My hostel in Hamburg was a massive sprawling multi-story building that was clean and bustling with travelers. The rooms were a nice mixture of built in bunks and free standing beds. Unfortunately, the place was poorly equipped for the heat wave, which made sleep difficult and served as a solid motivator to get out and explore the city. Eager to explore, I set a time and place to connect with my friend Philipp whom I’d met during my previous trip in December of 2009. Philipp and I had gotten to know each other through the Hostel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico then struck out with two others in a rented car to explore Tulum, Dos Ojos and Akumal. As luck had it, he was an expert on Hamburg and volunteered to show me around. We met up in the hostel and I gave him a quick tour before we set out to see the city. Our first stop? The subway station! I always get a kick out of large subway stations. There’s something fun about entire tiny cities located underground, complete with fruit vendors, magazine shops, and even clothing stores. The station in Hamburg didn’t disappoint.
Our first stop dumped us out near the main river. After a quick 10 minute walk through a light rain we passed the old trading docks, the Landungsbrücken, complete with beautiful old carved buildings showcasing statuary highlighting various global destinations and their native cultures. As we wound around the buildings Philipp led me to an odd secondary building.
While old it looked fairly unremarkable. As we entered the oddly domed building, I paused to stare at the sign out front. As it turned out, the structure was actually a massive elevator building which dates back to 1911 and has 4 independently operated elevators. The Elb Tunnel is just under 100 years old and has allowed vehicular and pedestrian transit underneath the Elbe River far longer than I would have imagined. Each of the elevators is large enough for one small-medium sized car, which would drive in, and then be lowered hundreds of feet into the bottom of the chamber. Once there, the wooden doors open allowing the car access to one of two one-directional tunnels, just wide enough for a car’s wheels. Astonishingly the tunnel is still in active use. The nearly 1,400 foot long tunnel stretches underneath the river at a depth of around 80 feet.
As pedestrians we made our way down a long series of wrought iron stairs which wrapped around the inside edge of the circular building. In many ways it felt as though we were descending into a well. Especially given the river’s close proximity, just a few hundred feet away. As we wound down the stairs, the temperature dropped away. Where it had been fairly warm at the top, I was easily able to see my breath by the time we reached the bottom.
Once at the bottom I paused, still amazed by the narrow car elevators, the age of the entire undertaking, and the complexity of the process. From there Philipp and I made our way across through one of the tunnels, before catching the elevator back up to the surface on the south side of the Elb. Despite a light rain, we popped out, made our way to the river bank and took in an excellent view of Hamburg’s old city before making our way back to the north bank.
As we wound inland towards the city’s old town, the light misting quickly turned into a heavy rain. Luckily, we were both starving and dove into a small kebab shop right as the rain hit. Munching away contentedly on our chicken kebabs with ice cold cokes in our hands we relaxed and waited out the 15 minute rainstorm. From there, it was onward once again. This time back down along the river toward an area that had recently been re-claimed and re-developed. The architecture in the re-purposed wharf area was chic. Very modern buildings, many of which were obviously profoundly expensive and boasted what I can only assume to be the architectural designs of famous architects lined the path. As we walked Philipp explained the area’s recent real estate woes as well as the general development plan for the district. This included insights into their plan to build a brand new theater/opera house which had been fairly controversial. As he finished his explanation, we came upon a small building which had been designed to give people an idea of what was being built, including a miniature version of the opera house which you could stick your head up/into.
From there it was back towards the heart of the city, which took us along the remaining portions of the old warehouse district, the Speicherstadt. A fascinating area, it embodied the industrial revolution and looked like it was straight out of the 1800s with large brick warehouse buildings lining the canals and sporting a variety of windows and dock entrances. The whole area seemed movie-like, both in its uniform feel and interesting character.
As we wound along the canal we eventually cut in towards one of the major cathedrals. As it turned out the largest Cathedral nearby was St. Peter’s Cathedral. As we explored the inside, we noted signs mentioning that the spire was available for a visit. Eager for a commanding view of Hamburg’s old city we opted to pay the 1 Euro fee. Where we expected a fairly limited ascent through a winding stone stairway to the building’s roof, we were pleasantly surprised to find a brief landing which dumped us at the foot of a massive set of MC Escher-esque stairs. Excited to attain our view and reach the top we set upon the stairs, legs pumping furiously.
