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Hamburg: Germany's New Old Atmosphere

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Photo: Christian Kerber

A waschechte Hamburger is not something you eat. It’s a person born and bred in Hamburg, and it was a few such dyed-in-the-wool locals who put the city in perspective for me. Hamburg, I learned, may be the richest city in Germany, but it is not a city that shows off, like Munich; it is quieter than Berlin but more sophisticated, too—a publishing and manufacturing center. The country’s leading news publications, including Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, are based downtown. Airbus planes are assembled here. In the western suburb of Blankenese, once a fishing village, are the discreet villas of the wealthy. The fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld renovated and eventually sold a vast Neoclassical mansion here, with views of the harbor.

These days, the city is changing. The Elbe Philharmonic Hall is under construction: architects Herzog & de Meuron’s stunning folly of a building looks like a glowing glacier recently landed on a dark-brick harborside warehouse. Its top resembles a crown. There is no doubt that the concert hall, when finished—part of a complex that includes a 250-room luxury hotel and 45 private apartments—will be an icon as alluring as any siren architecture of our time. And like the Sydney Opera House or the Guggenheim in Bilbao, this building will draw attention to a city unaccustomed to being stared at or visited from far and wide.

The new philharmonic is in HafenCity, once a customs-free port zone you had to show your passport to enter, now the site of Europe’s largest urban development project. Almost 50 new buildings have gone up, about a third of the total planned, by some of the world’s most talented architects: Rem Koolhaas designed a monumental floating geometric ring that is to be a science center. Richard Meier and David Chipperfield have designed office buildings, and Zaha Hadid is in charge of a “promenade link” to the old city. There is a chic new boutique hotel, the 25hours.

My first long walk in Hamburg led me past a string of museums from the Deichtorhallen to the Kunsthalle, the latter filled with paintings by German Romantic masters such as Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge. The day I visited there was a dense veil of mist that dissolved only to reassemble more evenly and thickly, and I felt like the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Friedrich, minus the costume: a figure in tails, holding a stick, standing on a rock and looking out onto an expanse of sea-foam as ominous waves break over a nebulous landscape.

The sea was not far from where I was. A tributary of the Elbe River travels 65 miles to the North Sea from Hamburg, and the tides are such that a sailboat can come back upriver even on windless days, making it a natural harbor. But the expanse of water closer to me was Alster Lake. Its reflective presence in the center of town gives Hamburg an uncanny atmosphere. The Neuer Jungfernstieg, an elegant street that runs along the Alster, is lined with furriers, jewelers, and high-fashion boutiques. This is affluent Europe in the form of a civil, contented society, built on the city’s merchants and harbor. The luxury brands on the nearby Neuer Wall street were familiar—Cartier, Bulgari, Tiffany, Mont Blanc, Max Mara—but along a canal by the Rathaus, or town hall, I came across a small Syrian café with just five tables: the Salon de Thé Saliba. Its windows were decorated with neat rows of dates stuffed with walnuts, baklava alternating with tangerines, and small blue-and-white china cups containing chocolate mousse.

The Rathaus, designed by seven architects in the historicist neo-Renaissance style and completed in 1897, was one of the few grand buildings left standing after World War II, and the most dazzling. It has a central tower and wings spanning 50,000 square feet; there are 647 rooms. The parliamentary chamber, with wooden panels and leather benches and tall windows, reeks of European civility.

Steps away, it’s easy to overlook an Art Nouveau façade built in gray stone around a large arched window, behind which is one of the city’s liveliest establishments: Café Paris. Despite its name, this is a venerable Hamburg institution. At a little after 12 I sat at a table by the back wall of the brightly lit and delicately ornamented Jugendstil room. It is full of shimmering glazed tiles, and two cupolas set into the tall ceilings are frescoed with pastoral scenes—young men with bales of hay and crates of apples; a bare-chested woman accompanied by two cupids. By a quarter to one, the hall was packed with a young crowd, talking and consuming plates of steak tartare, bucketfuls of mussels with fries, and boiled beef with horseradish, all at a furious rate. My waitress was a glamorous brisk blonde in her thirties. I decided that sitting here was the most fun to be had in Hamburg, just watching the crowd.

Hamburg once belonged to the Hanseatic League, which regulated trade along the northern coast of Europe in the Middle Ages. Later, the city welcomed the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm I, but retained the privileges of a free harbor. Today, Hamburg offers a stately, comfortable beauty without grandiosity—since there were never any princes or kings, there are no palaces to be seen. Instead, there are understated residential streets like the Ise Strasse, in Eppendorf, curving gently, rising and falling like a well-paced breath, and lined with well-proportioned turn-of-the-20th-century houses whose façades are mostly white, pale gray, or the color of custard.

