When it comes to The Beatles, there’s nothing that Stephanie Hempel doesn’t know.
A singer-songwriter in her own right, she is best known in her hometown of Hamburg for her tours, taking fellow fans from a round the world to the locations associated with the Fab Four – each stop accompanied by a tune on her ukelele.
Except, she says, it wasn’t the same Fab Four then – and at first, it was actually the Fab Five – John, Paul and George initially accompanied, of course, by Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. They later met Ringo out there.
“It was in Hamburg that The Beatles really became a band,” says Stephanie, as we gather on a sunny Saturday evening in the Reeperbahn – the lively stretch of pubs, bars and strip clubs which cuts through the avant garde St Pauli district. And, she tells us, they weren’t even particularly ‘fab’ at first – only been sent out from Liverpool because three other bands had said no.
“They were pretty terrible to start with. People in Liverpool wondered who they were and why they had gone and even their agent, Allan Williams, said they weren’t very good. But they became good here,” she smiles.
Stephanie takes us round the back streets of St Pauli to the bars and clubs where they played to the sailors who gave this quirky corner of the great maritime city its character. We see the hotel and ‘Bambi Kino’ cinema where they lodged, the locations for their most famous photographs (most taken by local photographer, and Sutcliffe’s girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr) and the shop they were kitted out with their first leather suits. We stop and sing-along to Stephanie’s uke outside the iconic Indra and Kaiserkeller clubs and end up at the site of the famous Star club, where a plaque recalls the legions of other famous bands who played here.
We finish with bottles of the good local Astra beer, joining a sing-along in a corner cafe as the sun sets and the neon lights of the Reeperbahn flicker into life – promising all manner of racy attractions. The previously sleepy streets suddenly throng with revellers. The Hamburg of The Beatles, with all its lurid charms and vibrant nightlife is very much still kicking. And it kicks hard – and all night. We avoided the crowded, noisy bars and sipped small glasses of draft beer in pubs playing 60s soul and rhythm and blues. In the Beatles’ days, the punters would have been sailors with money to burn. Now it’s an engaging blend of accommodating Hamburgers and open-minded tourists, including us, we having flown on Flybmi’s excellent service from Bristol Airport – an easy drive at well under two hours from Oxford.
We left St Pauli at 3am with the bars and streets still thronged. This being Hamburg, the metro was still running and we caught a train back to our hotel.
The locals wouldn’t dream of turning in so early, of course, many sticking the course and reconvening for coffee, or more beer, at the fish market right on the banks of the River Elbe – the huge waterway which links the city, still one of Europe’s most important ports, with the North Sea 130km away.
Among the calls of market traders, the party continues for the bleary-eyed ones. Alongside them, shoppers stock up on fruit and veg and breakfast on fish sandwiches.
By 10am it’s all over, the party animals are back in their beds and the riverside is given over to cyclists, tourists and locals hopping on and off the ferries – part of the public transport system – which ply the Elbe between the city and its popular beaches downriver.
Downstream is the elegant waterside Speicherstadt – ‘City of Warehouses’ – the largest of its kind in the world. Row after row of towering 19th century gothic-revival warehouses line straight canals along which boats chug. It’s an impressive and beautiful site, so much so that three years ago it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
The district, part of the old Hamburg free port, falls within the striking HafenCity – which includes Europe’s largest urban regeneration project. Among the new shops and apartment blocks stands something utterly in keeping with the city that made The Beatles great – the Elbphilharmonie concert hall. This is to Hamburg what the Opera House is to Sydney or the Guggenheim to Bilbao – it’s a striking piece of architecture which represents the cultural richness of its home city. And, this being inclusive,m liberal-minded Hamburg, tickets are available for pocket money prices. The music, of coursee, is world class.
The Fab Five would surely be proud of their old stomping ground.
- Get there: FlyBMI – bmi offers flights from Bristol to Hamburg from £97 one way, incl 23kg of hold luggage, allocated seating, complimentary in-flight drinks and snacks and speedy 30 minute check-ins. Visit flybmi or call 0330 333 7998
- Get around:The Hamburg Card offers unlimited travel by bus, train and harbour ferry, plus discounts at over 150 tourist attractions. From EUR 10.50 per day. See hamburg-travel.com
- Stay: Adina Apartment Hotels, Hamburg Speicherstadt
- A stay at the Adina Hamburg Speicherstadt starts from EUR135 per night, based on two sharing a studio king or twin on a room only basis.
- For more information or to book, visit adinahotels.com/de-en/hotel/hamburg-speicherstadt or call +49403346080
- Hempel’s Beatles Tour hempels-musictour.de/en/
- Information: Visit hamburg-travel.com