Bremen and Hamburg

I thought Bremen was a bit dull at first (and coming from the Netherlands, very car-dominated, with two road overpasses in front of the railway station), but I changed my mind when I found the pretty small historic area near the cathedral. I thought Hamburg was unpleasant at first and I didn’t really change my mind, although I did find quite a few positive features, notably the excellent art collection in the Kunsthalle. They’re Germany’s two main ports, both with estuary access to the North Sea, and have been since the time of the Hanseatic League, but I’ll say more about the Hanse when I get to Lübeck. 

 The historic centre of Bremen is Marktplatz, where the Old Town Hall (1405-10) looks out over the statue of Roland, one of Charlemagne’s heroic paladins, which was raised in 1404 as a symbol of the city’s status as a free city within the Holy Roman Empire (I saw another one in Brandenburg a few weeks later). Immediately adjacent are two fine Gothic churches, the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of the Virgin) and the Petri Dom (St Peter’s cathedral) – the bishopric was established by Charlemagne in 789, and the present building was built after a fire in 1041. 

 It’s hard to see that this small area really justifies its World Heritage listing, especially as it’s partly fake, with façades brought from elsewhere in the city when the square was rebuilt after Word War II – but an alley immediately to the southwest is the real surprise. The medieval Böttcherstrasse (Coopers’ Street) was rebuilt in 1922-31 by Ludwig Roselius, coffee merchant and inventor of HAG decaff, with a heavy dose of expressionist features and unusual external decorative features, notably a golden relief of the Archangel Michael, and a carillon of 30 Meissen porcelain bells. Roselius was a Nazi sympathiser but his applications to join the party were rejected and Hitler tried to have the street demolished. The Roselius Museum houses his art collection, from medieval Madonnas to Picassos via Cranach, and he also built the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum here to show her works (see below).






The Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, the smallest of Germany’s federal states, consists of Bremen itself and the exclave of Bremerhaven (a new port founded in 1827 at the mouth of the Weser). I’d not actually heard of the Grimm Brothers’ story The Musicians of Bremen, but it’s commemorated by a sculpture at the western end of the Town Hall – it’s about four animals who set out for the city that they saw as standing for real freedom (sorry, spoiler alert – they never actually reached Bremen).

 Just south of the cathedral the Schnoorviertel consists of a few moderately quaint streets with cute cafés, restaurants and boutiques; just to the east, on the site of the old city walls, the Kunsthalle is not as big as Hamburg’s but still has a pretty decent art collection.

In the nineteenth century the burghers of Bremen mainly collected Dutch art, donating works by Pieter Claesz, Jan van Goyen, van der Velde the younger, Salomon van Ruysdael, Jacob Jordaens, Rubens, van Dyck, Jan Brueghel the younger, Isenbrandt, Lievens, Aert van der Neer, van Ostade, Dou, Jacob de Wet (yet another Haarlem painter I didn’t know about) and Rachel Ruysch (qv). The museum also acquired a few old German Masters (by Altdorfer, a couple of Dürers and some Cranachs) and some minor (but superb) Italian Gothic paintings – they’re in Room 1 which is appropriate but not an easy place to start your circuit.

 The museum’s first director Gustav Paoli then started buying French art, which was controversial but has proved a smart move – the collection ranges from Vigée-Lebrun, Corot, Delacroix, Horace Vernet (see my post on Avignon) and Géricault to Pascin, Gris, Léger, Metzinger and Picasso, by way of Boudin, Courbet, Manet, Monet, five Renoirs, Pissarro, Cézanne, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Vallotton, Bonnard, Maurice Dennis, Bernard, Serusier and a whole room of Derain, not to mention sculptures by Gauguin, Rodin and Maillol. He also bought German art, of course, with quite a few paintings by the Nazarenes (who had similar ideas to the Pre-Raphaelites) and the Impressionists Max Liebermann, Max Slevogt, and Lovis Corinth. There’s Expressionism too, with plenty by Kirchner and Beckmann, as well as Schmift-Rotluff, von Jawlensky, Gabriele Münter, Campendonck, Marc, Nolde and Heckel, as well as sculptures by Ernst Barlach.

