The original European Union
Long before the European Union was a twinkle in some Brussels bureaucrat’s eye, the Hanseatic League acted as a powerful pan-European bloc. Its reach stretched from England to Russia and from Scandinavia to the German Alps for 500 years, from 1159 to 1669, but at its heart were Lübeck and Hamburg in north-eastern Germany (Schleswig-Holstein today). In those days, nation-states were politically much less and city-states much more, important and mercantile interests brought wealth and power. The League had its Golden Age in the 14th century; over 100 cities, under Lübeck’s leadership, formed the most significant economic force in Europe.
We had always wanted to take a look. An invitation to a concert from a pianist friend of ours gave us the perfect excuse.
On Good Friday, we flew Ryanair direct from Faro to Hamburg, rented a car, and drove the 65km north to Lübeck. In 1987, the entire old town of Lübeck was made a World Heritage site, and deservedly so. The old town area is essentially an island, surrounded by two branches of the Trave river. The most dramatic way to make your first entry into this compact and still largely medieval area is through the late 15th century Holstentor Gate.
Thomas Mann, Günter Grass and Willy Brandt were all Lübeckers, and their houses can be found close together, very near the Katharinenkirche and the Jakobikirche, and only a short walk from the very important Marienkirche and the Rathaus. Lübeck is beautiful, and so compact and easy to see that you can do it in a day.
Easter Sunday found us in Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city. Its historic title of “Free and Hanseatic Town” (thanks originally to Emperor Maximillian I in 1510) and its status as a “City State” testify to its eminence and influence through the centuries. Its location on the Elbe River has enabled it to become one of Europe’s greatest ports and to amass great wealth (Hamburg has the highest headcount of millionaires in Germany). It is also Germany’s media capital.
Hamburg is characterised by open space (it has the lowest population density of any European city), lots of water (Hamburg has more bridges than Venice, Amsterdam and London combined), a “warehouse” district (Speicherstadt) that lines the many canals with huge red brick buildings that are, today, often converted into hotels, apartments and offices, lots of churches with very tall spires (now almost all Lutheran) and a sprawling port district (HafenCity), from which harbour boat tours are a tourist “must”. Like all of Germany, Hamburg is litter-free and clean and everything works. Infrastructure and commercial construction projects are everywhere.
We stayed at the Ameron Hotel in the heart of the Speicherstadt. Quite nearby, on a little peninsula between two canals, can be found the Wasserschloss, a famous landmark of, and one of the oldest and most picturesque buildings in, the district. Today it houses an excellent gourmet restaurant, a designation we can now attest to, having eaten our Easter Sunday dinner there.
Hamburg also boasts the newest and most unique concert hall in the world – the Elbphilharmonie (now fondly nicknamed the “Elphi”), which combines the classic brick architecture of the historic warehouses nearby with a boldly modernist sweep of glass façades and a wavelike roof line. It took much longer to build (10 years) and cost a great deal more than planned (€789 million – 3¼ times the original estimate), but finally it was inaugurated in January 2017. Although one of the largest concert halls in Europe, it has a very intimate atmosphere. Tickets to its many concerts are virtually impossible to get.
Which is why we were in Hamburg. Our friend, Dudana Mazmanishvili, a Georgian pianist who had been in the Algarve to perform for the Amigos da Música last November, performed Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto with the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra in the Elphi on Easter Monday, and she invited us. The concert also featured several pieces by Georgian composers (the most important of which, Gija Kantscheli, now 84, was in the audience). The hall was, as always, completely sold out, the performances were very good indeed, the acoustics unbelievable and the audience’s reception ecstatic. It was truly a memorable evening and a fitting conclusion to a most interesting and educational trip.
By Larry Hampton