Hamburg, Germany’s magnificent city of the North. Its very name conjures images of industrial-scale docklands, uber-modern sky scraping architecture, towering brick canal-side warehouses, Gothic and Verdigris spired churches, intimate smoky sex clubs, the heyday of the Beatles on the Reeperbahn, neo classical shopping arcades and gritty after hours drinking bars.
The River Elbe is the conduit between the city’s moneymaking heavy industry and its waterside metropolis that caters both to day trippers and night lovers. We arrived on a nine hour travel pass from the gentle suburb of Buxtehude on a gleaming DB bahn local train shortly before 10am.
Our pass included local ferries so we took to the water to see at first hand the enormous docklands which cover nearly 15% of Hamburg’s district. More than 70 million tonnes of goods are traded through 12,000 ships every year justifying the port’s claim to be the ‘gateway to the world’.
Trading began in the 1100’s and continued largely uninterrupted until WW2 when allied bombers flattened 80% of the port. The city’s resilient nature saw it recover during Germany’s ‘economic miracle’ years and today its harbour, and its media industry, is the mainstay of the country’s wealth.
We enjoyed views of the former brick warehouses restyled as designer riverside apartments and the glass arcaded old fishing market (now a swanky party venue) from one side of the boat, and from the other seeing the army of giant lifting cranes that pinch and pick up enormous shipping containers to then delicately stack in a myriad of impossible mazes, cities within a city.
Further along the river and almost out to sea the banks widened and beautiful sandy beaches sloped up to thickly wooded banks in which belle-époque and early 20th century mansions were discreetly tucked, along the Elbechausee.
Many had glass domed towers for viewing the night skies above the northern hemisphere. What a genteel past-time just a couple of miles or so from the noise of 24-hour heavy industry and Reeperbahn night (and day) clubs!
Back on dry land we wandered along the infamous street at noon, mingling with a surprising number of international tourists… and families. The famous sex shops sported sun-faded posters of girls in harmless ‘page three’ poses in between fast food outlets and chemists’ shops advertising family planning and baby care products.
Fairground rides and colourful musical theatre advertising gave the street more of a Disney rather than a dirty feel and we wondered where the grimy authenticity of even just a few years ago had vanished. Perhaps not such a bad thing.
Excited Japanese girls posed for selfies with an elderly shopkeeper in a workman’s apron, next to his window display of plastic-looking blindfolds, cloaks and whips.
Hafencity is the multi-billion euro development east of the centre and based along the canals of the 1800s warehouse district.
Now home to international banks and the financial services industries the gloriously re-imagined waterfront boasts a new university and several new housing developments that will become home for 12,000 people.
The oldest and prettiest section of canals, the Speicherstadt was previously Hamburg’s main trading centre, and today its five story towering brick warehouses are home to eateries, exclusive art galleries and luxury apartments.
Climbing the nearly 500 steps of St Michaeliskirche gave eye watering views of the densely packed districts of rooftops and the network of canals that wind along and through them.
Across the wide river two gigantic and newly built theatre complexes housed The Lion King and something about the wonder of Bears and branded waterbuses busily ferried the late afternoon’s crowds across to the shows.
Turning 360 degrees we could see the stadium and floodlights of Hamburger SV FC. To the north and past the enormous docklands the mouth of the Elbe was just visible and the skyline flattened into the shine of the North Sea.
Not at all pretentious, but with every right to be, Hamburg is a glorious 21st century city with the sheen and polish of the best of modernity built on a gritty base of heavy industry and good old fashioned trade.
Even in the swankiest streets of the up-market shopping district Jungfernstieg we commented several times on the relaxed feeling we had of joining cheerful strollers past the glitzy windows of world class fashion designers, and dodging the parking antics of Porsche-driving clientele.
Back on the train with smartly dressed but weary commuters returning to the suburbs my new pedometer showed that we had walked more than 10 miles in our tour criss-crossing Germany’s second city. It had been a splendid day!