Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Wonderful And Stimulating Trip

Early this evening Joshua and I returned home from our trip to Germany. We had a wonderful and stimulating trip, and all the way home, across the entire Atlantic Ocean, Josh and I profusely thanked my father for inviting us to accompany him and my mother on the journey.

Before we embarked two weeks ago, I knew that Josh and I would have a wonderful time, and I knew that my father would have a wonderful time. However, I was concerned that my mother would not find the trip to be sufficiently rewarding, and I was worried that my brother would not have enough fun on the trip. My concerns and worries were groundless, as it turned out--my mother and my brother had the time of their lives.

We all stayed at the same hotel, the Levantehaus, a magnificent and beautiful first-class hotel right in the heart of Hamburg, in the midst of the luxury shopping district and near the Alster. Josh and my brother and I had informed my Dad, before the trip, that we three would be perfectly content to stay in basic, tourist accommodations and that we three would house ourselves, at our own expense, in a modest hotel not too far from my parents' hotel. My Dad would have none of that, and he booked us into the Levantehaus along with my mother and himself. I am glad he did. The hotel was charming and luxurious and situated perfectly for our explorations of the city.

Josh and my brother and I like to swim, and the Levantehaus had a beautiful pool, complete with a Romanesque ceiling. We swam every day. On alternate days, we would swim early in the morning, before meeting my parents for breakfast. On the other days, we would swim late in the afternoon, after returning to the hotel from our daily explorations of the city, and after our swim we would meet my parents for dinner.

Our daily schedule was pretty consistent. At 8:30 a.m. each morning, Josh and my brother and I would meet my parents for breakfast at the hotel restaurant (an exceptional restaurant, as it turns out--one of the very best restaurants in Hamburg). By 9:30 a.m., we would be on our way to begin that particular day's activities. By 4:30 p.m., at which time it was completely dark, my parents were generally ready to call it a day and to return to the hotel and to relax until dinner and whatever else was planned for that evening.

Josh and my brother and I extended our day beyond that of my parents, and we extended it at both ends. We would rise at 6:00 a.m. and for our early morning fun we would swim one day and go on a lengthy walk the next. My brother likes to rise early and to take an early morning walk when he is on vacation--he has always done this, and I have always gone with him--and we made sure that early-morning walks were a part of his vacation. One morning we walked all of the streets between the Jungfernsteig and the Hauptbahnhof; another morning we walked the Saint Georg district; another morning we walked to the Dammtor Bahnhof; another morning we explored the canals and bridges of the Altstadt; another morning we walked all the way to the Bismarck Denkmal; and on two mornings we walked to The River Elbe, taking a different route each time. On one Sunday morning we went to the Hamburg Fish Market, which opens at 7:00 a.m. and closes at 9:30 a.m. My parents did not want to go to the Fish Market, so Josh and my brother and I went alone to observe this weekly Hamburg ritual, and we walked around the historic market and we ate fish and sausage for our breakfast.

In the late afternoons, after escorting my parents back to the hotel, Josh and my brother and I would swim on alternate days and go back out into the city for a couple of hours of additional exploration on the other days. We would explore stores and indoor shopping atriums, mostly, but on one late afternoon we headed for the Reeperbahn and we walked around this notorious area for a couple of hours. We explored Saint Joseph's church and we went to the Panoptikum, Hamburg's wax museum, which was not worth a visit, and we watched all of the activity on the streets. These late-afternoon excursions allowed us to extend our explorations of the city while my parents relaxed before dinner.

My mother enjoyed the trip very much because she was able to explore the fine arts that Hamburg offered, and to do so in the company of three young men whose company she loves. We went to the Hamburg Kunsthalle four times, and it was worth every minute we devoted to it. We went to the Arts And Crafts Museum only once, which was undergoing renovation and which was, consequently, somewhat of a mess. We went to the Bucerius Kunst Forum once. We also went to Jenisch-Haus and Barlach-Haus to view the fine arts on display in those buildings, and Jenisch-Haus, in particular, was a genuinely magnificent place to visit.

We visited fifteen churches, which my mother loved, and we also attended several music performances: one performance at the Hamburg Staatsoper, three orchestral performances at the historic Musikhalle, three choral-and-orchestral concerts in Hamburg churches, and two organ recitals in Hamburg churches (these church concerts were in addition to the church services we attended which also featured full orchestras and choruses). My mother had a splendid time, and she treasured every minute of the trip.

My brother also had a splendid trip. He loved exploring the churches, too, and he enjoyed the art museums as well. However, we explored several attractions that we thought would be of especial interest to him. We toured the Russian submarine at the Hamburg harbor, we toured the 19th-Century clipper ship at the Hamburg harbor, and we toured the 20th-Century cargo ship at the Hamburg harbor. We explored a large number of sites connected to the period of National Socialism, including the two flak towers and the bunker museum and the sites in the area of Hamburg that formerly constituted the Jewish Quarter. We spent two entire days at the Hamburg Museum Of History, a magnificent museum superior even to the Carnavalet in Paris. The Hamburg Museum Of History is one of the finest museums I have ever visited and our time there was exceptionally well-spent. We also visited the attractions in the Speicherstadt--we visited the German Customs Museum and the Speicherstadt Museum, both of which were excellent, and we walked around this historic area until there was little new ground remaining for us to explore. My brother had an excellent time in Hamburg, and he was sorry to see our trip come to an end.

