A City of Contrasts – Hamburg

With a blood alcohol concentration of between 0.08 – 0.15%, the body is scientifically in a “risky state.” Speech is slurred, balance and coordination impaired, reflexes slowed, emotions are unstable and there’s a good chance you’ll be making your own modern art in a toilet pan. Between 0.15% – 0.30%, a “high risk state,” help is required walking, breathing is laboured, memory becomes blurred and, perhaps most alarmingly, loss of bladder control. At this point you should really be sitting out the next round. In fact at this point someone should be tucking you into bed and strategically placing a basin.

The following day is never pretty. Headache, weakness, light sensitivity, difficulty sleeping, all classic hangover symptoms. Between 25-30% of all people are allegedly resistant to hangovers, but for the majority of us, it means suffering. Alcohol depletes vital nutrients in the body, leaving us craving certain foods the next day. Bacon, eggs or anything protein rich normally on the menu.

The drunk in front of me, a classic example of the “risky state,” has decided against the bacon and opted instead for a single carrot. He stands in line, swaying slightly, the stubbly vegetable cradled in his palm. His friend, recently denied the four beers he wanted, waits at the kiosk’s door. The reason for this denial? He only has 10 cents. Carrot man is next to be served, he stumbles forward before coming to a halt by the shop counter. The exasperated female shop assistant weighs the vegetable and demands 14 cents. An uneasy pause ensues. Lines of concentration slowly appear across his face before he finally slurs something resembling the word “expensive”.

It’s 5.30am in Hamburg’s St Pauli district and the shop assistant’s jaw clenches slowly in frustration. Carrot man fails to clock this and instead resumes his silent concentration. What feels like a small eternity passes before he finally announces his decision with a lurch to the left and stumbling exit from the kiosk, devoid of carrot. Whether he was looking for a late night snack or breakfast is unclear. At this time in the morning, in this place, his night could be at an end or it might be just beginning.

St Pauli, dominated by the mile long Reeperbahn, is Hamburg’s 24 hour district of sex, drugs, alcohol and any other vice you may be looking for, carrots included. Indeed if the city were personified by St Pauli then Hamburg would be an alcoholic nymphomaniac of the highest order. The district boasts enough bars to keep even the hardiest drinkers happy 24 hours a day. A simple Yellow Pages search immediately provides 140 possible venues of intoxication. A healthy number for an area of only one square mile. In addition to this, drunkards spoilt for choice are also pestered by hawkers for peep shows, sex shows, strip bars and even Amsterdam style “window shopping.” The infamous Herbert Strasse, from which respectable ladies are forbidden, a replica of Amsterdam’s red light district where lingerie clad mistresses coo seductively at passing males. All in the name of business.

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However St Pauli, or The Kiez as it’s known locally, also offers something prevalent throughout Hamburg, contrast. In spite of the degeneracy, the Reeperbahn and surrounding streets are home to some of Hamburg’s finest theatres. The Imperial, the Schmidt and the St Pauli theatres offer everything from Sherlock Holmes to modern German performances. The TUI opera house also offers regular shows and for a taste of something bigger, a boat ride across the Elbe from St Pauli leads to the “Theatre in the Harbour,” currently home to The Lion King. St Pauli is also sprinkled with a number of museums and numerous of live music venues, attracting artists from across the globe. The Docks, Große Freiheit 36 and perhaps most intriguingly Übel & Gefährlich, housed in a giant second world war concrete air raid bunker, provide regular opportunities to enjoy international musical talent.

Consequently, holidaying German families often find themselves caught between cultural attractions on the mile of sin. Inadvertently perusing sex shop windows filled with toys, gadgets, gizmos, plastic things, shiny things and everything one might possibly need for a night when there’s nothing on TV. In fact the best time to appreciate this antithesis is during the city’s Harbour Birthday celebrations, held annually in May. As the streets fill with bumbags, SLRs and guidebooks, the ladies of the night branch out from Herbert Strasse and the scene is suddenly awash with enough cleavage to make even Hugh Heffner blush.

