Tag Archive for: Germany

Playing catch-up with my Books of the Year recommendations. Late to the party. Every weekend supplement has already been swamped with the buggers. Alas, there has been less evidence than usual of my fave tips – highbrow critics seeking to impress with the likes of “the great belle lettrist Attila Kosztolányi’s magnum opus, many years in the making, has finally seen the light of day. Read in the original Hungarian, it’s a triumph – let’s hope for a translation soon.”
You’ll find my choices less smarmy, I hope. The list is not, as you’d expect, dominated by food books. For research purposes, I have mostly been delving into scholarly old favourites or making practical use of the jus-stained kitchen recipe faithfuls. Blame the lockdown time on my hands for certain continuing reading obsessions – German history and our own 17th century registers of recusants and Roundheads.
Let’s start then with two magisterial examples of the former, published in 2023…

Beyond The Wall by Katja Hoyer (Penguin £26) and In Search of Berlin by John Kampfner (Atlantic £22)

The first account puts a human face on the DDR, taking it beyond the received wisdom of Stasiland, Trabants and steroid-pumped athletes. Hoyer, a British-based historian, is herself an ‘Ostie’, but she was only four years old when the Berlin Wall came down, transforming a country that epitomised the Cold War. In the re-united Germany three decades on reviews have been mixed, but I found it convincing and revelatory. An equally provocative exploration of the reunited state was Kampfner’s best-selling Why Germans Do It Better. Now the former Telegraph foreign correspondent, who reported on the epic events of 1989, puts today’s restored capital in the context of a thousand years of often troubled history. Riveting for an old Berlin hand like myself.

The Secret Hours by Mick Herron (Baskerville £22)

Divided Berlin was, of course, the backdrop for the Cold War spy genre, notably in the works of John Le Carré and Len Deighton. Herron, touted as Le Carré’s natural heir but very much his own man as the laureate of a deadbeat alternative espionage, is best known for his Slow Hours novel sequence, the third of which is currently being screened by Apple TV with Gary Oldman playing grubby anti-hero Jackson Lamb. The Secret Hours is a standalone title but Herron can’t resist giving (an unnamed) Lamb a key walk-on part in a tale that revolves around skulduggery in today’s security circles and an operation to find a Stasi murderer in 1990s Berlin which goes wrong. Intricately plotted surprises come in from the cold.

The Lock-up by John Banville (Hutchinson £22) and Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry (Faber £18.99)

The Irish penchant for fiction is as vibrant as ever with Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song recently scooping the Booker Prize. My own bookish bucket list for Christmas, though, is headed by The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright, the greatest Irish-based female writer (sorry Sally Rooney). No apologies, though, for recommending two genre-straddling novels by male veterans that have delighted me. The garlanded ‘literary’ novels of old school man of letters Banville have always left me slightly cold, but I am besotted with his increasing dips into crime fiction, featuring an odd couple with their own demons (naturally) – pathologist Dr. Quirke and Detective Inspector St John Strafford. The latest tracks back to 1950s Dublin where young history scholar Rosa Jacobs is found dead in her car. The investigation takes in the Italian mountaintops of Italy, the front lines of World War II Bavaria and deepest rural Ireland.

Barry’s novel also features a cop, retired to a castle in the Dublin coastal suburbs but with skeletons in the cupboard just waiting to be rattled as his past dealings are investigated by former colleagues. It’s dreamlike, almost gothic, packed with red herrings and unreliable narrators. Grim, melancholy, I loved it.

