Being the adventures of young men whose interests are beer, travel and (in a suitably “ironic” way of course) the Eurovision Song Contest
Though in my student years I covered most of Western Europe on Inter-Rail forays, I’d never really been to Germany, save a few days in Berlin – with exquisite timing mere weeks before the wall came down. But a steadily increasing appreciation of things Germanic (not least foaming things, served in half-litre glasses) meant that when Rob Dyer, editor of Dark Star magazine, suggested I join his party for a long weekend in Hamburg, little persuasion was needed. It seemed so simple: get cheap accomodation, fly over, and engage in social intercourse with our European colleagues.
Theory. Practice. They’re not even spelt similarly. We forgot to take into account that the weekend we’d chosen was the Harbour Festival, probably the biggest party of the year. Plus the German Tennis Open was taking place there, and it was also the weekend that an estimated 30,000 Kaiserslautern fans descended on Hamburg to celebrate clinching the Bundesliga title. Thus, our trio eventually camped out in a leafy suburb, kind of the Hamburgian equivalent of Camberley, 35 minutes walk from the end of the S-Bahn line in the delightfully named Poppenhüttel.
However, this was by no means a bad thing, as the dead calm of this residential area provided a nice contrast to the hustle and bustle of the town centre. We were staying in an upstairs flat, with all mod cons – though the cooker didn’t exactly see a lot of use. But we did get to watch late-night cable TV; it’s kinda odd watching Jackie Chan’s “Police Story” dubbed into German, but after about five minutes the novelty value wore off and we switched to the steady diet of undressed Frauleins available on another channel. No language barriers there.
Speaking of which, I had to blow the rust off my German: I had stopped studying it in 1981, and had hardly used a word since. It was weird: I’d be able to completely understand one sentence on a poster, and not have the slightest clue about the next. [Mind you, some didn’t need translation – you may think the adverts for H&M here are raunchy, but the German versions have more in common with Penthouse photo-shoots] However, I wasn’t going to need to discuss Nietzsche: asking whether I could pay by credit card was about as tricky as it got.
And the answer to that was almost invariably “Nein”, worth bearing in mind for any other potential travellers. Which was a shame, as I had deliberately undercut the amount of cash, with the expectation that a highly developed country like Germany would be on the cutting edge of electronic commerce. Not so: if you can’t scratch a window with it, they won’t accept it. Also, while during the week, shops are often open till 8pm or so, on Saturdays they shut at 4pm – and by five, Hamburg city centre was deserted: Romero could have filmed another zombie movie there, if it wasn’t for the tumbleweeds rolling down Main Street. For Germans seem to start partying late, and go on late. We went into a restaurant at 6pm, and were the only customers, though this meant we could chill out there for a couple of hours, after a long day trekking round the town. By the time we emerged though, approaching 9pm, things were beginning to wake up again – so where better to head than the world-renowned Reeperbahn?
It was somewhat different to what I expected: to start with, it’s far broader, being a dual carriageway. It probably has more in common with Paris’s Pigalle than Amsterdam, mixing bars, sex shops, fast food joints, strip clubs and all the other ephemera of modern late-night life. You did, however, have to be impressed by the sheer scale; some of the shops in the World of Sex chain were probably coming close to the size of Tower Records at Piccadily Circus. You name it, they had it – although unlike Amsterdam (the obvious benchmark for all red-light districts world-wide!), a “no children, no pets” rule was in effect.
The area was heaving: Saturday night, and a good proportion of the football fans seemed to have stayed, though there was no sign of any trouble, despite their boisterous and loud celebrations And nowhere was more heaving than the street where the prostitutes worked – easily locatable, since it’s the one next to the police station. The crowds were understandable, because the Hamburg hookers were, almost without exception, drop dead gorgeous. Under normal circumstances, you’d happily gnaw off the majority of your own limbs to sleep with women like them. There were a mix of street-walkers, and Amsterdam style window-booths, the latter located in a road which was sealed off at each end, presumably to prevent passers-by being offended by the sight of lingerie-clad lovelies. One difference to Amsterdam though: few of the girls were ethnic, almost all being white – possibly East European? One slow lap round there (trying desperately to avoid eye contact, which would have been as fatal for my morals as gazing at Medusa) and we needed beer.
We found a bar nearby, and tucked ourselves in the back, under the TV which was showing the Eurovision Song Contest, without sound – they were playing a bizarre mix of oompah and Neil Diamond on the stereo instead. As the acts came to an end, and the voting began, the place suddenly got packed out. Not surprising, the scoring is always the best bit; I have happy memories of sitting in front of the TV with reams of paper. Of course, now I’ve discovered baseball… We were cheering every time Germany got a point (their entrant being the fabulous Guildo Horn, giving the contest the seriousness it deserves, with a song whose chorus went “Peep! Peep! Peep! I love you!”), cheering every time Britain got a point, and shouting “But it’s a bloke!” every time the trans-sexual Israeli entry turned up. Beer was hurled at the TV set, Israel eventually won, and we staggered out into the night, to look once more at some real women. It truly has to go down as one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
I must mention the beer, which was in general good to excellent. Even though we had no real idea what we were doing, and every bar seemed to have a different selection (beyond the ubiquitous Holsten), pretty much everything was drinkable. And we did. Repeatedly. Odd to have bars which have menus, and where you don’t pay for each round, but run up a tab. And distinctly pleasant, after last year’s American trip, to have bar-staff who don’t expect a gratuity, simply for doing their job. [Some may complain about the lack of ice in drinks here – but when it comes to tipping barmen, I am most definitely with Steve Buscemi]
Our sole source of English info was a quirky free booklet, ‘Top Info’, picked up at the airport. Here’s are a couple of examples of it’s extraordinary, understated style:
“The Hafenmeile…is an extensive (and crowded) funfair-style area all along the river banks by Landungsbrucken which – assuming you are suitably dressed to pre-empt pickpockets and protect yourself from capricious changes in the weather, and as long as you don’t go all panicky in large crowds – can be fairly pleasant”
“Opposite the Markthalle is the City Hof Passage. This must be the ugliest shopping mall in Hamburg, but as we know from our tedious day-to-day experiences ugliness is only skin-deep and within this monstrosity of infantile lego-stone architecture food from three nations awaits you…To top it all, a very cheap bikers shop is also in the mall; the discount helmet line is well recommended, especially if you are planning on going to the fun fair”.