 But what you won’t see much of elsewhere is work from the artists’ colony of Werpswede, just north of Bremen, established in the 1890s by Fritz Mackensen, Otto Modersohn, Heinrich Vogeler and Carl Vinner. Mackensen’s pupil Paula Becker married Modersohn, and – in addition to the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum mentioned above – there’s a whole room of her paintings here, showing how she increasingly went her own way independently of the Werpswede group, eventually being hailed as ‘Germany’s Picasso’- a bit overcooked, but she was good. Incidentally, her friend the sculptor Clara Westhoff married Rainer Maria Rilke, a sort of German T S Eliot who I mentioned in my post on Trieste. Finally, contemporary artists include Olafur Eliasson and Kehinde Wiley, as well as a room of works by Nam June Paik, who was big in Amsterdam too, although he spent a lot of time in Germany from 1956 on.

An art centre in Schanze. Obviously.

I arrived in Hamburg mid-afternoon on a Friday (during the Covid-19 pandemic, but that didn’t seem to matter) and the roads and the Hauptbahnhof had seized up due to the number of people trying to get in and out of the city. Outside the station there was a stink of stale tobacco and a wail of sirens, people were raiding the rubbish bins for who knows what, and the taxi-drivers were all convinced that red lights, speed limits and basic good manners didn’t apply to them. The supposedly hippest areas of the city are plastered with graffiti (some of which might qualify as street art), which I usually see as a bad sign. Schanze is a bit like London’s Camden with more graffiti and lots of cafés, none special; the Karoviertel (Karolinenviertel in full) is marginally classier – it’s been well traffic-calmed, but is surrounded by the Messe trade fair complex and former abattoirs, and yes, there’s graffiti everywhere. So I have my doubts about Hamburg, but it’s one of Germany’s half-dozen main cities and there’s lots to see and do.

 Anyway, that’s the old Hamburg, which has the same problems as big cities across the world – there’s also a new Hamburg, which may show ways to make these cities more liveable. In particular I was interested to revisit the Victorian warehouses of the Speicherstadt or ‘warehouse city’ (like Shad Thames, if we’re going to keep up the comparisons with London, but with wider streets), and see the HafenCity, currently the largest urban development project in Europe, where 157 hectares of former docks will become housing (one third social housing), shops and cultural venues, expanding the downtown area by 40%. Sustainability and energy-efficiency are key, and fully 25% of the area is to be open space.


I was particularly keen to see the Elbphilharmonie, the prestigious concert hall by Herzog & de Meuron which finally opened in 2017, seven years late (and costing €870 million instead of €200 million). It’s a glass box with a wave-like top set on a 1960s warehouse, but although I’m sure it would be fantastic to go to a concert there, I found the exterior underwhelming. The rest of HafenCity seemed to me to be mostly generic modern architecture (although the earlier phase is less corporate and more interesting). As usual, I find modern European architecture rather too constrained compared to what I see in the Americas, particularly (you may be surprised to know) in Uruguay. Plans are being developed for an extension to the southeast in the Grasbrook and Veddel areas, including a 245m-high tower designed by David Chipperfield, so maybe this will look more distinctive.






In any case, the Speicherstadt is still very impressive and worthy of its World Heritage status;  there must be some fabulous loft apartments up there, and the Wasserschloss café’s terrace has a wonderful location. The HafenCity’s information centre is actually in the Speicherstadt (in an 1887 boiler house) and is worth a visit – they have an English-language booklet on the buildings and a café and free toilets.

 Following the waterfront a little way west, you’ll come to the main ferry docks and the Sankt Pauli-Elbtunnel, opened in 1911 (after three construction workers died from the bends); it seems similar to the foot tunnels in London, Newcastle, Antwerp and elsewhere, but this one also takes cars (which come down by lift), although not at the moment thanks to refurbishment work. So it’s a great ride by bike, and you can continue south into Wilhelmsburg, which was a poor immigrant neighbourhood that was hit by a serious flood in 1962; more recently it has been transformed into a model of sustainable living. The centrepiece is the Energy Bunker, a World War II anti-aircraft gun tower converted into a solar power plant, alongside a biogas combined heat and power station.

