Hamburg from the water
Hamburg is 110km away from the open sea but it is a port city, the second busiest in Europe no less. Its waterways are its lifeblood and on my first day there – the penultimate day of my trip – I went on a maritime tour to get a feel for the modern version of the place my great-great grandfather sailed from in 1876.
Despite my hotel being opposite the mayhem of the train station, my room was quiet and I didn’t bust a gut to get up and going. I had arrived in Hamburg without much of a plan, other than to see the emigration museum which would be a nice way to conclude the family history theme of my trip. An easy way to get there was via a hop-on hop-off boat.
The fine weather fairies had followed me to Germany so I trotted off under sunny skies. It was a 40 minute walk to where said tour departed from, via a big shopping street they nickname Mö, past the big town hall (I’d have more time to linger tomorrow), along streets with views of canals and church towers, through a park and under a bridge where punkish youths sat in groups. Except for that, this place had a good feel to it.
It was a bit of a mission finding the correct pier but I made it in time, bought my ticket and sweatily waited on board with a dozen Germans. As we got underway and I was happy to hear English being incorporated into the commentary.
From what I had seen so far Hamburg has made the most of its harbour. There was a maritime buzz about the place and its waterfront precincts looked well-appointed.
Roughly half of the >1000km long Elbe River is tidal and right now it was approaching low tide. We weren’t on a big vessel by any means but the captain explained he would need to alter the course a little to avoid running aground. We chugged across to see up close some of the grittier areas of the port.
Around the waterways we went until we arrived at the stop for the emigration museum.
A few of us alighted alongside a faded sign proclaiming ‘Port of Dreams’ – a phrase coined back in the day as people readied themselves to depart for the New World – and ascended the stairs to find the museum.
BallinStadt covers the emigration era from 1850 to 1934 (equating to five million departees). Fittingly it is located in the emigration halls which opened in 1901, closed in the 1930s, and were rebuilt after WW2. My ancestors pre-dated this facility though and we don’t know where they were based – we will probably never know as by the mid 1880s Hamburg had nearly 60 boarding houses providing emigrant accommodation. It would be great to at least discover where exactly their ship the Fritz Reuter left from.
The reason the Fabiches left from Germany and not closer to home was that Poland’s two ports (including Gdańsk, relatively close to where they lived) primarily handled freight and rarely dealt with passengers. At the time they left, Bremen further west was the main emigration port by the numbers; this changed by the early 1890s.
Ignoring the noise and mayhem from the visiting school groups, the museum itself was interesting. Not surprisingly it was oriented toward emigration to America since the US was the majority recipient of departing Europeans.
I hopped back on the boat.
Hamburg is susceptible to flooding, 1962 being the worst when more than 300 people died. Some of the flood protection measures were pointed out to us, as was the entry to the locking system connecting the Elbe with the waterways beyond.
The tour finished. I dropped some coins in the tip container and went off in search of a late lunch. On the way I deviated into a building that seemed to be of some importance, housing a few stories of downward stairs. My squeamishness for heights would’ve made that a pathetic endeavour and in any case I was saved by the discovery of an elevator. A steady stream of people were venturing in and coming out so I went down to have a look.
Back in 1911 the Elbe Tunnel, 24m below the surface, revolutionised access between central Hamburg and the docks and shipyards on the other side of the river. It was a pleasant 426m walk. I popped out at the other end for a quick look but my hungry tummy thought a more sure thing was to return the way I came.
Later I made my way back to the train station to pick up some supplies, including new shoes. I’d decided that given where my shoes had been, I’d spare NZ Customs the bother.
Distance walked: 11.1km