The Blazing World by Jonathan Healey (Bloomsbury £30)

Historical fiction may have peaked with the great Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (my own favourite still Iain Pears’ An Instance at the Fingerpost) but it’s in good hands with the likes of Robert Harris, whose Act of Oblivion (2022), featuring the 17th century pursuit across the New World of two Roundhead regicides, offered contemporary resonances. I read it alongside Anna Keay’s magisterial account of the decade after Charles I’s execution, The Restless Republic. What a blessing then the arrival of a complementary yet contrasting “New History of a Revolutionary Century”. It is a vivid, witty account of certain key characters, who exemplify a divisive age. The title comes from the extravagant aristocrat/polymath Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle, who, after the Restoration, imagined an alternative “Blazing World” of order and tranquillity in contrast to the “malicious detractions” and “homebred insurrection” through which she had lived. My next period read? Likely to be September’s Pure Wit: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish by Francesca Peacock.

Invitation to a Banquet by Fuchsia Dunlop (Particular £25) and Stuffed by Pen Vogler (Atlantic £22)

Let’s stay scholarly as we finally stray into food and drink territory with two books I have already reviewed at length. The first explores the vast complexity of Chinese cuisine, combining historical research and contemporary travelogue; the second, as I summed up, is “a surprisingly political survey of feast and famine with a particular emphasis on the damage wrought on subsistence by 300 years of Enclosures forcing 6.8 million acres of communal land into private ownership. The book title is not just about a full stomach, it’s also about being shafted.” So food adulteration in Victorian times is on a ley line to toxic ultra-processed foods in ours. Plus ça change

Flavour Thesaurus 2 by Nikki Segnit (Bloomsbury £20) and Mother Tongue by Gurdeep Loyal (4th estate £26)

Segnit’s book is the sequel to her eye-opening debut The Flavour Thesaurus, which became an instant classic when it was published 13 years ago. There had never been anything quite like it before, this playful exploration of ingredient matches springing from a flavour wheel of her own random devising. A reference book born out of erudite research that was equally at home by the bedside or on the kitchen table. More of the same, yes, but the  new flavours are predominantly plant-based. From zeitgeist-led vegan, from kale to cashew, pomegranate to pistachio, seaweed to tamarind, but eggs and cheese forced their toothsome way in, too.

A la Segnit, I like to be surprised and Gurdeep Loyal’s colourful cookbook lives up to its fusion manifesto declaring: “Food is a living form of culture that evolves: its boundaries are fluid, blurred, porous and dynamic… authenticity is an unending reel of culinary snapshots, an evolving spectrum that captures many transformative moments along flavourful journeys in generations of kitchens.”

Before Mrs Beeton – Elizabeth Raffald, England’s Most Influential Housekeeper by Dr Neil Buttery (Pen and Sword Books, £20)

Fanny Craddock was a Fifties/Sixties celeb chef in black and white telly world. If the box had been invented in the late 18th century I’m sure Manchester-based Elizabeth Raffald would have had her own show, such was her dynamism. Food historian Buttery charts the dizzying career that culminated in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1786). Why she even gave away the recipe for her invention for the Eccles Cake and there are strong claims that Mrs Beeton “adapted” many of her recipes.

The New French Wine by Jon Bonné (£112) mention Andrew Jefford and natural wine and Noma 2 – Vegetable-Forest-Ocean by Rene Redzepi, Mette Søberg and Junichi Takahashi (Artisan £60)

Two door-stoppers that were published first abroad last year and seeped in to the UK. I first encountered Bonné a decade ago when his New California Wine was a valuable companion on an epic vineyard-led road trip of the state. Since when he has moved to France and compiled this deluxe definitive compendium of the country’s wine makers at a time of profound change. I still treasure Andrew Jefford’s The New France but, published in 2002, it is now ‘Old France’, superseded by this remarkable celebration of a unique wine culture.

The groundbreaking cultural phenomenon that is Noma is reinventing itself as a food laboratory (shades or restaurant rival El Bulli). The gorgeous Noma 2, a hymn to foraging, fermentation and a wacky food aesthetic, may read like a swansong but I’ll take it as a launchpad (though it’s very weighty for lift-off).