 Not far northwest of the tunnel is the notorious Reeperbahn (see below) and beyond it the middle-class Altona district, with a station where many intercity trains terminate, mainly so that they don’t occupy platforms at the Hauptbahnhof for too long – but now DB (German Rail) has sold the station site and will build a smaller terminus just to the north. After 2024 the present station site will become another green development, with housing (half subsidised or co-operative), shops, a school and for some reason four day-care centres, as well as a park. Also in Altona, the A7 motorway (heading north to Denmark) will be covered for about two kilometres, creating a new linear park leading down to the Elbe.

 A couple of kilometres further west, the waterfront cycle route ends at a pontoon and ferry dock (a great ride, especially if getting close to container ships is your thing) also known as the Övelgönne Hafenmuseum, where roughly twenty historic vessels are moored – the pontoon is open 24/7 but the boats can be visited less predictably. In 2008 the International Maritime Museum of Hamburg opened in a Speicherstadt warehouse (though it too claims to be in HafenCity), and there are some full-size ships moored nearby that can also be visited – at least a couple offer Escape Room experiences.

 There’s plenty of art here too, and the Kunsthalle is a major collection by any standards. As with the one in Bremen, it’s hard to find the chronological starting-point – go upstairs and to the left, through a small room of Klee and Ernst to start the Rundgang with a few Italian Old Masters (notably Pietro de Rimini) and altarpieces by the fifteenth-century Hamburg artists Bertram von Minden and Meister Francke. It’s more natural to start with the central room, currently dominated by the immense Entry of Charles V into Antwerp by Hans Makart (1878), which was very controversial because of the naked women rather improbably taking part in a welcome pageant. As in Bremen, there’s plenty of art from the Dutch Golden Age, including Jan Gossaert, Jan Massys, Cornelis Corneliszoon van Haarlem, Willem van der Velde, Jacob van Ruisdael, Joos de Momper, Jan van Goyen, Aert van der Neer, David Teniers the Younger, Jan Steen, Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Gerard van Honthorst, and still lives by Rachel Ruysch and Willem Claesz Heda (both of whom I mentioned here), Rubens and van Dyck. There’s Rembrandt, of course, in the form of Simeon and Hannah in the Temple (1627), which is the story of the Nunc Dimittis.

 But maybe you’re here for the German art, which continues with a small room of Cranach the Elder, Holbein the Elder (a big but not particularly good Presentation in the Temple), eighteenth-century portraits by the Tischbeins (uncle and nephew) and Graff, Romantic paintings by Philipp Otto Runge, Carl Gustav Carus, Ludwig Richter, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg and Caspar David Friedrich (notably THE famous one of The Wanderer above a Sea of Fog), more by the Nazarenes (see above), Realists such as Adolf Menzel, Wilhelm Leibl, Hans Thoma, and Anselm Feuerbach, then Max Liebermann, who began as a Barbizon-style realist, then became an impressionist and leader of the Berlin Secession. 

 Incidentally, the Hamburg School seems to refer both to artists such as Georg Haeselich (1806-94), Jacob Gensler (1808-45), Adolph Friedrich Vollmer (1806-75) and Valentin Ruths (1825-1905), and then to the more interesting group led by Arthur Siebelist, Arthur Illies, Ernst Eitner and Thomas Herbst who formed the Hamburgische Künstlerclub (Hamburg Artists Club) in 1897. Paula Modersohn-Becker (see above) and Max Beckmann are here too. It’s also worth mentioning the Norwegians Johan Christian Dahl (a close friend of Friedrich) and Edvard Munch who tend to get lost among the Germans.

Someone enjoying Arthur Siebelist’s Meine Schüler und ich (1902) (not my photo, of course)

 There’s plenty of French art, from Lorrain, Delacroix, Courbet, Daubigny, Corot, Diaz de la Peña and Millet, via Manet, Monet, Renoir (including an instantly recognisable sculpture), Degas, Sisley, Pissarro, Boudin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, Gauguin and Jongkind to Chagall, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Picasso, Feininger, Vlaminck, Derain, Gris, Vallotton and Léger (although the only Matisse is a bronze sculpture).

