It’s difficult to describe Hamburg without comparing it to other cities. In fact, it’s usually conceded as impossible; there are just too many things that draw their greatest significance from comparison — whether it’s the media companies (Germany’s most influential), the stock exchange (Germany’s oldest) or even one of the fitness studios here (Germany’s largest).
A disgruntled visitor shocked at the cost of living (Germany’s highest) might even exclaim that the city thrives on one-upmanship, which perhaps would not be far wrong. Even the most cynical traveller, however, would be forced to admit: when it comes to harbours and influence on world trade, Hamburg is undoubtedly at the top of the league.
A natural port
The city’s dominance arises from its strategic location. Hamburg is sited on the confluence of the mighty Elbe, Alster and Bille rivers, and despite being 100 km upstream of the North Sea, it is a superbly convenient deep water port for trading ships to discharge their goods onto German soil, and thence onto the markets of Northern Europe.
Hamburg’s port is the biggest and busiest in Germany. Its importance is reflected by its sheer size — a full 12 percent of the city is occupied by the port facility itself, or about 75 square kilometres. 12,000 ships make the journey up the Elbe each year, making the port the third busiest in the world after New York and Tokyo.
Each vessel that sails up the Elbe passes Willkomm-Hoft or Welcome Point, a rather charming outpost near the small town of Wedel that welcomes each ship by playing the national anthem of the country whose flag the ship is flying. Most ships will give a blast of the horn in return salute. The ceremony is reversed when the ship sails out of port.
The goods these ships carry are valued in the billions of dollars, and range from spices to electronics, from designer armchairs to children’s mittens. About 78 million tonnes of goods pass through the port each year, and much of it is housed in the old warehouse complex of Speicherstadt. They are the world’s largest warehouse complex, many of them up to eight stories high, and all made of brick, with copper roofs and small towers serving as decorative features. Built at the end of the 19th century, they still serve their original purpose, and many of the most modern electronic cargoes in the world pass a warehouse that in any other city would have been a museum.
In fact, parts of the Speicherstadt district have been converted into museums, high class restaurants, arcades and other attractions, integrating the harbour into the fabric of the city’s life. Certainly, in no other port would you find several tour companies guiding gawking visitors around the facility, pausing to snap pictures of towering cranes as they manipulate containers packed with goods from all points of the globe.
The Impact of the Rivers on Hamburg City
The convergence of the commercial and the cultural within the Speicherstadt (pictured right) is symbolic of the importance of the rivers. They are, in fact, the city’s lifeblood. Their presence permeates the fabric and consciousness of the society in a myriad of ways. The foghorns of the ships on the rivers can be heard from downtown and the droning merges with the background noise of traffic and voices. Seagulls are as common as pigeons would be in any other city. An ocean-scented breeze is a constant for pedestrians and people taking in the city’s air. Smoked eel is a common snack and storm tide warnings on television are regarded the same way unexpected rainsqualls would be in landlocked towns.
The rivers crisscross the city in a grid of picturesque canals, with the many residences and businesses overlooking the channels. The 64 kms of waterways and 2,500 bridges crossing them makes Hamburg a contender for the title of ‘Venice of the North’. There are also the lakes situated within the city, the inner and outer Alster, where many of the locals boat or swim. Walking on ice is also a favourite pastime in the winter when the Elbe freezes over, though there are a couple of incidents where people fall through the ice as it thaws in the spring.
The rivers also contribute to the human face of the city. A significant percentage of these inhabitants are immigrants, who have recently escaped the upheavals and poverty of their native countries to come to Hamburg, in their search for a better life. Many of them reach the city on board the thousands of ships that travel the river, and stay on when the ships sail away. Their presence of these recent settlers gives the city its cosmopolitan air, and the resulting multiethnic culture makes the city a vibrant place to live in.
Hamburg’s location astride the mouth of the Elbe has been its great fortune. Superbly placed to take full advantage of international trade and human movement, it has grown into a colourful modern city, yet still making the best of its old heritage to this day. Little wonder then that for centuries, the city was called ‘the Gateway to the World’.