Komm gib mir deine Hand
(April 2004)

Stefan and I have spent every Easter weekend together on vacation -- the first in Berlin, the second in Cairo and Luxor. So we wanted to keep the streak going, and many weeks ago, we decided for somewhere closer to home for this year: Hamburg. And, for me, Hamburg has always meant one thing: the Beatles. It's where they became the fantastic band that they were. But the Beatles haven't been there for about 40 years, and there's nothing really to see of where they played. So why go? It was other people's travelogues that convinced me it was worth going to even after the Beatles were long gone.

We had first class train tickets which, for some reason, were cheaper than second class tickets for this particular trip. We took a cab from my apartment to Bonn and then got on the rather empty first class section of the train. I kept wondering what we would get that would be so special in first class. On a plane, you get a much better meal than in second class, with real silverware, and on USA domestic flights, alcoholic drinks are free in first class (on most international flights, alcohol is free for everyone on the plane). So, what do you get in first class on a train? More expensive prices and the ability to buy over-priced drinks from your seat. That's it. We brought all our own food and drinks (something I encourage you to do if traveling by train -- you will be soooo glad you did).

We were lucky to get seats with a table, and I spread out my books, my walkman, drinks and food all over it -- all my tools for the four-hour trip. Usually, I can read on a train without becoming violently ill, if I'm wearing sea bands, but I knew I'd spend most of my time staring at the window at Northern Germany, which I'd never seen before.

The industrial mining towns and steel towns of the North are, IMO, depressing: not much color, and so many abandoned industrial buildings and equipment. It was like the movie Brazil . I can't imagine living in such. I confessed to Stefan that this was how I had expected all of Germany to look before I visited the first time. I'm so glad I was wrong. Stefan says that some of the steel plants have been disassembled and then shipped to China, where they are re-assembled and then start producing steel again.

The scenery on the way to Hamburg was mostly flat, and not wholly interesting, but things did pop up that were worth a look: forests, and farmland, and deer feeding in the lovely green fields. The most interesting thing on the trip was the industrial town of Wuppertal, which has a local rail system that runs by hanging over the river that runs through town. I thought Stefan was lieing when he first said that's what the massive steelworks over the river were for -- I thought it was for a coal shipping belt. But, sure enough, on the way back, I saw a train for myself. Amazing.

By the time we got to Hamburg, the train was packed, and we were lucky for a third time in not to have had to give up our seats. We didn't have reserved seats (which I don't quite understand -- the ticket seller said we couldn't have such), and we had accidentally sat in a part of the train that's reserved for special train travelers with "comfort class" passes -- I watched four people have to give up their seats for such folks. We were very lucky -- no one ever asked us to. I doubt there were any more seats in First Class, and I'm sure the only seats left in second class were facing backwards -- which is really, really hard and sometimes impossible for me to use (I hate my stomach).

The Hamburg train station is huge, with tons of places to shop and eat. It was a bit difficult to find the U-Bahn line we wanted, but we did, and had just four or so stops to our hotel. The line went right along the harbor, and I got my first big look at what originally made Hamburg famous. Though the bulk of the biz has moved to Asia, shipping is still very big there, and all those huge ships and cranes and dry docks were amazing to see. The architecture was also nice -- a very attractive city on first impression, and for the entire trip.

Our U-Bahn stop for the hotel is right next to a massive World War II bunker, which I thought it was a prison (the bunker, not the hotel). We got a close at it later in the weekend, plus a couple of views of it from affair while in other parts of Hamburg. Our stop was also right next to one of the entrances to the Hamburg Dom, a massive carnival complete with roller coaster and ferris wheel. Everything is temporary though -- I guess they would close it if an economic boom were to hit.

