The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (official name) is the 2nd largest city in Germany. Being Germany’s biggest port, Hamburg is a welcoming place for adventurers and travelers.
I traveled to Hamburg using the night bus, so I arrived very early in the morning. It was 4:50 am, too early and too dark to go anywhere. I was utterly disappointed to see that the McDonald’s in the bus station was closed. I went down to the nearest subway station, hoping to find a cafe where I can sneak in a nap. I was looking at the Hamburg map in the station when one of the guards asked me if I need help (at least, I assumed that was what he said). I told him I only speak English. He called out to three other guards, asked if they can speak English. They were just shrugging. I tried to ask where a cafe was, he just stared. I repeated, “cafe” and he understood (i think), pointing me to the other end of the hall. I did see a small cafe, but it had tall seats, not really inviting. I saw a sign that says “traveler center”, and i just followed the arrows, hoping there would be some open cafe where i can stay warm until it’s late enough to wander about. The arrows led me to the Central Station… and there it was–an open McDonald’s!
I was so relieved to see my ever reliable, worldwide fast food chain. You can count on McDo to be open 24 hours, anywhere. Unfortunately, they don’t have a breakfast menu (boo!), and I didn’t feel like devouring all that oil from their burger and fries so early in the morning. Thankfully, they had garden salad (hooray!). I ordered that and orange juice. The very nice girl in the counter told me it would be cheaper to order the happy meal instead. For a cheaper price, I would have the salad, the juice, a cheeseburger… “plus a toy!”, she added cheerily. So I relented, and chose a pink coin purse with a pony embroidered on it as my “toy”. In all fairness, I’m using it now to keep my Euros in (it’s hard to have different currencies in a single purse).
Since it was only six in the morning, and it was still dark out, I tried sleeping at my booth. I just leaned my head against the wall, using my jacket as a pillow and holding my phone in one hand, and pretended that i was reading and just inadvertently fell asleep. I did this until 8:00 am, and then I decided it was time to go out and explore Hamburg. It was still a little dark, and the tourist office was still closed. I found a map on the opposite side of the station, took a picture and decided I’d check out the sights that the map said was significant. I was wandering around for an hour, but then I was feeling cold and sleepy again. A night in the bus isn’t exactly what you would call a good night’s sleep. I wanted to sleep again so I looked for a coffee shop, where a comfortable couch would be waiting for me. I looked, and I found Starbucks. It’s like McDonald’s for me: worldwide, readily available, and familiar. There are no Starbucks coffee shops in Sweden, so I was very glad to see a familiar face… Actually, it was really the couches that I’m after. The other coffee shops that I checked out only had stools and stiff chairs. Starbucks was my best option for a comfortable nap. And so I ordered my favorite warm caramel macchiato. While they were preparing my drink, I saw some brochures in the place where they keep the sugar and napkins. The “New Hamburg FREE TOUR” caught my attention. So I grabbed one brochure before claiming my drink. As I read through the brochure, I could hardly believe my eyes. It was a free walking tour of Hamburg! Well, the brochure said the tour works on a tips-only basis and they won’t pressure you to tip. The tour was under Sandeman’s New Europe Tours, a company that offers free tours to some of Europe’s top destinations. That sounded alright to me. The tour starts every 11:00 am in front of the Starbucks across the Rathaus (Hamburg Town Hall), which was one block away from the Starbucks I was currently in. I got really excited. I won’t be wandering around Hamburg aimlessly anymore! It was only 9:30 that time so I took my nap in the homey Starbucks couch while waiting out the time.
After my nap, I went across the Rathaus and saw a good number of people loitering around a placard that says “Free Tour”. I came up to them and told them I wanted to join the free tour. They said that was great and we would just wait for a few more minutes to see if anyone else will show up. At around half past eleven, the tour guide introduced himself. His name was Craig, he’s Australian but is now residing in Hamburg. He started the tour by making us sit by the stairs of the harbour beside the Rathaus and told us a little bit of Hamburg’s history. He also pointed to the swans in the water and told us that swans are considered lucky by the Hamburgers (the people of Hamburg). They were said to be the reason why the city prospered. There was a law (it was a long time ago, I can’t remember the year) protecting the swans in Hamburg. You could lose your life for insulting or hurting a swan! During the winter, the swans are collected and put in a shelter somewhere so they wouldn’t suffer from the cold. They are returned to the docks during spring. They are some lucky swans!
