The important German city introduces itself as the “Gateway to the World”, and it couldn’t be truer. The planet converges here, at this symbol of the Hanseatic League, where everything is defined by the course of the River Elbe.
Hamburg is an aquatic city. Three rivers, the giant Elbe, the smaller Alster and Bille, and dozens of canals, give it its character. In front of the city hall, a tour guide explains precisely that to the group gathered around him. It wasn’t by chance that the guide began his account of the city in this huge square, the Rathausmarkt, in front of the equally huge Rathaus, the headquarters of the Senate and Parliament of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. Pointing at the façade, like someone taking aim at a target, he identifies the statue of Charles the Great, accrediting him with the founding of the city in 808, when he raised a defence tower between the Alster and Elbe. A rather prosaic start that did nothing to prevent his future triumphs. Today, Hamburg calls itself the “Gateway to the World”. It may be an image created for marketing purH poses, but the title clearly captures the city’s strong international flavour. Walking around Hamburg is like a voyage of global discovery: it’s walking among people with a whole range of skin tones, with different appearances, it’s hearing different languages, it’s seeing the coming and going of ships from every sea, it’s finding businesses and institutions that only a city with a great deal of ballast could possibly take in. The path was long to get to this point, with some very decisive moments on the way. In 1189, Frederick Barbarossa gave it the status of Free City; in 1241, Hamburg signed an agreement with Lubeck that would lead to the Hanseatic League, changing how trade was conducted in the north of Europe over the following centuries; in 1881 a free port was established, with tea, coffee, cocoa and other overseas products driving local trade.
Out on the river
I get a strong sense of these connections with the world as I walk around, discovering and chatting to people. An example of this is when I come across Ernst & Brendler, “marine and tropical outfitters since 1879”. After stopping in front of the shop window, which despite being somewhat démodé, appeals much more to the passers-by on the Große Johannisstraße than the designer label stores surrounding it, how can I not go in? “Most of the articles we sell are our own models,” explains Ingrid O., great-granddaughter of the founder, adding in the same breath: “They’re classic models; they were worn many years ago and will continue to be worn in the future.” With a few pieces already out on the counter, she continues the explanation with a few examples: “When it first started, the company produced and sold clothing for sailors but, later, when the Germans started to travel to the tropics, in other words in my father’s time, we started producing tropical clothing. Our products are made in Germany; we insist on that.” How can I possibly leave the store empty-handed?
It was this opening up to the world that led to the creation of an essential institution in Hamburg. In fact, after the free port was established, it didn’t take long for them to realise that as well as transporting exotic goods, the ships also carried sailors infected with tropical diseases, and that’s how what’s now known as the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine came about. Located opposite the Elbe, among other things, it’s where the people of Hamburg go for their vaccines before travelling to the tropics. Alexandru Tomatazos, finishing his PhD at the institute, explained all this to me, but also told me about a must-do activity on a visit to Hamburg: a boat trip along the Elbe and the port, using the ferries of routes 62 and 72, one going down the estuary and the other up it. An alternative to the tour-operated trips, at a fraction of the cost – and one that’s used widely by visitors to Hamburg, as I discovered. A river tour removes any doubts as to the importance of the port. The Elbe estuary is constantly stirred up by rudders of all kinds of vessels. The starting point is located on the famous Landungsbrücken pier, a neighbour of the equally famous Elbe Tunnel – a notable feat of engineering from the early 20th century, and which continues to be the most practical way for pedestrians and cyclists to go backwards and forwards from one bank to the other.
On another occasion, Alexandru accompanied me to the International Maritime Museum. He tells me it’s his third visit in the last two years. After passing through the first two decks – deck is the name given to each of the building’s nine floors, highly appropriate considering the nature of the place – I could see why. The museum covers every walk of maritime life from Zheng He to Vasco da Gama. In another area, there’s a vessel from way back in time, found in the Elbe, carved from a magnificent tree trunk and whittled away to give it its concave shape. It was the artefact I enjoyed the most, among thousands in the exhibition.
The museum is located at the convergence of Hafen City (often described as the largest ongoing European urbanisation project, which is really a new city within the city), and the neighbourhoods of Speicherstad and Kontorhaus, included by UNESCO in its 2015 World Heritage list. Speicherstad consists of a complex area of red-brick warehouses, separated by canals and connected by bridges (whenever the opportunity presents itself, the people of Hamburg remind us that the city has the highest number of bridges in the world). Built at the turn of the 20th century, their spatial arrangement makes them a kind of “archipelago on the River Elbe”. The Kontorhaus neighbourhood comprises mainly buildings erected between the 1920s and 1950s, designed primarily as offices. Each of the classified buildings has clearly defined features, but it’s Chilihaus, shaped like the bow of a ship, that people generally admire the most.
In every direction
But we head back towards Hafen City, where Hamburg’s outstanding architectonic achievement gleams. The Elbphilharmonie is a tall building and cultural project with two concert halls. The lower part is in brick, the upper in glass, finishing in the shape of a wave. A terrace all around separates the two sections. He takes me to the ticket booth to get ticket for a show, but speaking like someone conveying bad news, the ticket clerk informs me that: “All the concerts are sold out for the next few days; that’s normal.” I stay a while on the terrace, known as the Plaza. Even though entrance is free, you have to get a ticket, which is how they control the constant flow of visitors. You can see in every direction and it offers a bird-eye view of the entire city. Hamburg is flat and only with the help of some manmade scheme can you get to see the whole city. As so often happens, we get a different viewpoint if we change the way we see a place. I repeated this exercise at the St Nicholas Memorial, a reminder of the tragic consequences of World War II and the extensive damage it inflicted on the city, and at the Dancing Towers, another building with extravagant architecture, where, at the top, there’s an appropriately-name bar called Clouds. The Tango Towers, another name for the building, are located in the St. Pauli area, at the bottom of Reeperbahn Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the Red Light District. It’s the end of the day and I walk along the wide avenue. Music is coming from some establishments. Endless neon lights flicker into life because, as anyone who knows the place will tell you, and as the guides say, the neighbourhood comes alive at night to reveal its true nature. It was in bars here that The Beatles took their first steps towards international fame.
We’ve seen it: Hamburg has proved itself to be uniquely successful at the import-export game. Around a third of the population is foreign. Alexandru, my guide at the Maritime Museum, comes from Sulina, Romania; my guide at the Kunsthalle – the exceptional fine arts museum, created in the 19th century – Pola Soltyska is from Krakow. Apart from that, I met Portuguese, Brazilians, Turks, Macedonians, Pakistanis, as well as Germans. It’s the diversity we’d expect from a city that claims to be the “Gateway to the World”.
text and photos José Luís Jorge
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