Manchester’s Best Beer Pubs and Bars by Matthew Curtis (CAMRA Books, £16.99 pb) and A Beautiful Pint: One man’s search for the perfect pint of Guinness by Ian Ryan (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

Two much slimmer volumes that have a practical purpose in guiding you to the authors’ recommended watering holes. Matthew Curtis, author of the refreshing Modern British Beer upped sticks from London to live in Stockport. Result is a CAMRA beer guide like no other, encompassing craft bars, restaurants and taprooms as well as the traditional pubs. The list of ‘special’ starred establishments is spot on, as is this incomer’s research for a potted history of the scene. 

If that’s a perfect stocking-filler for the hophead in your life, it has a dark rival in Cork exile Ryan’s more niche print follow-up to his notorious Shit London Guinness Instagram and Twitter accounts. The writing is no on a par with Curtis’s but the passion shines through, along with some technical stuff I’d never given thought to. Best of all is his Guinness outlets to visit section. Without it I would never have strayed into the beyond marvellous Cock Tavern on Phoenix Road, just a stroll from Euston Station, where Sheila from Sligo served me the best Guinness I’ve ever had in the UK – at an amazing £4.50 a pint.

Steeple Chasing by Peter Ross (Headline £22) and The Wasteland: Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis (Penguin £12.99 pb)

There are few books I re-read in a year but Steeple Chasing has been one of them. It’s the Glasgow-based feature writer’s follow-up to A Tomb With A View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards and is even more fascinating. Which is saying something. Elegiac, yes but more… The melancholy element is inevitable, if not as pervasive as in its predecessor despite the pandemic hovering over the journeys. On first reading I pinned it down as a neo-WG Sebaldian quest for meaning among Britain’s steeples and bell towers, but with its own special radiance, especially when he explores the sacred territory of Suffolk. 

I inevitably re-read TS Eliot’s great poem in response to Matthew Hollis’s excavation of the post First World War milieu it grew out of – like “lilacs out of the dead land”. So much personal unhappiness fertilised his creation, trimmed into shape for publication by ‘ll Miglior Fabbro’ (the better craftsman), Ezra Pound. Let us salute both of them, “looking into the heart of light, the silence.”

It’s nigh on 40 years since the BBC televised their adaptation of John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People, culmination of his trilogy about spymaster George Smiley, the squat, bespectacled antidote to the crass, cartoonish antics of James Bond. I’m all for compulsive  slow burners, so I read the 1979 novel again recently before catching up with Alec Guinness as Smiley on Amazon Prime.

Le Carré, who died last December, had made Berlin his personal literary territory through 1963’sThe Spy Who Came In From The Cold, made into a movie with Richard Burton two years later. Somewhere in between the two books (and before a certain David Bowie) I lived in West Berlin and can never forget how I survived a sub-Arctic initiation, living in a Turkish quarter not far from the Wall, scene of both books’ denouements.…

It was a bitter January. I always call it my pea soup month. Each evening after work at the Bilka supermarket I stood shivering at the Imbiss at Zoo Station to eat my thick Erbsensuppe – mushy pea puree by any other name. 

At weekends I treated myself to a sausage in it. I was the ultimate, penniless student in my puckering mock leather greatcoat and threadbare loon pants. The only thing I had in abundance was hair.

Finally, come February I got paid and was able to vary my diet to Currywurst with potato salad and even get to see some of the amazing city, an island of Capitalism stranded in the middle of Red East Germany – remaining so until the Wall came down in 1989 and Deutschland was reunified, the Brandenburg Gate serving as its symbolic centrepiece.

After only fleeting visits since and I’m back in the reunited capital a tourist not cultural squatter. Currywurst is now as much a Berlin icon as David Bowie, but pea soup has bitten the dust in favour of burgers and, of course, the doner kebab, created in the city by Turkish immigrant Kadir Nurman in the early Seventies (as with Bowie, we never met).