We were able to find things to do on more than half of our evenings in Hamburg, which was good--I had worried that it would be difficult for us to find enough to do at night. We spent one night at the opera, three nights at the Musikhalle, three nights in church concerts, one night at the Hamburg Kunsthalle, one night at one of Hamburg's two English theaters (we attended a performance of "Noises Off", which all of us except Josh had already seen) and one night we attended a performance of "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" in German (which everyone seemed to enjoy). The remaining nights we simply went out to have a nice dinner.

The food in Hamburg was excellent. We ate lots of seafood from the Baltic Sea, of course, and we also had our share of German food. On three nights we dined in Portuguese restaurants, as Hamburg has the finest Portuguese restaurants in Europe (outside of Portugal), part of Hamburg's status as an international port city.

The bakeries in Hamburg, like everywhere else in Germany, were irresistible. Josh and my brother and I seemed unable to pass a confectionary shop without stepping inside and picking up something. My father told us that the Hamburg bakers were having their greatest business boom ever, what with Josh and my brother and I in town. (Of course, my father did not observe our visits to confectioner shops on early mornings or on late afternoons, when we three were out and about, walking by ourselves.)

Was there anything any of us disliked about Hamburg? No, I cannot say that there was. The days were short--Hamburg enjoys almost two fewer daylight hours in the winter months than Minneapolis--but we were not visiting Germany in order to experience good weather and lots of sunshine. Our trip was stimulating, and enriching, and joyful, and we all enjoyed each other's company immensely. There was nothing more we could have asked for to make our journey more rewarding.

Having now visited Hamburg, I am surprised that Hamburg is not featured more prominently on the typical tourist circuit. It is a city of great physical beauty, with many excellent buildings, ancient and new, with many excellent museums, with an active performing arts scene, and an extensive and noble history dating back over a thousand years. It is a city of lakes and rivers and parks and canals and bridges and spires. It is a city with a modern airport and with an excellent train system and with state-of-the-art public transportation. The city is certainly the equal of Amsterdam, and the city is vastly superior to Zurich or Brussels or Dublin or Edinburgh.

It is also a very unique city. Hamburg was always a merchants' city, and an independent merchants' city at that. Hamburg was never part of a princely kingdom; the city never had royal rule and, consequently, it is one of only a few European cities without a royal past.

Hamburg is, in many ways, not a German city at all. It is an international city that happens to have a mostly German-speaking populace. Because of its historic status as a free port, Hamburg never considered itself part of Germany, despite its incorporation into a united Germany in the 19th Century. Only in the 1930's did Hitler's government, forcibly, require Hamburg to become more like the rest of the German Reich.

Hamburg's Danish connections and its English connections are almost as important components of the city's heritage as its German connections. The area immediately outside the city's ancient walls was a part of Denmark until 1768 and this Danish influence is apparent in the city's food and in the city's architecture, much of which may be classified as "Danish Baroque". Hamburg has maintained important trade ties with Britain since the 15th Century, and the city has an unmistakable English flavor (as well as a large English population). It is the most British of continental cities, and it is the only continental city where the custom of English afternoon tea has taken root.

Hamburg is also a very wealthy city. It is the wealthiest city in the entire European Union, a fact which surprised me greatly, as I would have guessed that Munich and Milan were the wealthiest cities in Europe, based upon the ostentatious wealth one observes in both of those cities. The wealth of Hamburg is most apparent in the quiet but unequivocal confidence of its citizens, a trait I have always observed in my hometown of Minneapolis, too.

Do Josh and I want to go back to Hamburg? Well, we have now seen almost everything in the city itself, so a return trip to Hamburg is not on the cards for us anytime soon. However, there is a multitude of interesting towns and small cities surrounding Hamburg, and one day we would like to return to Northern Germany to visit some of those historic places.

For now, Josh and I are happy to be home again, and so are my parents. I missed my parents' dog terribly the entire time we were gone, and I was so happy to see him tonight that I was jumping up and down with excitement, just as he was.

I already miss my brother, and I was sad to have to say "good-bye" to him at the Minneapolis airport this afternoon, as he caught the final leg of his homebound journey on to Denver. However, it was glorious to be able to room with him for two weeks, and to spend so much time in his company, and he will be back home in Minneapolis in another three weeks and two days for the Christmas holidays, so it will not be long before I get to see him again. Christmas will also bring a visit from my other brother and his family, and I cannot wait until I get to see them again. I have not seen them since Labor Day, and it has been too long--I ache to see them again, despite the fact that I talk to my brother and his wife on the telephone almost every day. Christmas cannot come soon enough.

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