 Modern German art begins with a room of Corinth paintings, two by Hodler and one by Ensor (I don’t see enough of Hodler outside Switzerland, but I see too much of Ensor), a Brâncuși sculpture and then the Expressionists – Macke, Schmidt-Rottluff, Pechstein, Kirchner, Otto Mueller, Heckel, von Jawlensky, Marc, Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky and Nolde, as well as Dorothea Maetzel-Johannsen (a local artist who was new to me) and sculptures by Ernst Barlach. From the 1920s come hyperrealistic paintings by Franz Radziwill then Anita Rée (another interesting local artist), Grosz, Dix, the Constructivists, De Stijl and the Bauhaus (including Willi Baumeister, Sophie Tauber-Arp, Hans Arp, Klee and Ernst). Then you should go down to the basement level and across to a modern extension for the contemporary art collection, which includes German names such as Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Hamburg-born Gustav Kluge and a room of Baselitz; plus David Hockney, Mona Hatoum, Dan Flavin, Jeff Wall, Marina Abramovic & Ulay, Ian Hamilton-Finlay, Giacometti, Bacon, Serra, Nauman, Fontana, Twombly and much more.

 There are a few more bits and pieces hidden away – from the café you can get to The Transparent Museum, offering behind-the-scenes insights into identifying forgeries, framing, and restitution of art stolen from Jewish families, as well as another gallery dedicated to the Hamburg Artists Club, and the Sculpture Agora.

And finally

I was happy to see that the cut-out silhouettes at Beatles Plaza on the Reeperbahn (at Grosse-Freiheit) show five figures (although the Rough Guide refers to the Fab Four) – Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Best and Sutcliffe, of course, and not Ringo. It’s well documented that they were tough rock’n’rollers living in sordid conditions (washing in water taken from the club’s urinals) in the most sordid part of town, playing in clubs crowded with hookers, pimps and drunken sailors – but this was where Stu Sutcliffe met the photographer Astrid Kirchherr (who died a few months ago, in May 2020) and and was soon living with her. As well as taking iconic photos of the band, she persuaded them to copy her Juliette Gréco-style bob and to swap their leather jackets for black polo-necks, a less macho look that showed the way ahead for pop culture. When the Beatles returned to Liverpool, Sutcliffe stayed here to study art (one of his tutors was Eduardo Paolozzi, who later said he was one of his best students) – but he died in April 1962 from a brain haemorrhage, possibly caused by a fight outside a club in Liverpool.

The Chilehaus – mentioned in my Amsterdam post.

Malaysian World Heritage – Melaka and Penang

Malaysia has five sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, but it’s the two urban ones of Melaka (Malacca) and Georgetown (on the island of Penang) that attract most interest and visitors. I called in on both on my way from Singapore to Bangkok, and found both interesting and enjoyable, in different ways. (I visited them both, and one of the other sites, in 1983-4, but don’t remember a great deal!)

 Melaka is by far the older of the two, having been established as a fishing village by the 13th century. Around 1400 Parameswara (also known as Iskandar Shah), the Raja of Temasek (now Singapore), settled here, having been driven out of Singapore by invaders from the south. His successor converted to Islam, and Melaka became a centre for trade with India and Arabia, and also a centre for Islamic scholarship. Due to the monsoon patterns Melaka was busy with ships from December to March and from May to September – its fine natural harbour allowed almost 2000 ships at a time to wait, for months on end, for the winds to allow their onward journey. It was so prosperous and respected that it gave its name to the whole Malay peninsula for a while. In 1511 (after two failed attempts) the Portuguese captured Melaka, aiming to make it the hub of the Asian spice trade; however their anti-Islamic attitudes drove traders elsewhere (for instance, to Brunei). In 1528 the descendants of the Melaka sultans established the new sultanate of Johore-Riau-Lungga-Pahang, which had no permanent capital, but eventually in the 18th century became the Sultanate of Johore. St Francis Xavier, the Apostle of the East, visited Melaka 15 times between 1545 and 1552, and was welcomed although he didn’t convert the people of Melaka. In the early 17th century there were regular attacks by the Dutch, the rising trading power at the time, and they captured Melaka in 1641 with the help of Johore. During the Napoleonic Wars the Dutch handed Melaka over to the British to keep it from being seized by the French, and then in 1824 ceded it to the British in exchange for Bencoolen (Bengkulu) on Sumatra. Melaka remained under British control until 1957 (apart from the Japanese occupation during World War II), first as an outpost of the British East India Company, then as a Crown Colony, and then from 1946 as part of the Malayan Union and then the Federation of Malaya.

