First impressions: If Angela Merkel was a city, she would be Hamburg

My new home is the German economic miracle in action. It is also beautiful

Michelle Walsh at Lake Alster in Hamburg:  ‘Amidst all the industry and the ships and the high-rise buildings, there are beach clubs and river side restaurants and concerts that soften this industrial vista.’

Michelle Walsh at Lake Alster in Hamburg: ‘Amidst all the industry and the ships and the high-rise buildings, there are beach clubs and river side restaurants and concerts that soften this industrial vista.’

 

After two years of perennial sunshine, sticky humidity and negotiating my way through the cultural labyrinth that is Africa, I decided it was time for a change. I decided to go north, like Jon Snow. I had just managed to adapt to turning up 45 minutes late for everything - meetings, appointments, buses, safe in the knowledge that I would still not only be on time, but probably early. It took Herculean effort on my part to achieve this mindset. Now, here I am in Germany, where everything arrives, meets and leaves on time.

So what were my first impressions of the city that was to become my new home? Well, if Angela Merkel was a city, she would be Hamburg. It wasn’t until I read the recent coverage of the G20 Summit that I realised she is actually from the city, and I wasn’t one bit surprised. It reflects her character and is everything you expect Germany to be; pure, powerful, industrial perfection. Vorsprung durch Technik (“lead by technology”).

Even the language here is perfekt Hochdeutsch, clear, clipped enunciation, the kind you dream about hearing in Leaving Certificate aural exams. Hamburg is the German economic miracle in action. It is also beautiful in a cold, angular, precise way.

‘From all the famous areas of Hamburg you can see water.’ Photograph: iStock
‘From all the famous areas of Hamburg you can see water.’ Photograph: iStock

Its northern, icy elegance seeps into every corner, slides into the river, creeps into the buildings alongside it, leaks into the tankers that sit like warships awaiting action.

Here is the German port city of high school geography class in all its Baltic glory. History looms large here too; it’s the Land of Schleswig Holstein, from where Bismarck first formulated thoughts of a united Germany.

Stunning minimalist glass buildings glint onto the River Elbe, the new “Elphie” eclipsing all others. Tourists wave at passing tankers from its balconies, tilting glasses of wine in their hands. No beer swilling stereotypes here. The river is a highway; Merck tankers, water-taxis, Mississippi style pleasure boats and cruise liners compete for space and attention.

Hamburg stands like an emperor at the top of Germany, surveying all below it, inhaling the power of the country from raucous Bavaria and picturesque Heidelberg up, up, up, through shopping heaven Düsseldorf, commercial hub Frankfurt, the pretender port cousin Köln, to exhale this perfect city, to stand back, arms folded and declare, for a third time in history, Germany united.

Germany always has a way of surprising you; amidst all the industry and the ships and the high-rise buildings, there are beach clubs and river side restaurants and concerts that soften this industrial vista. Humanity wins out. The HafenGeburtstag in May is a street party to rival Dublin’s St Patrick’s Festival.

Water runs like an artery through the city. The River Elbe is functional and takes the traffic, while Lake Alster is decorative and recreational. From all the famous areas of Hamburg you can see water; from upmarket Eppendorf to the Reeperbahn, there is water, water everywhere. The aptly named Clouds bar on the Reeperbahn has the most amazing views of the city and the water that powers through it.

Michelle enjoying the sun on a ‘strand korp’ on Timmendorfer Strand.
Michelle enjoying the sun on a ‘strand korp’ on Timmendorfer Strand.

Berlin winks seductively nearby, a mere two and a half hour drive; dark, edgy, Berlin where you crash into history at every corner. East meets west at the Brandenburg Gate, and fragments of the Wall, like slivers of history embedded into collective consciousness, drawn into memory with graffiti, are constantly in your peripheral vision. The tangible, literal history you can see and feel in front of you with every step makes Berlin an inspiring but exhausting experience, every sense over stimulated, every emotion over wrought.

Hamburg is a sleeker, smoother experience, but no less German. It’s like comparing a Mercedes to a Trabant; both inherently German, both symbols of different Germanys.

Nearby is the beautiful World Heritage city of Lübeck, Queen of the Hanseatic League, where you can gorge on marzipan, marvel at the Gothic architecture, and see where Thomas Mann grew up. A little further on, you reach the magnificent coastline where you can dip your toe into the Baltic Sea or the North Sea depending on how far you want to travel, or how much patience you have for the Autobahn traffic.

Hire a strand korp (a woven beach seat for two) on Timmendorfer Strand, Sankt Peter Ording or on the stunning island of Sylt and marvel at how German efficiency extends even to the beach. This perfect little structure is a miniature windbreaker that puts all others to shame. No sand sandwiches here!

With your feet in the sand you could try a Bremer, which is like an upmarket filet-o-fish on the beach, accompanied by a glass of Riesling, while you ponder when the Baltic Sea will ever be warm enough to swim in - even for an Irish person. You might ask someone for the answer, and in true German style, they will reply in perfect English.

If you live abroad and have a summery story to share, email it (under 800 words) with a few photographs to abroad@irishtimes.com

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