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Hamburg to Bratislava via Interrail

Taking advantage of a half price Interrail ticket offer (to mark the 50th anniversary of the service), we travelled across Northern Germany towards Hamburg via Cologne on the very impressive DB train network.

Cologne station
Hamburg station

Hamburg

Hamburg was the first German city to suffer an aerial firebombing raid during World War 2. RAF Code named Operation Gomorrah, a combined attack by the RAF and US Air forces killed an estimated 37,000 people and destroyed most of the city during seven nights of attack in July 1943

Photo from the World War 2 Museum in the crypt of St Nikolai Memorial

Like many other German cities that suffered huge destruction during the War, especially Dresden (see below), Hamburg has been largely rebuilt and is now only second to Berlin in terms of population. In recent years, the waterfront area – HafenCity, has been the main focus of development culminating in the opening of the Elbphilharmonie, a huge concert hall built on top of an old dock’s warehouse which used to store cocoa, tea and tobacco until the 1990s. It opened in late 2016, costing €870 million, €670 million over-budget. Nevertheless, it is an impressive building which dominates the skyline along the River Elbe

HafenCity is probably Hamburg’s most vibrant and interesting area of the city, containing a mix of old warehouses, new museums and an historic (1911) foot tunnel under the Elbe (the Alter Elbtunnel) built to enable dockworkers to commute more easily across the river.

The riverside is also the best place to enjoy one of the culinary staples of Hamburg, the fischbrötchen or fish sandwich.

Hamburg’s most culturally diverse district is St Georg, which having escaped much of the wartime destruction, includes many older buildings as well as more independent shops and cafes such as LGBT friendly Cafe Gnosa

Before leaving Hamburg, it was important to visit the Reeperbahn entertainment district in Hamburg’s St Pauli district to track down a few of the venues where The Beatles honed their musical performing skills during dozens of shows during 1960-2. The first venue they played, the Indra Club (then a strip club) is still going

The group’s first ‘home’ in the city was two dimly lit rooms next to the toilets in the Bambi cinema and latterly Paul McCartney resided at the Gretel & Alfons pub which is still going strong 60 years later.

Dresden

Heading south from Hamburg we travelled close to the Elbe as far as Dresden, formerly part of the GDR (East Germany). Whilst Hamburg was the first German city to experience firebombing in the Second World War, it was the bombing of Dresden which became the most notorious and controversial example of the horrific destruction inflicted by such attacks. Whilst the number of deaths was probably lower than in Hamburg, the destruction of the city centre, which had been dubbed the ‘Florence of Germany’, was far more comprehensive as illustrated by this famous image from the top of the Rathaus.

Rather than repair and re-develop the main buildings of the Altstadt (old town), it was decided to recreate them from scratch, most famously the Frauenkirche (church of Our Lady), which was rebuilt between 1994-2005. Incorporated into the new building are over 8500 original stones which can be easily be identified because of their blackened state.

Whilst the reconstruction of the Altstadt has been deemed a success especially with respect to its tourist appeal, it does feel at times like wandering around a historic film set which lacks the urban vibrancy of most cities.

In many respects, the more interesting part of the city is the Neustadt – the ‘New Inner City’ on the right bank of the Elbe. Here can be found a mixture of more historic buildings as well as developments made during Communist rule. One oddity is the Jenidze building, a former cigarette factory from with a Moorish design, which is now an office building.

Dresden

Just over an hour’s train journey from Dresden is Leipzig which felt like a much more dynamic and culturally vibrant city. it helps when you arrive at its magnificent train station, the largest in Europe.

Leipzig has an interesting architectural mix reflective of the many social and political changes it has experienced, especially over the past 150 years.

In 1884, the world’s largest cotton mill (the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei) was built where up to 4000 textile workers were employed. Production ceased in 1993, but like many other old textile mills in Europe, it has found new life as an arts and cultural centre.

In nearby Plagwitz, the old industrial quarter of Plagwitz has been transformed into the artistic hub of Leipzig and its old terraced housing are slowly becoming gentrified.

Meanwhile, in the city centre, Leipzig University (founded in 1409) is now home to the futuristic Paulinum was completed in 2017 to much critical acclaim.

Between 1949-1990, Leipzig was part of the communist GDR, which has left its mark with some notable buildings such as the Bruhl department store locally called the Blechsbuchse (‘tin box’) – the then state owned store was given a new outer shell made of aluminium in 1968.

For those keen to learn more about life under Communist rule and its wider historical context, then the Zeitgeschichtliches – Forum of Contemporary History provides a very illuminating insight into Germany’s recent historical past. Its exhibits not only show the oppressive side of life in the GDR but also some of the positive aspects as feature in some of the oral testimonies of its former citizens

Examples of GDR propaganda
Not everyone was happy to vote for a city name change from Karl Marx-Stadt to Chemnitz

The Brühl area of Leipzig was part of the Jewish quarter and also the centre of the city’s fur trade. The beautiful Selter & Weinert building (1874) operated as both a wholesale tobacconist and fur trading shop.

Bratislava

Travelling further south, we crossed over into what was formerly known as Czechoslovakia We bypassed Prague, before stopping off in Brno in the Czech Republic and then moved on to Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. The main train station feels like a throwback to the old Communist days, complete with a social realist fresco dating from 1960 which includes includes the world’s first space satellite, Sputnik, as well as an old station cafe which still allowed smoking, an unusual sight in today’s EU.

The city’s communist legacy includes the Slavin war memorial which honours the Soviet Army casualties (nearly 7000 soldiers died) arising from the battle to end the Nazi occupation of Bratislava in 1945.

Another landmark construction is the SNP bridge (‘Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising’ – now simply referred to as the ‘New Bridge’)) which is an impressive single span crossing of the Danube River. Unfortunately, its construction entailed the destruction of the Jewish quarter of the old town to make way for the dual lane carriageways using the bridge.

On the south side of the bridge is a flying saucer shaped observation deck, known as the UFO, which offers splendid views of both the castle and old town as well as the huge Petrzalka housing estate, the largest such estate in Czechoslovakia when built in 1973

Like Leipzig, Bratislava feels like it is shaking off its rather dour communist legacy to forge a more modern and dynamic identity.

A socialist themed stained glass window from part of the old Slovak National Theatre
The new Slovak National Theatre started under Communist rule in 1986 and eventually finished in 2007 at a cost of 5 billion koruna (approx 200 million euros)

Bratislava has an amusing array of street sculpture mostly emanating from the period following the Velvet Revolution. Here are two examples we encountered in the city

‘Man at work’

Finally, mention must be made about the excellent (and very cheap) public transport in Bratislava (as we have found in most ex-communist states we have visited). The tram fleet includes some attractive vehicles from the communist era