Thursday, 28th November/Friday, 29th November 2019 – Hamburg
We always aim to go somewhere that has plenty of Christmas markets, and plenty of other things to see and do as well for the first weekend in Advent, and so this year we headed to Hamburg, in the North of Germany, for our “get in the mood for Christmas” trip.
It’s a city I have some history with, having been a few times including my first trip abroad in 1966 when I was despatched via BOAC to stay with my aunt, Lottie, who lived there, for the six weeks of the summer holiday. I was 7 years old and had my own passport, and my parents drove me all the way to Heathrow, handed me over to the airline staff, and picked me up again 6 weeks later. I was keen to have another look at a city that I last saw 30 years ago, a week after the Berlin wall fell, when it was the logical place for my parents and I to meet our relatives from the East who were able to travel west for the first time in my life. So… history… I wondered if I’d recognise much and was keen to find out. First we had to get there of course. A noon flight out of Heathrow was perfect timing, and having booked Club Europe tickets (only marginally more expensive than Economy) we had lounge access at the airport, fast track security, and were well looked after on the flight out too. The meal provided was very good, and the Champagne was generously supplied.
We landed on time and didn’t have to wait too long for our luggage, and were soon out of the airport and swinging into a cab for the short-ish ride to the city. We could have used our Hamburg Cards, but if we don’t have to, we prefer not to wrangle luggage on and off public transport. As we would later discover, it would almost certainly have involved the Number 6 bus, because as far as I can tell, everything did! It took slightly less than 30 minutes to get to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and we were soon checked in, with an upgrade thanks to my IHG Ambassador membership. There followed around an hour attempting to find anywhere to put anything! The rooms have been recently refurbished and I don’t think it’s for the better, personally. In the room we had there was a small wardrobe for hanging things, and not a single shelf or drawer for anything that can’t be hung, like, say socks. It was utterly infuriating in a “first world problems” sort of way. We ended up parking stuff on the narrow ledge that ran from the tiny desk space round the side of the room, Lynne put stuff under her bedside cabinet, and I used the floor under the tiny table beside my bed. I really wasn’t amused and it’s a shame that they’ve done this… A social media rant later revealed that this is now a common complaint, especially among my female friends who travel for business. Perhaps whoever designs these things should be made to spend a week in a mocked up version of whatever they are considering, in possession of a week’s worth of stuff, and see how they damn well like it!
Eventually we got organised, and cleaned up, and decided that we’d pop to the bar for our welcome drinks. The bar proved to be very welcoming, and the staff were superb. Friendly, engaging, keen to help, which is all you can hope for in hotel staff. A drink or two and we were due to head out for dinner at TYO TYO, of which more in a separate post.
On Friday we treated ourselves to a latish start, and had a very good breakfast in the hotel, at least once we’d got the hang of the coffee machine, we did. The cups are too small for the latte/cappuccino options, and I didn’t realise immediately that there were larger, glass mugs available for those. It’s the sort of thing you want to be obvious when you’re coming in for breakfast, because until you’ve had coffee, nothing is obvious! After that we headed out into the Sankt Georg neighbourhood, which is interesting it its own right, to walk to the Kunsthalle, having been told we really should not miss it, and being advised by the guidebooks that we should spend as much time in there as we could spare. They said it would be rewarding; they weren’t wrong! If anything, they understated their case substantially.
The Hamburger Kunsthalle is is one of the largest museums in Germany, and was founded in 1850. Today, it covers seven centuries of European art, from the Middle Ages to the present, with a focus on North German painting of the 14th century, paintings by Dutch, Flemish and Italian artists of the 16th and 17th centuries, French and German drawings and paintings of the 19th century, and international modern and contemporary art. Needless to say it also runs a variety of exhibitions, and you could probably lose yourself in the complex of three buildings for an entire weekend. The museum began life as the “Städtische Gallerie”, run by the Hamburg Kunstverein, which was founded in 1817. The collection grew with donations, and purchases, and they quickly needed a building to house all the works. The original red brick Kunsthalle was built between 1863 and 1869, financed largely through private donations and it has grown, and grown from there.
The Kunsthalle is divided into the Gallery of Old Masters, the Gallery of 19th-century Art, the Gallery of Classical Modernism and the Gallery of Contemporary Art, and in a sense of linear solidarity we started with the early works of which they have a very healthy collection, including some mighty fine altarpieces, which is not surprising in such a rich city. The museum website highlights the works of the masters Bertram von Minden, who seems to have spent most of his life in and around Hamburg, and whose work I was much taken with, particularly the Buxtehude altar piece and this, which is from the Petrikirche in Hamburg and dates from 1379 to 1383. It’s huge and phenomenally detailed and definitely rewards close study.
As if that wasn’t enough, they have works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, in particular a portrait of the three electors of Saxony, (the rather wonderfully named Frederick the Wise, John the Steadfast and John-Frederick the Magnanimous), and Hans Holbein the Elder, and we made our way through the rooms admiring the works, and thinking we maybe should have picked up the audio guide (though if we had we’d probably have needed even longer to get round).
