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  • Meirion Harries

DAY ONE HUNDRED Hamburg and the Train Home

I'm on my own high up in Hamburg's Philharmonic Hall, the Elbphilharmonie, the new concert hall built on a peninsula jutting out into the Elbe. As you can see below, the building is remarkable - a glass wave sitting on top of an old warehouse. The final cost was almost 900 million euros - so far over budget that the locals at the next table are still remarking on the expense and shaking their heads. They went to such trouble with the acoustics - my memory is that the main concert hall floats to reduce percussive noise from elsewhere - and the first piece they played there to show off the sound was Britten's Six Metamorphoses after Ovid written for solo oboe (presumably because Ovid had been exiled to Tomis on the Black Sea - at the mouth of the Danube, which can be reached by rivers and canals across Europe from the Elbphilharmonie).


Elbphilharmonie (c)meirion harries


The Race Marshal has set off for the ferry with my bike securely fitted (I hope) to the little trailer that she acquired from somewhere. In front of me is a tall glass of Stortebeker and a generous bowl of Hamburger Hummersuppe (cream, lobster and dill) - some necessary nourishment before catching the train home.


Hamburger Hummersuppe (c)wikicommons


The cafe is eight floors up so I have a panorama of the endless wharves and cranes of the Port of Hamburg. Before lunch, a ferry took me on an expedition in and out of the vast docks - and I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale. The annual numbers convey something of the port's magnitude: 8,000 ships load and unload on 43 kilometres of quay served by 119,600 freight trains – not to mention the three cruise terminals with their throughput of thousands of people.

A small part of the Port of Hamburg (c)meirion harries


Hamburg is the third largest port in Europe behind Rotterdam and Antwerp. Centuries in the making, the enterprise feels a little insecure these days: the Chinese now own Piraeus and while their acquisition is currently not that big, the Chinese will grow it and offer an easy service to the traffic coming through Suez that currently has to trek round to Bremen and Hamburg.


As I look down on the Elbe, it occurs to me that, for some reason, I have an emotional attachment to this particular river. I understand the power of the Rhine and the Danube and the miracle of water-borne transit to the Black Sea (now that there is a canal that crosses the European watershed). I also know the historical importance of these huge rivers - how the Rhine corralled the Romans while the Danube opened trading with the east. But there is something special about the Elbe - perhaps the romance of it being a frontier of Christianity, though in my mind I see the night in 1944 when all five major churches along the river were in flames.


East of the Elbe historically was always home to a wide range of peoples - Slavs, Huns, Pannonian Avars, Magyars - not Germans. But from Charlemagne's time, Germans pushed eastwards in a process known now as the Ostseidlung – into lands stretching from Estonia, through Poland, the Czech and Slav republics into Romania, where time saw them settle and mingle. Not true of the Teutonic Knights, of course – and I am sorry we never got to see their castle at Marienburg (Malbork in Poland).


the Teutonic Knights castle (c)wikicommons


Germany's present boundaries were, of course, drawn by the Allies and Stalin. While some Germans still resent the contraction of German land, the governance imposed by the Allies within those boundaries has proven extraordinarily beneficial. They effectively created what are now sixteen semi-autonomous states (Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin are states in their own right). This has meant that Germany has never developed a giant lodestone of a capital city around which the country circulates.


More than this, the model of governance has fed the Germans' sense of Heimat: that they belong to a particular place and, because of the constitutional arrangements for each state, their Heimat belongs to them.


There are two reasons for this. The boundaries of the states reflect old historical roots - so traditions and local culture (including sausages) remain alive. Bremen, which was always an Imperial City, petitioned the Allies to be constituted as a city-state - and so continues its self-governance. And each state has considerable delegated power: local people control a long agenda of local issues such as arts and sciences and also education, while the Federation looks after foreign affairs and defence.


This localism has meant that towns and cities have, on the whole, remained relatively small and human. And this feature - when tied in with autonomy and an historical sense of place - has created in Germany a civil society that is to be envied.


Caspar David Friedrich The Wanderer (c)wikicommons


But I have finished my Hamburger Hummelsuppe and the musing must end. If I hurry, there will be time to stop off at the Kunsthalle to see (perhaps appropriately) The Wanderer. He has been musing on things since 1818.



A little film about the Elbphilharmonie by Turkish pbs - https://youtu.be/VPd7R45Bbpg


Part of the inaugural concert given by NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock - https://youtu.be/-JDQ2NkHVc8


Benjamin Britten Six Metamorphoses after Ovid - https://youtu.be/3rnzK03IEzg


A dramatised history of the port of Hamburg - https://youtu.be/ryi9hi-1RMs


Schubert's Der Wanderer - Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore in 1963 - https://youtu.be/96KWVeaeGLU


Maurizio Pollini playing Schubert's Wanderer Fantasie - https://youtu.be/dKCh1HPwVxw


Status Quo performing The Wanderer live in Hamburg - https://youtu.be/qHXUDiRblVk

















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