalls, and we had coffee and a Berliner (basically a doughnut) sat on trestle benches listening to a half decent sexagenarian rock band thrashing out some Sweet Home Alabama.
The only real evidence of fish was a number of mobile fish shops down the quay. On those stood men barking out unbeatable offers for selections of fish to put in a large carrier bag. All these selections seemed to include an unnerving amount of eels. I am not sure whether eels are a delicacy or compulsory for the Hamburgers. Which reminds me that – despite it being a seafaring city – we didn’t see any decent seafood on any menu anywhere.
After that we wandered off towards the Reeperbaan area to try and find the Kaiserkeller where the Beatles played in 1960. There is something profoundly grim about a red light area at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning. The street it used to be on managed to be bleak and menacing at the same time. Neon signs turned off, trios of surly doormen standing outside clubs which by rights should have been serving coffee and toast but probably weren’t. A big man shouting at a small woman, two guys looking like dealers. No sign of the Kaiserkeller – I think it’s now the Funky Pussy Club but I can’t be sure. We headed back towards the river.
There wasn’t time for a boat ride on the river or the lakes (surely an excuse to go back) but we did something almost as good. On the quayside up from the fish market is a large drum-like building. I put my head inside the door and discovered a steel stairway clinging to the inside of the drum and descending like a fly walking down a wall. We went down to the 120 steps to land at one end of the original Elbtunnel, an engineering wonder when it opened in 1911.
There are two tubes, each about 6 metres in diameter and lined in shiny white tiles, set off at intervals by relief tiles of lobsters, shellfish, cod, etc. During the week, people can drive cars through it, reaching it via one of four car lifts at either end. They reckon 300,000 cars use it every year, but goodness knows how – it must be an exercise in precision lift control beyond compare (maybe the guys from Miniatur Wunderland have the concession). The half kilometre walk under the river rewards you with a nice view of the city when you climb up at the other end.
Culturally, Hamburg is probably not quite in the same league as say Birmingham, Liverpool or Manchester. There is the Kunst Miele (or Art Mile), a string of galleries and museums. We went to the photography museum, which had a single large exhibition about the life and work of Saul Leiter, a notable American snapper whose signature images were ones taken from inside cafes with steamed up windows. He managed to combine avant garde experimental art photography (i.e. getting women to take their clothes off) with what appears to have been a very lucrative career doing photo shoots for Vogue (i.e. getting women to show their clothes off).
I was looking forward to the Museum of Art and Design, where I hoped to find lots of Bauhaus, Dieter Rams (remember Braun hi-fi units?), Richard Sapper (Alessi kettles) and the like, but it was a real disappointment. The most interesting thing was a life size installation of the world’s first fitted kitchen. This was designed for a housing development in Frankfurt in the 1920s.
Better was the main art gallery, which didn’t house anything remarkable but did have a couple of quite lively temporary shows on. You pay to go into galleries in Germany and it was notable how empty they were compared with ours, especially on a Sunday when – with no shops open and lawn mowing strictly prohibited – there is precious little for people to do.
Suddenly it’s mid-afternoon on Sunday and time to get the metro back to the airport. Jon and I stood on the viewing balcony and watched the planes landing, taking off and taxiing. It was good, but somehow not quite as realistic as what we had seen the day before.
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