It’s a city utterly changed, obviously for the better, the axis for citizen and tourist alike shifting back to the original centre in East Berlin. There the Prussians built vast museums and monuments to their warrior culture, but I suspect the urban cool hang-outs in districts such as Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Neukölln and even raw Friedrichshain are more the magnet for today’s weekenders. 

Still there’s no escaping the huge burden of history borne by Berlin – the legacy of Nazism, Communism and the city’s perennial brand of Hedonism, all to come to terms with. It   makes for a thought-provoking cocktail of impressions. 

Where to start? For me it was on top of a car park in Neukölln. Klunkerkranich is a place to get your bearings, but first be prepared to negotiate five floors of shopping mall and a couple of concrete ramps. Your reward a ramshackle boho bar (no food), a sun trap with a wonderful view across the city (main image). 

Two Weissbiers later and I felt like a native, though these were cloudy, refreshing Bavarian wheat beers; the real native Berliner Weisse is rather tart, neutral stuff perked up with a Schusse (shot) of raspberry or (shockingly green) woodruff syrup. Like Currywurst, really just a one-off must.

For old times’ sake, I drank one in the Prater on Kastanienallee, a true old-fashioned, tree-shaded beer garden, open seasonally, surviving up among the baristas and sushi meisters of hip Prenzlauerberg.

For the most spectacular view of the sprawling metroplis trek up to the top of a DDR relic – the Fernsehturm (telly tower). You can sip suitably retro cocktails in the panoramic bar 365 metres above the ground and imagine the Stasi are stalking you. In its shadow is another institution peddling a Teutonic image at odds with contemporary Berlin. The Alexanderplatz branch of Munich’s famous Hofbräuhauswill satisfy your craving forSchweinebraten, dumplings and the like.

You are now in Mitte, catch-all designation for the city’s core, which I kept gravitating back to (but not Alexanderplatz itself, concrete ‘dead’ centre). Much more human in scale and with better shopping, the Hackesche Höfe is a series of eight inter-connected Art Nouveau courtyards with elaborate ceramic facades off Rosenthalerstrasse, mixing shops, bars, theatre and creative studios. Neglected during the GDR era, it symbolises the rebirth of the whole Mitte, where thoroughfares such as Torstrasse, Linienstrasse, Tucholskystrasse and Auguststrasse are packed with interesting indie restaurants and bars. 

On Torstrasse, I’d recommend tiny Noto, with its laid-back contemporary take on German food, but even better in the same vein on Linienstrasse, Das Lokal, where an old corner Kneipe (bar) has been transformed into one of the best affordable, casual dining spots in the city. They squeezed me in at the counter and I munched on a blanquette of rose veal and drank a limpid Rheinpfalz Pinot Noir. Then I went back another night for venison.

Even more casual was Berlin’s take on street food, at Birgit and Bier, a hippyish beer garden, just south of the River Spree, that makes Klunkerkranich look smooth. I like this Turkish cafe heavy corner of Kreuzberg, where the spirit of alternative Berlin lingers on. Promenade along the river westwards beyond Schlesisches Tor and you’ll find wonderful street markets.

Or step in off the wide, breezy space that is Warschauerstrasse and enjoy the achingly cool public space of the Michelberger Hotel in the company of one of Berlin’s new wave craft beers from Brewbaker. For those of you that have missed the city’s club scene, it’s only a 10 minute walk from Berghain, which finally reopened at the start of October, the former power station having been repurposed as an art space during the Pandemic.

By all means visit the big sights, the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie, but weekends away should also be about this kind of aimless sauntering, keeping your eyes open. The Germans have a verb for it: to ‘Bummel’. 

So, if you’re in the Tiergarten, Berlin’s equivalent of Central Park complete with an obligatory nude sunbathing patch, grab a beer and pizza and hire a boat at the lakeside Cafe am Neuen See.  Finally, for the ultimate drift through this fascinating metropolis let the stern take the strain – go on a river cruise. Boarding near the medieval Marienkirche, famous for its ethereal ‘Dance of Death’ fresco, I took the basic 23 euros one hour tour from Stern & Kreis. We glided serenely past the bombastic hulk of the Cathedral, the monumental Museum Island and on to the modern riverside resurgence beyond the Reichstag. It would give a fascinating over-view for a first time visitor. Oh yes, and there is a Himmel; they serve beer on board.

