Imperial Metz, a city of the ancient and the modern

Metz is a city with an extraordinary history, which can be traced back over 3,000 years. There was a Celtic settlement here before it was dislodged by the Romans, who in turn were displaced by the Franks, from where France gets its modern name. Most famous of all though, this was the birthplace of the Carolingian dynasty. The unfortunately, but amusingly, named Pepin the Short was the first of the Carolingian’s to be crowned King of the Franks in 751. He was the great, great grandson of Bishop, later Saint, Arnulf of Metz. More importantly, he was the father of Charlemagne.

Temple Neuf, Moselle River, Metz, France

Temple Neuf, Moselle River, Metz, France

Centre Pompidou, Metz, France

Centre Pompidou, Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Temple de Garnison, Metz, France

Temple de Garnison, Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

While it might be something of an overstatement, Charlemagne is often thought of as the “Father of Europe”, reflecting his role in unifying much of Western Europe, and for converting his subjects to Christianity – whether they wanted to or not. He ordered the execution of over 4,500 Saxons who refused to convert. The history of Metz during this period is entwined with the Carolingians, becoming an important religious, cultural and economic centre at the heart of an expanding dynastic empire.

It’s a period known as the Carolingian Renaissance, a flourishing of the arts, literature, architecture and legal reform. Charlemagne gathered around him Europe’s leading scholars, who played a critical role in the renaissance. One of whom was Alcuin of York, a scholar from the northern English city – who also has a college named after him at the University of York, where I studied history. Alcuin was based in Tours, and would have been very familiar with Metz thanks to its role as a centre for theological learning and innovation.

Waves of history have washed over Metz in the 1,200 years since the Carolingians. Much of it is still displayed in the wealth of centuries-old buildings liberally scattered across the city. Like many other places I’ve visited, the many glories of Metz seem to have been overlooked by mass tourism, although there is no denying that the addition of the Pompidou Centre has definitely attracted more visitors. That said, because the Pompidou is next the train station you could visit from Paris without ever seeing Metz.

That would be a big mistake. Despite a debilitating hangover acquired during France’s World Cup heroics, I set off to explore the city before making a modern art pilgrimage. I made my way to the Porte des Allemands, a huge medieval defensive gateway into the town. I walked through the Imperial Quarter, the area of Metz constructed during the post-1870 German occupation, before arriving in Place Saint Louis. This 14th century square lined with arcaded buildings was the scene of many festivities the previous day.

Just around the corner from here is La Maison des Têtes, a 16th century building that appears on the tourism literature of the town with great regularity. I wandered the quiet, pleasant streets nearby en route to the Pompidou Centre. I’d saved this for last as I thought it would be spectacular. In the end, it turned out to be perfectly enjoyable, but not the groundbreaking, hugely engaging gallery about which I had read so much. From outside, the Pompidou is an extraordinary sight, like a giant white sun hat draped across a wide open space.

The galleries inside contained interesting and fun exhibitions but, on a searingly hot day for someone with a hangover, it was the air conditioning that really won me over. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it’s not meant to. Afterwards I made my way into town in search of a late lunch and some shade. I found both in the narrow streets clustered just south of the cathedral. Delicious local bistro food and some Burgundian wine restored me to full health, and I went off to explore more of this relaxed, fun city.

Saint Stephen's cathedral, Metz, France

Saint Stephen’s cathedral, Metz, France

Covered market, Metz, France

Covered market, Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

La Maison des Têtes, Metz, France

La Maison des Têtes, Metz, France

Porte des Allemands, Metz, France

Porte des Allemands, Metz, France

In the morning I’d be off again in the direction of Bourges, another under-appreciated city with a big history. For now I sat by the Moselle drinking in the views of the Temple Neuf and watching the sun set.

Magical Metz, where dragons once roamed

Sitting at the confluence of the Moselle and Seille rivers, Metz is a fascinating, historic and attractive city. It comes complete with an array of cultural attractions, of which the town’s Pompidou Centre is only the most famous. I arrived in the early evening on a Saturday and went for a stroll through Les Îles, the larger of Metz’s central islands and the compact smaller island where the Temple Neuf sits picturesquely in the middle of the Moselle. A charming introduction to a town with many charms to recommend it.

