Natasha and I briefly visited the city of Hamburg, poised at the mouth of the Elbe River. With just two days in Hamburg and one day in Lübeck, we had an admirable taste of maritime Germany! Natasha picked the Park Hotel for our stay, located in the Berliner Tor neighborhood, which gave us good access to both the airport and the main train station of Hamburg.
Our first brush with the old town or “Altstadt” came in the evening hours of Saturday, August 14th. We started in the Rathausmarkt, the marketplace adjacent to the town hall. We hopped the subway from Berliner Tor to Jungfernstieg, a lakefront walk where the wealthy daughters of Hamburg could promenade in public. We came aboveground to discover a busy shopping area, but we turned toward the Rathaus, the first stop on our tour. We had a lovely surprise waiting for us. The Philharmonia was playing an open-air concert!
The Rathaus was a beautiful site, with its high spire visible throughout most of the Altstadt. My eye decoded the outside as “Victorian,” and Natasha called it nineteenth century. Maiken Umbach noted that the design competition for the town hall took place in 1885, with a “Neo-Renaissance” exterior that featured twenty statues of emperors from the Holy Roman Empire. That high spire I admired shows the imperial eagle above the coat of arms for the City of Hamburg.
We followed a passageway between the Rathaus and the Chamber of Commerce behind it to find an enclosed plaza with an impressive fountain. As we exited the plaza, we were surprised to find a little fuel station at the exit! The Chamber of Commerce is pretty impressive in its own right, though the view of its facade (marked as “Handelskamer Hamburg”) is somewhat obscured by the construction taking place on the next building.
Natasha reminded me that it was time for dinner, and she had located a restaurant that seemed a good prospect for gluten-safe food. We moved a couple of blocks northwest to the Bok Imbiss Cafe, located in a food court behind the mall space along Bleichenbrüke. We crossed the former city wall and then two canals in two blocks to reach the restaurant. It’s a reminder that Hamburg’s wealth came from maritime trade, and these inlets and canals (“Venice of the North”) produce a lot of surface area for businesses to access the water. I was also reminded of the incredible water channels in St. Petersburg.
The Bok Imbiss Cafe was an excellent choice! I enjoyed a teriyaki tofu and Natasha relished a lovely red Thai curry salmon salad. We still had a bit of light in the sky, so we continued our tour to the southeast. We reached the Trostbrücke bridge, the original of which was constructed in 1300 C.E. The bridge has a really cool pair of statues, one of Archbishop Ansgar and one of Count Adolf III, two figures associated with the origins of Hamburg. The bridge also offers a stellar view of some astonishing brick buildings, one of which features copper models of sailing ships at its crest.
When we passed those two buildings, we found another surprise. St. Nikolai Church occupies a site that has been home to a church since the late twelfth century. The current structure was constructed in 1874, but in 1943, the Allied bombing of Hamburg obliterated the building. I liked that the stabilized ruins have been turned into an art gallery of sorts and as a monument against war. For a couple years after its construction, the tower was the tallest building on earth, so it’s cool that people can visit its top to see the city from above (during business hours).
We exited the park to the west where we marveled at a massive pedestrian overpass with its own escalators. We struck out toward the Rathaus again to finish our tour since the light was fading. When we reached the city hall, the music from the symphony was reflected between buildings, so I paused to shoot a video while panning across the Rathaus exterior. Natasha and I strolled hand-in-hand to the waterfront, looking at the Binnenalster with its central fountain. it was a lovely image to savor at the heart of Hamburg.
The Kontorhausviertel and Speicherstadt
Natasha and I resolved to spend more time learning about Hamburg’s trade history. The following morning (Sunday), she and I set out for the Speicherstadt, the “warehouse city” of Hamburg. Starting from the Meßberg underground station, our first priority was finding a quality cup of coffee for Natasha. It seems a bit of an oversight now, but we turned our backs on the Chocoversum, the chocolate museum of Hamburg, in search of a cafe.
We were happy to find ourselves in the middle of an historic area, the Kontorhausviertel (office building quarter), where massive buildings to support Hamburg’s commerce were established in the early twentieth century. We particularly liked the Chilehaus, designed by architect Fritz Höger and constructed in 1922-1924. It’s a fine example of “Brick Expressionism” for that era, with an acute corner like the prow of a ship!
Right next door in the Sprinkenhof (constructed between 1927 and 1943), we found our cafe. Natasha and I arrived in the middle of Sunday Brunch, which looked pretty tasty! Nonetheless, we limited ourself to coffee and tea, and we enjoyed the happy patter of relaxed munchers around us. I was pretty impressed by a copy of the “Kontorhaus Journal,” a glossy publication detailing the businesses in the area.
