Hamburg celebrates its harbor | DW Travel | DW | 13.05.2019
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Hamburg celebrates its harbor

Three hundred ships, a huge fireworks display and a three-day party — every year over 1 million visitors flock to Hamburg's Hafengeburtstag. But what makes it so fascinating? DW reporter Evan Woodnorth went to find out.

Every year Germany's second-largest city celebrates the anniversary of its famed port. It's known as the Hafengeburtstag, or "harbor-birthday." This year marked the 830th birthday of Hamburg's harbor. 

A hobby photographer’s dream

For many visitors, the festival's main attraction are the vessels themselves. There's something for everyone: from coal-fired steam ships to majestic tall ships and even the world's first hydrogen vessel.

It’s hard not to get excited when you're surrounded by scores of people who are so passionate about a subject. It's contagious, really.

A definite type of person that you'll meet here is the sea-loving hobby photographer. They're the ones hauling a camera with a cumbersome telephoto lens that can weigh upwards of two kilograms (4.4 pounds).

Hobby photographer at Hamburg harbor holding a large camera

The Hafengeburtstag attracts many hobby photographers

For some, the Hafengeburtstag has become an almost-annual tradition. Klaus Radünz has made the trek from Cologne to take photos of his favorite tall ships for over 20 years. But he wouldn't call himself a spotter. It's just a hobby: "I'm very fond of the sea  — the water, the ships, marine life. From an early age, I liked everything that floats on or swims in the water."

After talking with Radünz, I figured it was time to finally embrace my inner seafarer and climb aboard.

From old canvas sails to solar panels

My first stop: the Alexander von Humboldt II, a 65-meter-long (213 foot) tall ship with 24 emerald-green sails. Named after the famous German naturalist and explorer, it's Germany's largest civilian sail training vessel. Ships like these keep the values and knowledge of traditional seamanship alive. Maren Reif is the ship's first female captain.

A tall ship with green bow and sails

The training ship Alexander von Humboldt

The Hafengeburtstag is a rare opportunity for Reif to show off her vessel, not only to family, friends, and tourists, but to the people of Hamburg, the city she calls home. "The people come here from all over the world and are truly interested in harbors, sailing ships, cruise ships. It's great to be part of the spectacle," Reif told DW.

The pageantry of the celebration makes up a large part, but it's not all about old ships.

I walked over to HafenCity, Hamburg's modern redevelopment on the banks of the Elbe River, to check out the world's first autonomous hydrogen boat, the Energy Observer.

A solar-powered catamaran

Might this be the future of seafaring?

This high-tech catamaran looks like something straight out of sci-fi film. Using a mix of regenerative energy from solar, hydrogen, wind, and wave power, the boat is a "floating laboratory" that explores and tests sustainable energy solutions. It's already logged over 11,000 nautical miles (20,372 kilometers) and visited 17 countries, on a world tour that will last six years.

"I love the sea passionately," says Jean-Baptiste Sanchez, the boat's second captain. He hails from the French port town of Saint-Malo and has been sailing since the age of eight. At the Hafengeburtstag, Sanchez feels right at home: "When I see all these different boats, all these people, I really feel something special."

I was happy to see the Energy Observer alongside the various historical ships — an event like this should really include both. Though I wouldn't mind seeing more modern vessels in the years to come.

An alternative Hafengeburtstag

As you head away from the piers and along the Elbe Promenade, the event becomes more of a folk festival, albeit with a heavy nautical flair. The promenade stretches almost four kilometers along the Elbe River and is full of food vendors, carnival games, amusement rides and live music stages.

If that's what you're looking for, then get yourself a skipper cap and a fischbrötchen (fish sandwich), join the masses and you're all set.

I decided to ditch the crowds and the popular German "Schlager" music and climb the hill to Hamburg's (in)famous St. Pauli neighborhood for a more alternative take on the Hafengeburtstag.

This part of the city is known for its cult football club, left-leaning politics, social activism, and the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's red-light district. It's also home to a long-standing punk and subculture.

The vibrant carnival colors fade to black, Schlager music turns into hardcore punk. Antifa (anti-fascist) graffiti on occupied buildings. Don't forget your studded leather jacket. Welcome to punk paradise.

Young people gathered on steps to celebrate in Hamburg's St. Pauli district

The party away from the party in St. Pauli

It may have seemed intimidating at first, but this alternative Hafengeburtstag turned the whole event on its head. It wasn't about maritime tradition or a carnival atmosphere anymore. It was about celebrating the way you want to celebrate. Further along, there were techno and reggae stages, street food vendors, even capoeira (Afro-Brazilian martial art) performances. Everyone was just being themselves enjoying the moment.

It was really touching to see people from all walks of life coming together on such a grand scale.

One person I talked to described this as "the party away from the party." It's simple, but it works.

If you think about it, Hamburg's city center turns into one giant open-air festival, where everyone celebrates the way they like.

I decided to stay for a while, perched above the Elbe Promenade and masses below. As the sun set, the colossal AIDA Cruise ship arrived at port, drawing people's attention back to the water just in time for the fireworks show.

Crowds all around the city stood still, mesmerized, even if just for a few minutes.

I realized what brings people back here. It's authentic. Hamburg stays true to itself: hosting a traditional festival in a modern cosmopolitan city.