For Xav Judd the LGBT+ scene of Germany’s second largest city has much to offer
I am not going to lie. When I asked a German friend about this city he said to bring a good novel, because many of his countrymen call it Hamboring.
But, as soon as I arrive and sample the bonhomie of the locals and the unique waterfront atmosphere of the third largest port (after Antwerp and Rotterdam) in Europe, I feel somewhat relieved. Why? I already know my trip is going to be oodles more exciting than a lot of the other places I’ve visited.
Nestling on the banks of the River Elbe and taking its name from a castle (Hammaburg) constructed by Emperor Charlemagne in 808 AD, like loads of other Teutonic metropolises this town was severely devastated by the Allied bombing campaign in World War Two. Of course, nothing can ever make up for the countless numbers who perished, but a chance did arise for the new cityscape to be shaped into one of the most majestic on the continent. Indeed, architectural gems such as the Elbphilharmonie (Platz der Deutschen Einheit 1, elbphilharmonie.de/en) and the Staatsoper (Grosse Theaterstrasse 25, staatsoper-hamburg.de) embellish the horizon like diamonds in a seam of coal.
The LGBT+ scene here is split into two main enclaves. St Pauli is a miasma of neon, where hordes of locals (Hamburg’s population is 1.7 million) and tourists size up fast food outlets, strip joints, nightspots and sex shops in an area that encompasses the red-light district, the Reeperbahn. Conversely, along the narrow road of Lange Reihe – in the St. Georg quarter – is a more urbane affair, chocker with bistros, boutiques and chic restaurants.
In this latter milieu, I stop at the glass-fronted lounge Generations (Lange Reihe 81, generation-bar.de) and kind of get the impression I have fallen into a Mondrian painting – its glowing yellow and cherry backdrops are a phantasmagoric whirl. This is a watering hole where denizens pose, gossip and devour the region’s favourite shandy (Alsterwasser) or funky cocktails, as DJs add to the ambience with their exhilarating sets. Literally just around the corner, the trendy, Italian-influenced Bellini Bar (Danziger Strasse 63, bellini-bar-hamburg.de) is another drinking haunt to savour.
Not to forget the opposite side of town’s Wunderbar (Talstrasse 14): inside, there is a huge sign on one of the walls which says ‘Showtime’. Believe me, it nearly always is with the gorgeous bevy of twenty- and thirtysomethings who can’t seem to keep their eyes or hands off each other. There may be only one major LGBT+ club in this city, but the house and electronica music-playing 136˚ (Reeperbahn 136, 136grad.com) more than satisfies. As it’s Hallowe’en weekend, an assemblage of creeps, ghouls and even one Lady Ga Ga impersonator abound – and they are just the motifs on my dodgy Y-Fronts! At one stage, I freak out when I detect my body brush into some sort of carpet. Step forward, Kaye, the glorious drag queen with the mostest, who is wearing a super-hairy white ensemble – just picture Chewbacca from Star Wars having slipped into a bath of bleach. Although she doesn’t glide onto the dancefloor, hundreds of others do, underneath a ceiling that’s so illuminated it looks like the outside of a spaceship from the aforementioned George Lucas movie.
After such a thunderous night on the tiles, the next day it’s time to take it easy. Nowhere’s better to chill than the über-refined, Café Gnosa Lange Reihe 93, gnosa.de). It’s the grande dame of LGBT+ eateries, having served our community for over 20 years. Their array of scrumptious native mains and heavenly homemade cakes – try the eggnog Torte – means you probably won’t want to leave until you’ve consumed your whole bodyweight. Further up the same thoroughfare is the more traditional (think old-fashioned, dark-coloured wooden interiors) but still cosy Café Uhrlaub (63, cafeuhrlaub.de). As well as functioning as a guesthouse, and having a beautiful garden which is open in the warmer months, they dish up a similar smorgasbord of hot meals, sweet treats, and alcoholic beverages.
This year, Hamburg’s Pride – all such events are referred to as Christopher Street Day (or CSD) in Germany (and Switzerland) – runs from 29 July until 6 August (hamburg-pride.de). Its slogan is “Come with us! Discrimination is no alternative”, which fits in with the organisers’ ideals of a free and equal society, cultural openness and the acceptance of differences, gender diversity, and equal rights for sexual minorities. Activity-wise, expect speeches, discussions, performances, and a host of happening parties, with the whole shindig coming to a close at a street festival at Jungfernstieg on the last Sunday.