Natasha and I crossed the Wandrahmsteg (bridge from 1962) to the Speicherstadt, getting a pretty good view of the trend-setting building for Der Spiegel. The Speicherstadt itself is an artificial island created by driving oak piles into the riverbed. The motivation was the occasion of Hamburg’s joining the German Empire in 1888. Since the free port would be excluded from import sales taxes and customs, Hamburg was very motivated to have its warehouses located in the free port. They responded by building a massive warehouse district between 1883 and 1927. World War II’s Operation Gomorrah destroyed the western section of the warehouse district in 1943 (along with much of the rest of the city). The operation was notable for its use of “chaff” to prevent radar detection of the bomber wings bringing incendiary and high explosive bombs to the city. To talk about the military technology or loss of buildings is beside the point, though. The 9000 tons of bombs dropped in this operation resulted in more than 37,000 fatalities, largely civilians.
I was taken by an interesting museum at the northeastern end of Alter Wandrahm. The “Dialog House” has exhibits dedicated to enabling participants with normal sight to experience the world from the perspective of guides who lack sight. If we had more time in Hamburg, I would have liked to have tried it. Instead, we crossed to Brooktorkai and walked southwest to the Fleetschlösschen restaurant. We might have continued down that route to reach Miniatur Wunderland, but we hadn’t reserved tickets weeks in advance as would be necessary! We might have taken in the Maritime Museum, but we had other plans. We turned back to the northwest to cross on Bei St. Annan, because we knew our next destination. It was time for the coffee museum!
Since the late nineteenth century Hamburg and its free port had become the main hub for importing green coffee to central Europe. In the huge warehouse district, around two hundred coffee merchants at a time occupied the Sandtorkai, their offices and the coffee exchange just a short walk away from the city center, the town hall, and the chamber of commerce.German History as Global History: The Case of Coffee by Dorothee Wierling in German History in Global and Transnational Perspective, edited by David Lederer (2017)
The Burg coffee roastery has been based near its current address since 1923. It’s a lovely place to stop for coffee, and we saw lots of lovely gifts that family members might enjoy. I was tempted to try one of the coffees, but I am really a tea person at heart. Natasha lingered over a cup of Burundian roast, with a smile that would not leave her face. I munched my way through a lovely chocolate cake with mighty chunks of pear.
The outstanding aspect of the roastery, however, is that it sits above a museum of coffee history. Helpfully, the museum starts the story long before Hamburg was involved. It was my first time to learn of the “dancing goat” legend, of Ethiopian shepherds who saw strange behavior from goats eating from particular bushes. Gradually the coffee bean migrated outward from the sahel, particularly once Arabian trade began featuring the commodity. Portuguese and then Spanish traders moved cultivation much farther afield, to east Asia, Brazil, Guatemala, and many other places. We might today think of Central America as the natural home of coffee production, but cultivation on a large scale there only began in the 1840s.
Hamburg’s connection with coffee is tied to the rapid industrialization that took place in Germany throughout the 19th century. Coffee was a means to an end by early capitallists: “Coffee turned out to be ideal because of the enormous advantages of its triple effect: it helped workers stay awake, it apparently muted hunger and it optimized the capitalist goal of raising profits by increasing worker output. On the downside, coffee masked medical problems and exhaustion, causing premature worker death.” (Justus Fenner 2013)
Hamburg’s enviable position in maritime trade had persisted for centuries, and by the 1860s, coffee had become the most valuable agricultural product imported into its harbor. “The strategy of the Hanseatic coffee firms to assure steady profits had three components. First, they would step up importation of low-quality coffee from Brazil. At the same time, they would make a direct incursion into high-quality coffee production in order to control that part of the coffee commodity chain. Third, they would create a bifurcated consumer market in Germany, where more profitable sales of high-quality coffee would compensate the lower prices and potential risks of importing lower grade coffee.” (Justus Fenner 2013)
In many respects, Germany was a Johnny-come-lately to colonization. Its merchants, however, found ways to benefit from Guatemala’s openness to external investment. After Guatemalan coffee gained a reputation for high-end coffee exports, German firms gained control of existing plantations within the country and cultivated new ones. Hamburg had soon become the pre-eminent supplier of coffee to Central Europe.
Natasha and I wandered north to Hauptkirche Sankt Petri, close to the Rathaus. At last the sun had come out, and we were able to enjoy our wander from the harbor to the old town in style.