TRAVEL: Following in the footsteps of the Fab Four
'I was born in Liverpool but I grew up in Hamburg,' one John Winston Lennon once famously said - and while his city of birth has been quick to capitalise on its association with the Fab Four, Hamburg is finally making a bit of a fight back.
And with good reason.
The Beatles landed in Hamburg in 1960 with the promise of good money playing Rock‘n’Roll in the clubs.
They were an inexperienced five-piece, playing Elvis and Little Richard covers. They dressed like wannabe Marlon Brando’s. Their drummer, Pete Best, had been appointed days before - not because he had any great ability, but simply because he owned a drum kit. Likewise, the band’s bassist Stuart Sutcliffe was Lennon’s best mate from art school.
In December the Beatles played their final Hamburg gig at the now long-gone Star Club, returning to the city from Liverpool like conquering heroes.
Best had been sacked, Sutcliffe had died tragically of a brain haemorrhage earlier that year and Ringo, who the band had known since their second Hamburg engagement, was now on drums.
Within days, Beatlemania was born. The band did play hamburg for a final time in 1966, ironically just as their touring days were about to come to an end.
Hamburg made the Beatles.
It not only hones their technical ability as musicians, but it also gave them access to the city’s young Bohemian crowd, who not only encouraged them to write their own material, but also transformed their to the iconic mop-top look that became synonymous with their early fame.
I like the Beatles, you may have guessed. So when I was given the opportunity to travel to Hamburg and follow in their footsteps, I jumped at the chance.
I love Berlin, so I was half-prepared for Hamburg to be slightly underwhelming, slightly dull.
I was categorically wrong. Hamburg is Germany’s second city. It has swagger. It had edge. It has the Beatles.
But while Liverpool has gone for bus trips and statues and a museum to remember their most famous sons, Hamburg has done something altogether more original with their legacy.
Most of the clubs are still there - dotted around the Reeperbahn, the city’s famed red light district, where the music scene bumps happily along next to the ladies of the night.
I have to make a point of this because, if you’re planning a trip to this part of town, you may want to consider having a chat with the kids before you head off on a family expedition.
But the Beatles’ real legacy to Hamburg is the Reeperbahn Festival, four days of music utilising the hundreds of clubs, bars and theatres in the district. It is a festival for emerging artists to get seen and signed. It is also a celebration, a hint that the Reeperbahn could once again produce the next big thing, as it did more than 50 years ago now.
I spent a couple of evenings happily wandering from club to club, checking out the KaiserKeller, the Top 10 (now Moodoo) and Indra - where the Beatles had first played and new talent was now cutting its teeth on hallowed musical ground.
I saw the superb BOY play an acoustic set in a huge cathedral, before popping for a refreshing beer in a bar across the road, which I suspect was also a brothel.
On Saturday I had a few hours to kill, so I returned to Reeperbahn and dedicated my time to watching all the acts who were playing on the free stages, on the tops of buses, or high stages erected from scaffolding.
But there is much more to Hamburg. The mega-trendy Sternschanze district just two stops along on the U3, with its trendy bars, independent fashion, graffiti and edge gives Camden Town a run for its money. Ian Dury first came to prominence playing an old cinema in the district.
The city centre proper is a fascinating combination of old and new - expressionistic architecture that miraculously survived the allied bombs, the city’s plush new waterfront develop, which includes a new opera house so striking that it must surely rival Sydney’s, and the old mill complex - once the hart of Europe’s coffee trade, and now the home to PR firms, graphic designers and web companies.
But for me Hamburg was all about music, all about the Beatles. It didn’t disappoint.
Auf Weidersehen, Hamburg. Ich hoffe Sie bald wieder zu sehen.
Information . . .
Travel: I flew with Lufthansa from London City Airport and changed at Frankfurt. Travel time, including changeover is around three hours. A train from the airport costs about three euros and takes about 20 minutes to the centre. Ryanair also flies direct from Manchester.
Accommodation: I stayed in the luxurious Reichshof Hotel in Kitchenalle, just a short walk from the Grand Central Station and would wholeheartedly recommend it. The city also has numerous accommodation options to suit every purse.
Eating out: Restaurant Shifferborse in Kirchenalle offers delicious and authentic German fayre, while Restaurant Wasserschloss offers excellent currywurst and the best possible views of the warehouse district. Tarterie St Pauli in Paul-Roosen Straße, and Restaurant Marblau in Poolstraße are also heartily recommended. For craft beer, check out the fantastic Ratsherne brewery and restaurant in the aptly-named Lager Straße.
Other: Hamburg is packed full of museums but I would most recommend the Miniatur Wunderland - home of the world’s largest model railway. I went on musician Stephanie Hempel’s singalong Beatles tour which is fantastic. The Reeperbahn Festival takes place in late September each year.
Pictured, from top, The Beatles sporting their mop-top look which was invented in Hamburg; The KaiserKeller where the band honed their musical talent; crowds at the Reeperbahn Festival; the Sternschanze district; and Hamburg’s new opera house.