Temple Neuf, Moselle River, Metz, France

Temple Neuf, Moselle River, Metz, France

There be dragons, the Graoully, Metz, France

There be dragons, the Graoully, Metz, France

Jardin de l'Esplanade, Metz, France

Jardin de l’Esplanade, Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Saint Stephen's cathedral, Metz, France

Saint Stephen’s cathedral, Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Crossing the river, I reached the winding cobbled streets of the town’s ancient centre, which on a Saturday evening the night before the World Cup final were buzzing with life. Tables spilled out onto the largely pedestrianised streets, with friends and families enjoying dinner and drinks. The whole atmosphere was carnival-like. The centre of the town is dominated by the massive Saint Stephen’s cathedral, and I arrived beneath its hulking mass just as the sun was setting, and setting it aglow in golden light.

The cathedral is famed for having the largest expanse of stained glass, some 6,496 m2, in the world. I’d have to wait for the cathedral to reopen the next day to get a look at the windows though. It was getting late and so I walked through the streets looking for a place to eat, ideally somewhere that served local specialities. Everywhere was pretty packed, but I eventually found a small brasserie with tables lining a cobbled street that was open late. Hanging over the street, and my head, was a large dragon.

This is a city that comes with a dramatic foundation story involving dragons, the fire-breathing mythical beasts of medieval imaginings. The story goes that the first Bishop of Metz, canonised as Saint Clement, arrived in a town plagued not only by a dragon, but by a population of heathens. The breath of the dragon, known as the Graoully, is said to have poisoned the air and trapped the good folk of Metz inside the walls of their town. For added effect, the dragon lived in the old Roman amphitheatre.

Clement got rid of the Graoully, but the incredibly ungrateful people refused to convert to Christianity, forcing Clement to bring someone, possibly the king’s daughter, back from the dead to prove his power. Once he’d resurrected her everyone toed the line. Metz went on to become a significant religious centre over the following centuries – it’s here that the Gregorian chant is said to have been invented – but in a nod to its earlier, heathen days, it adopted the dragon as its symbol.

Temple Neuf, Metz, France

Temple Neuf, Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Jardin de l'Esplanade, Metz, France

Jardin de l’Esplanade, Metz, France

Jardin de l'Esplanade, Metz, France

Jardin de l’Esplanade, Metz, France

The next morning I set off to explore Metz before World Cup hysteria fully took hold, although there were a significant number of fireworks exploding around the town, and plenty of people were draped in French flags and wearing cockerels on their heads. I headed across the islands and through the city to the formal gardens of the Jardin de l’Esplanade close to the Arsenal concert hall. Except for a few runners and dog walkers the area was deserted, and I wandered around the pleasant parks unearthing various artworks until I reached the Palais du Gouverneur.

This grand building was built at the beginning of the 20th century and is a symbol of Metz’s troubled history. It served as an Imperial residence for the German Emperor, William II, during the period after France’s defeat in the war with Prussia in 1870. The city, like much of the Alsace and Lorraine region, was controlled by Germany until the end of the First World War. As I admired the building, in the distance I could hear what sounded like military grade fireworks exploding in imitation of that conflict. Watch the videos for proof!

 

Preparations for the football seemed to be reaching a peak. I made my way towards the centre and joined the increasing numbers of excited people looking for a place to watch the match. La Marseillaise was ringing around the streets and an awful lot of alcohol was being consumed. The rest, as they say is history, but it will take quite some time for me to forget the scenes before, during and after France’s victory – it also took me a while to recover the next day.

The Netherlands: Farewell #2

Regrets? I have a few. In one of the smallest countries on earth, with an excellent public transport system and endless cycle paths, I failed to reach the islands of the Wadden Sea, or venture very far into Friesland, an area of the Netherlands with its own distinct language. The northern city of Groningen remains unexplored, as do the rolling hills on the border with Germany around Maastricht. There are other places I’ve missed also, but I have made it to almost every other part of the country – by train, tram, metro, car, boat, foot … and by bicycle.

In the process I’ve written blogs about sixty-three different places, something that is a surprise even to me. It makes the task of recommending my top tips from four and a half years of living here all the more difficult. For what it’s worth, these are the things I’d definitely not want to miss if I was visiting the Netherlands for the first time.