Later on, a stroll along the harbour reveals something as out-of-place as Simon Cowell’s high-waisted trousers: a gigantic 90 metre-long, 3,000 tonne Russian submarine. Although it’s berthed, the gleaming pitch black U-434 (St. Pauli Fischmarkt 10, u-434.de) still has all of the menace and poise of a killer whale, just before it rips into a sea lion. Manufactured in 1976 and in service as recently as 2002, luckily the non-nuclear Tango class vessel has been turned into an engaging museum. Carefully, I walk past gangways and climb through hatches of a leviathan – it supported 32 personnel – whose primary use was spying. It is intriguing to see the command centre with all its switches, dials, knobs and levers; the Officers’ Mess; and the torpedo chamber still with a number of shell casings. And with regard to the measly bunk bed-styled crew’s quarters, you’d probably find more room in the underpants of Dirk Diggler of Boogie Nights fame.
To catch a thrilling drama that’s been running even longer than Game of Thrones, why not rock up to the opera? This art form, which was created in the 16th century, arguably still has certain class connotations in the UK. Yet, when I venture into one (the Staatsoper) for the first time, there is none of the upper crust haughtiness one might reason would be encountered back home. And I am also fortunate to be watching Georg Telemann’s Flavius Bertaridus – a storming tale of murder, lust, passion and revenge. Peering down from one of the boxes, it does not matter that the unfolding yarn is not in English (explanatory production notes in our language are provided), as the feeling, mood, posture and vocalization of the actors remarkably convey the story. Indeed, it truly is a magical occasion, with the music produced by the penguin-clad orchestra, and the ethereal articulations of the singers, sending a gigantic buzz throughout the acoustically enhanced auditorium.
You’d be as crazy as a sumo wrestler attempting to balance on a ping pong ball, if you left town without checking out the world-famous, 1703-founded Fischmarkt (Fish market – Grosse Elbstrasse, fischauktionshalle.com). Positioned next to the slew of luminous, opaque waves that methodically rise and fall in the Altona – the westernmost urban borough – section of the harbour, it’s not just the eponymous marine creatures that are on sale here. Every Sunday morning (5.00am – 9.30am April until October and from 7.00am – 9.30am the rest of the year) this expanse is a riot of thousands of people. Merchandise for sale on the dozens of stalls includes: round cheeses the size of wagon wheels; bread so fresh the delightful smell caresses one’s nostrils; and clothes and souvenirs. As I wander around the hall attached to this bustling extravaganza, there’s a slick band called Mcream who are rolling through a Ninaesque (remember ‘99 Red Balloons’?) number, before breaking into a cover of Robbie Williams’s Let Me Entertain You. And boy, this rock combo unquestionably did enthral me, as has this dynamic metropolis. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing mundane about Hamburg – it’s the real deal.
WAY TO GO
Eurowings (eurowings.com) have regular flights to Hamburg from London Heathrow and Manchester. Tourist info: hamburg-travel.com
hamburg.gay-web.info and travelgayeurope.com are good sources for facts and data in relation to the city.
expatsblog.com/portal/germany/hamburg has various articles about life in the eponymous metropolis. Or peruse Lonely Planet Germany: lonelyplanet.com.
Purchase a Hamburg Card (hamburg-travel.com/search-book/hamburg-card) for unlimited U/S-Bahn, bus and ferry rides, plus 50% discounts on entrance fees to museums and certain other attractions.
WHERE TO STAY
One of a group of nine establishments run by the Twenty Five Hours chain, this particular one is located in the area of town known as Hafen City. Housed in a 1950s building, the 128 rooms’ interiors have a cool retro aesthetic. Überseeallee 5, 25hours-hotels.com
Situated in the eclectic St. Georg neighbourhood, this place is inspired by the best of Britain. Expect colonial era décor and an English-type bar, the DaCaio. And don’t miss their sixth-floor day spa. Barcastrasse 3, thegeorge-hotel.de