The Sound of Music, The Taste of Coffee and a Miniature Wonderland

Music

It was the day after the Paris attacks and the world was still numb with shock. It was mid-afternoon after a fantastic day spent exploring and I found myself standing in the rain, surrounded by police officers, as a long procession of people made their way past. Despite the police, the mood was relaxed and positive. The protesters streaming by advocated for the rights and humane treatment of refugees. Their rhetoric was one of love, of inclusion, of tolerance, and of being our brother’s keeper. As the tail of the march passed, the officers, who were largely there to ensure the safety of the protesters, jumped on their bikes or horses and made their way forward. Soggy, I continued across the intersection and into the Laeiszhalle.  This building has served as host to some of Germany’s best concerts since it opened its doors in 1908 and was a lovely, elegant structure with a charming interior.

Hamburg's HafenCity

Teatime Classics

Damp from the rain, I made my way to the coat check anticipating that the show, Teatime Classics featuring Trio Adorno, would be a traditional trio performance in the main concert hall. Of course, as you might guess from the name, it was actually a brilliantly different experience.  In place of the main stage in the concert hall, it was held in the bar/reception area. Beneath beautifully decorated vaulted ceilings, a hap-hazard assemblage seating, a piano, and two chairs had been setup at one edge of the room just before the door to the northern wing of the concert house.

As we settled in to enjoy the concert, still a bit unsure what to expect, I sipped one of Hamburg’s signature beverages – the Fritz-Kola, which as it turns out has roughly double the caffeine dosage of your average soda. Eyes wide, I watched the assembled mixture of young children, middle-aged folks, and elderly couples enjoy their cakes, coffee, soda and wine before glasses and empty plates were put to rest and the trio took their positions.

Now, before continuing, I have to confess that I have a soft spot for trios and quartets in general. I also have a very strong bias against modern interpretive pieces finding them, in many cases, to be positively deplorable combinations of discordant sounds bereft of unity, polish, or nuance. So, it was with some trepidation that I waited to see what Trio Adorno had in store for me. Within the first 30 seconds I found myself leaning forward. Goosebumps blossoming up my arms as my eyes drifted shut and a smile crept onto my face.

Outside of an ill-fated 9-month attempt at learning guitar and a very short lived and ill-conceived attempt at the penny whistle, I’ve never learned an instrument. I’m ill-suited to speak to their mastery of every nuance and can only speak to my enjoyment of their execution and the pieces they chose. Both of which were absolutely spectacular. As they delicately danced their way through Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Trio in B flat major KV 502 and on to Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Trio in E minor op 90 “Dumky Trio” before concluding with Joseph Haydn’s Piano Trio in E major Hob XV / 28 (1st set), the audience sat almost perfectly still.

On my right, Anne-Sophie of Sophie’s World leaned in – fully listening to the music, while on my right a young boy who I suspect was roughly 10-11 and reminded me of myself during my year-long RTW trip at that age, sat completely enmeshed in the music. For that matter, all of the young children in the room sat perfectly quiet and captivated for the duration of Trio Adorno’s pieces.

Despite the casual setting, the venue added to and enriched the experience. The acoustics were fantastic and our close proximity to the musicians left us feeling the raw vibrations of the music devoid of any need for amplification.  It brought to mind the rich sensation that comes from listening to a live musical performance, particularly those with string instruments, and the penetrating feel of the music that you can only get from a live performance.

All too quickly the performance wound to a close and after a brief encore, I found myself feeling the stress of the previous evening’s news fading away and replaced by a renewed sense of childish wonder at the beauty that the world holds. I was once again reminded that these types of cultural events are a rare treat that I indulge in far too occasionally.

The performance came as a lovely sequel to the previous evening’s performance of Carmen.

Carmen at the Hamburg Opera

When highlighting what I was interested in seeing and experiencing in Hamburg, one of the world’s great musical and stage cities, I knew that several musical events were a must. The folks at Hamburg Tourism were kind enough to line up lovely seats for Carmen at the Hamburg Staatsoper. The Opera was easy to reach and a charming building that had a clean and classy personality that hearkened back to the middle of the 20th century even if it lacked some of the crisp sharpness of some of its more modern cousins or more historic relatives.