Amsterdam

Canals and boats, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals and boats, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Start with the obvious? Why not? Amsterdam is a city like no other, and it takes little effort to leave the tourists (and the cliche) behind while exploring some of its fantastic neighbourhoods. This is where the Dutch Golden Age is fully expressed, both in the wealth of 16th and 17th century buildings, and the incredible collections of the city’s museums. It’s so much more than a living museum though – as anyone who has had the misfortune of witnessing an out of control hen night can tell you – this is an unmissable artistic and cultural powerhouse.

Cheese towns

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Dutch cheese, wax coated and often round, is one of the iconic symbols of the country. The most famous cheeses originate in the most picturesque towns: Edam, Gouda and Alkmaar. All have their share of tourism, although the kitsch cheese market in Alkmaar is the cheesiest of all. A visit to the Netherlands would be incomplete if it didn’t include a cheese-related town. What’s more, some cheese comes with a history. In beautiful Edam, I learned that 16th century Dutch ships used the town’s cheese as cannonballs when they ran out of the real thing.

A Dickensian Christmas

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The beautiful Hanseatic town of Deventer is one of the oldest in the Netherlands, and is worth a visit solely on the grounds of its history and wealth of historic buildings. Visit in December though, and you may be lucky enough to participate in one of the finest Christmas Fairs in the country. The whole of Deventer’s historic centre is transformed into the 19th century London of Charles Dickens. Residents dress for the occasion and many perform as Dickens’ fictional characters. It’s brilliant.

Touring the tulip fields near Leiden

The tulip season, Netherlands

The tulip season, Netherlands

When the tulips are in bloom, the vast fields of brilliant colour really have to be seen to be believed. From Leiden, you can cycle in countryside that has become a patchwork of vibrant blocks of colour. It’s mesmerising. It can seem like this is all for the benefit of tourists, but the tulip bulb business is at the heart of a multi-billion euro horticultural industry. Thankfully, there seems little chance of a repeat of the economic disaster that was Tulip Mania.

Cycling the Waterland

Waterlands, Netherlands

Waterlands, Netherlands

In a land of water, the area north of Amsterdam provides a dramatic example of how the Dutch have lived alongside natures most elemental force for centuries. Hire a bike and spend a day lazily cycling the lanes and dikes, and marvel as you cycle atop a dike with the IJsselmeer on one side and people’s houses five or ten metres beneath you on the other. Historic towns and the once isolated fishing community of Marken make this an area for repeated exploration.

Middelburg and the glories of Zeeland

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

Stadhuis, Middelburg, Netherlands

I spent a couple of days in Middelburg and cycling the beautiful coastal landscapes of the southerly region of Zeeland. I promised myself I’d go back and explore more, but now that will now have to wait for a return trip. Middelburg is a spectacular town with a long history, something that becomes immediately apparent when you stand in front of its magnificent Stadhuis. This is another town that grew wealthy during the Dutch Golden Age, and it shows.

Reliving Dutch history in Enkhuizen

Traditional Dutch costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen is a historic and picturesque town. Like many others, its wealth was built on the trade in herring and then as part of the Dutch East India trading company, the VOC. The fishing fleet may be no more thanks to the damming of the Zuiderzee, but leisure boats now ply these water instead. The Zuidermuseum, a recreation of a former fishing village using original buildings from around the region, tells the history of these fishing communities. It’s one of the best ‘living’ museums I’ve ever visited.

Hoge Veluwe National Park and the Kröller-Müller Museum

Kijk Uit Attention, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Kijk Uit Attention, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

One of the last great areas of natural landscape in the Netherlands, the Hoge Veluwe is criss-crossed with numerous walking and cycling routes as well as being home to wild boar, red deer, foxes, roe deer and pine martens. You can spend most of a day cycling through this beautiful area, but a visit is best combined with a trip to the extraordinary sculpture garden and museum of the Kröller-Müller Museum. Walking the sculpture park is an epic adventure and one of the most unique Dutch museum experiences.

Cycling the North Sea Coast

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

I couldn’t believe how beautiful the route along the Dutch coast is, especially the area between The Hague and IJmuiden. Quiet, traffic free cycle routes take you through rolling sand dunes and protected landscapes that are free of development. If you bring a picnic you can find isolated stretches of sand with sea views to relax on, or stop in one of the small (and touristy) seaside towns. Try to make sure you cycle with the wind at your back.