Only, to our surprise, every time we thought we were close to the top, the winding stairway ended and a new set began. This continued through several sets as the tower walls narrowed around us. The heat also started to increase noticeably. Apparently, a large, hollow copper structure without ventilation accrues significant heat, even when it’s fairly cool outside.
As we reached the last set of stairs they changed from traditional zig-zagging stairways to a large circular staircase that gradually narrowed as it climbed dizzily towards the top. Eventually, we reached the top of the stairs which dead-ended in a tiny trap door and small room which was barely large enough for the two of us. The tiny room put us somewhere near the very top of the spire, which I believe is around 430 feet tall.
The room had a series of small porthole windows, which offered a spectacular view of the city. As we looked out back towards the river we could see the Warehouse and Wharf district and the old harbor. From the other side we could see the city’s gorgeous, palatial looking City Hall. The view from one of the other portals offered a wonderful view of a large lake which sits immediately next to the old city and is connected by a large canal. Sweating, and nearly ready to faint from the heat, we rested briefly before balancing unsteadily on mushy legs and winding back down towards the base. The view and ascent had been a fun little adventure and was well worth our entrance price.
The town hall, or Hamburg Rathaus is a beautiful building which is both massive in size, noteworthy for the attention to detail, and excellent in its symmetry. It opens up on a large plaza, which is bordered on one side by a picturesque canal that connects to the Binnenalster or inner city Alster lake.
As we paused in the city square for pictures, I quickly noticed an amazing number of swans in the distance. Curious we made our way over to the canal, where I was shocked to see young children sitting (and feeding) a group of swans.
I must confess I maintain a rather low opinion of swans. In truth, while I find them beautiful, I also view them as unfriendly, mean-spirited, large, dangerous and in all likelihood, far better eating than company. Some of you may recall, that I’d already been chased off once while in Norway by three rather unfriendly swans. The swan I had encountered in Copenhagen had glared a bit, but largely ignored me, and so it was with some surprise that I greeted the tame friendliness of Hamburg’s swan army.
Veritable pets, the gaggle of …..does swans work in this case…were a pleasure to watch as they struggled for food, interacted with locals, and generally made a show of things. Before long, feet rested, Philipp opted to continue our exploration with a loop around Binnenalster before heading back to the harbor where he suggested we head to the beach. That’s right! I said beach. More than a bit intrigued we caught a ferry up the river, which wound along with the city on one side, and the region’s world class/massive dock-works along the other. The rocks were an incredible mass of cranes, vast cargo ships, dry docks and stacked containers.
The ferry deposited us at a small dock next to a small ship museum which had a variety of traditional sailing ships docked. We paused for a few quick photos before winding down and making our way around a corner, where sure enough, there was a long sand beach with a goodly number of people relaxing along it. Several swimming. As we settled in, I tossed my shirt aside and enjoyed the beautiful weather. Beautiful German women lounged on blankets all around us, as we begrudgingly watched an extremely drunk guy make an absolute wank of himself. Drunk beyond reason and only passingly being watched by his friends, he spent his time throwing sands at his friends, tackling them in the water, or lounging spread-eagle in a pair of wet boxers which did little to cover his manhood.
Eventually with the heat getting to us, we decided it was time to track down a quick beer, which we quickly located back at the original dock. Philipp suggested we grab a traditional snack – a slice of pickled herringtopped with a large pickle on a slice of bread – which was absolutely delicious. It was at this point that I was also introduced to Alsterwasser or lemonade beer. It was delicious and perfect for a hot summer day. Exhausted, we decided to call it a day and head back to the hostel where I’d take a long sweaty nap, before waking up and meeting a group of Russian girls. Before long we were sharing drinks, and decided to set out to catch the last game of the World Cup/explore the city. They made great company and we had a blast wandering the streets and enjoying the celebrations and festivities. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Philipp for serving as a fantastic tour guide and sharing his city with me. I absolutely loved it and learned a ton about the city, while catching a number of things I’d have otherwise missed.
This concludes my narrative posts about my Scandinavia/Germany/Ireland trip. After a delightful night out on the town, I wound down my trip with a rail ride to Nuremberg where I arrived late and caught a plane back to the US. My time in Hamburg was the perfect grand finale for what had been a positively amazing trip. Thank you to everyone who entertained me along the way, and thank you for letting me share it with you. Stay tuned! Argentina is next!