Germany: Chapter One

Our two weeks in Germany begin in Hamburg with family—the Hamburger Rafiis. Uncle Yousef, Tante Maren, cousins Jaschi and Bijan, Bijan’s lovely wife Yvonne, plus their three boys, Fabio, Yago and Sami. A boisterous bunch that all live together in a family compound in Niendorf, a little suburban hamlet on the edge of Hamburg. We make ourselves at home in this cozy arrangement and have a delightful time. The talk and the wine flow over the course of many delicious meals. Evenings of lively conversations and laughter in halting German, English and Farsi. At 12 years old, Sami is the youngest family member and the most eager to try out his new English vocabulary. He and Bob engage in many humorous exchanges including going into business to produce “Bob shoes”—a reference to a drawing he did of Bob’s feet. My family’s warm embrace gives us a chance to settle down, relax and enjoy some non-touristy time. 

We augment our family time with walking tours and concerts. Good fortune brings us to a wonderful jazz concert at the Elbphilharmonie—Jason Moran, a jazz pianist from New York, in a solo performance. It is one of the best concerts we’ve ever been to and the building is itself a marvel. From the outside, many stories of faceted glass with a roofline reminiscent of waves sit atop an old brick warehouse along the waterfront. On the inside, a very long escalator ride takes you to the lobby and 360-degree views of the city. Depending on your ticket, you may have to climb another 6 stories to get to your seat. It is an enormous place with multiple performance venues and facilities including restaurants and a hotel. You have to pay just to tour the place.

Hamburg is a very elegant city, with more bridges than any other city in the world, and more canals than Venice and Amsterdam combined. It is remarkably clean, bike and pedestrian-friendly, with many parks, an excellent public transportation system and a rich cultural life. There are no skyscrapers, no panhandlers, and no homeless people on the street. The architecture is a mixture of post-modern steel and glass, art nouveau buildings and baroque churches. In the old port, the Speicherstradt is the world’s largest contiguous warehouse and a Unesco world heritage site. It all works together beautifully. Hamburg is clearly prosperous—a reflection of its history as a member of the Hanseatic League.

Remarkable when you remember that heavy bombing during WW2 almost completely destroyed the city. More than half of the city’s dwellings as well as factories and industrial infrastructure were demolished during an eight-day bombing campaign, referred to as Operation Gomorrah. Uncontrollable fires created winds of up to 170 miles per hour and street temperatures of at least 1,400 degrees, enough to melt glass and asphalt. The fire razed the city, killing 27,000 in one night, with total estimates of the dead varying between 34,000 and 43,000. Hamburg suffered an additional 69 bombardments after that. It is hard not to think of the war and our history with Germany as we walk around the city. There are memorials all over, the most haunting of which is the bombed-out shell of the St. Nikolai church. All of this is to say that Germany today and our current friendship and alliance are something of a miracle. 

Other highlights of our stay include a day trip to Lubeck, the capital of the medieval Hanseatic League and now famous for—among other things—the highly addictive Niederegger marzipan pralines;  a terrific dinner in the Portuguese neighborhood at the harbor; and an organ concert in the church where Brahms was baptized— St Michaels. “The Michel” is a beautiful baroque church— the largest in Hamburg—with 5 organs, a clocktower with four faces and a large bronze sculpture of the Archangel Michael over the portal. It is where you go to hear heaven.

Leaving Hamburg and the family, we head north to the Baltic sea resort of Kühlungsborn. Hard to pronounce but delightful to visit. The drive through farmlands along small country roads is serene and beautiful. We stop at two more medieval towns of the Hanseatic League, Schwerin, with its magnificent baroque castle, and Wizmar, where an open plaza delineates the footprint of a bombed-out church. This is a complicated region that drips with centuries of history still palpable today.

Kühlungsborn is such a vast contrast to our beach stay in Holland. Here older couples and young families with small children stroll along the boardwalk and frolic on the beach. Stately manors from the turn of the last century—now mostly hotels—line the street along the water. It is all very gracious, orderly and well-mannered. This is a summer holiday town for the latter-day burghers of the Hanseatic League. A wholesome and charming place where everyone is well-behaved and well-fed. Plus the breakfast buffet that comes with our room is ample and delicious. 

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for the next chapter—Berlin and the road to Paris.