Laura Tanna LETTER FROM LAURA
We're about to leave Waldeck Castle on Lake Eder in central Germany. Actually, the lake is a huge reservoir built 1904-11 to provide not drinking water - although it could supply Berlin for an entire year - no, it was built to control the flow of rivers. And so, the northern city of Bremen contributed one-third of the cost to ensure that, in winter, there'd be no floods and, in summer around Waldeck, there'd be no drought.
We'd hoped to spend a night in Bremen to complete the Fairy Tale Road, visiting areas from which the Grimm brothers' collection originated, but we realised there was so much to explore in historic Bremen, largely untouched by World War II (WWII), that a tantalising taste would be too cruel. Better return on another trip and instead drive directly north to Germany's second-largest city, the port of Hamburg on the Elbe River leading to the North Sea.
Once a member of the Hanseatic League and a free city-state, Hamburg has a rich history of international trading but, as an industrial centre with shipyards, armament factories and oil refineries, nearly 80 per cent of the city was destroyed by allied bombing in WWII. So, one finds historic buildings such as the Neo-Renaissance City Hall or Rathaus, almost shoulder to shoulder with the ultra-modern air-conditioned Europa shopping mall. I found the mixture unsettling.
We stayed at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, translated as 'four seasons', run by the Fairmont Hotels. Friedrich Haerlin, in 1897, bought a small house at auction and expanded it into a Hamburg landmark, known for its exquisite decor, service, and perfect location on the Inner Alster River. The river was dammed in the 13th century, creating a small lake where, in the 17th-century, eligible young maidens would walk with their parents, perusing eligible young men and vice versa. So it became known as 'maidens' walk' or Jungfernstieg. Today, it is Hamburg's prestigious shopping area, including nearby Europa mall.
Our marvellous concierge, Mr D'Amore, an institution for decades at the Vier Jahreszeiten, made dinner reservations at the Ristorante Portonovo for our first night in Hamburg, because the hotel restaurants were closed on Sunday or reserved for a private function. A short lakeside walk across to the Outer Alster and we found ourselves in a delightful waterside restaurant with a glass of champagne, compliments of Mr D'Amore.
The walk back under a full moon with city lights and shining waterspout in the Alster made our first evening perfect.
the blue mosque
Mr D'Amore had, by prior emails, already organised an English-speaking guide and driver for us to visit the city's highlights on Monday morning. This included a drive around both Inner and Outer Alster, (the city has more than 2,400 bridges), past mansions of the city's wealthy businessmen, past rowing and sailing clubs, consular residences and even a beautiful Blue Mosque. This mosque was donated by Princess Soraya of Persia because so many Iranians have taken up residence in this city of 1,800,000 inhabitants.
We drove over to the port where cargo ships arrive, and to Hafen City, with its brick warehouses standing amid canals, some warehouses in the customs-free zone still holding cargoes of coffee, carpets and tea for transshipment, others transformed into modern apartments. The "green" award-winning, ultra-modern Unilever Building has cruise ships docking at its waterfront while, just a few chains away, exists the Deichstrassse houses in what little remains of old town. Of course, no visit to Hamburg takes place without visiting infamous Reeperbahn in St Pauli, the city's red-light district, though we just took a peep in daylight hours.
Lunch at the Alex Alsterpavillon back on the Jungfernstieg was delicious, especially as we viewed Lake Alster's waterspout create a rainbow in the sunlight. Evening took us on a half-hour taxi ride through gorgeous autumn foliage and substantial neighbourhoods northwest to Blankenese, an opulent community right on the River Elbe where we met a friend's aunt and her friend, formerly in shipping. We learnt about the International Maritime Museum of Hamburg and watched huge cargo ships pass as if at our fingertips, just chains from our hostess' veranda.
With sunset, we moved on to the Restaurant Ahrberg, decorated with antiques, including an 1890s music machine. Another fine-dining spot on this side of Hamburg is Jacob's Restaurant in the Louis C. Jacob Hotel.
We didn't want to leave Germany without attending a concert, and selected an organ recital the next noon in the magnificent white and gold baroque interior of St Michaelis Church, after which we hailed a taxi and sped over to Kunsthalle, a superb art museum open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.
Walking back to our hotel, we decided on a late afternoon boat tour on the Alster. In the evening, we visited another historic landmark, The Atlantic Hotel, opened in 1909, where we dined at their excellent Tsao Tang Restaurant. Our only mistake was to have ended our visit on October 3, German Unity Day, celebrating the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990. Everywhere was closed until the evening's celebrations! So we spent our last morning lingering over breakfast, musing at how pleasant Germans had been, whether in central Germany, where we scarcely saw any foreign tourists, or in the more cosmopolitan city of Hamburg. Then it was off to the airport with the wish that on another trip, we might explore both Bremen and Berlin.