Happy in Hamburg

The German port city of Hamburg throws up plenty of surprises. Shafquat Ali tells you all about it
Hamburg elegantly combines the ancient with the modern.

The first time I heard about Hamburg was in Archie comic. The particular story went something like this - dear ol’ Jughead was snoozing in the backbench when the professor woke him up rudely. So what was the name of the last German city I was talking about? he asked nerdy Juggie pointedly.

Archie Andrew’s best friend who, as usual, was dreaming about hamburgers, rubbed his eyes and without blinking an eyelid, said Hamburg… err! Amazed, the professor went right back to the blackboard. And Jughead floated back to his own planet.
It was not until 25 years later that the particular episode came back to mind as I boarded an early morning flight from Frankfurt to Hamburg. I was off to the land of Hamburgers, I told myself, as I fastened my seatbelt and remembered good 'ol Juggie.
Of course, in the meanwhile, I had also heard a couple of more interesting stories of the famous German port city. Of the Veronica and Betty variety. As you probably know, thanks to the Reeperbahn, the infamous red-light district teeming with sleazy strip joints, sex shows and more, Hamburg has earned the reputation as “Sin City” - in fact, the city’s official line is that the Reeperbahn is Hamburg’s second greatest attraction after the port itself.
However, on the less seamier side, as you also probably know, various members of the Beatles performed at several clubs around the Reeperbahn before the Fab Four attained worldwide recognition.
In fact, the group played no small role in putting Hamburg in the world map and hardly surprisingly then that it’s known as the city that put the Beatles on the map!
John Lennon once quipped that he was born in Liverpool, but he grew up in Hamburg, and it was on infamous St Pauli’s streets that the Fab Four first made their name. The famous Star Club may now be defunct but the Kaiserkeller in the nearby Grosse Freiheit, where the Beatles played frequently, is still open.
However, on landing in Hamburg, or Hammaburg as it's known locally since it was founded in 810 by Charlemagne, the first thing that struck me about the city was neither the Beatles nostalgia nor the Reeperbahn legacy.
It was the city’s quiet calm and leisurely pace that caught my fancy.
Here, people value good life. And good life doesn't necessarily mean expensive life. Whether it’s cycling down the street or strolling around Alster, the grand lake right in the heart of the city centre, or simply lazing at the park, denizens of Hamburg pride themselves in their cool, relaxed lifestyle and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
Typical of Hamburg are tugboats on the Elbe River, the fish market at the piers with gulls circling all around and lots of fresh sea air. It’s a lifestyle that you can’t but help crave for - especially if you are visiting from a fast-paced place like Dubai.
Going back in time, the original city was all but obliterated by The Great Fire of 1842; a century later, Second World War bombing raids again destroyed more than half of it so the Hamburg you will see today is a faithful replica of the glittering city it was before the war.
It's a place of style, elegance and considerable architectural diversity. And not to forget its setting at the mouth of the Elbe, one of Europe's great rivers, that has added considerably to the city's overall charm.
For those who want to be one with nature, a drive down to Hamburg’s charming and attractive countryside can be a rewarding experience.
There are the many fruit plantations of the Altes Land with their fascinating antique farmhouses, the historic old town centres of Stade or Lüneburg and, finally, you have the splendid Baltic Sea coast.
Culturally, too, Hamburg has much to offer - from the Great Hall of Art to the State Opera all the way down to the music clubs on the Reeperbahn.
For those interested in figures, at last count, there were over 30 theatres, six musical performing halls, a dozen cabarets as well as 50 public and private museums.
But for those who are looking for something more there’s nothing quite like getting away from it all and taking a harbour sight-seeing boat trip on the Alster, offering a panoramic view of Hamburg and its many historic landmarks like the Baroque church of St Michaelis, whose steeple rises above the city skyline.
I particularly can’t forget the truly romantic late evening getaway that took me from the bustling centre of town chopping into the quiet water under the star- speckled skies, criss-crossing through narrow canals intertwining its way through grand, dimly-lit colonial houses.
With gentle breeze and the lapping of water for company, I couldn’t have asked for a more refreshing evening for the body and soul!
Anyway, once back to civilisation, a few short steps from the Alster, you have the Opera, the Great Hall of Art, the City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce. Not to forget the Jungfernstieg on the Alster, Hamburg’s shopping street and promenade. Big department stores, luxury boutiques and roadside souvenirs shops - you will find them all here. For those interested in gastronomic pursuits, you could either choose to sip coffee and bite into soft butter croissants at a typical streetside café or move on and try out one of the 4,000-odd restaurants in Hamburg - a majority of them offering a range of cuisine.
To be honest, on my flying visit, I didn't see all of the port city - nope, I didn’t even make it as far as the Reeperbahn. But I loved whatever I did. At the least, it's easy to see why the Beatles fell in love with this historic port city.