The Beatles arrived in Hamburg barely 20 years after Operation Gomorrah, the RAF bombing raid in 1943 which killed 40,000 people here. For Britain it was payback for Coventry, but it’s still traumatic to think of all those who died, in a terrifying firestorm which engulfed the city centre. The tarmac melted in the streets. Even the oily water in the canals caught fire.
Hamburg still bears the scars of the Second World War, but given the scale of its destruction, what’s remarkable is how much has survived rather than how much has vanished. No-one would call it beautiful, but it’s a handsome, imposing place, and its no-nonsense, unsentimental character is reflected in its robust architecture, old and new.
Despite its rough veneer, it’s a wealthy city, with lots of posh shops and stylish restaurants. As befits an international, outward-looking port, the cuisine is cosmopolitan – no need to stick to sausages and sauerkraut, unless you really want to. If you’re here on Sunday morning head for the Fischmarkt, the ornate fish market where The Beatles used to eat breakfast after a hard day’s night. The local speciality is Bismarck herring, served in a crusty roll with raw onion, washed down with a cold beer.
On my last morning I walked to the Landungsbrücken, where the ferries dock, and took a boat trip around the harbour. Container ships loomed over us, as tall as tower blocks. In the afternoon I took the train out to Blankenese – formerly a fishing village, now an affluent suburb. Nowadays, you need a lot of money to buy one of the fishermen’s houses on the hillside above the River Elbe. I walked along the windswept waterfront and watched the big ships sailing by. You can see why folk call Hamburg Germany’s gateway to the world.
The light was fading. I headed back into town for my final appointment, a visit to the Fontenay, Hamburg’s suave new five-star hotel. From the rooftop bar you can look right across the Alster, Hamburg’s vast city centre lake, and I realised, with a start, that I was staring at the vista in my grandma’s painting. I’d guessed her old house was nearby. I didn’t realise it was just around the corner.