Make this your Berlin Bucket List

There’s so much to see, don’t try to cram too much into your stay. I’m saving sunbathing out at the Wannsee lake and a visit to the Stasi (East German secret police) Museum until next time. Here, though, are a few musts…

The Holocaust Memorial

Between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, its design is inspired by Prague’s amazing Jewish Graveyard with its dense, cluttered gravestones. Here in Berlin 2,700 square, dark grey pillars of varying heights are scattered across the site. In the middle of the engulfing maze I was overcome by an immense feeling of isolation and despair, which is the appropriate response to a space designed to commemorate the exterminated Jews of Europe.

The Jewish Museum

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, this Daniel Libeskind building in Kreuzberg bears obvious architectural resemblances to his later project, the Imperial War Museum North at Salford Quays. Step back from its zinc facade and the great zigzag slashes rearrange themselves into a dislocated Star of David. Three long, intersecting corridors – ‘axes’ of exile, holocaust and continuity – showcase small artefacts, mementos, testimonies, but the centrepiece is the Holocaust Tower. This is a vertiginous, walled void, completely dark but for a small slit high up, allowing light and noises from outside. Small batches of visitors are filtered in at a time and the huge door swings behind you. Flesh-creeping.

Topographie des Terrors

On the central site of the Gestapo and SS HQs, this exhibition space offers a comprehensive account of the rise of Nazism. Outside, set against a remaining fragment of the Berlin Wall, is an essential open air presentation of life in Berlin from 1933-45.

Gedenkstatte Berliner Mauer

Immediately upon reunification, the city bought a stretch of the Berlin Wall on Bernauerstrasse to keep as a memorial of the fortified dividing line that was suddenly imposed upon the city by the East German regime in 1961. The visitor centre charts how families were separated on that fateful day. Elsewhere across the city are preserved segments of the Wall. Within an easy canalside walk of my hotel near the Hauptbahnhof is the Invalidenhof, a 19th century graveyard poignantly preserved by being in the ‘death strip’. Here it was in 1962 that West German police shot dead an East German border guard to rescue a 15-year-old boy who was in the process of escaping.

Museum Island

Five great museums cluster on the site of the original Berlin river island settlement, now a Unesco World Heritage Site. You could spend an entire week exploring the collections. Pick one? Perhaps the Pergamon built over a century ago in the style of a Babylonian temple to house the treasures German archaeologists were plundering across the globe. Stand-outs are the ancient Pergamon altar itself unearthed in eastern Turkey and the reconstruction of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate with its eerily preserved deep blue bricks and and sculpted mythical beasts. If all this monumentalism leaves you cold slip into the nearby Alte Nationalgalerie, whose collection of predominantly 19th century art boasts some wonderful Romantic landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich.

Fact file 

Neil Sowerby stayed at Motel One Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Invalidenstrasse 54, 10557 Berlin, +49 30 36410050. It’s across from the transport hub of the central station. 

For full tourism information go to the Visit Berlin site and to book a Berlin Welcome Card, official tourist ticket giving access to public transport and many attractions plus 200 discount offers go to this link.

Jonathan Meades pontificating on Expressionist Architecture’s debt to the Gothic. Classic Meades. Against a backdrop exemplifying his polemic – Hamburg’s Chilehaus. Ten storey 1920s office block built on wealth from a South American saltpetre venture; ornate, curved showcase for 4.8 million dark bricks, UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

As Meades proclaims to camera in his 2008 travelogue, Magnetic North: “Expressionism was a variety of Modernism, which didn’t prevail against the rectilinear idiom of the International Style. No, Expressionism didn’t try to break with the past, it embraced it, reworked the practice.”