Craig also told us to bear in mind the year 1842, the year of the Great Fire, when most of Hamburg was burned to the ground. This means that most of the buildings in Hamburg were younger than they supposedly were, and were rebuilt after the fire (if not bombed during the war).
The Rathaus (Town Hall) is one such building. It’s not even in its original
location. During the Great Fire of 1842, the officials had a brilliant idea on how to stop the fire. They thought of blowing up the town hall to starve the fire of oxygen. Good plan, but it didn’t work. They purposefully blew up their town hall for nothing. But they rebuilt it, and made it into the magnificent building it is today. The grandeur of Hamburg’s town hall is a testimony to the wealth of the city. How did they become so rich, you ask? Because for a long time they did not pay any taxes! A very wise forgery of documents in the 1200s allowed Hamburg to prosper as a major port, tax-free!
After the town hall, we next visited two of Hamburg’s most famous churches: St. Petri and St. Jacobi. Hauptkirche St. Petri has the distinction of having Hamburg’s oldest door handles. It was strange that during the Great Fire, the door handles were the first thing they thought of saving…On the other hand, I found St. Jacobi interesting because it is part of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Every year, pilgrims on foot, who come from Norway and Sweden pass by this church, which is 2,500 km away from the pilgrimage site. That’s a really long walk!After that we checked out Chilehaus, the second sharpest corner in Europe (the sharpest when it was made). It is an office building built in the 1920s for a merchant that made his fortune trading with Chile (thus the name Chilehaus). The design was made to look like a ship (or at least that’s what most people think). Interesting architecture! We also visited the commercial building where they developed Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide used for killing the people in concentration camps. My heart felt heavy as I remembered how many people suffered and died during the Holocaust. We also went to visit the original site of the town hall, now the office for the Patriotic Society of Hamburg. Beside it was Trostbrücke (Trost Bridge), where two statues face each other. One statue was of St. Angsar (the founder of Hamburg’s cathedral, representing the Old Town) and Count Adolf III (founder of the merchant’s district, representing the New Town). The translation of the bridge’s name was the Bridge of Solace, since this was the last bridge that criminals cross before they were tried at the Town Hall and then sent off for hanging.
The next place we went to was the ruins of St. Nikolai’s church, the second tallest building in Hamburg (now an elevator can take you to the top for a nice view of the city). It was destroyed by air raids during the Second World War. Operation Gomorrah (the air raid’s name) lasted for a week, killing and injuring tens of thousands of people and damaging most parts of the city. Bombs after bombs were dropped by thousands of planes. The spires of St. Nikolai’s church served as the aiming point, but it survived the bombings. The damaged church now serves as a memorial of this bombing.
We also went to the place where the Great Fire of 1842 started, in
Deichstrasse. The story goes that the Great Fire was an arson, that somebody purposefully sent a merchant’s building on fire, but then he has some tobacco and spirits in the building, so a great fire ensued for four days. Until now, nobody knows who started that fire.
Next stop was the Speicherstadt, the Warehouse District. This is where trade for carpets, coffee, cocoa and other products are handled. Some museums can also be found here. The Warehouse District is part of HafenCity, a new development project that would be the new happening place in Hamburg. Apartment and office buildings in this new quarter costs triple the price of one average-sized house. It is also where the Elbe Philharmonic Hall is being built. They plan to make this concert hall a rival of the Sydney Opera House, and to be Hamburg’s new landmark. Unfortunately, the government is having some problems with the costs (their cost estimate for the building were all spent on the design), so this project might not be finished soon. However, they did have a small replica of what the building is supposed to look like on the other end of the harbor. It was a “gift” from the architects. It also had some music coming out of it. It was a very unique experience, putting my ears beside those things jutting out of the box (I don’t know what to call them!), listening to opera music and performances.
That was the last place that we went to, and then Craig told us an entertaining-but-true pirate story as the end to the tour. We gave him tips for the very informative and entertaining three-and-a-half -hour tour. After that, I went for coffee with some of the wonderful people I met on the tour. We went to a coffee shop and ate franzbrötchen, a sweet bread baked with butter and cinammon. The locals said a visitor of Hamburg should never miss out on this pastry. We had a nice chat over franzbrötchen and coffee (but I only had water, since I already had coffee that morning). It was too bad that I had to leave them in the coffee shop to catch my train to Berlin.
I really enjoyed Hamburg, even if it was just for a day. I got to experience eating a German Kiddie Meal, I joined a free tour where I learned tons of new things, and I got to meet wonderful people. It was truly a day well spent!