Journey to the North: Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck & Schwerin

On Tuesday I organised a catch up with the other English teaching assistants in Erlangen, who all hail from the US and whom I hadn’t met since the US assistants are separated from the assistants from other English-speaking countries. We had a nice dinner at an Indian place and shared our experiences of working and living in Germany. I made the mistake of ordering the hottest thing on the menu, which I quickly regretted.

Late on Thursday night, I found myself standing at the bus station in Erlangen waiting for an overnight Flixbus to Hamburg (I normally have to work Fridays but was a sneaky fucker and took it off so I could have a 4-day long weekend). However, this was to be the worst bus trip of my life. The journey was meant to take 8.5 hours but it ended up being a gruelling 13.5 hours. At about 1am there was some sort of massive truck accident on the Autobahn and all lanes of traffic heading north came to a stop; our bus idled motionless for 5 hours before being able to move again at 6am; we arrived in Hamburg at lunchtime, a mere 5 hours late. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience and is the last night I take an overnight Flixbus.


Welcome to Hamburg


In any case, once I arrived in Hamburg’s hectic main train station, I stored my backpack in a locker and set off on a free walking tour. My first impression of Hamburg wasn’t exactly positive. It is a really big city and the sheer number of people, homeless people in particular, was unbelievable. Hamburg is also definitely one of the dirtiest German cities I’ve encountered thus far, the streets were littered with broken glass and of course it was windy and raining the whole time I was there. Luckily I had packed my umbrella but I quickly regretted not bringing waterproof shoes. An enthusiastic Irish fellow ran the free tour, which was quite detailed and informative, except I wanted to slap him when he said that Weißbier originally came from Hamburg.


The Elbphilharmonie concert hall, which cost about 800 million euros to build


I checked into Generator after the tour, which is quite a good hostel located very close to the main train station (less than a minute by foot) and is quite clean with a social and relaxed atmosphere. Later that night I caught a train to the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s infamous red light district, where the Beatles spent a lot of time before they got big and which is known for its sex clubs and prostitutes. I had signed up to a Reeperbahn pub crawl organised by the same group that does the walking tours.


This is Hamburg’s famous Herbertstraße, an enclosed street full of prostitutes; women and children are not welcome.


The pub crawl was very interesting; we went to about five different establishments and got two free shots at each one. Everyone else on the tour got drunk very quickly; the first stop had 99 cent piss beer (known as Astra) served in plastic cups, which reminded me of Australia apart from the extremely low price. I witnessed some especially loose and sloppy behaviour in the bars and clubs which I hadn’t really been exposed to in the “Deep South” and it strongly reminded me of being back at high school.


The Town Musicians of Bremen


On Saturday I got up early to visit another Hanseatic city, Bremen. This northern city is famous because of a statue of four animals standing on each other, the so-called “Town Musicians of Bremen” which is one of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, together with Hamburg and Berlin it is one of the city-states of Germany. I found a cute little restaurant serving North German fare called Kleiner Olymp, one of top ten restaurants in Bremen according to Tripadvisor. Luckily I got there super early because it only took 10 minutes for the place to be completely full.


Labskaus: corned beef, a fried egg, beetroot, gherkins and a pickled herring


I ordered the local beer, Schnoor Bräu, which wasn’t anything special, and Labskaus which is a typical Northern German dish heavily influenced by the diet of sailors. It consists of corned beef covered with a fried egg, gherkins, beetroot and pickled herring. It does sounds like a odd mix but I did in fact enjoy it and would definitely go back.

Back in Hamburg on Saturday night, I caught up with two Hamburgers (the correct demonym for people who come from Hamburg), Stefan and Franzi, who I had met a few years ago in Adelaide when my only knowledge of the German language was a few swear words. I had previously caught up with Stefan while I was studying in Stuttgart on Australia Day at the infamous Tequilabar. Naturally, they asked me what I wanted to eat and the answer was palpable: hamburgers, of course!


Stefan and Franzi: these are real Hamburgers


On Sunday morning I took an early train to the capital of the former Hanseatic League: Lübeck, a city renowned for its Marzipan. Lübeck is a beautiful little city, especially when one is greeted by the enormous and magnificent Holstentor on the way to the old town, a medieval city gate built in 1464. I snacked on a Franzbrötchen, a mouth-watering Northern German pastry made with plenty of butter and cinnamon.


The magnificent Holstentor


I also visited Buddenbrookhaus on Mengstraße, the former family home of the famous authors Thomas and Heinrich Mann which is now a museum. This was a must-see for me, and other literature nerds, as Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks is one of my favourite books. However, for its seven euro entry free, it left a little to be desired.


Editions of Buddenbrooks in various languages


I visited the famous marzipan shop, Niederegger, which had an absolutely gigantic selection of marzipan (including marzipan shaped like loaves of bread and pigs); I settled on a single block of their classic marzipan in bittersweet chocolate but I deeply regret not buying more.


Classic Lübeck Marzipan


At lunchtime I caught the train to Schwerin, the capital city of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, colloquially christened “Meck-Pomm”. I actually quite enjoyed the calming viridescence of this sparsely populated and highly rural region of Germany. One of the train stops was literally nothing but grass, the town name on a sign, a playground, some apple trees, a chicken pen and not a building in sight. It was satisfyingly minimalistic in comparison to the almost violent hustle and bustle of Hamburg.


Schwerin Palace


Once in Schwerin I met up with André, another English assistant assigned to Meck-Pomm, we spent the day exploring this quiet and serene little city. Schwerin Palace was our first destination which occupies a small island surrounded by various lakes and a large garden. I was also amazed at how clean and blue the water was in comparison to the malodourous brown water in Hamburg. Afterwards we visited Kartoffelhaus, a German restaurant chain with a strong focus on potatoes, where we enjoyed some rustic meals and the local Lübzer pilsner.


Mecklenburg-style farm duck


Once I was back in Hamburg I decided to have very typical Hamburg meal: Fischbrötchen, which is basically just a filet of pickled, smoked or fried fish (or crustaceans) in a white bread roll, sometimes served with sauce, onion or salad. I’m not the biggest fish person but opted for Brathering and peppered mackerel and was satisfied.


Schwerin at night


On Monday afternoon, I caught the train back to Erlangen which took a mere five hours and, fortunately, was unaffected by the union strikes. I felt a bit relieved to return to my quiet, tame little city in the south surrounded again by excellent beer and a more subdued atmosphere. Despite the wind and rain, Northern Germany is a very nice region with lots to offer but I definitely feel more at home in the south. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I’m not sure.

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