Saturday, September 18, 2010

Germany: Hamburg

I arrived in Hamburg today, a new city for me. It is of course the home of that famous Sydney girl, Simone Young, who is musical director at the Hamburg Opera, and – according to the guide book I picked up at the airport – she has ‘become firmly established in Hamburg’ and ‘a star of the local cultural scene.’ There is a photograph of her in the hotel’s brochure. Tomorrow night I go to hear her conduct the opera ‘Bliss’, which she originally commissioned from composer Brett Dean, back in the days when she and Opera Australia were still friends.  I read some reviews of the first performance, and it is said to be better than OA’s version – we’ll see!

Hotel Louis C Jacob
The hotel I have washed up at is called the Louis C Jacob and is out of town a bit, on the banks of the River Elbe: at Elbchaussee. It is a divine old place, with an historic main building and a new wing (huge rooms). It is one of those places that gives new guests an aperitif and a tour of the building, a custom of which I am about to avail myself, once the cocktail hour arrives.  The guide book describes it as

‘Arguably the most beautiful, privately-run hotel in the city, with an idyllic view of the river from the Elbchaussee. Meticulously furnished right down to the last oil painting over the mantelpiece. Everyone who is anyone in Blankenese will have either had their wedding reception or at least a birthday celebration here. And dinner under the lime trees – immortalized by the artist Max Liebermann – is simply divine.’

Divine it may be, but I won’t be having dinner under the lime trees, because the restaurant is booked solid throughout my stay. Everyone who is anyone is having their wedding reception or at least a birthday celebration here. But they should let me in for breakfast.

Terrasse im Restaurant Jacob in Nienstedten an der Elbe
Max Liebermann 1902

The cab drove through the surrounding suburban neighbourhood on the way here, and I would confidently say that this must be one of the most beautiful and wealthy areas in all of Europe. I do not exaggerate. It is full of huge old villas, beautifully kept, set back in their grounds and surrounded by parklike gardens. I saw little girls in white satin with cerise umbrellas (it was raining lightly) skipping to church where the bells were ringing (possibly the wedding prior to the reception at the Louis C Jacob). Some houses were converted barns, with great steep roofs covered in thick thatch.  Everywhere looked green, damp, cool, immaculate, rich and well-run: kind of the opposite of Madrid last weekend.

Tonight I am stepping down the road to a restaurant recommended by the concierge, and tomorrow I’m taking a city tour with a guide – including collecting my opera ticket and getting the scoop on where to eat pre-theatre. There’s nothing like local information.

It has begun to rain lightly again. To quote the useful guidebook (written by a Hamburger):

‘Hamburg is one of the greenest cities in Germany – which is not really surprising considering there are two rivers, the Alster and the Elbe, that flow through the city under countless bridges. With the combination of water from below and water from above the city cannot be anything but green and luxuriant. Rain and fog do not deter the true northerner.’

Well, I am a true southerner, but I did think to bring my coat and umbrella, so this southerner will also be undeterred.

As far as I can make out, the main feature of Hamburg (apart from this lovely suburb) is it dock area, where beats the huge commercial heart of the city. I also discovered what the term Hanseatic means. Any guesses? It refers to the merchant roots of Hamburg, in the 13th to 15th centuries, when it was part of the ‘Hanse’ guild of merchants, the most powerful league of cities in the world at that time (‘world’ in this context presumably meaning ‘Europe’). Hamburgers seem very keen on being ‘Hanseatic people’ (despite the 15th century being a very long time ago), and I read this about something termed ‘the Hanseatic mentality’:

‘A Hanseatic merchant has many virtues: he is proud of his tradition, is honest and direct, but never short-tempered. A true Hanseatic citizen doesn’t look back (‘what’s gone is gone’), but forward.’

Of course, others have reviewed the merchants of Hamburg in less favourable terms, such as the King of Denmark in the 17th century:

‘Arrogant skin-flints and pepper sacks [‘money grabbers’], slimy fish-mongers and lazybones...’

So far everyone I’ve met has been lovely, so I can’t endorse King Christian’s views at this point. However there seems no doubt that Hamburg today – having survived a Great Fire on 5th May 1842, bombing in WWII, and big floods in 1962 – remains an extraordinary vital commercial centre. In 2006 there were 22,684 new companies registered at Hamburg’s Chamber of Commerce, hitting a high point in the city’s history. This, with a population of around 1.75 million – less than half of Sydney’s population.

I have spent the afternoon relaxing in this lovely hotel (which I hasten to assure you was not especially expensive – its out-of-town location seems to keep the price down), which has been lovely after the crazy-busy week I had last week.

Annette Locator: Hamburg

I think I should at this point acknowledge the contribution to my knowledge of Hamburg – and yours – made by my little guide book, one in the ‘Marco Polo’ series and written mainly by a local named Dorothea Heintze. Thank you, Dorothea. Dorothea clearly loves her city, but doesn’t shy off giving her readers the bad news too:

‘Most locals are open and friendly towards visitors and are anything but arrogant or stand-offish. Traders from the Hanseatic city have been criss-crossing the world’s oceans, building up business, since time immemorial and their relationship with their British counterparts across the Channel has always been very close’ [I see she skips lightly over that bombing thing]...But everybody is expected to do one thing: keep a stiff upper lip. Hanseatic northerners faithfully uphold their local mentality – never to lose face and always to show a certain restraint. Those who are not from Hamburg would perhaps call this aloofness.’

Now I’m afraid to go out....

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