HAMBURG HEAVEN; Hamburg Has Reinvented Itself as Germany's Sophisticated Northern Capital, but underneath Its Well-Groomed Exterior the Seedy Side Is Still Thriving. William Cash Is Intoxicated

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Instead of packing a worthy guide book to Hamburg before flying out to Germany's second largest city for a weekend winter break, just as the first snow flakes started to fall on the city in mid November (you are more likely to get a white Christmas in Hamburg than Gstaad), I packed an old copy of Frederick Forsyth's Nazihunting novel, The Odessa File. It opens in Hamburg on the night Kennedy was shot on 22 November 1963.

Taking Forsyth as my city guide, I was reliably informed, from the first few pages, that the city's famed Christmas market lights - Hamburg's Christmas markets fill several squares in the city centre and are renowned as the best of all Germany's northern towns - are certainly not the only red lights worth visiting while in Germany's wealthiest port city. In Forsyth's novel, Hamburg's Reeperbahn redlight district is also worth a detour. Indeed, so taken with the garish excitement on offer on the strip was Forsyth that his hero is a 28-year-old Hamburg freelance reporter whose girlfriend is a beautiful lap dancer who looks like Katharine Ross.

Anybody flying out to Hamburg in the hope of finding even a hint of glamour on the Reeperbahn strip today will be disappointed. On the night I turned Hamburg lowlife reporter - la Forsyth, the Herbertstrasse (the notorious street where scantily clad hookers sit in windows and which women are forbidden to even walk down) was practically deserted other than three hideous-looking teenage East European girls (yes, the Russian mafia has taken over) who tried to jump on top of me and then abduct me by dragging me off the street. After literally fighting them off, I couldn't get back to the Wohnhalle - a vast panelled drawing room decorated like a Twenties German prince's hunting lodge with sumptuous sofas, a castle-like log fire and armchairs in the Wilhelmian style - at the Raffles Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten fast enough. I was too frightened to stop by the world-famous hot dog stand on the Reeperbahn.

Sexual voyeurism or tourism is definitely not the reason you come to Hamburg today. Far from being a hot bed of German vice, depravity and hedonism, Hamburg is a socially sophisticated city that rather looks down its nose at the rest of Germany. It is also the media capital of Germany.

The country's national newspaper, Die Welt, was launched in Hamburg after the war, and it is home to such big weekly magazines as Der Spiegel, Stern and Die Zeit.

Assured of its social identity, with its cosmopolitan residents ranging from Arun Nayar (Elizabeth Hurley's boyfriend is from Hamburg) to fashion designer Jil Sander, Hamburg is the most proudly Teutonic of German cities and takes Christmas very seriously. Don't miss Circus Roncalli artists serving up great bowls of lethal hot punch in the Town Hall Square.

Another Christmas sight is the five traditional 'fantasy boats' anchored along Jungfernstieg, with homemade Christmas biscuits and cakes, magic shows and jugglers.

The best way to see the city is on a boat and canal tour. As a city built around water, it is the perfect place to go for a romantic winter break.

The town has beautiful lakes and canals, fantastic shopping (from fur coats to the most charming Christmas decorations) and Hamburg's opera (the Opera House was Germany's first, founded in

1678) and ballet are regarded as the best in Germany. As the home town of Brahms, there is also no shortage of music on offer. Placido Domingo first made his name in Hamburg, as did the Beatles before they became famous in England and America.

The Star Club, where they originally played, thankfully no longer exists.

Another excellent reason for going to Hamburg is its hotels. Hotels in Hamburg are a form of time-travel back to the days of the Thirties. So obsessed are the Germans with safeguarding Thirties standards, from the livery of the doormen to the way the hot chocolate is made, that the management of the Raffles has teamed up with four other ultra-snooty German hotels to form an exclusive group called Selektion Deutscher Luxushotels. …


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