It was unintentional, but I’d arrived in Hamburg during a tall ships festival, taking place along the River Elbe to celebrate the anniversary of the port receiving tax free status from the Emperor Barbarossa in 1189. This is credited with catapulting Hamburg on its trajectory towards becoming a global trading city. It’s celebrated annually with the visit of numerous historic sailing ships and more modern vessels. There is also a week-long series of events, not to mention a multitude of pop-up food stalls and beer halls. I’ve never seen so many sausages in one place.
The result of all this fun was that the whole of the port area and historic Speicherstadt were packed with people. This is the biggest port festival in the world, an estimated one million people take part throughout the week alongside over three hundred ships, several from the Netherlands and others from Russia. At one point, I saw a large group of Russian sea cadets strolling down the Reeperbahn, the person who thought that was a good idea is very deluded. The backdrop for the whole thing are the warehouses of the Speicherstadt and the extraordinary looking Elbphilharmonie.
The neo-Gothic buildings of the Speicherstadt warehouse district are now an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The huge red brick buildings tower over interlinking canals, and were constructed between the 1880s and 1920s on top of massive oak pillars. They were built at the expense of over 1,100 houses, which were demolished. The 24,000 residents were evicted just so more capacity could be created in the tax free port area. These attractive buildings were the predecessors to the immense port that now sits just downstream on the Elbe.
I’d arrived in the Speicherstadt from the Deichtorhallen, crossing one of Hamburg’s many canals on the way. This was once the epicentre of Hamburg’s trade with the world, and these massive warehouses would at one time have been filled with goods from around the globe. The area was severely damaged during the Second World War by repeated bombings, including the vicious firestorm caused by Operation Gomorrah in July 1943 in which more than 42,000 people were killed. Reconstruction of the area was only completed in 1967.
Today, it’s still a commercial area but one that increasingly relies on tourism and, with so many people visiting, it was a bit touristy. That though shouldn’t take away from the glories of the area. There are also some good museums housed in the old warehouses some, like the Spice Museum, tell the tale of the area’s fascinating history. I decided to visit the very crowded Elbphilharmonie on another day, and crossed the river to see St. Nicholas’ Church instead. Partially destroyed in 1943, it’s an evocative memorial to the horrors of World War Two.
Afterwards, I strolled amongst the crowds to St. Pauli-Landungsbrücken, where Ferry 62 departs to several interesting places along the River Elbe. Once I’d worked out how to buy a ticket, the ferry took me past several tall ships at anchor and then on to the famous fish market, now a popular place for food and a drink, before depositing me at Neumühlen. This small harbour houses numerous historic boats, and is the jumping off point for a stroll through an upmarket Hamburg suburb to some good beaches on the river.
As the ferry heads in the direction of the North Sea, it also passes humungous cruise ships and lots of small leisure boats. On the Elbe’s southern bank, Hamburg’s massive modern container port dominates the views, and you can see cargo ships being loaded and unloaded. Ranks of cranes line the water’s edge like ancient creatures. Watching tall ships under full sail heading out to sea against the backdrop of the modern port was a magnificent sight.