The two part Magnetic North took the maverick architecture/food critic from the Flanders flatlands to the old weird Baltic states via the independent North German cities that made up the Hanseatic League, mercantile confederation at its peak from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Meades’ verdict: “God’s first attempt at the EU.”

That Hamburg, the Bundesrepublik’s second city and biggest port, is still in thrall to its Hansa past is symbolised by its car number plates – HH (Hansestadt Hamburg) – and by a mindset that finds more in common with Antwerp or Copenhagen than, say, Munich.

Hence the Meades telly odyssey (or is that too Greek a word?). Reacting against the cultural seduction of the Mediterranean South with its sun, wine and olives, he went in search of the North, land of greyness, grain-based drinks and herring, territory pervaded by a dark, scatological, Grimm-like imagination. I am still with the great man on that journey.

So does Hamburg live up to the Baltic billing? Definitely. We are in Deichstrasse after dark. Across the Zollkanal waterway the great brick cliff faces of the Speicherstadt warehouse district are lit up a treat. The spice and carpet trades no longer rule in one of Europe’s most spectacular townscapes, but it still radiates mercantile imperatives. Rather like uncompromising Hamburg itself. Which makes it so refreshing for a weekend break. Real. Out there in the current docks, the giant container ships and cruise liners slide in up the River Elbe.

Deichstrasse was here before all this. This modest little street dates back to the 14th century and some of its lopsided properties are restored 17th century. We are torn between two Hanseatic culinary options. The Kartoffekeller (Potato Cellar) is a restaurant devoted entirely to the spud. From soups and souffles to pancakes and a shot of digestif spirit, all offerings are based on that tuber. Even the staff are clad in potato sacks. Its rival across the road is the Alt Hamburger Aalspeicher (Old Hamburg Eel House), offering eel soup, eel in green sauce, smoked eel… you get the message. Or, if you can wriggle out of eel, it serves that other Baltic favourite, the herring. (Note the latter eating house is ‘temporarily closed, as I write).

We said Nein to both places and resumed our evening Bummel – a lovely German word for sauntering aimlessly. Nothing to do with what goes on down along the Reeperbahn. We’d encountered Hamburg’s red light district in passing mid-afternoon. Perhaps window-framed hookers were flaunting it in broad daylight along notorious Herbertstrasse, closed off by a wall to women and minors. In solidarity with them I chose not to slip in even for a gawp.

Instead, we went for Art, drawn by the great Romantic works of Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge at the Hamburger Kunsthalle but found the gallery glum and difficult to navigate. The main station, the Hauptbahnof, next door was more exciting. Cultural compensation came the same evening with a delightful production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Hamburg Staatsoper – at affordable (subsidised) prices compared with at home. 

Both institutions are in an upmarket quarter close to the two city centre lakes, the Binnenalster and the much larger Aussenalster. Here also is the Ratshaus (city hall), the Venetian-style Alster Arcades and the city’s luxury shopping district. It’s best to look beyond for a cutting edge place to dine. We fell for Vlet (above), with its Slow Food nod to North German culinary traditions and atmospheric warehouse location in Speicherstadt. Vlet is Old High German for “Fleet”, meaning a canal in a coastal city. Our two course set lunch featured dishes such as “beef brisket, oat sauce with a gratin of blue potatoes” or “lamb’s lettuce, marinated bread, liver of Heidschnucke (species of sheep), turnips”.

Still, no visit to Germany is complete without a huge plate of traditional Schweinebraten (roast pork) and cabbage. So when it featured on the menu as a lunchtime special at the Altes Madchen, there was only ever going to be one accompaniment to my pint of IPA. Even if it meant missing out on sandwiches, made with sourdough from this Braugasthaus’s in-house bakery.

