Holy cow! Do a trip over from scratch? Why? Because on our recent trip to Hamburg, Germany Kay and I experienced every international traveler’s nightmare. We lost our passports. Not lost exactly; they were stolen along with Kay’s Turkish residence permit and everything else in her purse – cell phone, credit cards, house keys, money – everything, including the purse! Things could have been worse. Kay wasn’t mugged, and the passports were dropped off at a police station but not before we had applied for replacements, which automatically cancelled the stolen ones. Her residence permit was returned, too; a blessing because it couldn’t be replaced outside of Turkey, meaning that she might not have been able to come home.
It happened like this: Kay had put her purse inside the small backpack she was carrying as we walked around the city. This was unusual. She had done so because of a sore back and thought it would be easier to carry the purse that way. As she descended a flight of outdoor steps, the thief had come up behind her, unzipped the pack and lifted the purse. Kay realized her purse was missing only at the bottom of the steps when we entered a U Bahn platform to catch a train.
We were traveling with friends, a German couple we have known for years. Conny and I quickly retraced our steps to the hotel where we just had lunch, thinking that Kay had somehow forgotten her purse there. When we realized that the purse had indeed been stolen, we presented ourselves to a nearby police station. Using my phone, Kay made calls to our banks cancelling her credit cards before they could be used. Our friends helped explain the details of the theft to the officers on duty that gave us a copy of the routine police report.
Although Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city, it has no U.S. Consulate. There was nothing for us to do except go immediately to Berlin, two hours away by train. Again, Conny and Jocki were invaluable. They checked schedules and helped us buy the train tickets. They also located a small hotel very close to the U.S. Consulate where we needed to appear the following morning.
I won’t say much about our day in Berlin except that the folks at the consulate gave great service and that we had our temporary passports in three hours. Then, there was the Turkish consulate where we were told that without her residence permit Kay had only a 50/50 chance of reentering the country.
It didn’t seem to help that I had photocopies of Kay’s permit and her passport made from files I keep on a flash drive as backup for use in exactly this kind of circumstance. All we could do was have the German police report translated into Turkish and have it authenticated by the consulate that same day before returning to Hamburg to rejoin our friends and finish our visit. Before boarding the train that evening, a phone call informed us that the permit had been returned, alleviating the worry of Kay’s return to Istanbul.
A bright spot on the train was that even with our second-class tickets, we were able to find seats, both going and coming, in the restaurant car. The food was only so-so, but the ambiance and the beer were excellent. Plus, we were able to observe a cross-section of our fellow travelers.
The post-mortem: We could have locked Kay’s backpack. We have locks for the purpose, but they were at home in Turkey. Had she felt in danger, Kay could have carried her pack against her chest, a method we have used in the past when passing through a dodgy neighborhood. Finally, one of us could have stayed closer and ideally behind Kay, who moves slowly on stairs due to her physical limitations. The thing is, none of us suspected a problem where we were and in broad daylight. Lesson learned, we think. It’s probably always a good idea to lock our day packs when we wear them.
Before telling you about some really pleasant things about Hamburg, I’ll add one more cautionary tale. Hotel accommodation is expensive in that city, so we decided in advance to share a flat advertised on airbnb with our friends. Although our intention was good, the flat had much to be desired. Its best feature was its location on a pedestrian-only street in the city center. Although not too expensive, it was on the fourth floor of a commercial building that had a tiny elevator two persons could use only if they squeezed themselves back-to-back or belly-to-belly. We were given only one set of keys. There were two bedrooms with foam mattresses set on stacked rough-lumber pallets, the kind used to deliver cases of beer. The two baths advertised turned out to be one with a toilet and tiny shower and a second toilet in an adjacent closet. The kitchen had four under-counter lights, only one of which worked. The flimsy table that we moved into the sitting room had four even flimsier chairs that were barely safe to sit on. Lighting throughout was a problem, not adequate to read by after the sun went down.
I’ve enumerated these defects not simply to grouse but as an example of a random airbnb offering. There are no guarantees with them, as there would more likely be in a hotel.
Conny, Jocki, Kay, and I made the best of it. On the street corner below, was an excellent bakery selling bread and sweet rolls. When we finally found a supermarket some distance from the flat, we bought salami, cheese, butter, wine, etc. We ate breakfast each morning on our precarious dining set up and drank our wine in the evenings in the sitting room.
About wine; not far from the apartment building on our colonnaded street, there is a small wine bar that specializes in Franken wine. This is wine both red and white produced in Franconia in the north west of Bavaria. I particularly liked the white Salvaner. The four of us enjoyed this crowded, friendly spot on two successive evenings. A point of interest is that the Franken wines are contained in wide-bottomed, round bottles reminiscent of Portuguese Mateus.
