Along the Elbe

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.

An evening at the beach on the Elbe
An evening at the beach on the Elbe

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.

Fifa Fever in Hamburg

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.

Hamburg's town hall
Hamburg’s town hall

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.