Hamburg in the Lovely Month of January

Hamburg was beautiful, even in January. Cold, though. Cold, and raining. So a lot like London, really. But London doesn’t have this:

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The Speicherstadt, or City of Warehouses. For an urbanist that is pretty damn exciting. Started in 1883, they kept on building for decades. But we should back up. Hamburg existed for ages as a city state, formed a part of the Hanseatic league and looked like this once upon a time. Just look how it has transformed itself over time:

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HamburgI am so sad those amazing ramparts are gone long gone, wonder what it must have felt like to always live within walls. In a fraction of the area of the modern city.

But to return to the present.

Jesus was it damp and cold. The wind whipped down that scenic canal of warehouses, and also this one.

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It also whipped down these canals:

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Hamburg is built around water, as you can see. Good for shipping and the movement of goods and quite beautiful. Cold though.

It was possibly even colder when we stood along the mighty Elbe, and stared at the massive port — now the leading port in continental Europe despite its distance inland. Those were some pretty farseeing rich merchants several hundred years back who engineered that trick. There was also that time they managed to get Frederick the Great to give them the right to trade freely…or did they? Suspiciously he signed it right before heading off to the crusades, and he never did come back. There’s a document, but that was forged a few hundred years later.

But did I say it was cold? So we got into a boat quick as we could and tried to see things through the rain. We though we would be alone in this wet January tourist jaunt, but there were about ten of us. We were not the only tourist boat.

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The port was cool. Might have been better if we had realised we could have gone out the back door to stand on deck and actually see everything we were passing. Of course, that would have meant being outside.

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I wanted a sense, some sense of how it once felt to approach Hamburg, almost everyone arrived this way…

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This is a quote from the one book I found on the culture and history of Hamburg, titled quite appropriately Hamburg: A Cultural and Literary History.

With beating heart we caught our first sight of Hamburg. At last she lay before us, this stony world of palaces and towers. The location of the harbour was indicated by a forest of soaring masts, thousands upon thousand…
–Joseph von Eichendorff

A lot has changed, but there are still a few masts and one or two beating hearts.

Speaking of beating hearts, Marx’s publisher Otto Meissner (published Capital and all) was based here. That building is long gone of course.

I digress. We thought the old Elbe tunnel would be nice to see, warm you know, and dry. Samuel Beckett liked it. It was in fact quite stunning, finished in 1911 to allow 2000 dock workers to more easily get to work (those jobs are long gone of course, as much of the docks are automated now. There is a tour of that but not running in January for some reason):

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It’s lined with art deco tiles showing various creatures of the river. Unaccountably there is nothing with tentacles, but there is an old boot and some kind of rodent life.

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I do love tunnels, but there is only so long you can spend walking to one end and then back to the beginning so you aren’t on the wrong side of the river. We returned to our outdoor wander.

We thought the streets would be warmer. They were not warmer. The wind whipped down them. We found Deichstrasse, one of the oldest streets whose homes escaped the great fire of 1842, and show a little of what Hamburg was once like. The dedicated tourist will take pictures of how beautiful it all is from the water, but we weren’t that dedicated.

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The city is full of contrasts — burning down through an accidental fire in 1842 and then being burnt down in a firestorm by the Allies in 1943 during Operation Gomorrah, killing over 42,000 people in the last week of July. So now it is a whole lot of modern alongside the various styles of the old.

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Above all it is a city of brick, and most proud of that. I do love these buildings, the warehouses in particular. Above all I loved the Chile Haus (commissioned for a dude from Hull who made his money in Chile as an exporter of Saltpetre). I think Mark was all right about being dragged here.

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Hamburg is not, of course, free from absurd Baroque and the smell of more ostentatious wealth. The Rathaus for example, had to be rebuilt after the fire, and it took 44 years for agreement on its rebuilding. Seven architects were involved in its designing, and you get the feeling they were all working independently.

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Then there are the Colonnades — I do love colonnades I confess, and walking through them they are lovely:

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By god, though. You look at the other side of them and realise someone somehow thought it a good idea to stick four heads on each arch, and in addition to put a lion at each arch’s peak and trough.

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Saving grace? If you need a pipe, this is definitely where to come.

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I don’t know what the fuck the queen is doing there really.

There was a couple of arcades as well, I do love them too. Just not shopping.

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It is a beautiful view across the Alster. But damn cold. You just can’t get away from it.

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High culture, yeah we did that. Saw Emile Nolde, which made us uncomfortable having really loved many of his ink drawings, woodcuts, etchings of the harbour only to find he voluntarily joined the National Socialists in 1933 and was devastated when his works were put on the degenerate art list. He wrote to Goebbels and everything. We went down to St Pauli too, and the Reeperbahn. Didn’t take many pictures, because, you know, we’re wild and crazy like that. But Hamburg’s all right at night.

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Some of the most poignant things were the Stolpersteine, literally stumbling blocks, though sadly they were plaques that you would never stumble over. Still, they mark the homes of those killed by the Nazis.

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They are very unobtrusive, I am glad I knew to look for them and can’t quite believe they caused a furor. I have been thinking a lot about how you mark what is no longer there in a city, people who have been erased, buildings erased, lives erased. These do that to some extent, and the website is wonderful.

I still wish you stumbled over them.

It was nice to see Heine though, I loved the statue. His uncle Saloman lived here in Hamburg and Heine spent time here. Schopenhauer grew up here — that’s not quite as exciting. Depressing really. But Brahms was born and raised here as well. Inspired me to read a biography, but that’s for blogging later I think, I quite loved it.

And it was a pleasure to be in Hamburg.

But damn it was cold.

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