Sunday, 1st December 2019 – Hamburg
Feeling fragile but at least vaguely human, I was back up and about on Sunday, starting with a cautious breakfast of plain yogurt with a spoonful of sugar, followed by a small portion of scrambled eggs, with a large mug of mint tea to settle it all down.
Outside we discovered a foggy day with the Alster having pretty much disappeared. We had a vague plan to start the day at the Rathaus, and take it from there. With that in mind we hopped on the No. 6 bus, which really does seem to be the only bus you need in Hamburg, at least if you are staying at the Crowne Plaza anyway. We managed to fail to press the “Stop” button in time to get off at the Rathaus stop and had to walk back from the next stop. It wasn’t a problem, as it took us past the Sankt Petri Church, which looked interesting for a second stop after we’d taken a good look at the town hall.
The Rathaus also seemed to be lost in the fog, so we headed inside to see if we could book on one of the English language tours as this is the only way to get to see any of the 600 plus rooms in the place. We were just in time as it turned out so we booked our tickets (money off with the Hamburg card). The City Hall is the seat of the local government of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, and thus of one of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, and it’s in the Altstadt quarter which really isn’t that old because most of it was destroyed in the fire of 1842. The new building was constructed between 1886 and 1897, and also contains the office of the First Mayor of Hamburg.
The new building cost 11 million German marks, about €80 million in modern terms, and was opened on October 26th, 1897. You can see exactly where the money went, with some stunning decorative features, in what is a Neo-Renaissance building (on the outside) and a prime example of historicism on the inside. This was pretty much the city of Hamburg demonstrating its wealth, power, independence (it was a Free Imperial City after all) and republican traditions. It’s massive, with a total area of 17,000 square metres (182,986 square feet), not including the Ratsweinkeller, its tower is 112 metres (367 feet) high and has 436 steps, and it has 647 rooms.
The hall itself stands on over 4,000 oak piles and is in stark contrast to the restrained Hanseatic style more common in the city. The façade is flanked by 20 statues of emperor, and you go through an ornate wrought iron gate to get inside the entrance hall, which is where you buy your tour tickets. The hall is supported by 16 sandstone pillars painted with 68 portraits of worthy Hamburg citizens, and from it you start the tour by going up a staircase of Sardinian marble which shows the course of human life.
Our guide was very keen to show us as much as possible, and filled us in on the history as well as some of the less plausible stories about the building and guided us through a series of ever more impressive spaces including the Emperor’s Hall on the first floor, named after Wilhelm II who visited and was probably very happy to see what had been done, if his projects elsewhere are any guide (for example, the deranged Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg ). He visited Hamburg at the opening of the North Sea-Baltic Kiel Canal in 1895 and I’m sure the whole room must have made an impression from the magnificent ceiling to the wall coverings of pressed leather (in contrast the Porto Stock Exchange has walls of plaster made to look like leather because that was cheaper).
The Mayor’s Hall (the Bürgersaal) where citizens are received is smaller and was intended as a meeting room; it now houses the city’s Golden Book, which has been signed by all visiting dignitaries, including the former German President Paul von Hindenburg and the Dalai Lama. Adolf Hitler apparently also signed it apparently, but because the book consists of loose leaves rather than being bound, officials were later able to remove the offending object without damaging the book. It also contains portraits of former speakers of parliament, rather in the same way the Danish Parliament building does.
The Phoenix Hall is named after the phoenix above the fireplace, which is meant to represent Hamburg’s renaissance after the great fire of 1842. In the Senate chamber, a rather plain room, the only light passes through the large glass roof: This symbolises the ancient Germanic custom that a council should meet in the open air.
The Grand Ballroom is 46 metres long, 18 metres wide and 15 metres high. Five huge paintings depict the history of Hamburg from 800 to 1900 and 62 city coats of arms of the old Hanseatic League decorate the walls. The three chandeliers with 278 lights each weigh 1,500 kilograms!
There is also a balcony overlooking the main square, but no one apart from the mayor and their second-in-command are allowed out there, so we had to take the guide’s word for it that there is a mosaic of Hamburg’s patron goddess, Hammonia, along with the city’s coat of arms and an inscription of the city’s motto “Libertatem quam peperere maiores digne studeat servare posteritas” (The descendants shall seek worthily to maintain the freedom achieved by their forebears).
After the tour we went out through the courtyard, which is decorated with a fountain of Hygieia, the goddess of health and hygiene. She is surrounded by figures that represent the power and pureness of the water. It was built in remembrance of the cholera epidemic of 1892, which I didn’t really want to think about right then, and it used to be used to cool the air inside the building. We needed to cool down too after being inside a very warm building in thermal layers and thick winter coats, so we battled our way into the overcrowded and disorganised but beautiful Café Paris. Eventually we got a cup of coffee… it did let us enjoy the surroundings though!