Hamburg has been on our to-do lists for a long time. First, it is where, during the early 1960s, the Beatles honed their chops by playing nightly for hours at the Star Club on a side street off the Repeerbahn, a wide avenue that gives its name to Hamburg’s famous, or notorious, sex district. The Star Club is long gone but is memorialized by a large plaque containing the names of acts that played there. It reads like a history of early rock-and-roll.
Secondly, I’ve wanted to return and see the Speicherstadt, a district of former warehouses built side by side along a network of waterways. They recall the bygone era of Hanseatic League port cities. I had seen them once years ago on a flying business trip through the city and was struck by their remarkable appearance.
Today, most no longer store goods and have been converted into galleries, museums, offices, and other uses.
They are tall, red brick structures with interesting designs woven into their facades. Green hoods at their tops hide the pulleys that once allowed goods to be raised by rope from boats below to the floors above.
During our brief stay, Kay and I, in the company of our friends, took in these sites and several others.
Hamburg on the Elbe River near the North Sea is still an important seafaring city. Its huge container port is said to be the second largest in the world. We toured the port on an excursion boat, marveling at the size of the ships being loaded and unloaded and the number of cranes and stacked containers spread over hundreds of acres.
Fish are another of Hamburg’s ties to the sea. This is a fish-eating town, more so than anyplace I’ve ever been. Fish is on menus everywhere. We ate it on crisp rolls standing in the street. We ate it at the colorful fish market active only early Sunday mornings. And we ate it in restaurants. I like herring, and it’s never tasted better than in Hamburg. My first meal in a restaurant near our apartment was a herring salad that came with an oversized portion of fried potatoes. At the fish market we chose pieces of smoked mackerel, halibut, and salmon along with shrimp salad and creamed herring to eat later in the day at the apartment.
Though I didn’t grow up eating fish and avoided it as a child, as an adult I’ve come to love it. In the fish capital of Hamburg, a thought struck me, as if for the first time. It’s banal to say that there are many kinds of fish in the sea, but when I think of the meals we eat, I realize that there are so many different kinds of fish and so many different ways of preparing and eating them that a diet of fish and other seafood can last a lifetime without ever becoming boring.
There is a quaint and charming tunnel connecting the two banks of the Elbe River. The St Pauli Elbtunnel opened in 1910. Its single lane for cars and bicycles is flanked on both sides by pedestrian walkways. Its walls and vaulted ceiling are tiled in white, and along its walls at intervals are terra cotta reliefs of fish and other sea creatures.
It is lit by old-fashioned fixtures with opal glass. They give a bright and very pleasant illumination. The most unusual features of the tunnel are the elevators at either end. Automobiles are lowered from above to the tunnel surface and raised at the other end. During our walk through the tunnel and back again we saw only two or three cars but many bicycles and pedestrians. It really was fascinating.
A city’s architecture reflects its history and culture. In his book Mediterranean Winter, Robert D. Kaplan has written, “. . . to get to know the character of a people, observe what they build.” Hamburg was bombed heavily during World War II. To say that it has recovered nicely is to understate its achievement. Some of its excellent modern buildings are along the river.
Today’s cynosure is Elphi, the recently opened Elphilharmonie designed by Herzon & de Meuron. Scheduled to have been completed in 2010 at a cost of 240 million Euros, it finally opened last year wildly over budget at nearly 800 million. It houses a concert hall that is said to be one of the largest and most acoustically advanced in the world.
Older but equally fanciful in style is Chilehaus, a massive example of Brick Expressionism located in the Kontor district. “Kontor” is an old-fashioned word meaning “office.” It was designed by Fritz Höger and built between 1922 and 1924. The two walls of Chilehaus form a prow on its eastern end and give the building the likeness of a ship. One of these long walls is slightly curved.
A large inner courtyard has two opposing doorways marked Portals A and B. The shipping magnate who commissioned it, Henry B. Sloman, made his fortune trading in saltpeter from Chile
Those of you who know us know that Kay and I enjoy a fine museum. There is at least one in Hamburg the Museum Für Kunst Und Gewerbe (Museum for Arts and Crafts.) Beyond galleries dedicated to historical musical instruments, a vast photography collection, fashions, and Hamburg Modernism, there is an Art Deco gallery, and several dedicated to Art Nouveau, which were the ones we especially wanted to see.
It was thrilling to look at some of the furniture and tapestries.
After a couple of hours touring the galleries, I joined Kay in the museum restaurant, a room that really impressed us in a special way. We weren’t hungry enough to eat the offerings at what appeared to be a delicious salad bar, but we sat with drinks and admired the soft colors of the decor and the number of museum’s objects that adorned the walls. The tables held pots of orchids.
Weather-wise, our visit was mixed. Although sunny on the days we arrived and left, the interim was overcast at best and colder with strong winds and rain at worst. We expected this. March is that kind of month.
Would we redo this trip without the theft and the airbnb? Certainly! But at a different time of year and with more time to explore Hamburg’s environs. It would be fun to get to know northern Germany better.