The last time we caught sight of a calm and low Elbe was in Dresden in June 2017. A year later we’re 235 miles upstream and the Elbe is now capable of sustaining Europe’s third-largest port. It’s not a pretty river at this point, nor a clean one, but on a sunny day the locals don’t seem to care. There’s a beach, a river that in just another 50 miles will flow into the North Sea. What else should one do but cool the wine and play frisbee with the dogs in the water, irrespective of the dangerous-looking swells caused by the massive container/cruise ships passing by!

The Elbe at Hamburg

2017 and it was time to investigate Northern Germany. Don’t laugh but having spent almost 4 decades living or travelling in landlocked German states, I never thought of Germany as a country with a coast. Well, I was in for some delightful surprises that year …

But first of all, Hamburg. Not that I didn’t find it delightful, it’s just that it did the unforgiveable on me. I shall explain.

On arrival, the sun was shining, it was hot. I had a wonderful couple of days in the town centre (great shopping!), promenading around the Alster, strolling through the expansive botanical gardens, finding the perfect reading spot.

In Planten en Blomen (Blooms and The Reading Spot)

What happens on day 3? I’m on the S-Bahn going to an art exhibition in a villa on the Chaussee Allee. Rain is forecast. The S-Bahn enters a tunnel, blue sky. S-Bahn exits the tunnel. The sky is so black that everyone on the train gasped. I just hoped that I’d get to the museum before the skies opened … No chance. It pelted down so hard that the rain was bouncing off the floor right up to my knees!

This, in itself, was not unforgiveable. When it rains, it pours in Germany, and I’ve had many a memorable soaking. The crime, if you will, was that it never cleared up. Drizzle, drizzle and more drizzle. My reading spot remained vacated! (Sorry, Hamburg, but I experience quite enough of weather like that in Scotland.) At least I know why the locals were taking full advantage of good weather on the beach.

Speicherstadt, Kunsthalle, Refreshments

Fortunately there is plenty to do when the weather is less than clement. A wander round the Speicherstadt where old warehouses have been converted into coffee houses, or a museum of miniatures. (A wonderland for kids and those who have remained childlike.) The Hamburger Kunsthalle, one of the largest art museums in Germany, is simply incredible. The entrance ticket is not cheap, but, as I stayed in there for a full day, it was value for money. Hamburg also has not one, but two Bavarian Hofbrauhaus establishments. If the weather gets too much, you can take shelter and pretend you’re in Bavaria! (Prost!)

Hamburg, I feel, is going to be a second Berlin for me. Never the destination, always the connection. My gateway to Northern Germany, assuming that cheap flights from Edinburgh resume in the After Times.

Recommended reads from or about Hamburg

Historical crime doesn’t get any better than Schleswig-Holsteiner Cay Rademacher’s Inspector Stave trilogy, set in worn-torn Hamburg. Books 1 and 2 reviewed here, book 3 here.

While a selection of Karen Duve’s work has been translated into English, my favourite has not. Grrrimm is her subvertive retelling of some well-known fairy tales. I do have the latest work to be translated, but the cover is one I wouldn’t want to be seen with! Actually assuming the cover is an accurate representation of the contents, perhaps I’d better pass on reading it!

Jan Wagner is a contemporary poet who has been awarded both the Georg-Büchner and the Leipzig Book Fair Prize. His collection Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees, published by Arc Publications, is a dual-language edition, presented just the way I like my German poetry to be.