Precisely why a biker’s helmet should be needed is never explained, we braved the fair without its protection, and emerged unscathed. It was a pleasant enough diversion and a very good way to spend a sunny afternoon – nice to discover that large number of stalls, all selling T-shirts with the same tacky slogans, is not a phenomena restricted to the West End.
On Sunday, we did some more meandering, even though by this stage, my boots were literally falling apart. We headed for the west of the City, as that seemed to be where things like record shops were located. This gave us an insight into another side of Hamburg; Turkish shops, student hangouts, lots of graffiti, that kind of thing. It was all very relaxed and laid back, in some ways it almost felt more like New York than anywhere in Europe.
This was but a precursor to the day’s main event, a concert by industro-classical group In the Nursery at the Markthalle, which was the excuse for the weekend’s jaunt. The venue looked like a converted auction house, with a stepped ring around a central flat area, which would be ideal for, oh, bare-knuckle bouts or cock-fighting. The stage was only a little higher, and I ended up leaning against the speaker stacks, virtually on a level with the band, and briefly toyed with the idea of helping out on some songs… The concert itself was great – how can you dislike a band who for half their numbers have three drummers? – and I ended up with bruises on my leg from over-enthusiastic thigh-slapping. Which would be appropriately Bavarian, if only Hamburg were in Bavaria, and not at the other end of the country. The night was ended with a local kebab; very impressive, it actually tasted of pork, and the mint sauce which it came with set the flavour off nicely.
Monday. Just time for a fast sweep round the shops. The centre of Hamburg is largely pedestrianised, which makes it very pleasant to walk around. The architecture is interesting to look at, even though most of it is post-war (courtesy of RAF Bomber Command), there’s a mix of styles which provide variety, rather than the “two different flavours of concrete” approach often seen in British city centres. The wonderfully sunny weather helps the scenery improve too…
By the time we attack a record shop or two, as well as ‘Otaku’, a bizarre establishment that sells techno music, clothes, and cult films, but also has a hairdresser’s in the back, financial resources are diminishing rapidly. By pooling our assets, we scrape together enough for lunch, the last meal on German soil being the same as our first – sausage, naturally. Mine came with curry sauce, which was…different. We headed for the airport, and used the inevitably overpriced cans of Coke to staunch our raging thirsts, and get our combined financial resources down to a satisfactory 12 pfennigs, or roughly fourpence. Thank heavens for free airplane drinks.
Customs at Gatwick was a breeze; the “blue” channel, for flights from within the EU, was staffed by one thoroughly disinterested officer, provoking the inevitable annoyance at not having stocked up in a major league way on contraband (the stun-guns seen in one shop had been especially tempting). I think they should stamp your passport on the way out, telling you in advance whether you’re going to get stopped or not; it would make things so much easier. Maybe they could also introduce duty free limits for pornography, alongside those for cigars and booze: “four erections or two penetrations or one ejaculation” perhaps.
Hamburg is an excellent place for a short break, though I suspect it would probably be less lively over a ‘normal’ weekend. Regardless, I think you could find plenty of stuff to do; we hardly needed to bother, with the cultural aspects particularly well ignored. A return visit would certainly be welcome – but there are a few other European cities worth a visit too, such as…
Readers may recall, if their memories stretch back to the dim and distant past of, ooh, three issues ago, a thoroughly entertaining week spent in and around the capital of the then-new Czech Republic. I was recently back there, and it was interesting to see how five years of unfettered capitalism had changed things. Er, well, not that much actually. I was expecting it to be wall-to-wall tourists, given all the publicity the place has had over the past few years, but this was another pleasant surprise. I think we may have missed the tidal wave of backpackers which apparently hit the place shortly after democracy did. No longer being the hip and trendy destination, things seemed to have returned to normal: going in February probably did help, and we were extraordinarily lucky with the weather – T-shirts are not normal garb for that time of year.
The place remains remarkably cheap across the board. The price of beer had doubled, admittedly, but even at the dizzy heights of 40p/pint, is scarcely likely to break the bank. You just have to laugh when the bill for eleven beers and an absinthe comes to £5.60, though it makes coming back to London a real shock! Accommodation, not a concern last time, was also ludicrously cheap: less than a tenner a night each got the four of us a wonderful apartment just off the top of Wenceslas Square, with a billiard table in it. And we ate like kings, plates piled high with various forms of once-living creature, cooked in a variety of interesting ways and given bizarre Czechlish names like “Sack of Mr.Town Councillor”. [And virtually everywhere, vegetables are an optional extra] My only regret is I didn’t get to sample the traditional local kebab…
From a leisure point of view, there’s something for everyone, from brothels to churches, discos to puppet theatres, and even a giant metronome overlooking the town, for those who feel in need of rhythm. In four days, we barely scratched the surface, and could have spent twice as much time there without running out of things to do. The place is probably my favourite city in Europe, and the odds are heavily in favour of me being back there again before five more years have passed.