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.
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.
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”
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.
Hamburg is one of the world’s great river cities. As the Seine is to Paris, as the Thames is to London and as the Danube is to Budapest, so is the Elbe to Hamburg. It has shaped and defined the place. The Elbe is not just the life blood of the city, a superhighway to the Atlantic for its ships and the world’s greatest inland port, the Elbe is also a treasured leisure ground for the people of Hamburg.
In any season, hundreds of walkers stride along the Elbe’s paths, their alpenstocks always at the ready. Cyclists can follow tracks for miles, through suburbs like leafy Elbechaussée with its gorgeous 19th century villas, its restaurants and its cafes and on into the country. But, if they tire of the view from one side, the Old Elbe Tunnel will take them to different vista, from another bank.
In summer the people of Hamburg pack into beach clubs along the Elbe, to enjoy a Riviera style experience with bars, decks, deck chairs, waiters and bathrooms. There’s the ‘Strandperle’ or Pearl Beach, described in one tourist brochure as “:the mother of all beach clubs”, so presumably it’s the star of the fleet. Then there’s the sensibly named Hamburg City Beach Club, as well as the exotic Lago Baz, the fanciful Hamburg del Mar and the whimsical Strand Pauli.
The most popular beach on the river, though, is the fittingly labelled Elbe Beach. On the July summer evening that I dropped in on Elbe beach, its broad sands were alive with sizzling barbecues, sunbathers soaking up the last of the sun’s rays and swimmers were splashing in its waters. It could have been any bay, any lake, any riverside beach anywhere in the world. But with the giant ship, tall as an apartment block, tracking slowly seaward, just off shore and the port of Hamburg bristling with cranes and stacked with containers just beyond, it could only have been the Elbe.
At the time of our visit, Hamburg City was high on the FIFA fever that had gripped Germany as their team crashed through the gripping quarter final game against Argentina.
It wasn’t just the German flag, out of the closet where it had mostly been banished to gather dust since world war two, now waving from apartments and fluttering from cars. It wasn’t the bright blue neon soccer “goals” that beamed down from high rise buildings. It wasn’t the festive feeling of the city, where the smell of sizzling bratwursts filled the air, where beer flowed and friendships formed while oompah bands in lederhosen tootled away on street corners. It wasn’t even the brother-and-sisterhood of football jersey. It was that nothing else seemed to matter, that the cup was the star and the centre of everything, that the world had stopped and everyone had stepped off for the moment.
The city was dressed for the Cup. Department store window displays were all about football. Inside, the trail of paraphernalia led from floor to floor; Food Hall – chocolates and sweets; China – cups, glasses and plates; Accessories – scarves, hats, wallets and bags; Stationery – pencils and rulers, pens and paper; Toys – teddy bears, dolls, figurines, games, stickers and posters; Intimate apparel – undies and socks; Nightwear – pyjamas and nightshirts; Menswear and women’s wear – t shirts and shorts; Sports goods, where among balls, bags, and boots, the highly priced colours of the victors had pride of place, while squashed all together, on a hanger with wheels, were the sorry, discounted strips of the defeated. Outside in the streets, stalls offered more; clackers and hooters, pennants and badges, whistles and streamers, caps and headscarves, bunches of flags of all sizes and colours and a united nations of disembodied jerseys swinging from poles.
The blue neon goals held the high places of Hamburg, beaming down after dark from rooftop to rooftop, glittering strangely in the daytime sun. Lower down apartment windows flew an avenue of German flags. Below on the roads, they fluttered from the windows of passing. But in the streets, squares, parks, cafes and shops the football jersey held sway. They were every where – from every country and corner of the world, on people of every age, race and colour.
Along the lake there was a village of food tents. People dithered in salivating huddles before an a to z of sizzling wursts, then there was the strudel, the brot, the puffe the ban and the kuchen and after that the doner kebab, the hot dog, the hamburger, the chips, the crepe and the panini. In the beer tents, choices seemed simpler but still there was a palette of shades between blond and brun.
The weather was a hot and unheard of twenty eight degrees. The the sun was shining and the sky was a perfect blue. Locals shook their heads in disbelief. They’d never known Hamburg weather like this. They’d never seen Hamburg like this. Never seen the flag fly proudly like this. Never known a time like this.
The FIFA World Cup was on when we were in Hamburg in 2006. But Football fever seemed hardly to touch the peaceful Hotel Treudelberg Golf and Country Club, at the edge of forest, on the outskirts of Hamburg, until that memorable day when Germany met Argentina in the quarter final.
At five o’clock, the terrace was deserted. The chattering fountain was the only voice in the garden, the swaying trees the only dancers on the lawn and on the golf course, only a lonely flag waited at the first tee. Inside, the corridors were quiet, the pool, the gym, the sauna and the beauty center were empty. There was no rumble of industry from the conference rooms.
“The game” said the smiling receptionist as she pointed me to the bar
“Oh, of course, the game!”
Inside the bar, the crowd stood shoulder to shoulder, squeezed into corners and squashed against walls. There were elderly ladies in brocade frock-coat ensembles; white-haired, jovial red-faced gents in waistcoats; a circle of middle-aged cigar-smokers in shirt-sleeves; elegant, coiffed, bronzed matrons in cut-away, slashed down-to-there, split-up-to-here dresses and dangerous heels. Blondes with umbrella drinks, big hair and beach-ball bums teetered on bar-stools. There was a team of beer-drinking suits. At the bar was a man with a flower in his button-hole. Right at the front was a woman in bridal whites . Her eyes were fixed, like everyone else’s, on the TV screen where eleven Germans and eleven Argentineans chased a black and white ball backwards and forwards across a rectangle of green.
