I was on the sets of a film. A heroine treading the cobbled stones of the alleys, flanked by medieval half-timbered houses to the strains of Sinatra wafting in the cold evening air.
The imagination can paint anything in the most idyllic hues or even desultory shades of grey. The houses, the tight network of alleys and the pair of musicians – an old man and a young boy – who played poignant tunes on their accordion and guitar, however, were real. They added the requisite fuel to the imagination.
It was a moment that demanded to be stuck in. I had just chanced upon the old Schnoor quarter in Bremen and could not stop gaping (mentally, sister!) at its medieval beauty.
Now before I rush on, here’s the perspective. The cold month of February – arguably not the best time to be tripping across to the northern reaches of Germany – found me on the Hanseatic trail. I had charted my travel to the city-states of Hamburg and Bremen, and the city of Lübeck, without knowing that they were powerhouses of wealth and diplomacy during the days of the Hanseatic League.
The Hanseatic League or the Hansa came to power in the 13th century as a protector of its network of 200 North European villages and towns in all matters political and economic. When diplomacy failed, the League dispatched a powerful fleet to come to the aid of its members.
I was intrigued that among the legacies of the Hansa – apart from the ‘Freie and Hansestadt’ (Free and Hanseatic Town) official title flaunted by both Hamburg and Bremen – is Lufthansa. The name of the German airline company, meaning ‘Hansa of the Air’, is a tribute to the League.
My acquaintance with the Hansa came about in Hamburg where I spotted first the proud words, ‘Freie and Hansestadt’. Better known as the home of the world’s favourite fast food, the hamburger, the port city on the river Elbe with its 800-year-old harbour and strong maritime links, heaves with colour, culture and art. Incidentally, the people of Hamburg are also known as Hamburgers.
Enveloped in a misty grey spray, I was bemused on my first day in Hamburg by the architecture. Modern facades carved out in steel and glass clashed remarkably with baroque, classical houses and churches, reminding me of my first impression of Brussels.
I was curiously heartened by the sight of the Rathaus (city hall) therefore. The vast flamboyant, neo-Renaissance style building in front of me was dressed to impress. The team of architects who conceptualised it in 1886 had succeeded in their enterprise to impress upon the onlooker the wealth and power of the city-state. Hamburg’s patron goddess Hammonia looked down at me from the façade of the Rathaus as she proclaimed the city’s Latin motto: “Libertatem quam peperere maiores digne studeat servare posteritas” (May posterity strive to preserve the freedom won by our elders).
The old Rathaus was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1842.
To really know Hamburg, it is essential to get a grasp on two incidents in its history that razed down the city in big chunks. The Great Fire of 1842 that started from a small street called the Diechstrasse and the Allied bombing of the city in 1943 — when Nazi Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, admitted to thinking for the first time that Nazi Germany might have to call for peace.
A poignant symbol of the WWII was Nikolaikirche. The neo-Gothic church of St. Nikolai was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, the English architect of London’s St. Pancras Station fame. Modelled on the steeples of the Cologne Dom and Freiberg’s Münster, the church must have been quite the sight. But it was probably never meant to be. After it was destroyed in the Great Fire, it was once again a shell of its former self post the war and remains so even today, as a memorial to WWII. Before it was destroyed, Nikolaikirche had the brief pride of being deemed the world’s tallest building from 1874 to 1876.
An editor I worked with had a somewhat of a less cultural experience in Hamburg than I had. In the disreputable Reeperbahn which is the red-light district where one evening Mr. P found himself with a big group. “It literally had warehouses full of women. It was fairly awful. The women with us were given a not-so-gentle push-out by a burly female bouncer.” That is how his experience went in Hamburg.
Mine was vastly different. I did not simply find the time to hop over to the Reeperbahn. There was just so much to do during the time I stayed in that bustling city. The profusion of art galleries and theatres means there is never a dull moment when you have time at hand. Hamburg is the second largest city-state in Germany and it is quite inexhaustible with what it has to offer. Despite being destroyed twice, attacked by cholera and the city where five boys from Liverpool struck gold, Hamburg is home to the most millionaires in Germany. That should tell you a bit about how swish it is and yet not mind-numbingly snobbish.
At first glance, it has as many as 21 churches. The main spires that snag the attention are those of the Hauptkirche St. Petri, Sankt Katharinen, Sankt Jacobi, St. Marien, Sankt Michaelis and St. Nikolai.
The legend behind St. Katharine was captivating. Situated on an island, opposite the historic harbour, it was traditionally the church of the seamen. Its baroque spire of copper stood out even as I spotted it gleaming in the evening from the city centre. The story goes that the golden crown was made out of pirate Klaus Störtebeker’s treasure. Störtebeker was a part of a gang of privateers who called themselves the Victual Brothers. His real name is however not known. It is a nom de guerre – preferred by pirates and fugitives in the early days – that refers to the pirate’s capacity to down a 4-litre mug of beer in a go.
Störtebeker and his men were captured in 1401 and brought to Hamburg to face trial.
