I honestly never thought I’d find myself saying this, but Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district makes Amsterdam’s red light district look classy. I’m not sure it’s possible for any area that deals in selling sex, and caters to gangs of heavy drinking men and occasional hen nights, to be particularly pleasant, but the Reeperbahn strips bare any pretensions to glamour or even normality. Even at 3pm in the afternoon it’s populated by a selection of seedy characters, at night things take a turn for the even more surreal as tour groups mingle with stag parties and brothel patrons.
Despite the fact that it’s not a particularly pleasant place to visit, it’s an obligatory stop on any Hamburg itinerary. If for no other reason than to know why it’s not worth your time to go there in the first place. Plus, if you want to unearth some of the sites where the Beatles spent their time when living in Hamburg, a trip down the Reeperbahn is necessary. Even then, most of the venues the Beatles played have been knocked down, and the Beatles-Platz memorial to the band is best described as the worst €500,000 the City of Hamburg has ever spent.
There is an argument that the Reeperbahn represents an alternative world view and its unique history should be respected and protected. Some local residents decry the creeping gentrification that’s taking place, but change is inevitable and most probably desirable. Right now the Reeperbahn’s heady mix of cheap drinking dens, sex shops, discount stores, tacky souvenir shops, table dancing clubs, brothels, kebab shops and street level prostitution is just nasty. Not to mention the rough sleepers, pan handlers and victims of drink and drugs who are scattered around.
I found myself exploring the Reeperbahn while walking between the River Elbe and Hamburg’s legendary St. Pauli district. The Reeperbahn is the southern boundary of the district, walk north and you’ll soon find yourself amidst a maze of fascinating streets that are filled with off-beat, alternative bars, restaurants and cafes. I was staying just north of here in the Karolinenviertel area which, although gentrification has made its mark, still retains a counter-cultural vibe for which this area of Hamburg is famed.
I spent much of my time in Karolinenviertel and neighbouring Schanzenviertel, both are former working class areas known historically for poverty and deprivation. Their transformation into hip, multicultural and uber-trendy districts has taken place over the last decade or two. On Saturday morning I went to the flea market in an area that connects the two districts, the Schlachthof. It’s worth a visit both for the bizarre range of items on sale and to get a real sense of the area’s inhabitants – it’s not always pretty but it’s definitely entertaining.
There are no real ‘sights’ in these neighbourhoods, unless you count the Rote Flora. A former theatre, this now dilapidated building has been a squat since it was seized by left wing activists in 1989, who declared it a “free space for realising an autonomous life”. It’s quite famous in left wing circles, but as sights go it’s less than thrilling. Many would like to see it closed down and redeveloped, but successive city governments have backed off from doing so. In part, because of the fairly well-deserved reputation for violence of the people who ‘run’ Rote Flora.
I went to have a look to see what all the fuss was about, but had more fun just aimlessly wandering the surrounding neighbourhood. There are interesting streets and pleasant squares to explore. In keeping with the rest of this trip, I visited the Braugasthaus Altes Mädchen craft brewery to sample its range of delicious beers. This is also where I ate a hamburger in Hamburg, something of a lifelong ambition. Small things, I know!