Hamburg: Town of a thousand homeless people

Picture the moment. You leave Berlin after enjoying some fantastic moments. You are glad to be leaving behind the dirty mistress and moving on to something more high-class. Hamburg seems like a beautiful architectural dream somewhere in the distance. Then…you arrive in Hamburg train station. Almost instantly, the homeless descend. One is waving a photo of a dying child in you face. The other is screaming something at you in German. You curse yourself for not trying harder with your German – at least then you could understand his abuse. All this and you haven’t even bought your metro ticket yet.

Hamburg was a disappointment in many ways – the weather, the food (yes they really love herring THAT much) and the city as a whole was just a tad disappointing. I met these two lovely people on the free tour of Hamburg. I decided that I had to try to do something in order to rescue the city in my mind; I didn’t want it to be the only city in the world which I hated. So, I headed out into the snow, wind and sleet to experience the free tour of Hamburg. Throughout the tour, we mostly learned about how cold it was possible to get before frostbite sets in; we had to stop at shops every thirty minutes or so to get coffees and warm up but We also learned a few other interesting facts about the city which I will try to relate here a little with the help of auntie google.

Of course Hamburg is a maritime city first and foremost and therefore there are lots of tales of trading companies and sea faring but of course the most important of which is the story of Klaus Störtebeker. Klaus was the leader of a group of privateers known as the “Likedeelers” who captured merchant vessels and stole their cargo and who were possibly the best thing that ever existed in Hamburg. Störtebeker was Klaus’ nickname and means “empty the mug with one gulp” in Old German. I’ll let you guess for yourselves what that might mean.

The most famous Störtebeker story, however, is not one about his cheeky pirate ways but rather about his death.  Störtebeker is said to have asked the mayor of Hamburg to release as many of his companions as he could walk past after being beheaded. Following the granting of this request and the subsequent beheading, Störtebeker’s body rose up and walked past eleven of his men before the executioner tripped him with an out-stretched foot. Nevertheless, the eleven men were executed along with the others.

People in Hamburg are very fond of their “robin hood pirate” and you can even buy children’s books about him. Störtebeker is now also a beer brand in Stralsund, whose slogan means, Beer of the Righteous.

In addition to the interesting pirate stories that we got to hear at the harbor we also got to see the new Hafencity. HafenCity Hamburg is a project where the city of Hamburg is rebuilding the whole harbour part of the city.  The project is one of the largest rebuilding projects in Europe in the 21st century.  The time frame for completion is not very clear but will probably be around 2020-2030. One of the most interesting things about this building project, apart from its size, is that the main centrepiece of the whole thing will be a music hall designed by none other than Herzog and de Meuron, a famous architectural firm, who made none other than the birds nest in Beijing. (Yes-I am officially becoming a bit of an architecture geek)

What it looks like now

What it will look like when it is finished


For those of you who are as sad as me and would like to find out more head to this website where you can see a trailer for a movie about the construction of the birds nest:

And of course…of all the history of Hamburg I cannot leave out the only historical date that I have ever been able to remember – “The great fire of 1842” and why do I remember it? Well, because it nearly destroyed the whole of Hamburg…

The place where the fire started

“In the night from the 4th to the 5th of May 1842 fire broke out in a house of the Deichstraße. The night watchmen made noise with rattles and calls. The soldiers on guard fired signal shots, and the guardians in the spires rang the fire bells. So the fire-brigade was called.The close lanes became deadly traps. Fire engines could not get into the small and crowded lanes. People panicked and tried to escape. Hundreds ran crying among the burning houses. Others tried to save everything they owned.

The firefighters worked untiringly, but in vain. At noon the flames seized the tower of St. Nikolai. Around 6 o’clock the tower collapsed under cracking and thunders. From the ware-houses alcohol flowed into the fleets. It burned on the water, ignited the stakes in the fleets and endangered ships and bridges. Around 11 o’clock in the evening the fire jumped over the Alster (river). Now the city hall was in danger, and although fire chiefs blew up the city hall and other buildings, the fire continued to spread.

On Sunday, 8th of May, a rainbow shone over destroyed Hamburg. One third of the city was destroyed. 51 people died, 20 000 were left homeless. The most important and historical parts of Hamburg lay in debris and ashes”

It’s just a shame that they didn’t leave it that way.

Luckily, what remained of Hamburg was rescued by two lovely Brazilian Couchsurfers and a girl from Taiwan who managed to make my day…After the tour Ignacio, Helen and I went to go and get some traditional German food and afterwards went to the home of their host Ming. She was really lovely and took us out for some coffees and free cake. Afterwards we headed to the Reeperbahn, which is the red light district of Hamburg and we saw some prostitutes hanging outside Burger king (so high-class) and had a look at some sex shops.They had some amazing underwear, which we liked a lot, and some more disturbing things that we liked a whole lot less. All in all it was a pretty good way to spend valentines day.

Hamburg was great…but not because of the city, rather because the coolness of the people more than made up for the coldness of the weather.

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