It’s a cool evening, the rain has just stopped and the Reeperbahn is glittering orange in the light of the sodium streetlights. Hamburg is winding up to party.
Chuck Berry’s music and lyrics burst out over the heads of a group of smiling tourists:
“Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music/Any old way you choose it/It’s got a backbeat you can’t lose it/Any old time you use it…”
Chuck Berry? Well, he may have first done the rock ’n’ roll standard, but it was made famous by the boys from Liverpool, the Beatles. And it was here in the pulsating heart of Hamburg’s red light district that the mop top lads came of age – both musically and as men.
The Beatles, so John Lennon said, “grew up” in Hamburg.
And, on a mild spring night, we are privileged to do Hamburg’s best Beatles tour, hosted by singer and guide Stefanie Hempel. With a little ukelele, she stops every now and again to blast out another Beatles classic – and you are ordered to sing along. And don’t try the excuse that you don’t know the words… who doesn’t know the words to a Beatles song?
She takes us through the streets of the St Pauli district and adjacent areas, giving us an insight into the hectic world of the Beatles in Hamburg in the early 1960s, where the band paid its dues and solidified its sound. There is the “Bambi” children’s cinema, the building where the Liverpool boys dossed after their long stints at various clubs. They would get in around dawn and try to grab some shut-eye before the first cinema shows started at the Bambi at around 11am.
Then there is the Kaiserkeller, the place where, says Stefanie, the waiters were all “heavyweight boxers” and they could deliver a solid right hook as efficiently as a drink… depending on the behaviour of the patrons.
The young, callow Brits learned about music and about life in a place where the girls were gorgeous and uninhibited, the pace was hectic and the audiences were tough. They even started their trademark pudding basin haircuts following the fashion of an eclectic arty Hamburg group.
The Beatles played hundreds of nights in clubs in Hamburg – the most famous being The Star Club, which has long since been demolished but where now, in recognition of the fame of the group, there is a remembrance stone. But also on the plaque are engraved the names of many other famous rock ’n’ rollers who played Hamburg.
Never mind Noo Yawk, if you could make it in Hamburg in the 1960s, you could make it anywhere…
That little trip down a musical memory lane confirms some of things I expected to see in Hamburg – bustling port city, throbbing entertainment and red-light district. But Hamburg is so much more than a harbour town, as I discover.
Strolling through the renovated and revamped harbour area (the HafenCity) – now the site of brand new, cutting-edge buildings, close to renovated examples of historic buildings – one gets a sense of upmarket style.
No surprise, says our tour leader Sabine Falk, from the German National Tourist Board. Hamburg, she tells us, is one of the richest cities in Germany. You get a sense of that in the glittering shops in the main shopping precinct (the Jungfernstieg), which are a collection of blue chip fashion labels – and you see it in the expensive BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, Audis and Porsches in the streets.
A must for any visitor to Hamburg is a swan through the Fischmarkt (Fish Market) alongside the Elbe River, which is the main artery of the city. On Sundays, the market attracts thousands of visitors who want to look at, or buy, varieties of freshly-caught fish. There’s entertainment aplenty and good food.
Although the market is a reminder that the city’s past, and present, lives are linked to the river and the sea, Hamburg is also home to a number of museums and art galleries which are the equal of those in other cities in Germany and the rest of Europe.
But, if you’re a little boy at heart (whatever your age) – or you love toys and intricate detail – then the world’s top miniature wonderland (called, appropriately, Miniatur Wunderland) is situated over a couple of floors of a converted Hamburg warehouse.
It began as a dream for brothers Frederik and Gerrit Braun, who borrowed money to build the world’s biggest model railway… and it just got bigger. It now has an amazing working airport, which features aircraft – including Lufthansa’s massive Airbus A380 flying in and out. The miniature country, which sees around 2 000 trains coming and going every day, has 50 000 tiny “citizens” of its own.
There is nothing else in the world like it – and if you have children (or still remember the child within yourself), it is a fantastic treat.
All over the city, there are restaurants catering to all tastes and pockets and, if the weather is good (it can sometimes be changeable because of the city’s proximity to the North Sea), then al fresco dining close to canals will lead you to believe you could be in Venice (although Hamburg is more efficient and cleaner, its inhabitants will tell you).
Hamburg also makes a good base to explore the coast of northern Germany, which is not much of a known quantity for South Africans but offers a host of watersport and water-related options, as well as natural scenic beauty.
But, whatever you do, you have to do the Reeperbahn to experience the vibe and the energy of Hamburg.
For me, brought up with the hoary old stereotype that Germans are dour, hard-working, humourless people, it was an eye-opener to feel the pulsating life in the neon-bejewelled St Pauli district.
It was, in fact, Germans like our Beatles tour host Stefanie who kept reminding us, somewhat conservative South Africans (with our stiff upper lip British traditions), to sing along and let our hair down.
And trust me on this, you’ll never want to dance with another when you see Hamburg standing there…
Flights: Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com/za)
Train travel: Deutsche Bahn (www.bahn.com)
Beatles tour: ww.w.hempels-musictour.com - Saturday Star