Haarlem

Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

Bakenesserkerk, Haarlem, Netherlands

In a country filled with beautiful towns complete with well preserved medieval centres, Haarlem really stands out. It also comes with some excellent museums and a very good selection of restaurants. There’s a lively market on Saturday in the Grote Markt, but just wandering the streets and unearthing some of the city’s historic gems makes for a fascinating day. More than simply “Amsterdam without the tourists”, don’t miss the Frans Hals or the Teylers museums.

Canal towns that aren’t Amsterdam

Koppelpoort city gate, Amersfoort, Netherlands

Koppelpoort city gate, Amersfoort, Netherlands

It wouldn’t be fair to miss out vibrant Utrecht, beautiful Delft or glorious Amersfoort. The Dutch have a surfeit of canal towns that come with fascinating histories and a lot of character. It is very easy to escape the tourist hordes (literal hordes) in Amsterdam and find a canal town all of your own to explore. Delft and Utrecht are well known and growing in popularity, but towns like Amersfoort still seem a million miles from the tourist trail.

Rotterdam

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

A far cry from the quaint cobbles (and tourist nightmare) of Amsterdam, after being destroyed during the Second World War the city of Rotterdam has reinvented itself as a creative centre. The city chose to innovate rather than recreate the past, an attitude writ large in the city’s architecture, which begins when you arrive at the dramatic main railway station. No visit would be complete without a trip to the new Markthal and an exploration of the Cube Houses near the old harbour.

…and finally, The Hague

People walk through trees, The Hague, Netherlands

People walk through trees, The Hague, Netherlands

Home for four and a half years, and one of the most underrated of all Dutch cities, The Hague has a lot to recommend it. Weirdly, it remains off the tourist trail, at least for now. The Dutch often think of The Hague as a dull city in comparison to Amsterdam or Rotterdam, but here you can find history, culture, good food and a decent nightlife – at least for someone my age. That’s not to mention the fact that it is just a short bike ride to access hundreds of kilometres of pristine beaches … and dozens of great beach bars.

So, farewell Netherlands, you’ll be missed.

The Netherlands: Farewell #1

It’s been four and a half years since we moved to The Hague, the relaxed and historic Dutch city by the sea. Truth be told, when we learned that the Netherlands was to be our home, it didn’t seem particularly exciting. We arrived after living in Bolivia, and the flat, wet Low Countries were a long way from the high, dry Andean highlands. A Dutch colleague in London even advised me against moving. Now that we’re leaving I can say with some certainty, this is a country that has seared its way into our affections.

Harbour, Urk, Netherlands

Harbour, Urk, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

International Kite Festival in Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

International Kite Festival in Scheveningen, The Hague, Netherlands

The Netherlands is a small country with a big heart, especially once you get used to the notorious Dutch ‘directness’. This can easily come across as rudeness. A more accurate description would be ‘bluntness’. So runs the joke, unless you’re prepared for a brutally truthful answer, never ask a Dutch person for an opinion on your personal appearance. That part of Dutch culture is more than compensated for by the friendliness that we’ve experienced almost everywhere we’ve been in the Netherlands.

Beyond the obvious cliche of the Dutch as open minded, socially liberal and good at football, I had little understanding of the Dutch psyche or cultural norms before we came to live here. It turns out the cliche are both true and wildly inaccurate. This is an open minded, culturally diverse country, but a million people voted for a xenophobic (at times openly racist) politician at the last election. There is a small-scale culture war being fought over Zwarte Piet, a tradition many people view as offensive in a country that played a major role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Tallest windmills in the world at Schiedam, Netherlands

Tallest windmills in the world at Schiedam, Netherlands

Traditional boats in the old harbour, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Traditional boats in the old harbour, Monnickendam, Netherlands

Highland piper, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Highland piper, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete and Sintaklaas parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Working windmills of Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Amongst the tulips, tulip season, Netherlands

Amongst the tulips, tulip season, Netherlands

It’s legal to sell and buy both sex and marijuana in the streets but there is a deep vein of Calvinism running through the country. To my surprise, there’s even a Bible Belt. Not fifty kilometres from Amsterdam’s fleshpots, entire communities attend church on a Sunday morning and shops remain closed. This though is conservatism with a small ‘c’, you’ll find much support amongst those sat on the pews for an open refugee policy. The national football team has performed woefully for the last four years. Total football? Total disaster.