Across from our U-Bahn stop was the Knust, a former warehouse that's been turned into a performance space, with little shops and a restaurant. Unfortunately, we didn't discover this until Monday morning, when everything was closed... and there was a poster for Chris Knight, of Western Kentucky, who would be performing on a following weekend. I was soooo bummed. How cool it would have been to see him and finally meet him, in Germany! Next time I go, I'd like to do a bit of research about what bands are playing in Hamburg -- there are many, many clubs, and I recognized at least two names on a poster from the circuit in Austin.

From the U-Bahn stop, we had a walk of some blocks to the Hotel Pacific, which I loved (Stefan found it on the Internet). It's simple, clean and cheerful. The bathroom and shower are down the hall, but that was fine. Our room had a TV and phone, and the hotel was full of well-behaving soccer fans (now there's an oxy-moron). Breakfast was included, and was all you could eat of cereal, boiled eggs, cold meats and bread. The hotel is right next to a neighborhood of all sorts of terrific restaurants -- so, right on, Hotel Pacific in Hamburg.

I have to note, however, that for this trip, Lonely Planet wasn't that great. Whoever wrote the Hamburg chapter for Germany has a very particular view of Hamburg, one that, IMO, leaves so much out. The Hamburg chapter is focused too much on backpackers and St. Pauli. My book is from 1999 -- I hope the Hamburg section has been greatly updated in the latest version.

So, what did we do in Hamburg?:

We ate at a terrific organic restaurant near our hotel. I had the best cream of vegetable soup I've ever had in my life.

We ate so much fantastic fish and seafood, something I was ever so happy about and rarely get here in Bonn. The Portuguese section of town has terrific restaraunts -- don't eat at the ones right on the harbor street -- instead, walk into the district for the best restaurants. My favorite was the shrimped cooked in garlic and butter. Beyond yummy.

Notice that my very first items are regarding food.

We visited the Miniature Museum, something Stefan had had his heart set on, and which I was excited about as well, per seeing a special about it on TV here in Bonn. It's a bit hard to find; it's next to the Hamburg Dungeon, in the old warehouse district. The signage leading up to the entrance is poor -- we followed the only other people we saw, hoping they were going there as well (and they were). We got there at nine, and discovered a line already -- it turned out it had opened at 8 that day. But we were lucky; our wait was just around 15 minutes, and the line behind us was beginning to stretch out the door and down the steps when we finally got in. The wait after 10 can be two hours, so you should DEFINITELY get there at opening time.

To describe the Miniature Museum sounds boring -- it's basically the world's largest model train city. But it's so cool! The level of detail is remarkable, and there is so much to see on many levels (be sure to bend down occasionally, to see what has been put underneath the surface scene). There were lots of visual jokes -- a protest by a group of people wanting to retire at 30, a man painting with a nude woman model on a park bench in the woods and a monk looking at them from behind some bushes, two people having sex in the bushes, a crowd of rioting punk rockers outside of a soccer match, a purple and white Milka cow amid a herd of regular cows, and on and on. The best part was when a "fire" would break out, made with lots of flashing lights and smoke, and all of the rescue vehicles would pour out of the nearest station.

Occasionally, something would go wrong and one of the guys that worked there would have to reach over the railing and adjust something, and I would fake yell to Stefan, "Oh my god!! A giant!! A giant!! Run for your lives!!!" I was really, really annoying.

We walked along the harbor and then took one of the tourist boats amid the ships and docks. It was cold, but the scenery was too fascinating to miss by going down into the covered ship's lounge. The Hamburg docks are just beyond huge. All of these massive cranes -- they looked like robots from another planet. We were lucky enough to see a ship that had been full of semi truck cabs being offloaded, so we could understand how it was done. When you think about just how much stuff has gone through Hamburg, coming or going, it's mind boggling. As we were heading back to the pier, a sea plane landed right next to us -- that was rather cool.