We headed back out into the cold and went to take a look at the first of several churches that would occupy the rest of our daylight hours, Sankt Petri church, dedicated to the apostle Peter, is Hamburg’s oldest church and one of five churches that define the city’s skyline. It’s first mentioned in 1195 as the market cathedral and was remodelled during the 14th century in the Gothic style, then – no surprises there – rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1842. Luckily it wasn’t completely destroyed, and much of the artwork was saved. Apparently it was built by order of Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici) although it has been Protestant since the Reformation.
Among the things that survived are a set of bronze lion-head door handles, which date from 1342 and are claimed to be the oldest of Hamburg’s works of art. They date from the time of the building of the first of two towers. A second was added almost two centuries later, but had to be torn down in the early 1800s after damage done when the Napoleonic army used the place as a stable. Needless to say after the great fire only one tower was rebuilt. Oddly, given the damage done to the city, the church escaped the Second World War relatively intact. If you’re feeling strong enough, it’s 544 steps to the top. They say the views are stunning, but as it was a foggy day, and I wasn’t feeling very energetic after all that projectile vomiting, I gave it a miss.
Other art work is on display in the cathedral, including a Gothic mural showing the Bishop Ansgar of Bremen, with the words “Apostle of the North”. Later Archbishop Ansgar, the first archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, he also appears in a statute by Bernt Notke, from around 1480–1483, holding a model of the Marienkirche in Hamburg, which he founded.
Apparently there are a number of other interesting works, but a lack of information in the church meant we missed them. These include a work entitled “Christmas 1813 in St. Peter’s” and shows the citizens of Hamburg locked in the building by Napoleon’s occupying troops after they refused to provide food to he army. There is also a a modern bronze sculpture by Fritz Fleer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, dressed as a convict with his hands bound. If we make it back to Hamburg, and we plan to because there’s a deal of unfinished business as a result of losing Saturday, I shall be on the hunt for it.
Back out on the streets the fog had lifted a little, and we headed off to hunt down another of the top ten sights (according to our guidebook), the Chilehaus, a ten-storey office building in what is known as the Kontorhausviertel and Speicherstadt. You won’t be at all surprised to know that this is a UNESCO world heritage site, described on the website as “two densely built urban areas in the centre of the port city of Hamburg. Speicherstadt, originally developed on a group of narrow islands in the Elbe River between 1885 and 1927, was partly rebuilt from 1949 to 1967. It is one of the largest coherent historic ensembles of port warehouses in the world (300,000 square metres). It includes 15 very large warehouse blocks as well as six ancillary buildings and a connecting network of short canals. Adjacent to the modernist Chilehaus office building, the Kontorhaus district is an area of over five hectares featuring six very large office complexes built from the 1920s to the 1940s to house port-related businesses. The complex exemplifies the effects of the rapid growth in international trade in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” What it doesn’t tell you is just how handsome these buildings are.
The Chilehaus itself is a stunning piece of architecture in a district that contains many competing examples of the period and was built between 1922 and 1924 to a design by architect Fritz Höger for Henry B. Sloman, a shipping magnate who made his money trading saltpetre from Chile. It was built during the hyperinflation years of the early 1920s, and is estimated to have cost at least 10 million Reichsmarks. It’s made from reinforced concrete and just under 5 million Oldenburg bricks, the whole lot balanced on 16 metre deep reinforced concrete pilings, a necessity because of the nature of the land and the proximity to the River Elbe. It’s a most impressive structure on the outside, and we’re told it’s also impressive inside, but being Sunday everything was closed (again, we need to go back). Especially as the building hosts one of the few remaining working paternosters in the world.
With a bit of effort, we managed to find our way from the Kontorhausviertel, via the shop at Chocoversum where a small amount of Christmas gift buying was achieved, to the Church of St. Nicholas (Sankt-Nikolai-Kirche), a Gothic Revival cathedral that was another of the main churches of the city. The original wooden chapel dated from 1195 and was replaced by a brick structure in the 14th century, before falling victim to the Great Fire, when it was the first large public building that burned down.
The church was eventually rebuilt, though this was not without complications. The initial design, by Gottfried Semper, which was a Romanesque domed structure, was deemed unsuitable and eventually George Gilbert Scott, who was also an expert in the restoration of medieval churches, was brought in. His work is very familiar to me, given that he was the architect of the former Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station, the Albert Memorial, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, all of which I know well, as well as workhouses in Buckingham (now demolished), Northampton and Towcester, the latter a stone’s throw from where I’m sitting right now. Anyway, the resulting church was the tallest building in the world at the time and is still, to this day, the tallest building in Hamburg. However, the real glory of it is now gone after pretty much all of the church, with the exception of the crypt and the tower, were destroyed in World War II in Operation Gomorrah which wiped out vast areas of the city.