Despite only having a handful of truly wild landscapes left, the Dutch countryside is a fantastic place to get away from it all. You can cycle just about anywhere in the country and, once outside the cities, the pace of life slows to a crawl. That presents abundant opportunities to discover beautiful and historic small towns and villages. Almost all of which have a well-preserved medieval centre. I literally had no idea how beautiful the Netherlands was, plus it has hundreds of kilometres of gorgeous beaches. There are rumoured to be ‘hills’ near Maastricht.

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Tower or Rotating Cap windmills at Kinderdijk, Netherlands

Tower or Rotating Cap windmills at Kinderdijk, Netherlands

'Santa Claus with butt plug' by Paul McCarthy, Rotterdam, Netherlands

‘Santa Claus with butt plug’ by Paul McCarthy, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Stadhuis or City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

Stadhuis or City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

The Netherlands has played an oversized role in global affairs, defying other European countries to become a global, and colonial, power in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Dutch Golden Age has left its imprint around the world. More importantly though, the centuries have left behind some fascinating traditions. Most involve raw herring. Dutch colleagues swear by pickled herring with raw onion as a hangover cure. The obsession with a fish that was the foundation stone of early Dutch prosperity, culminates in the season’s first catch, the Hollandse Nieuwe. It’s a very big, very fishy deal.

Surprisingly, Christmas is a non-event. The Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas on December 5th instead (it’s his sidekick Zwarte Piet that has caused so much animosity in recent years). Dutch New Year’s Eve celebrations more than compensate though. If you want to experience the thrill of warfare without actually going to a war zone, this is for you. Military grade fireworks explode in massive numbers, not from the safety of a civic display, but by selling them to anyone with money.

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Slot Zuylen, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Slot Zuylen, Netherlands

People launch them in the street, from the back of speeding bikes, from rooftops. They are thrown under moving cars, fired towards cyclists and pedestrians, and vast strings of firecrackers are rolled down residential streets before being exploded. If you want to know where the writers of The Purge  got their ideas from, be in the Netherlands on  December 31st. I’ve never seen a more reckless use of incendiaries (apart from that one time in Bolivia).

One blog can’t do justice to four years of experiences – I could spend quite some time on the lack of food culture, but that would seem churlish. It’s been a genuine pleasure to live in the Netherlands, I’m looking forward to coming back on holiday.

Bremen, Hanseatic history and cutting-edge culture

I’d only planned to spend a day and a night in Bremen, but I enjoyed my time there so much that I decided to stay a second day and explore some more of the town. I’d done some research overnight and decided that I shouldn’t miss wandering the narrow lanes of the ancient Schnoor district of town. This was the centre of economic life in Bremen when it was a member of the Hanseatic League. Here, on the banks of the River Weser, fishermen, merchants and craftsmen made their homes and plied their trade.

Schlachte Embankment, Bremen, Germany

Schlachte Embankment, Bremen, Germany

Along the River Weser, Bremen, Germany

Along the River Weser, Bremen, Germany

Along the River Weser, Bremen, Germany

Along the River Weser, Bremen, Germany

The Schnoor, Bremen, Germany

The Schnoor, Bremen, Germany

The Schnoor, Bremen, Germany

The Schnoor, Bremen, Germany

The Schnoor, Bremen, Germany

The Schnoor, Bremen, Germany

The area dates to at least the 12th century, and reminders of its long history are found scattered throughout the compact, almost claustrophobic, streets. The area gets its name from the Low German word “Snoor”, meaning string, because the small houses are packed together like pearls on a string. Today, this feels like the most touristy part of town, and the pretty half-timbered buildings have long bade farewell to their former residents in favour of restaurants, cafes, boutiques and souvenir shops.

Mostly the area is pedestrianised – it would be hard to imagine a car getting down most streets – and perfect for strolling. If you want to know more about the Hanseatic period the Bremer Geschichtenhaus museum does reenactments in period costume. I spent a couple of hours wandering around before visiting the nearby Kunsthalle, Bremen’s fantastic art gallery with a glorious collection that spans over 700-years of art history, from the Middle Ages to the present.