After we’d dealt with them, we moved on to a rather fabulous collection of drawings by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn – to give him his proper name – in an exhibition entitled Rembrandt, Masterpieces from the Collection. The Kunsthalle has around 300 Rembrandt etchings which belonged to the art dealer and collector Georg Ernst Harzen (1790–1863), who bequeathed them to the City of Hamburg in his will in 1869. I suspect we’ll be seeing some of them again in Oxford in January next year, but that in no way detracts from the sheer joy of getting up close to some of these incredible works. It’s amazing what can be done with just a few apparently scratchy lines, is all I can say! There turned out to be another roomful of these amazing treasures downstairs in the basement, and I could have happily spent a large part of the day taking in the details.
Of course, we already knew about Caspar David Friedrich, but I’d not seen any of the paintings it real life before. When you hit the section on German Romanticism, there’s a whole roomful of them, including the especially well known “Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer”(Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog) from 1817. It’s so famous it even appears on a piece of Hamburg street furniture close to our hotel, and while it’s regarded as his masterpiece, I’m not so sure.
Personally I was more enamoured of “The Sea of Ice” in terms of atmosphere, finding it to have something oddly futuristic about it.
Failing that, however, the piece I would steal is this one of church ruins near Dresden, “Kirchenruine Oybin”. The light is so special and so magical.
By now we were in need of a break, having had nothing beyond a coffee since breakfast, so we found our way to the basement and the café Das Liebermann, where we were soon in possession of much-needed cake. The Cube would have been a better choice perhaps, but we’d been informed that it was closed for a special event of some sort, so cake it was.
Fortified by cake (and somewhat disappointed to later discover we could have had soup or a wurst) we set off back into the collection, moving ahead in time to the turn of the last century and promptly tripping over the first of a series of works in the 100 Years of the Hamburg Secession – Encounters with the Collection exhibition, scattered throughout the galleries with other works from the same time period. I knew about the Viennese Secession, but the Hamburg group was new to me, and I was especially interested to see the work of a number of women artists prominently displayed, including Alma del Banco, Dorothea Maetzel-Johannsen, Anita Rée and Gretchen Wohlwill.
After we’d finished there we needed another quick sit down, before heading over through the Modern Art section (via Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso et al) to the Impressionism exhibition. On the way though I was much taken with this humourous Picasso owl which just made me smile so much – though it does seem that in addition to knowing some funny looking women, and men, Pablo also knew some funny looking owls.
The Impressionism exhibition in the newer part of the museum, which you get to by tunnel. Here the display was of masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection, which I had not heard of but which I think I now need to check out. The collection, which is state-run, began with paintings collected by businessman Wilhelm Hansen and his wife, Henny in the late 19th century. The collection contains works by all of the leading Impressionist artists from Camille Pissarro, by way of Édouard Manet, and Claude Monet, to Pierre-Auguste Renoir and the rest, including a group of eight paintings by Paul Gauguin. It is obviously an impressive collection, even with just a selection on show in Hamburg so I think it may need to be seen.
Feeling somewhat exhausted by now, and realising several hours had gone by, we headed back outside and decided to walk down to one of the Christmas Markets not far away. We settled on the Weisser Zauber on the Jungfernstieg, the promenade that runs along the Binnenalster. The stalls are all white and are quite upmarket and swish, and I managed to buy myself a new wallet because mine is now falling apart, and a new pair of fleece lined dark blue leather gloves as despite having packed in an organised manner, and having a 64kg luggage allowance (!) I’d managed to forget my gloves and hat. We decided we’d stop for a gluehwein, which should have been relaxing, but no one told the Hamburg seagulls, which are an absolute menace. When one dive-bombed some poor bloke for whatever it was he was eating and skimmed straight past my face to do it, we figured we’d best drink up and move away.
I wasn’t any keener on the seagulls after we spotted one eating something that turned out to be the wing of a pigeon… Lovely. We soon forgot about that though as we walked through the delightful Alsterarkaden, a charming arcade built between 1844 and 1846 after the Great Fire of 1842 took out the old town and made way for new developments. The design was the responsibility of Alexis de Chateauneuf (1799-1853), the architect who was born in Hamburg and whose work can also be found in Paris and Oslo. It’s full of rather swish cafés, and very posh shops including this upmarket rum establishment, and again reminds you that there is money in Hamburg (it has the largest number of millionaires in all of Germany).
It also overlooks the Rathaus square, which has its own Christmas market, and which we would take a closer look at on another day. It was time to wander back towards the hotel, investigating a couple more markets on the way, one of which was selling the paper lampshade stars we like to use at this time of year.
We also stuck our noses into the Pride market, but although the DJ was in full swing, and the glitterball was reflecting off the pink reindeer, it was far too early for the clientele and there was hardly anyone there. We walked back along Lange Reihe and stopped off at a small wine shop to buy a bottle of wine before returning to the hotel to shower and change ahead of dinner at Wolfs Junge.