A scoreless first half ended with snorts of frustration and shaking of heads. Brocades, suits, stilettos, cigar smokers and beach balls receded like a rip-tide, leaving glasses and cigarettes, bags, stoles and jackets like flotsam and jetsam on tables and chairs. There was a lull in the bar, like the eye of a storm. Figures took shape in dim corners; a few football jerseys, a couple of golfers; conference people in logo tee shirts. There was a re-claiming of space, a charging of glasses, an exchanging of nods; a bonding of sorts.
Outside, under the umbrella, the man with the button-hole and the woman in white joined hands. Their friends closed in and blocked them from view. It was still for a second. Then the circle unwound and raced to the bar. Bride and groom shared a kiss and dashed after them.
It was four minutes into the second half and the commentator called the game in tones of mounting panic. “Nein! Nein!’ screamed the anguished crowd as Argentina scored. A lone cheer from a shadowed corner fell into a leaden silence.
There were ten minutes left when Miroslav Klose flipped the ball into goal. Bronzed arms waved above coiffured heads.
Shirt-sleeves thumped waist-coated backs. Beach balls and big hair bounced up and down. Brocades smacked kisses on startled red-faces. Bellowed snatches of “Deutschland Deutschland uber alles” transported the suits.
The air buzzed like an electrical field through extra time. People sprang to their feet yelling “Jaaaaaaaa!” as the ball spun towards the German goal, then sank into in their seats as Argentina snatched it away crying “Neieeeeeiiiin!
And finally, we arrived at that hour of judgement, that time of reckoning, that Armageddon of football – the penalty shoot out. Glasses were filled, smokes were lit, everyone settled, tensed, readied. The countdown began.
If there was a voice raised for Argentina it was lost in the roar.
It was a German win! There was shouting, singing, cheering, laughing, crying, embracing – shirt-sleeves and big-hair, suits and stilettos, white-hair and beach balls, waistcoats and brocade, football jerseys and big hair, golfers and bronzées, conferenciers and coiffures, barmaid and barman, bride and groom, all on the same side now, all whirling around in a demented dance.
The commentator’s voice was drowned out. The TV flickered, forgotten, in its corner. The joy, the jubilation, the disappointment, the tears and the after-match ugliness played on, unheard and unseen, till the screen snapped off and it all vanished into blackness.
The bride and groom led their guests away, out through the French doors, and across the terrace. From a lawn striped with shadows, they threw bunches of white balloons into the fading sky. The trees shivered in the breeze, the fountain dropped curls of misty spray on the pond and beyond it, a group of golfers teed off, then chased specks of white along the darkening fairway.
There was an emptiness now in the bar and a tiny tinge of sadness, like the one that follows the end of a good book. But there was also a feeling anticipation and a sense of excitement too, like the one that comes when there’s more to the story.
I enjoyed my first two days in Hamburg, on the outskirts, at the edge of the Forest.
The Hotel Treudelberg Golf and Country Club is only 10 kilometers from the centre of Hamburg but it seems a world away. Its roofs and gabled windows look out across a tranquil garden, over a thick curtain of trees into a flawless sky. The “outside world” stays discreetly between the covers of brochures, maps and guides. Life, as it is known to tycoons and top end escapists, goes on undisturbed at the Hotel Treudelberg Golf and Country Club.
On one side of the building, behind the closed doors of conference rooms, the machinery of global business ticks and whirrs. On the other, the corridors echo with the muted beat of aerobics from the Fitness Centre and the soft splash of swimmers at the pool. A scent of crèmes and oils drifts under the doors of the Center Estetika and robed wraiths slip noiselessly from sauna to solarium. Outside, golfers trundle along a fairway lit vivid green by a bright summer sun and beside it a path leads away to a fairy tale forest.
The blue sky, the warm sun, the clear air and the beckoning path outside are irresistible. Feeling like Little Red Riding Hood, but without the basket of goodies for Grandma, I lift the latch on a dark green gate at the end of the hotel gardens and follow the path. It weaves along, through and around the golf course, under canopies of shady trees,past sunny fields of long grass. There’s a distant thuck of everyday clubs on ordinary golf balls, but it’s underscored with magical birdsong and the mysterious whisper of wind in leaves.
At a junction , a white arrow, on a mossy, brothers-Grimm rock, points me in two directions. Close by, there’s the sound of a barking dog, a splash, and the whirr of wings. Two big white birds rise with an outraged squawk above the trees. They hover, then turn and drop further down. Straight ahead, through the trees there’s a shaft of light. I follow a pattern of smudged footprints away from the path, across the damp earth to a clearing with a tiny lake set in steep banks. Sunshine freckles its dark surface, where a dog paddles, trailing a v of wake, towards a circle of disapproving ducks.
I pick up the path again and follow it round the lake, passing only a company of dogs on a dogs’ day out and some serious, stringy-legged hikers spiking their way, with alpen stocks, over humps and hollows, tree-roots and potholes. In distance, there are voices, the desperate whistles of lost dog owners and the faraway drone of an engine.
The path takes me back to the Treudelberg lawn where tall trees stir gently against the perfect sky and a fountain patters softly on a reed fringed pond. I sink into a deck chair and watch the play of light on the leaves. Just when I’m wondering whether life could be more perfect, a shadow falls across the lawn beside me and a waiter in a white coat and bow tie offers me champagne.