I wasn’t expecting the Kunsthalle to be so big, or have such a brilliant selection of art, but this one of the finest galleries in Germany. I was there for hours, a little transfixed by how great it all was. It was definitely time for lunch, but next door to the Kunsthalle is the smaller, more Avant Garde, Gerhard-Marcks-Haus. A modern art space that had me scratching my head trying to interpret what I was seeing. If it wasn’t immediately understandable, Volker März’s Horizontalist was at least visually arresting.

That seemed like enough culture of one day so I went in search of lunch in the Steintor neighbourhood. I reemerged on the banks of the Weser where a riverside park led me back into town. It’s a lovely walk, with occasional barges passing along the river. Back in the centre there are several ships moored on the waterfront and a bridge leading over to the thin end of the Teerhof peninsular that runs for a couple of kilometres and creates an inland ‘sea’.

This was an old warehouse district that was badly bombed in the war and is now mainly apartments and offices. There’s another supposedly excellent modern art gallery in a former cigarette factory, but one modern art gallery a day is my limit. At the end of the peninsular I crossed back over to the Schlachte Embankment, which is home to several good bars, restaurants and beer gardens. The weather was warm, so I decided to sit by the river and watch the world go by with a beer in hand.

I was reading my guidebook and realised that Bremen is not only home to the globally renowned Beck’s beer brand, but the brewery does one tour a day in English. I could see the brewery from the beer garden and decided it was worth visit. In case the guidebook was wrong I checked their website, and indeed there was a tour in English but, and it was a big ‘but’, they don’t allow you to take the tour if you’re wearing flip flops.

Schlachte Embankment, Bremen, Germany

Schlachte Embankment, Bremen, Germany

Schlachte Embankment, Bremen, Germany

Schlachte Embankment, Bremen, Germany

Underpass art, Bremen, Germany

Underpass art, Bremen, Germany

Gerhard-Marcks-Haus, Bremen, Germany

Gerhard-Marcks-Haus, Bremen, Germany

Gerhard-Marcks-Haus, Bremen, Germany

Gerhard-Marcks-Haus, Bremen, Germany

Underpass art, Bremen, Germany

Underpass art, Bremen, Germany

This odd rule disqualified me, luckily there were plenty of Bremen beers on offer along the Schlachte … and I didn’t even have to move.

Grimm Tales and the Song of Roland in glorious Bremen

Bremen came as a complete surprise. A cultured, relaxed and cosmopolitan place, it’s one of Germany’s largest cities but feels like a small town. Although it’s packed with historic sights, great museums, a lovely riverside and plenty of parkland, it seems to fly well under the tourism radar. Combine that with some great restaurants and fun bars, and this is a place that really rewards a few days of exploration. I arrived early in the morning after a ninety minute drive from Hamburg and set off towards the Altstadt, the picturesque old town.

I emerged out of a nondescript shopping precinct into a square next to the medieval Unser Lieben Frauen, the city’s oldest church. A few steps further brought me face-to-face with Bremen’s historic Altstadt. It’s absolutely beautiful. The sun was shining and the cafes beneath the gabled roofs of medieval merchants houses buzzed with life. In the other direction stands the modern city parliament, while on either side are the old Town Hall and the 16th century Haus Schütting. It’s a feast for the eyes.

Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Gothic Town Hall and Cathedral of Saint Peter, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Gothic Town Hall and Cathedral of Saint Peter, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

The Musicians of Bremen, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

The Musicians of Bremen, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Cathedral of Saint Peter, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Cathedral of Saint Peter, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Statue of Roland, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Statue of Roland, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Gothic Town Hall, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Gothic Town Hall, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

This is all the more surprising because of the severe damage Bremen endured during World War Two. This was one of Germany’s major ports, and its shipyards would have been a target long before U-boat construction began in the suburb of Rekum. Bremen was also home to factories producing Focke-Wulf planes for Germany’s war effort, and the Borgward car company manufacturing trucks and unmanned tanks for the army. As a consequence, over 60% of the city was flattened by aerial bombing.

Despite this, many centuries-old glories survived, including the GothicTown Hall and the statue of Roland, both date from the 15th century and are now an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The statue of Roland, one of Emperor Charlemagne’s loyal supporters, stands in front of the Town Hall and is a short distance from the majestic Cathedral of Saint Peter, which has a crypt holding several mummified corpses. The Song of Roland is an early medieval poem recounting Roland’s untimely but heroic death while fighting the Moors in Spain.