Of course Hamburg’s sex industry, and H&M’s lycra sales, would be far from what they are today had it not been for generations of frisky sailors coming into port… Hamburg’s harbour is the life blood of not only St Pauli, but the entire city. It’s the pumping heart where Hamburg’s wealth originated and upon which it’s still largely dependant. Despite being over one hundred kilometres from the coast, Hamburg boasts the 3rd largest port in Europe and in 2008 handled over 9.5 million containers, creating tens of millions of euros worth of revenue for the city. Thus the annual birthday bash is more than merited.

hamburgAlthough it’s not only international trade that fills the Hanseatic coffers along the Elbe. Boat tours and souvenir shops selling sailor titbits abound along the Landungsbrücken in an attempt to give tourists a taste of being a salty seadog. It also offers an excellent vantage point to view the harbour at work and, as such, thousands of tourist cameras are drawn here every year. One plus point of this, from a Hamburgers perspective, is that the rest of city’s plentiful waterside spots are left largely to the locals.

In fact a stones throw from the harbour cruises are a couple of Hamburg’s best summertime secrets. Hamburg City Beach Club or Strand Pauli Beach Club embody that typical Hamburg theme of compatible incompatibility. A brown, sluggish, ugly river combined with the infrastructure demanded by an international port, doesn’t exactly sound like an ideal location for a beach club. Soft white sand under bare feet, hammocks and bean bags strewn around under thatched beach umbrellas, house lounge music creating a soft, encompassing atmosphere, brown bodies leaning against a bar and at the same time a China Shipping container vessel slipping past in the background. It shouldn’t work but somehow, in Hamburg, it does.

In fact the love of being near water is undeniably a constant throughout the city. From the beach bars on the banks of the Elbe to waterside cafes in the leafy districts around the city’s much loved Außenalster lake, Hamburgers make a dash for the water at any given chance. Possibly with this in mind, it was decided in 1997 that the time had come to build some new waterfront property for the city’s fine citizens. In addition to this, some public parks, squares, promenades, 10km of new waterfront, cafes, bars, restaurants, shops, supermarkets, a new underground rail connection, a cruise ship terminal and to top it all off a new philharmonic orchestra hall, all on the banks of the Elbe.

The new Hafenstadt, Harbour City, is the largest inner city building project in Europe and at a cost of approximately €7 billion will increase the city centre by around 40% and create 40,000 jobs in the process. A daring project no doubt and not without it’s critics. With the orchestra hall alone running approximately three times over the intial €75 million budget, with two years of construction remaining, Hamburgers are left questioning where the money will come from.

In spite of this, of city’s 1.7 million inhabitants, the vast majority would willingly admit to dreaming of a house by the Elbe or the Alster lake. Those who don’t are most likely to come from the city’s bar and cafe laden alternative Sternschanze district. If St Pauli is Hamburg’s nether regions, then the Schanze, is the city’s warm bosom. Still a little cheeky with the chance of some fun but without getting too dirty. And yet again, contrast is ever present.

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On a hot, lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon whilst relaxing with a beer outside one of Schulterblatt’s many bars and cafes, you can watch the world go by. Hippies, hobos and the too cool for school crowd, all mingling happily and peacefully together. Browsing cafe menus or pondering over shisha pipes, kitsch t-shirts and art nouveau paintings in shop windows. A scene of urban tranquillity. Yet slowly and gradually the soft bass pumping from the cafes is replaced by a wailing noise. It gets louder and closer, allowing itself to be distinguished as a siren. But it’s not alone, there’s more than one. Suddenly, with screeching tyres, four police vans turn into the street and come to a stop. The back doors burst open and a stream of riot police pour out. The reason? Nobody is sure. Their target? The urine drenched, decaying edifice of the Rote Flora. The Schanze’s “Autonomous, Occupied Culture Centre,” specialises in social movements, political pressure and a couple of cafes as a sideline. As such, it’s Hamburg’s alternative heartland, and thus a quiet Sunday afternoon can swiftly turn into a street battle between Lefties and the local Polizei.

Although, despite the occasional riot, Hamburg is generally a safe and trouble free city. In fact, when asking any locals about dangers in their city, they tend to struggle for an answer before opting for drunkards on the Reeperbahn. In reality however, Hamburg’s mile of sin is as dangerous as Kofi Annan on marijuana. Somehow Hamburg has avoided that almost automatic step from alcohol to violence. How? Perhaps the sex. Or maybe it’s the attitude of tolerance Hamburg has nurtured. The acceptance of contrasts, black or white, straight or gay, ugly or beautiful, it doesn’t matter, you’re in Hamburg.

So whether you’re looking for alcoholic adventures, theatres, museums, protests or a political chat with a transvestite, there’s a good chance you’ll find it in Hamburg. And after all, 14 cents for a single carrot isn’t so expensive.

Traveler Article


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