For Braugasthaus, read brewery tap. Ratshernn, Hamburg’s own take on craft brewing, is based here and there’s a brilliant global beer boutique alongside the contemporary-styled beer hall, which is a far oompah from the old Hofbrauhaus variety (there is a dull offshoot of the Munich original on the Esplanade in Hamburg City centre).

It’s a trek by underground up to the Altes Madchen, but worth it. Nearby is Hamburg’s own “Northern Quarter”, the Sternschanze, full of interesting, offbeat shopping and bars. Continue south to St Pauli, Hamburg’s graffiti-daubed, libertarian heartland. From here cross the Reeperbahn and you are down on the river.

Early each Sunday morning the dockside Fischmarkt (Fish Market) hosts a huge party – really a continuation of all-night revels. We were there midweek, so missed the action. Still the walk along the riverfront, quite sober, is intoxicating enough, past the 10 floating pontoons of the Landungsbrucken (landing stages) to the three-masted sailing ship, the Rickmer Rickmers, now moored as a nautical museum. 

From here across the river in Speicherstadt the futuristic prow of the Elbephilharmonie concert hall rears up, its crystalline carapace resting on top of an old brick warehouse. The building of this landmark project was fraught with problems. Way behind schedule, Elphi, as the locals call it, finally opened early in 2017.

Stray inland from the Landungsbrucken and you are in the Neustadt (New Town) which, like the Old Town, looks neither particularly new or old. Traditional street corner bar decked out almost like an old wooden ship, the Thamers Stube is the best haunt for a restorative tipple after all that Bummeling. Try a Jever, a raspingly dry local beer speciality.

St Michaelis, five minutes away, is Hamburg’s iconic church, its 433ft high tower dominating the city skyline. You can climb it, but I’d recommend the altogether cheaper ascent at St Petri, the oldest (11th century) and most characterful of the city’s parish churches. It’s on Kreuslerstrasse. The spire is actually the 3ft higher than St Michaelis and the views of the city are awe-inspiring. We puffed our way to the eyrie inside the tip of the spire, feeling pleased with our efforts, to find it occupied by a group of kindergarten toddlers enjoying their packed lunches and not out of breath, like us.

There’s no escaping the sea in this city.  Another must-see that makes you reconsider your whole attitude to the humble brick is the city’s International Maritime Museum, the world’s largest seafaring homage with over 100,000 exhibits – hi-tech stuff as well as model ships – over 10 storeys.

We stayed at the 25 Hours Hafen City hotel, 200 metres away down the Osakaalle, on the edge of the giant building site transforming the “Harbour City” wasteland. Our lodging is part of an acclaimed German boutique chain. This one boasts a seafaring theme – held together with sailors’ yarns: 25 seafarers from around the world tell real-life stories of dangerous voyages, romantic encounters, violent storms and painful farewells. Anecdotal accessories and objects refer to these adventures, which are told in full in each cabin’s logbook.

One wall of the foyer is the side of a container, other nautical materials feature and the corridors are lined with images of unemployed fishermen (disconcertingly these were all English, we were told). It was cool to hang out in 25 Hours’ buzzing bar/kitchen, Heimat, but even cooler to batten down the hatches in our Captain’s Cabin suite.

Water is never far away. On our final morning, we trekked (this is a great walking city) to the larger of the city’s two artificial lakes, the Aussenalster, separated from the Binnenalster by road bridges. There is pedestrian access all round the 1.6 sq km lake, but the western side, mostly parkland paths, is the one to go for. In summer there are boat trips, too. Add the wealth of walking and river cruising along the Elbe and you have a city that breathes a sense of freedom. Perfect for a modern city break… with a large cargo of ‘Hansaland’ history in tow.

Neil Sowerby flew from Manchester to Hamburg with easyJet. He stayed at the 170 ’cabin’ 25 Hours Hafen City, Überseeallee 5, 20457 Hamburg, Germany. Hamburg Tourism information.