In fact it was the height of the tower that probably sealed its fate, because it provided both a goal and a landmark for the allied Air Forces during the extensive air raids on Hamburg. On 28 July 1943, the church was heavily damaged by aerial bombs which left the roof gone and heavy damage to the interior. Although it could possibly have been restored, the decision was taken to demolish the nave and use the rubble to reinforce the banks of the Elbe. Sadly, the church was not regarded as a sufficiently important landmark, compared to the Church of Michael the Archangel. The tower and part of the walls were preserved as a memorial against war, but were not cared for unril the 1980, when the Rettet die Nikolaikirche e.V. foundation stepped in, restoring what was left and setting up an event and exhibition space in the crypt. Where possible, they also salvage pieces of rubble, such as pieces of the destroyed nave pulled from the River Elbe in November 2000, and in 1993 they installed a 51-bell carillon.
Since 1 September 2005, you can also ride a lift to the top of the tower where there are, on clear days anyway, panoramic views over Hamburg and in particular the Speicherstadt, as well as some panels relating the history of the building. I went up; Lynne did not, not being one to deal with heights well. Even on a grey, cloudy day the vista was spectacular, at least once the selfie-taking teenagers went back down to ground level.
It was too cold and damp to stay up there for very long, so I rejoined Lynne and we took in the museum in the crypt. This has been recently renovated and is now dedicated to World War II, with a particular focus on the air war over Europe, and its victims, and in the Gomorrah 1943: Hamburg’s Destruction through Aerial Warfare exhibition provides an overview of the historical context leading up to the air raids on Hamburg, the firestorm itself and the years of reconstruction that followed. As part of a sustained campaign of strategic bombing during World War II, the attack during the last week of July 1943, created one of the largest firestorms raised by the RAF and USAAF in World War II, killing around 35,000 civilians and wounding 125,000 and virtually destroying city. Because there had been a long dry spell of weather, everything was very dry, and that meant that the bombing created a vortex of super-heated air which created a 460 meter high tornado of fire. In addition, the attackers deployed an early form of chaff, when the initial wave planes dropped clouds of tinfoil strips which blocked German radar.
It was a very sobering visit and we were feeling pretty subdued by the time we finished.
Making our way past some of the Christmas markets that spring up everywhere in Hamburg, we decided we had time to fit one more church in before going back to the hotel to change for dinner. No contest, it had to be St. Michael’s Church, known to the locals as the “Michel”. It is another of the five great Hamburg churches and it’s the one I was aware of from my childhood, because my Aunt and her friends kept telling me that the Michel lifts his dome to say goodbye when you leave Hamburg. However, if this is a well known Hamburg superstition, I can find absolutely no mention of it. The church is still well worth a visit though., as it’s considered to be one of Germany’s most beautiful baroque churches.
It was completed in 1912, so is actually quite modern, but that’s because the first church was destroyed by a lightning strike, and the second one burned down in the early 1900s. It will be no surprise to you that the current building was quite badly damaged in the WWII bombing raids, but it has been gloriously and sympathetically restored.
It too has a tower, in this case one which is domed and contains the largest clock bell in Germany. You can head up most of the way to the top, stopping 30 metres short at 106 metres where an observation deck provides a panoramic view of the city and harbour. Again, not feeling that strong, and with dusk now deepening, I skipped the climb and instead wandered around the interior, which is huge.
It can apparently seat 2,500 people, including in some ante-rooms, and there are five different organs scattered around the place. The centre piece of the church interior is a 20-metre-high altar, and the crypt below holds the remains of 2,000 people, in rows of coffins four deep. For a church that has always been Protestant, it’s pretty flashy, but then, as we were told on the tour of the Rathaus, a Hamburg citizen bows only to God (as shown in a painting of Ansgar where the Hamburg citizen who was bowing to the Archbishop had to be painted out because the person who commissioned it wasn’t paying for a picture that showed that happening)!
Outside again, we walked back along the main shopping area of Neuer Wall, admiring the Christmas lights and wondering at some of the shop window displays (who buys this stuff?) before picking up some Christmas star light shades at a market just by one of Hamburg’s theatres.
They would need careful packing, so it seemed best to get them the day before we had to go home, rather than on the final day when there would likely be a bit of a scuffle to get them safely into one of our cases.
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A great tour of the city, I would have climbed those steps despite the fog!