Yes, ofcourse, we walked through the notorious St. Pauli district. I have never seen so many hookers in one night in my life -- and, remember, I have lived in both NYC and the San Francisco Bay area. Actually, for a second I didn't know they were hookers; there were just all these Brittney Spears look-alikes standing around in white coats, looking exactly the same as teenage girls who hang out in any city. I was so taken aback at how young they were. Then I started getting depressed. How many were from Eastern Europe and thought they were going to get jobs as dancers, and now have no passports and no hope? How many have drug problems and are working themselves into debt with every trick?

The shoe stores in St. Pauli are hilarious. The shoes look like torture equipment. They certainly would be for me. I have never seen such severe heels in my life -- one pair of shoes was completely on point, with spikey heels that could be used as a weapon.

We went into a small and very German pub in St. Pauli, where everyone was forced to hang up their coats on the nearest coat hook. No, I'm not kidding -- no one was allowed to have his or her coat in his or her lap or in the seat next to them. It was so bizarre. Luckily, we had hung up our coats right away and not gotten reprimanded. A large group got tired of being reminded of the rule and left without ordering.

We didn't make it to anywhere where the Beatles played once upon a night. We couldn't find such at night. But it was enough to be walking on the same streets that they did before they got famous, where they learned to be such a tight and amazing group.

Ofcourse, I kept giggling maniacally that the notorious district was named after one of my least favorite people ever, St. Paul.

One night, we went for dinner in Newgrossemarkt, a part of town that wasn't mentioned in my Lonely Planet book but should be. It's off the beaten track, and is a plaza full of great restaurants and bars. It was a rather dead night, except in the Irish bar, which had a two man band playing. We got one of the last open tables and ate a fantastic meal (yes, I had fish), washed down with Guinness and a couple of shots of Bushmills 10 Year Old whiskey (I just love that vanilla taste). I was thoroughly full and sauced for the U-Bahn ride back to the hotel, and remember little of it.

We went up to the top of Michaeliskirche, a massive Protestant church near the harbor, and took the tiny elevator to the top (yeah! an alternative to climbing a tower!!) for a wonderful view of the city.

On the last day, we had no plans, and thought our day would be spent just ambling along the harbor. But we were in for a surprise -- while buying postcards, Stefan found out that we could take a van to a Russian submarine that the Germans bought and turned into a tourist site. We got the van just as it was leaving. It was FABULOUS! It's not a terribly old sub -- it was in service in the 1970s. But still! I had never been in a submarine. We loved it. I would love to have gotten to play alone on it for about two hours. It was a bummer that you pretty much have to keep moving along, because there are people behind you waiting to see what you are seeing at just about every point.

We also went to the massive statue of Bismark, which is surrounded by massive stone reliefs of naked men in what I consider to be very homoerotic positions -- ah, military men. Bismark looks severe and mean -- which he was, I think -- and is facing away from the downtown and, instead, faces St. Pauli; the bus tour guide had said earlier that Bismark paid for the statue himself, but died before it was built, and the city didn't like him, so they turned the statue with its back to the harbor. The bus tour guide, by the way, had been nice enough to attempt to do parts of his tour in English, just for me, and at times it was particularly funny, especially when he translated for me that the price of "hand works" in St. Pauli is 50 Euros.

One of the keys to this trip being so great was taking BREAKS, something I still regret not doing more of in Prague. Without breaks, I just can't keep going all day and into the night, and if you don't see a city's night life, you don't really know the city. One day, we went back to the hotel and took a siesta. It wasn't warm enough to go sit somewhere and read outside for a bit, but we did something every day that involved just sitting -- like taking that harbor tour, or taking the hour and a half bus tour that included a trip through some of the richest parts of town. I guess I'm getting old (and definitely fat), but these breaks really help me. On this trip, as a result, we got to see a little of Hamburg night life, and it made me feel like I knew the city much more.

Before I went to Hamburg, so many people would respond, "Why are you going there?!" I'm not sure what they think Hamburg is, but they definitely have the wrong impression. It's a terrific city, and I recommend only Berlin ahead of it as a place you must see if you visit Germany.

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