The Portuguese fort built in 1512 was destroyed in 1641 and rebuilt in 1670, and largely demolished by the British in 1806 (it would have been totally demolished if Sir Stamford Raffles, here on sick leave, had not intervened); the Stadthuys or Dutch City Hall was built in the 17th century on the site of the Portuguese governor’s house. These now form the heart of the World Heritage Site, where various new museums have been created in a bid to boost cultural tourism, along the lines of Singapore (see this post) but in a rather more amateur way. However the street linking them, Jalan Kota is traffic-free, and smoking-free too, and makes an attractive promenade.

Starting at the Stadthuys, at the northern or city-centre end of Jalan Kota, you’ll pay 10 Ringgits for access to five museums and an art gallery, but the main attraction is the History Museum in the Stadthuys itself, with wonderful Malay knife blades as well as cannon and porcelain. At the other end of the pedestrianised street, the Independence Memorial is a free museum in the former Malacca Club, where the first leader of independent Malaya, Tunkuh Abdul Rahman, announced the date of independence for the first time on 20 February 1956 (he’d gone to London on 1 January to negotiate with the British government and returned via Singapore, so this was his first stop back on Malayan soil). It gives a decent enough run-down of Malaysian history, and not just the movement for independence. (One of the new museums along Jalan Kota is the UMNO Melaka Museum, dealing with the history of the United Malays National Organisation, Rahman’s party, which gives a more narrowly focussed view – the same applies to the Democratic Government Museum, well funded in its large modern building, but aimed at educating Malaysians, not foreigners.)

It’s perhaps worth mentioning that the Independence Memorial stands opposite A Famosa, the gateway that is all that’s left of the Portuguese fort; more recently the foundations of the Santiago Bastion were revealed here, and in 2006 parts of the Dutch Middleburg and Victoria Bastions, by the river, have been tarted up and made accessible to tourists.

But really, despite these efforts to move tourism in a more upmarket and cultural direction, Melaka’s visitors are mostly Malaysians and Chinese – the town’s trademark seems to be the luridly decorated and illuminated trishaws (with a sound system to match) that seemingly cater to Chinese honeymooners and the like.

In contrast, Georgetown (Penang) has lots of hostels and sees far more western visitors, including Aussies in singlets and backpackers on the beaches-and-bars trail around South-East Asia (there’s a fast ferry link to the lovely island of Langkawi to the north). It also has a growing expatriate population, and property on the island now costs about double what it costs on the mainland. Its history is much more recent – in the 16th and 17th centuries its sheltered anchorage, with plentiful fresh water, made it a perfect stopover for Chinese, Indian, Arab and European trading ships during the monsoon months, and thus also a happy hunting ground for pirates, such as Sir James Lancaster who lay in wait here during the summer of 1592. In 1786 the Sultan of Kedah (under threat from Siam and Burma) let Francis Light of the British East India Company occupy what he called Prince of Wales Island. He founded Georgetown which was a free port from 1786 until 1969 (although it was never usable as a naval dockyard). When British military aid was not forthcoming the Sultan attempted to retake the island in 1790, and the next year a treaty was signed obliging the EIC to pay rent to the sultan. From 1826 the EIC created the Straits Settlements (Penang, Melaka and Singapore), ruled from Penang, but in 1832 this was transferred to Singapore; in 1867 they came under British rule as a Crown Colony. As with Singapore, the port prospered and immigrants flooded in, particularly Chinese as well as Arabs, Singhalese, Tamils, Thais and Burmese. There were also (from 1802) Armenians, notably the four Sarkies brothers who in 1885 founded the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, still the grandest hotel in South-East Asia.

