Hamburg, Motorbike City

There’s something fascinating about motorbikes. Whether it’s the chrome, the shiny paint, the compact and complex engines, the helmets and the leather that goes with them, the noise, the smell or simply the power, the freedom and the wild feeling of exhilaration that they bring, I couldn’t say.

A kid takes a nap in the sidecar of a family bike
A kid takes a nap in the sidecar of a family bike

I was sitting in a cafe beside a canal in Hamburg City. Nearby a busker was singing Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose. Tourist boats  rose and sank on the nearby lock. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, the air was sweet with the smell of bacon and eggs and pastries.

From somewhere faraway came a buzz, like a swarm of advancing wasps. It drew closer. It grew louder. It began to sound sinister. It became a rumble, then a roar. A baby at the next table began to cry. Now all other sounds, the singer, the laughter from the boats in the lock, the clatter of plates from the café had been drowned out by the thunderous din. Some people leapt to their feet. Others sat frozen in fear. But I knew that it was the sound of motorbikes, lots of them. Then past the end of the street they roared. On and on they came, in their hundreds  in along  streak of flashing chrome and gleaming paint.

The noise subsided and slowly petered out as they came to rest on nearby avenue.

Later I headed over to have a look. There were bikes of every make, shape and age. There were great hulking Harleys, Indians, BMWs, Hondas, Suzukis, Ducatis. There were Mum and Dad bikes, Mum, Dad and the kid bikes with side-cars, lovers’ bikes, porno bikes painted with buxom silhouettes in skimpy gear and army bikes in camouflage colours.

Most of Hamburg it seemed felt that same fascination for motorbikes, because there they were on that street, spellbound.

Bikers had ridden from all over Germany to take part in the rally in Hamburg that day.

Hamburg’s Church of Saint Nikolai

In an attack code-named operation Gomorrah, which lasted for three days and three nights from July, 24 to July 26, British and American Planes dropped 350,000 incendiary bombs on the city of Hamburg. 15,000 people were killed and many more wounded. The city was destroyed. A terrible fire-storm raged in the aftermath and those who had survived the bombing and the burning, perished as it sucked the oxygen from the air. For days the city smouldered and smoke blotted out the July sun.

Most of Hamburg has been rebuilt and restored now but the once mighty Church of Saint Nikolai stands in ruins still. Its burnt and shattered shell serves as a memorial of that time and as a monument “to the people who died from war and persecution, 1933 to 1945”

The Sandborstel memorial in the courtyard at Saint Nikolai
The Sandborstel memorial in the courtyard at Saint Nikolai

In the forecourt of Saint Nikolai, a stone figure sits slumped in grief on a pile of bricks. This statue commemorates the 50,000 people who lost their lives in the death camp at Sandborstel. The bricks came from the camp.

St Nikolai’s Crypt has been restored and now hosts concerts, readings, and exhibitions. In Saint Nikolai’s Exhibition Hall displays of photos and films show the extent of the destruction wrought on Hamburg that July, in 1943. Photos, drawings, along with fragments of the altar, and stained-glass windows allow us a glimpse of the lost beauty of Saint Nikolai.

There is no stronger caution to peace, no more poignant tribute to the victims of war, than the smoke stained skeleton of St Nikolai.