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Hamburg: a day on the Reeperbahn, a trip back in time

St. Pauli once rivaled Pigalle in Paris as Europe's most notorious red light district. These days, it's littered with young men on stag nights and tourists looking in vain for its famous streets of shady repute.

A group of visitors mainly made up of middle-aged ladies with short hair and horn-rimmed glasses have signed up for the "Safari Special" tour led by insider "Der blonde Hans" - literally blond Hans. It's a 2 and a half-hour odyssey around the Reeperbahn - a street in Hamburg that was once described as "die sündigste Meile" or the most sinful mile. The female members of the group giggle as Hans talks, while the men look a little uncomfortable. His anecdotes are as racy as you'd expect from someone who's promised to provide "a glimpse of St. Pauli's long-lost past."

One man on his own turf

Hans Jürgen Schmitz alias Blonder Hans, Kieztouren-Führer in Hamburg (Copyright: C. Gunkel/ DW)

"Der Blonde Hans" - A man with a murky past

"Der blonde Hans" is now nearing 70 and not as blond as he was when he named himself after the popular German actor and singer Hans Albers. His real name is Hans Jürgen Schmitz, and these days he's a lot more respectable than he used to be. In the 1970s he was a pimp, a brothel-owner and, by his own admission, "a regular" at the Reeperbahn's infamous Davidwache police station. But he still has a twinkle in his eye and no shortage of stories to tell - including of a brunette beauty with bedroom eyes. "My word, she was a looker," he says. Domenica was her name, and she was once the most famous prostitute in Germany; and for a while, his girlfriend.

Hans is a man quick with a saucy joke or two and obviouslywell-qualified to show tourists around his neighborhood. But his metamorphosis into a pillar of society is symptomatic of the area's transformation. Later, over a beer, he admits he's not keen on how commercial it's become, sounding almost apologetic. What he wants is to show people the old St. Pauli, the real, grittier version. The St. Pauli of his youth before it became over-run with young men on stag nights and its peep shows were replaced by run-of-the-mill discos blasting out loud euro-pop.

Drawn to the seedy side

Hans' so-called "Nostalgia-Tour" is organized by local drag queen Olivia Jones. It costs around 30 euros ($33,5) and takes place five days a week. Hans isn't the only one giving guided tours of the Reeperbahn. Locals have been pimping their murky pasts for years now. There's little left of the underclass that madethe once-so-sleazy red light district so legendary. The sex industry has been replaced pretty much wholesale, by a tourist industry.

Signs outside the Restaurant Gosch at Hamburg Reeperbahn (Copyright: Sven Hoppe/dpa)

St Pauli, where dance clubs have been replaced by delicatessens

Today, Hans is with a group made of fifty-something female tourists who've come from Zürich, Pegnitz, Düsseldorf and Berlin to explore Hamburg's soft underbelly. Sporting a pair of aviator sunglasses, he gives them exactly what they want: colorful tales of vicious fighting between rival gangs with names like "Nutella" and "GmbH", whose members included the infamous ladies' man "schöne Michael" or "pretty Micky". "He'd make you weak at the knees," he assures his audience. His gags work, even if they seem rehearsed. "You'll go in as a man and come out a woman," he says outside a drag club. He's probably said it a million times by now.

Skid Row gentrified

Some of the other things he says are more heartfelt, "sadly, the Top Ten Club has gone, where the Beatles used to perform. So has Café Keese, it was taken over in 2013 by the very posh Gosch delicatessen and a lot of locals see that as a symbol of what's been lost," he laments. The "Molotow" music club is also long gone, while the landmark Esso development, with its legendary gas station, has been torn down. Few traces of the past are left. "Regrettably," says Der Blonde Hans. It’s his favorite word.

Reeperbahn in Hamburg at night (Copyright: Axel Heimken dpa)

The Reeperbahn is clinging to its past

Back in the day, St. Pauli aspired to match the Pigalle in Paris, famous for its revue shows, cabarets and can-can dancers. Venues boasted exotic-sounding names such as "Colibri", "Salambo" and "Honolulu". In the "Hippodrom", guests paid girls to ride horses around the arena in time to a brass band. If they galloped - making their breasts jiggle - it cost 70 pfennigs more.

In its heyday, the Große Freiheit, a road which in English would be "the Great Freedom" just off the Reeperbahn, was home to 13 cabarets. Not a single one of them is left. Even thedoors have shut at the "Safari", Germany's last live sex theater.

Legends of the past

"Things have been going downhill fast in the last five years," says Andrea, a local streetwalker.She works on Herbertstraße, which runs parallel to the Reeperbahn and is famous for its sign declaring "Men only". She charges tourists 5 euros to answer their questions.

"How many customers have you had today?" asks one. "None!" she replies. "What about yesterday?"

"Also none."

These days, few punters wouldhead to Herbertstraße and the Reeperbahn. The area's obviously just too public.

Posters of the Klitschko-brothers at the club Ritze in Hamburg (Copyright: C. Gunkel/ DW)

"Zur Ritze" - Memories of bygone days

But it's clinging to its past notoriety for dear life. The boxer's club "Zur Ritze" is located in a backyard with a pungent smell and is still seen as fairly authentic. But with its photographs and yellowing signatures framed on the wall, it also feels a bit like a museum. It likes to boast that Henry Maske and the Klitschko brothers once trained in the basement, where also the pimp and boxer Stefan Hentschel hung himself back in 2006. Another pimp was shot here.

Burlesque shelved for a supermarket

These days, the epicenter of St. Pauli is probably the Penny supermarket just around the corner. It has the highest sales in Hamburg and is open 24/7. Fresh fruit and vegetables don't exactly fly off the shelves, but booze and cigarettes certainly do. The clientele is made up mainly of oddballs and local heroes.

Hans begins giving the tourists his spiel about the "Allotria" theater that closed here in 1958 to be replaced a bit later by the "Bayrisch Zell", which had table telephones. A man lurking outside the supermarket starts in on him. "There he goes again," he slurs. "What's so special about telephones?" he demands to know.

St. Pauli's glory days obviously mean little to him. As he shepherds his group to the next landmark, Hans says nothing.

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