A more easily missed site is an innocuous looking a drain cover. As I watched, a couple of women approached and put a coin into the drain cover. Thinking this was either a weird local custom, or these were two crazy people. I took a step backwards. Just then the recording of a barking dog came from inside the drain. This is the Bremer Loch (The Hole of Bremen). When fed money it plays the ‘song’ of the Bremen Town Musicians – a cockerel, a cat, a dog and a donkey.

This begs many questions. The answer to why an odd grouping of animals are known as the Bremen Town Musicians lies with the tales of the Brothers Grimm. In one tale, the aforementioned cockerel, cat, dog and donkey decide to live as musicians in Bremen. On their way there they discover a house of thieves, who the plucky foursome scare off before taking possession of the house. They never actually make it to Bremen, which is a shame given how much the town makes of them – there are statues (some stranger than others) all over the place.

Böttcherstrasse, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Böttcherstrasse, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Degenerate? Böttcherstrasse, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Degenerate? Böttcherstrasse, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Böttcherstrasse, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Böttcherstrasse, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Degenerate art? Böttcherstrasse, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Degenerate art? Böttcherstrasse, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Böttcherstrasse, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Böttcherstrasse, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Böttcherstrasse, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Böttcherstrasse, Altstadt, Bremen, Germany

Connecting the Altstadt to the Weser River is the Böttcherstrasse, a fascinating street of expressionist architecture that was the brainchild of entrepreneur, art collector and inventor of decaffeinated coffee, Ludwig Roselius. The street itself is an artwork, but it is also home to several excellent museums, including the Ludwig Roselius Museum and the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, the latter the first museum in the world to be dedicated to the work of a female painter. Both are well worth a visit.

The street was bombed in the war but was painstakingly restored to its pre-war glory. It doesn’t come without controversy though, Roselius was a supporter of the Nazis. At the entrance to Böttcherstrasse is a golden relief known as Lichtbringer, or Bringer of Light, intended to glorify Hitler’s rise to power. Ironically, in 1936 Hitler denounced Roselius’ art collection and the Böttcherstrasse as ‘degenerate’ and his application to become a Nazi Party member was rejected, something that put his safety at risk. If you can separate the politics from the art though, the Böttcherstrasse is magical.

Hamburg, street art in the European capital of cool

Many parts of Hamburg’s urban landscape can really only be described as “gritty”. That grittiness often comes accompanied by small oases of street art, both the glorious and the mundane. Whole buildings are frequently used as vast canvases, while small scale pieces can be found just about everywhere. The epicentre of the Hamburg’s street art scene seems to be, predictably, in the streets of St. Pauli, coming with a distinctive dose of social consciousness. You don’t have to go too far to find interesting pieces in other areas of the city though.

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Fittz Kola street art, Hamburg, Germany

Fittz Kola street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

I saw quite a lot of street art that was anti-gentrification, a pretty huge social issue in every Germany city I visited on this trip, but it seemed especially political in Hamburg. I came across numerous pieces by the same artists, one of the most identifiable being El Bocho, a street artist from Spain now resident in Berlin, whose Citizens pieces could be seen in several places. Another street art ‘brand’, literally in this case, is Afri Cola – an actual fizzy drink produced since the 1930s and still on sale today.

Afri Cola was famed in the 1960s for its provocative advertising campaigns, including a poster that featured some very attractive nuns wearing habits and red lipstick. In fact, I’m not actually sure they were bona fide nuns. It was scandalous at the time, and that 1968 advert gets a reprise as three even sexier nuns towering over the Reeperbahn’s Red Light District. Afri Cola isn’t the only fizzy drink to have taken to the walls to get their ‘message’ across. Fittz Kola is big on street art advertising, including a depiction of Delacroix’s Revolutionary icon, Marianne, near Hamburg station.

Like many ‘global’ cities, Hamburg hosts an art festival, Knotenpunkt, that has a strong emphasis on street art. There are many pieces around the city that come from various editions of the festival. They tend to be statement pieces, with perhaps my favourite piece being Cross-section of a Black Widow by Nychos, an Austrian artist. More than 40 international artists took part in the most recent Knotenpunkt, attracting over 10,000 visitors to the city. Street art is big tourism in the 21st century.