They were the bane of Hanseatic merchants who were in control of trade on the Baltic Sea. Facing execution, Störtebeker tried to strike a last-minute deal, bargaining for the lives of as many of his captured men as his headless body could walk past. The rumour is that he did walk past 11 but the senate reneged on the deal and executed all. Störtebeker’s skull was unearthed in 1878 and had been put into the Hamburg Museum from where it was stolen in 2010 by a man who wanted to display it to his friends over a drinking session at a pub.
The details of the city were held out like a fine print to a group of six tourists and me by a yellow umbrella wielding tour guide called Matej. He is part of a free walking tour outfit that holds aloft a yellow umbrella for easy identification and takes a leisurely two hours walking around the city to acquaint the visitor with the intricacies of its history.
I speak for all of us – a Russian girl and her German boyfriend, an Irish boy from London who was contemplating a move to Hamburg for his girlfriend, a French Canadian couple and an Italian girl – when I say that the coffee break at Jakob’s Kafé on the Diechstrasse made all the difference in the world. I was so cold that I shivered visibly as I spoke with the others, trying to keep my teeth from chattering audibly.
The Diechstrasse is the infamous narrow street from where the fateful fire started and spread in 1842 over three days. Lined by 17th and 18th century merchants’ houses, it is filled today with cafes and hamburger hauses and if you happen to slip down a passage between the houses – we got to notice it because of Matej – you would enter another world in Nikolaifleet with its old gabled, narrow houses upon the canal. In my mind’s eye, I could see crews in the old days working hard to get their heavy cargos up the warehouses with pulleys and muscle power.
Another world looms up on Zollkanal (Tax Canal) on the other side of town. The warehouse town of Speicherstadt with its continuous line of warehouses – the largest in the world — came up between 1885 and 1927. It is a repository of its Hanseatic past even as the Hanseatic Trade Centre declares its presence proudly. Even to this day, importers stock their goods tax-free in the Speicherstadt.
On my not-to-miss list figures the Krameramtswohnungen (quite the tongue-twister), a cluster of almshouses where widows of the Krameramt (shopkeepers’ guild) were housed. Walking in between the narrow alley flanked by brick and half-timbered buildings leaning in towards each other, you could almost imagine the widows opening their windows and chatting without having to raise their voices.
In between all my perambulations, I had delicious meals around the city. My first lunch was in a tiny mall in the middle of the city centre where I ended up sitting in Café Rouge because all the menus in the other restaurants were in German. Café Rouge suddenly felt like a refuge and the waiter was quite friendly. I settled down for a leisurely (read: an hour) repast of Caesar Chicken salad and a glass of red wine. The wine was heady plus there was the important fact that in Germany they pour out double the quantity of wine than what they serve you in England. Post which, I lost my way on the walk back to the hotel, on the first of my days in Hamburg. But getting lost does have its silver lining. It means that you will know the city like the back of your hand. That is what it did to me and everyday I would walk 15 km and some more as I stepped out in the morning and returned only late in the evening.
The other meals that stick in my mind are when my husband and I sat for a beautiful dinner on Jungfernstieg, by the inner Alster. We were sitting in an area that had got its name Jungfernstieg from unmarried daughters (Jungfer is old German for ‘virgin’/’maiden’) who were paraded around the promenade by their wealthy families.
The Alster is therefore the heart of Hamburg. Not only in the past when it was essential to the wealthy merchants and their ambitions but today when tourist boats set out on the Alster to show newcomers the glory of the lake. Millionaires have their mansions by the Alster.
The river Alster was formed into a giant lake in the 13th century when a miller built a dam to store water for his mill. Hamburg is marked by the presence of two artificial lakes: the Binnenalster (inner Alster) and the Außenalster (outer Alster).
A must-do that I indulged in was the harbour tour. Now what they do not tell you is that it is or should be at any rate a summer activity. Inspite of all my thick layers of clothing, my hairs stood up in the freezing breeze on the Elbe. To compound which, most of the tour was in German. There was no other tour in English and the man in charge of affairs at first refused to speak in English, fearing his German customers might be offended. The irony of it was when a woman spoke up for me, on her own. Even as she spoke to him in rapid German I could figure out that she was insisting that he translate for me and some more which I could not gauge. That was a moment when my throat choked up. It is easy to feel left out with rapid Deutsch flying around your ears.
It took me all of two full hours, post the tour, to stop shivering and thaw out my bones in a coffee shop with some well-earned mamorkuchen (German marble cake) and coffee.
I bid adieu to the city from the 348-feet high tower of its iconic St. Michaelis Church. Arguably the most famous church in Hamburg, St Michael’s Church is dedicated to the archangel Michael. One of the most striking features of the church is the huge bronze statue of St Michael vanquishing the Devil above the door. Inside in its crypt, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the celebrated composer and son of the grand Baroque German composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, is buried.
The tower of St. Michael’s Church is distinctive with a copper dome that is visible across the city at a statuesque height of 433 ft high. When I reached its viewing platform at 269 ft, I was greeted by a wicked, whipping wind that ensured that I bowed out within a minute.
It was part of my nifty farewell to Hamburg.
(Versions of this story were published in The Telegraph and Shubh Yatra)