One of Hamburg’s oldest neighborhoods is St. Pauli, an entertainment and red-light district that originally catered to sailors. Here, women still sit in shop windows waiting to be chosen, as in a similar district in Amsterdam. Other women, such as myself, are forbidden to enter. Hamburgers are proud of St. Pauli. Nikolaus Hansen, editor of the publishing house Arche/Atrium, told me the red-light district was so socially acceptable that he remembers driving through it with his grandmother when he was a kid. In the early 1960’s the Beatles lived in Hamburg and played in several of the clubs in St. Pauli—Lennon once performed a set in his underwear and much later stated that though he was born in Liverpool, he felt he had grown up in Hamburg. Nowadays, the Reeperbahn, also known as die sündige Meile, or “sinful mile,” is geared toward tourists, and an order of orange juice might come with a lap dance and, later, a bill for 300 euros.

One afternoon, I sat beneath the gentle refracted light of a large cream-colored lampshade at the Café Leonar, in the nearby Grindel neighborhood. Grindel is a genteel, whitewashed, fin de siècle residential area that had a Jewish population of thousands before World War II, before many of them left and most of those remaining were deported and killed in the Nazi camps. Some of the names of the dead are engraved on individual square brass plates set into the sidewalks here and in other German cities by the artist Gunter Demnig. The café was quiet—I could hear the rustling of newsprint but not what guests were saying to the waitress.

So what is so Jewish about the Leonar? Not so much the “Israeli hummus” or the fact that bagels can be had—in addition to excellent cappuccinos and an assortment of croissants, pastries, and cakes. Perhaps the fact that there are so many newspapers to choose from, and even a few books. This is a serene place where one can read and think. If a cell phone dares to bleep discreetly, its owner heads for an enclave between the front door and a heavy velvet curtain to answer in whispers. I had tea and toast. The butter and jam came in dainty white pots.

I contemplated the city’s illustrious intellectuals: art historian Aby Warburg, whose extraordinary collection was relocated to London just in time; Heinrich Heine, whose descriptions of Hamburg are some of the most vivid and who once said that there was not enough holy water in the world to wash the Jew out of him; Arthur Schopenhauer, whose family lived in a house on a canal here in the 1790’s.

There are many canals in Hamburg, and many bridges—more, they say, than in Venice and Amsterdam put together. The 17 dark-brick warehouses of the Speicherstadt, each seven or eight stories high, with entrances from the water and from land, were built at the turn of the last century. Some of them are still used to store spices, Oriental carpets, and other goods.

On my last day, I walked through the botanical garden and came upon a small and delightful Japanese garden with a few low thatched-roof wooden constructions. From there I proceeded to the architect Fritz Höger’s 10-story Chilehaus—a building shaped like the prow of a ship and made of dark bricks with white window frames that stand out crisply like white collars on a somber uniform. In the arcaded ground floor is a fabulous store called Manufactum whose motto is “The good things in life still exist.” High-quality handmade “useful” objects were for sale there, such as feather shuttlecocks for a bamboo badminton set, a genuine ostrich-feather duster, three-winged boomerangs made of Finnish birch, straw bird’s nests, chamois cloths, pocket watches, Danish hammocks and camp beds, and a rotating soap holder. In another downtown design shop, Richard, I found a refined selection of modern and antique furniture and objects. Then it was time for tea in the high-ceilinged drawing room of the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, overlooking the lake.

The editor Nikolaus Hansen took me to dinner that night. We went to his favorite restaurant, Engel, on the Elbe River. You drive along the Elbchaussee and reach a point where the ferry docks. Up the stairs, and seemingly suspended over the water, is a room with no more than 13 tables, all of them with views of the river. The space is long and narrow, somewhat like the interior of a ferry, so that you see the river close up or across the width of the restaurant. The décor is simple—white tablecloths, wooden tables and floors, which are rocked by the regular docking of ferries. The menu is what you’d expect—grilled fish, shrimp, or filet, with fresh vegetables, simply served. Over a leisurely meal Hansen told me what it had been like to grow up in Hamburg.

Before reunification Hamburg was hemmed in by the sea and by the nearby border with East Germany. To go to West Berlin took many hours, between police formalities on one side and the other. The alternative was a one-hour Pan Am flight. “From 1950 to 1990, when the Wall came down, more than a thousand people were killed at the border—in the middle of civilized Europe,” Hansen said. “When I was a kid there were no tourists, and after nine the city was dark. But the city changed, became more extroverted after the war. Still, it kept its unexcited temper.”

It’s funny how the day appears to last different lengths in different parts of the world. In New York City it lasts about 12 minutes, divided into morning, afternoon, and evening, with four minutes for each. In Hamburg, the day seems multiplied by three and is steeped in the kind of time, between getting things done, to stop at a café and read a newspaper or a book. After a few days in this quietly old-fashioned and architecturally futuristic little capital of contentment, I could see just what Hansen meant about Hamburg’s “unexcited temper.”

Gini Alhadeff is a T+L contributing editor.

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