Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On the Mighty Elbe

Hamburg Harbour

St. Pauli Fischmarkt from the boat

Downtown view from the Alster

Rathaus off Jungfernstieg

Downtown Canal

A Square off Reeperbahn

Germany's largest and busiest port is actually inland. Hamburg sits on the banks of the river Elbe, at least 50 km from the coast. However, along the tributaries and channels of the Elbe are the containers, cranes and ships of one of the world's busiest port. What made Hamburg is primarily due to this mighty river harbour sans salty sea air.

Hamburg was a founding city of the Hanseatic League, the trade alliance in northern Europe from the 12th to the 17th century. It was fitting that the first place I should see in summer 2007 was this great harbour. From Landungsbrucken, I took a boat cruise that gave me a wide angle view of Europe's 2nd largest container port, the harbour front in downtown Hamburg to the villas of Altona. On the return, the cruise took a sweep of the future called Hafencity, Europe's largest urban redevelopment on the site once part of the free port.

Twenty minutes walk from Landungsbrucken is the Jungfernstieg where one takes a boat cruise on the Alster. This inner city lake is not really a lake but another tributary of the river Elbe. The cruise reveals the charming and genteel side of Hamburg with villas, elegant buildings, and lush greenery (it was June after all) on the banks of the "lake." The downtown core around the Rathaus (City Hall) and Jungfernstieg, features side streets with canals, cafes and high end boutique shops.

(I found hand knitten woolen naval sweaters at very affordable price, at Ernst Brendle on Grosse Johannistrasse, and had the best penne parmigiana at a cafe on the Esplanade.)

What is a port city and metropolis without the seedy and the quaint? St. Pauli has been known for decades as the adult entertainment district where the Beatles started on their road to fame. Reeperbahn is the notorious street in St. Pauli, with wall to wall sex shops, bars, clubs and strip joints. I gathered from a friend who once worked in Hamburg, the area can be quite rough once the night gets going. From the Reeperbahn, a little square leads to the harbour, with more bars (catering to merchant seamen primarily) and even a Museum of Sex!

St. George further away from the harbour is the quaint district. The HB (Hamburg Main Train Station) features two entrances, one leading out to the shops on Monckeberg St., toward the Rathaus and the harbour. The other entrance leads out to St. George catering to the less upmarket. The neighbourhood is an eclectic collection of people, shops, hotels, restaurants and what nots and includes the gay district. Colourful is the word.

Inspite of its pedestrian name and the notoriety associated with being a port city, Hamburg is a very charming, genteel and picturesque city. However, even in summer, grey overcast skies can be the normal weather.