story and photos by Kayte Deioma
Hamburg, Germany is a gracious lady with her elegant architecture and posh shops along Jungferstieg. Waterfront cafes line the colonnade adjacent to the regal Town Hall, and swans glide gracefully across the Inner Alster Lake.
The grande dame also has a naughty side with her red light district known as the St. Pauli Reeperbahn, where the Beatles made their continental debut and the prostitutes are certified.
As one of the top 10 seaports in the world, the harbor, located 60 miles down the Elbe River from the North Sea, also plays a prominent role in the city’s personality. I was in town for the annual Hamburg Harbor Birthday celebration in May , which brings the whole population down to the waterfront, rain or shine.
It was sprinkling as I boarded the Loth Lorien to sail with the crew and assembled guests in the Parade of Ships opening the festivities on Friday afternoon. Despite the weather the hearty Hamburgers were out in full force crowding the harbor promenade at Landungsbruecken (Landing Bridges) to see the hundreds of marine vessels passing by.
My host ship was a three-masted schooner, built in 1907. A tarp kept the rain at bay and the galley staff plied us with hors d’oeuvres and fancy cocktails. Not content with the cocktail view, I donned my rain poncho and climbed up to the forward deck for a better look at the frigates, tall ships and riverboats parading across a backdrop of dramatic clouds. The sky cleared just in time to watch the fireworks display over the ships’ masts.
The continuing inclement weather did not stop the locals from coming out the next day to enjoy the 500 vendor booths and rides and multiple music stages stretching almost two miles from Landungsbrueken to Speicherstadt (the warehouse district). Being of less hearty stock, I chose to escape the rain and explore some of the Speicherstadt’s museums and indoor amusements.
Two of the big attractions are right next to each other. I skipped the long line for the Dungeon, which displays historic implements of torture, in favor of entering the fantasy world of Miniatur Wunderland. What started as a collection of model trains has become an intricately coordinated recreation of a condensed USA and Europe. Thousands of toy cars, 18 wheelers, buses and boats, as well as over 100 trains, are choreographed to move in and out of their international backdrops, stopping at signals and avoiding running into each other. The occasional scheduled crash raises a rapid response from mini emergency vehicles. Hundreds of thousands of inch-high people populate this diminutive world spread across multiple rooms on several floors.
A couple blocks away, the Speicherstadt Museum in an old coffee warehouse, displays some common implements of warehouse operation from hooks and scales to weights and barrels. Most of the exhibit focuses on the storage and transport of coffee beans, so it put me in the mood to enjoy a hot brew and a slice of homemade apple pecan coffee cake in their cafe.
At Spicy’s Spice Museum, curiosities like a model ship made of cloves from Indonesia are tucked among baskets of fresh herbs and spices, and information panels describing the harvesting of saffron and the proper care of cinnamon. A few panels are in English, but most of the text is only in German. The In the same building as Spicy’s, the Afghan Museum, is devoted to the history and culture of Afghanistan. The exhibits are very well presented, with life-size figures engaged in various traditions from cooking and drinking tea to weaving and shoemaking. Tableaus recreate rooms in Afghan homes in different parts of the country, and depict miniature landscapes. For a small space, they pack in an amazing amount of information and still have room for a gift shop and a tea alcove. Tea is included with admission.
It was still drizzling when I joined the hundreds of thousands of people who brought their umbrellas out to the harbor promenade to watch the world-famous Tugboat Ballet. The half-dozen chunky workboats dipped, bowed and pirouetted gracefully through a series of intricate maneuvers choreographed to a Viennese waltz piped through speakers along the riverbank.
Dinner followed aboard the museum ship SS Rickmer Rickmers. This full-rigged windjammer was built in 1896. After many incarnations it was restored and turned into a museum in 1987. The ship’s restaurant is open to the public 11 am to 6 pm, but I was there as an invited guest at the Captain’s Dinner, attended by the captains of the guest vessels participating in the festivities and a selection of debutantes and their dates in historic attire.
Away from the port, Hamburg has a myriad of other opportunities to escape the weather. In addition to an impressive array of world-class art and history museums, English tours of the Rathous (Town Hall) will take you through the ornate council chambers and banquet halls.
For shoppers, the new Europa Passage adds four stories of modern flair and architectural drama across the Innenalster from the classic Hamburg department stores and indoor retail corridors that weave through the blocks along Jungfernstieg.