Another great piece was the giant image of three blue people in a river by a waterfall by Sao Paolo-based artist, Cranio. They reminded me of the beings from the film Avatar looming over a small park filled with people chatting and drinking. One artist you can’t miss in the streets is St. Pauli resident, Ray DLC, who paints images depicting the area. You can book tours, like many places, but just wandering the streets in and around St. Pauli offers up reward after reward … and you can stop off in some of the areas many fun cafes and bars as you go.

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Street art, Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, the seedy and the seriously hip

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.

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

ATM and sex in the Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

ATM and sex in the Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany

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.

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

Karolinenviertel, Hamburg, Germany

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!

Beaches and boat races, a lazy day along the Elbe

Hamburg’s relationship with the River Elbe dates back to the 9th century. Its citizens’ love affair with the Elbe’s riverside beach bars may only be a part of a tradition going back to the 19th century, but it’s equally intimate. On a warm, sunny Sunday morning I arrived at the picturesque harbour of Neumühlen on Ferry 62, and was one of only a handful of people to disembark. The harbour doubles as a maritime museum filled with lovely wooden boats as well as more modern ice breakers, tugs and a floating crane.

I made my way onto land and to a cafe with tables overlooking the harbour and river. It was very peaceful as I ordered up some breakfast and much needed coffee after a night out in Hamburg’s Karolinenviertel. My neighbours at the next table were two of the most drunk ‘sailors’ in the history of sailing. They’d been involved in the tall ships festival, and seemed to have spent the previous 72 hours drinking themselves into a stupor in the Reeperbahn.

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Boat racing, Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

As I sat watching boats sail by on the Elbe, I noticed something unusual in the harbour: two boats were being lined up to race each other. Two pilots were stood in the back of the small wooden boats, each with a single oar in the water. Someone shouted ‘go’ and they paddled furiously towards the finish line, a bridge over the harbour. I wandered back towards the harbour to watch the competition unfold. It seemed like a pointless way of propelling a boat forward, but everyone was having fun.

Leaving the harbour sports behind me, I headed over to the remarkably pleasant and clean beach that stretches for about a kilometre along the river bank. It was still quite early and the beach wasn’t particularly busy until I reached the iconic Strandperle beach bar. It and the neighbouring Ahoi Strandkiosk heaved with people enjoying a drink in the sun. It really was a hot day, so I joined the crowds in the shade and had a glass of the locally brewed Astra.

The bars have a laid-back feel and were the perfect place to wash up on a Hamburg Sunday. The views across the river to boats sailing past the giant cranes of the Port of Hamburg seemed perfectly normal sitting on this beach along the Elbe. Fully rested, I walked further down the beach before doubling back through the lovely, upmarket suburb of Övelgönne. Tree-lined pathways weave across the hillside behind the beach and past wooden houses with wrought iron balconies.

It’s very sedate and peaceful, with beautiful views over the river. Interestingly,  there are a surprising number of bars and good restaurants in the area. You could easily go from spending a day on the beach to not leaving until well after sunset. I strolled back to the harbour grateful that I’d made the effort to visit this sublime piece of Hamburg – I almost didn’t. Ferry 62 dutifully turned up a short while later, and I headed back to town as yet more sailing ships made their way towards the open sea.

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Neumühlen harbour, Hamburg, Germany

Beaches on the River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

Beaches on the River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

Beaches on the River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

Beaches on the River Elbe, Neumühlen, Hamburg, Germany

I made one final stop to visit the Fish Market which, by the time I arrived in the late afternoon, was in a bit of a slump following what looked like a busy lunchtime. The grand wrought iron interior was decked out in bunting and a band was warming up. If this little trip down the river had proved anything, it is that Hamburg really is a city full of surprises. It won’t be the last time I visit.

Tall ships along the Elbe, Hamburg’s old port

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.

Hamburg harbour and Elbphilharmonie, Speicherstadt, Germany

Hamburg harbour and Elbphilharmonie, Speicherstadt, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg harbour, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg harbour, Germany

Statue of Barbarossa, Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Statue of Barbarossa, Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

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.

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Sailing ship on the Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Tugs on the River Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

Tugs on the River Elbe, Hamburg, Germany

St. Nicholas' Church, Hamburg, Germany

St. Nicholas’ Church, Hamburg, Germany

St. Nicholas' Church, Hamburg, Germany

St. Nicholas’ Church, Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Port of Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Port of Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Port of Hamburg, Germany

River Elbe, Port of Hamburg, Germany