Hamburg may have given its name to the grease-oozing slab of chopped meat that you’re stuffing into your gob, but here in its eponymous city you’re as likely to see döner kebabs slowly revolving on their shafts. Such is the Turkish influence after the guest worker programme of the 1960s led to some three million Germans now having at least one parent of Turkish origin.
According to the U.S. Library of Congress, the hamburger didn’t even originate here. It was sired nameless in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1900 by Danish immigrant Louis Lassen, owner of Louis’ Lunch, and apparently lost its anonymity some years later when drunken German mariners decided to name it after their home town.
The U.S. White Castle hamburger chain disagrees, though, insisting that Hamburg gave the fatty patty its start in 1891, thanks to a certain Otto Kuase.
In that case that’s the third thing Hamburg gave its start to, the others being the Beatles and the main protagonists in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
OK, enough of the fatty patty.
Germany’s second largest city after Berlin has existed at least since the early 9th century, and has been destroyed and occupied repeatedly over the past millennium, most recently by the RAF’s ‘Operation Gomorrah’ fire-bombing in WWII. This resulted in the deaths of over 40,000 civilians and the destruction of many of the ancient churches and buildings.
Many of these have been rebuilt and the once-again handsome city spreads along the southern bank of the River Elbe, with the lofty spires of churches dominating its skyline. It’s virtually free of the high-rises that mar other cities since in most areas no office building may be higher than the church steeples.
Hamburg was once home to Germany’s largest Jewish community, some 28,000, and the stately villas of Rothembaumchausse once housed the Jewish middle class, but those who did not leave before WWII were exterminated during it.
The most visible evidence of the former Jewish presence is the spacious 400-year-old cemetery with ornate Sephardi tombs and the simpler graves of illustrious Ashkenazi rabbis.
Arguably the city’s most famous street is the Reeperbahn, often called Die Sündigste Meile, the Most Sinful Mile. There are said to be 400 strip clubs, sex shops, bars and other related dens of entertainment along its kilometre length. But for all its notoriety, it’s a wide thoroughfare that seems much less seedy than either London’s Soho or Paris’s Pigalle.
But that doesn’t stop the various establishments from pushing their provocative frontages.
Barely a stone’s throw from the Blue Night, where a man looking very much like Yasser Arafat seems to be acting as bouncer, is Große Freiheit Street and the Star Club where the Beatles played in 1960/62 before they soared to, through and past stardom.
The corner is now Beatles-Platz, an area 95 feet across paved in black to resemble a record with the Fab Four or rather Five as they were in Hamburg (with Stewart Sutcliffe) strumming and singing in stylised metal cut-outs. Teachers are pointing out the sights to groups of high school kids touring the street.
Große Freiheit Street
A hundred yards or so further on naked girls kissing each other, or rather photos thereof, in a zillion windows smother the Golden Arches of McDonald’s, squeezed between and under two sex clubs.
Nearby, large screens block views into Herbertstraße, where prostitutes wait behind windows for clients, and women and youngsters are discouraged from entering. It looks like the main brothel street in Istanbul, though much smaller.
OK, class, time for a city-wide walkabout. First thing to report: Arafat is still ensconced outside the Blue Night, his beanie lapping at one of the photographed boobs, just beneath the sign ‘Sexy, Sexy Girls.’
There are quite a lot of homeless migrants with their bedding on the streets, and I’ve just been yelled at most ungenteelly by the denizens of a mini-tent city under a bridge for taking a photo.
With innumerable canals leading from and into the Elbe, the city is said to have more pedestrian bridges, some 2,500, than Venice, Amsterdam and London combined.
The greater and lesser Alster lakes provide plenty of recreation. Restaurants with terraces line the smaller one as well as the canals around City Hall, a splendid renaissance building with green roofs and ornate 367-foot-high spire.
There are plenty of wooded parks, too, one with an enormous 115-foot-high statue of Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor who united Germany in the 19th century.
If you want to know what some of the current generation think of him, its base is duly daubed with graffiti, inked genitalia sprayed onto one of the naked male statues on the pediment, and a young lady is giving her boyfriend a lap dance on the wall above discarded beer bottles, plastic cups, broken glass and other garbage.
The city’s most famous church is the baroque St. Michaelis, with its 433-foot-high spire, of which you can scale 348 feet thanks to a lift for a magnificent panorama over the whole cityscape and the forest of cranes and huge container ships in the port, Europe’s second largest after Rotterdam.
Nor does Hamburg lack innovative modern buildings. One twin-towered office and hotel confection seems to kneel into itself, then sway back and forward again at the top. It’s called the Dancing Towers and is supposed to represent two tango dancers. The less than respectful denizens say it looks more like two drunken whores.
The Marco Polo tower has angular floors extruding on all side, the Dockland glass office building juts out over the Elbe like the prow of a yacht, and the Elbe-Philharmonie concert hall, a tall glass confection atop lower brick floors, has broken out in dimples and boils all over its panes.
And no, you’re not drunk. The roof is concaving and convexing all over the place. I think they’re meant to represent waves.
For those less daring there’s always the more classically designed Hotel Atlantic Kempinski which has welcomed within its august halls the likes of General de Gaulle, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, Gina Lollobrigida, Henry Kissinger and Josephine Baker, among others. Then it served as a location for the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.
[Upcoming blog next Sunday: A Bremen Statue – From Mediaeval Myth to World Heritage Site]
By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.
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