The Opera has a longstanding reputation for excellence and I was excited both for the performance and to get to experience the Opera. Carmen was done in French with German subtitles which meant that I was, unfortunately, unable to understand either. While familiar with the story of Carmen, it had been some years since I was exposed to it and my memory of all but the most general central tenants of the story had all but faded. This, perhaps, contributed to my general lackluster response to the performance.

Given the caliber of the performers drawn to Hamburg Staatsoper and the no doubt stellar caliber of the performers, I can only say that I found the evening enjoyable but utterly lackluster.  When describing my experiences at the Laeiszhalle above, I mention feeling a sense of living power and vibrance from the performance. While there were hints of this during Carmen, something about the acoustics and the performance from Carmen and her male co-lead left me…bored and struck me as flat. I suspect it may have been a combination of lack of amplification and the nature of the materials used in constructing what were beautifully designed and executed sets. But, beyond feeling a strong sense of power from their performances, I also found myself feeling uninspired by their approach to the characters. At other times the performance itself also felt as though the Operaic/old-theater over-acting and embellishment which is a normal part of the genre went overboard and again left me fidgeting and itching to check my phone.

Intermission brought with it one of the highlights of the evening; a handsome elderly German gentleman in a dark green, somewhat classical suit who was at the Opera on his own was standing next to me. A woman in her late 40s wearing a traditional German dress passed by, and he stopped her briefly to express his appreciation for her dress. With a pause and a flattered thank you, she smiled before continuing on. As old men tend to do, he turned to me and made a passing comment in German. I responded with a somewhat confused confession that I didn’t follow and did not speak German, fully expecting that to be the end of the conversation given many older German’s lack of fluency in English.  Instead, he pivoted to clear and clean English and we chatted for the remainder of the intermission. As it turned out he ran a global farming company, had lived for a number of years in the American mid-west where he was running operations, before returning to Germany. Despite his age, he still periodically traveled and maintained offices and operations throughout both North and South America. His story, energy, and presence were fascinating and one of my biggest regrets from my Hamburg visit was that I don’t have his name and wasn’t able to sit down and to continue our conversation over a coffee. But, as is the nature of these types of passing conversations the lights dimmed and with a strong nod and casual “enjoy the show”, we returned to our seats for the second half of Carmen.

Though I still found the leads disappointing, I found the overall energy and quality of the second half significantly better and more compelling.   One of the secondary male leads brought the on-stage presence and vocal power that I’d been missing which was then further built upon by compelling performances by three of the other secondary female actresses. Their performances were powerful, dynamic, and in the case of one tiny red-headed actress positively shocking. Her stage presence and volume in no-way aligned with her petite build and diminutive size and I found myself left wishing she was cast in the role of Carmen.  The second half also had a number of great full-cast pieces which, while still suffering from a sense of goosebump-instilling intensity, were enjoyable and left me with a positive overall experience.

Hamburg Coffee Museum

Coffee Tasting … and History

One of the key items traded in Hamburg’s old warehouse district was coffee.  The city remains a thriving nexus for coffee merchants and is awash in fantastic coffee shops. Particularly in some of the city’s more flavorful neighborhoods. So, it was impossible to visit the Speicherstadt without spending some time learning about the city’s coffee heritage.  The Hamburg Coffee Museum, a brand new museum recently opened in one of the old warehouses, provided the perfect opportunity not only to learn about Hamburg’s coffee heritage, but the history behind the coffee trade and coffee as a whole.

The Coffee Museum

The museum draws from one extensive private collector’s coffee collection (and has a fascinating history worth reading on their webpage) and includes tools, machines, grinders, music (oh yes, fantastic coffee music on old vinyl), a veritable warehouse worth of old coffee tins, and of course…photos. The museum has brought all of these together and provided us with an insightful and informative tour…did you know, for example, that when tasting coffee merchants were required to spit it out?  If they failed to, they were actually consuming the coffee which waived its tax-free status, invoked an immediate need to pay tax on it, and made for one extremely expensive cup of coffee.

The Coffee Museum

The museum is now home to a beautifully re-created vintage coffee shop with custom ground coffees and great ambiance. As part of our tour we were given a crash course in the fine art of coffee tasting (yes, that’s a thing…and yes, it went every bit as comically as my attempt at olive oil tasting). As it was my first coffee tasting, I was quite impressed with just how much diversity and range there was from coffee to coffee and region to region.