The Chinese incomers were enrolled into two main secret societies, one Cantonese-speaking and one Hokkien, and in 1867 these fell out, leading to nine days of rioting until police arrived from Singapore; the name of Cannon St dates from this time. From the 1880s the area east of Beach St (now Lebuh Pantal) was reclaimed from the sea. Penang was occupied by the Japanese in 1941 without a shot being fired, and a couple of German U-Boats were based here from 1943 to attack British shipping in the Indian Ocean. After World War II Penang was, like Melaka, part of the Malayan Union and then the Federation of Malaya – Melaka and Penang continue to be ruled by governors rather than sultans, and Penang is now run by the opposition Democratic Action Party, which seems to be doing a good job (it’s definitely much less corrupt than the national government).

The core of the World Heritage Site, essentially Chinatown and Little India, is attractive and lively, with pricey little coffeeshops, noisy bars and gift shops, and the best Chinese and Indian temples, notably Khoo Kengsi (hidden away down Cannon Square, an alley off Cannon St) and Sri Mahamariamman (founded in 1801 and rebuilt in 1833), and the Kapitan Kling and Achin Street mosques, founded in 1802 and 1808 respectively. But don’t miss the buffer zone, just to the north, where you’ll find the colonial buildings, starting with Fort Cornwallis, built of wood by Light and rebuilt in stone (by Indian convicts) in 1804 – it’s a bit of a let-down unless you take a free guided tour, which is recommended. Nearby, the Clock Tower was commissioned for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee but finished only after her death in 1902. Just beyond are the Anglican church of St George the Martyr (founded in 1818) and the Roman Catholic church of the Assumption (1860) – with between them the History Museum. Built as a school in 1896, this is cheap and well worth a visit, with its display of Baba-Nyonga (Straits Chinese) embroidered wedding costumes a particular highlight. Across the road is the imposing High Court, built in 1903 and extended in 2007, and just north at 14 Leith St the Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion, built by the eponymous Chinese merchant in the 1880s and refurbished from 1989 – it’s run as a boutique hotel to pay for ongoing maintenance, but can be visited on tours (11am, 2pm, 3.30pm; MR17). It gives a wonderful insight into the lifestyle of the amazingly wealthy Chinese merchants of the time.

If I had more than one day in Penang, I’d get out to the Botanic Gardens, created in 1884 around the waterfalls from which fresh water was piped to the harbour in 1805, and I’d hike up Penang Hill (833m) – a track was cleared to the top in 1790, up which colonial-era visitors could be carried by pony or sedan chair; in 1924 a funicular railway was built (upgraded in 2010) and this became the only hill station along the lines of Shimla or Darjeeling in Britain’s Far Eastern colonies. The starting point is the village of Air Itam, reached by regular Rapid Penang buses from Georgetown.

The ‘five-foot-way’ in Georgetown
Some practicalities – Melaka

Melaka sprawls inland from the old town, and the only way to reach the Sentral bus terminal is by taxi (MR20) – then it costs just MR12 to get to Kuala Lumpur in a comfortable a/c bus. The railway passes a long way inland of Melaka, and it’s a long crawl even for buses to reach the expressway to KL or Singapore. I stayed at the Discovery Café and Guest House, a cheap and adequate travellers’ place – the café has some character, but the rooms (across the road) definitely do not, although they do have air-conditioning as well as shared toilets and showers. The Geographer Cafe, at 83 Jalan Hang Jebat, is justly a landmark on Chinatown’s Jonker Street strip, with decent food and beer plus live jazz.

Some practicalities – Penang

The first bridge to Penang Island opened in 1985, just after my first visit, and a second opened in 2014 – but the classic way to reach the island is still the best, by ferry from Butterworth. The 20-minute ferry ride costs just MR1.20 to the island (the kiosk just changes notes to coins for you to feed into the turnstile) and is free returning to the mainland; the walkway from the train station at Butterworth is tortuous and tedious, but there is a free shuttle bus ferry to and from the bus terminal. I stayed on Jalan Muntri, in the World Heritage district but a bit quieter and classier than the streets nearer the centre.