Home Stuart Sutcliffe A Hard Day's Night – follow in the footsteps of Hamburg's 'Fab Five'

A Hard Day's Night – follow in the footsteps of Hamburg's 'Fab Five'

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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 around 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, Sutcliffe’s girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr (who Stephanie knows, of course) – and the shop where they were kitted out with their first leather suits.

It was Astrid who is credited with transforming the lads’ image, persuading them to adopt the black sweaters and mop-top haircuts favoured by Hamburg’s hip existentialists, which went on to become their trademark style. Again, Hamburg really did make The Beatles.

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 there: Little Richard, Duane Eddy, Bo Diddley, Bill Hailey and many more.

The tour finishes with bottles of the good local Astra beer and 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 and harmonius blend of accommodating Hamburgers, freewheeling hedonists 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 (stopping for the obligatory slice of pizza, like the locals, en route)

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 beach and pretty riverside fishing villages downriver.

We explored the leafy waterfront on bikes hired from Hamburg City Bicycles, in St Pauliu, from a cool shop up the hill from the river. We also got a guide who not only showed us the best route but pointed out sights of interest along the way.

We breezed along the flat cycle lane through quaint tangles of cottages with neat front gardens, past expanses of sand on which sunworshippers bronzed and families played ball games. We ended up at a sailing club and refreshed ourselves at a neighbouring bar built right onto the water, sipping cool beer and munching on fish sandwiches – a local speciality

Hamburg is a city made for bikes with beautiful smooth cycle paths everywhere – the product of an enlightened city council. Cyclists familiar with the treacherous, gravel strewn, pot-holed stretches of road they are forced to share with buses in Oxford and other British cities will think they’ve gone to heaven.

While the beaches are upstream, go the other way, downstream, and you’ll reach 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.

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