The Coffee Museum

You can see our guide’s crash course intro to coffee tasting:

Or just skip to me awkwardly tasting the five coffees while trying not to pour spoonfuls of coffee all over myself…or drool awkwardly on the camera here:

Long story short…after years of going back and forth drinking coffee (drowned in sugar) and training myself to drink it mostly black (with sugar) I have a new-found appreciation for both the history, depth, range of flavor, and subtleties that go with coffee.  To those of you who really get into your coffees…I finally get it, and while I’m not sure I’ll be cultivating properly cultured cups of coffee soon, I’ll no longer be rolling my eyes during friend’s short monologues about good or bad coffee shops and favorite forms of preparation or types of beans.

Miniature Wunderland - A Truly Magical Place

A Miniature Wunderland (Wonderland)

There are places that you hear about, that just sound a bit ridiculous. In talking to friends about Hamburg, one destination came up again, and again…and again. Every person I talked to who had been told me the Miniature Wunderland was a must-visit. It sounded cool – after all, who doesn’t find a massive miniature railroad a fun reminder of childhood and somewhat entertaining.  Still, I found myself skeptical. Not only because, well, it seemed like a museum that would get old quite quickly, but because it had already been so massively hyped that I couldn’t help but allow my expectations to drift higher…and higher.

Miniature Wunderland - A Truly Magical Place

Ultimately, I found myself trudging through wind and rain on my final day in Hamburg. Thoroughly soaked through, I made it to the Miniature Wunderland museum situated in the heart of the old UNESCO World Heritage district and, after wiping away a veritable liter of water, worked my way up the stairs, through the crowds and into the museum. My first stop?  The bathroom. I suppose I was, in some small part, inspired by the rain’s onslaught. Regardless, I only share this detail because the walls in the bathroom were one of my first introductions to just how entertaining, detailed and quirky the museum is. Recessed above the urinals were a series of mini-scenes replete with nude and highly active miniature models of people partaking in all sorts of surprisingly adult activities. It was too high for children to see and set the bar for a common theme throughout the museum.

Miniature Wunderland - A Truly Magical Place

Just as a Pixar or Disney movie carefully weaves an adult plot into and behind the children’s plot, the Miniature Wunderland has similarly provided a sea of minuscule and easy to overlook details throughout its numerous sprawling scenes which are only visible to adults.  The same, in turn, goes for the children who see an entirely different (and more innocent) view of the landscapes both due to the innocence of childhood and the items which are visible from their naturally more diminutive height.

Miniature Wunderland - A Truly Magical Place

When people write and tell you that you – yes you, whoever you are – can easily spend 2-6 hours going through this museum, they are not exaggerating. There is an INCREDIBLE amount of detail that is not only interesting, but which sucks you in like a good book or television series. Yes. It is, in its most basic form, a series of room-sized miniature train sets. But, it is so, so, much more than that. The lighting cycles to mimic day and night. Car blinkers light up as vehicles go about their daily business. The space shuttle takes off…couples…also take off. These are miniature worlds that take you on miniature tours of the world and it is absolutely incredible.

Miniature Wunderland - A Truly Magical Place

Just be prepared and secure your tickets in advance. This isn’t the type of museum you can just stroll up to and amble through casually without a wait. Particularly on a cloudy day or weekend.

Eager to learn more about Hamburg? Don’t miss my previous posts about the city’s incredible architecture, history and UNESCO World Heritage status here or to read my musings from my first visit to Hamburg 5+ years ago here. See the full photo album on flickr here and here or follow on youtube here.

This trip is part of a collaborative campaign between Hamburg Tourism and Nordic Travel Bloggers. What does that mean? They’ve invited me to Hamburg, provided support, suggestions and made a few local introductions to help ensure I get extra insights into what the city has to offer. I’m also compensated for the trip. However, as always, I retain full editorial control over all material I share, my itinerary, and will only be sharing with you authentic and original experiences I believe you’ll find interesting.

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Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

2 Comments

  1. What a nice miniature !!

  2. Sophiesays:

    So enjoyed that whole experience, Alex; the elegant old-world atmosphere of the Laieszhalle – and the music: Mozart is always right of course, but the Dvořák piece… such passion, such intensity – I just loved it.

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