checks into Hamburg’s legendary Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten and finds it the perfect base for exploring Germany’s thriving port city
MODERN, UNITED GERMANY is a big country. And while that’s plainly evident when looking at a map of Europe, it’s really brought home when travelling by rail. Berlin to Munich, for instance, on a train capable of reaching 300km/h, still takes a little over six hours. The nation’s size means that its regions are distinctively distinct, each with its own identity, and when one considers the fact that the country came into being as late as 1871 by the union of various sovereign states, that’s hardly surprising.
Hamburg, on the River Elbe, has in its history been a free city within the Holy Roman Empire and a member city of the Hanseatic League, a trading body founded in the Middle Ages that facilitated and protected the commercial interests of continental European cities lying on the North and Baltic seas. Now Germany’s second largest city after Berlin and currently the eighth busiest port in the world, it has always looked to the north, both culturally and economically. The Elbe and its access to the North Sea made Hamburg an important settlement as far back as the ninth century (and as a consequence, suffering Viking raids at that time).
The city’s Nordic feel is palpable, especially in the harsh, bright light and crisp air of the docks, the stylish designer stores and the upmarket cafes lining the Mönckebergstrasse shopping street. In fact, the city has an air more reminiscent of Stockholm than, say, Munich or Frankfurt. Also like Stockholm, it has an extensive network of canals and lakes, with the Aussenalster (outer) and Binnenalster (inner) lakes at the core of the city.
It’s on the latter that the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten resides. So iconic is the establishment in the hospitality world that Isadore Sharp, founder of the Four Seasons hotel group, borrowed and anglicised the name for his venture in the 1960s. Undoubtedly one of the grand hotels of the world and the place to stay while in Hamburg, the Vier Jahreszeiten is a social focal point for the city’s well heeled (of which there are many) and has seen the likes of Maria Callas, Richard Nixon, Peter Ustinov, Helmut Kohl and Sophia Loren resting their famous heads on its Egyptian-cotton pillowcases (Loren, on one occasion, requested that a kitchenette be set up in her suite so she could cook pasta for her beloved husband, the late Carlo Ponti).
The property’s position on the inner lake is spectacular, looking out over the still waters towards the many gothic spires of the historical city centre. Founded in 1897 by Friedrich Haerlin on his 40th birthday, the hotel was originally a dozen rooms and a restaurant, and it has since spread in an organic fashion along the Jungfernstieg quayside into its present form, which includes 156 rooms, four restaurants, a spa and meeting rooms. This was not a process of building new wings; instead, various owners purchased adjacent structures (13 of them, to be precise) and incorporated them into the whole, leading to a charming if slightly erratic layout.
An extensive renovation programme was completed last year, not long after the addition of the Fairmont appellation in 2007 (the hotel was purchased by Raff les International Hotels & Resorts in 1997, and the portfolios of Raff les and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts were combined in 2006). All rooms were renovated, not least the 33 suites; four of these bear the name of famous guests –Callas, Ustinov, Thomas Mann and Prince Heinrich, and each has photographs and keepsakes of its famous former occupant. Those suites overlooking the lake have extensive balconies, while the three-bedroom Presidential Suite on the fourth floor, at 2,800 square feet, is the largest in the city. Not that standard rooms are lacking: as well as the usual whistle-and-bell add-ons of Nespresso machines, iPod docks and complimentary Wi-Fi, there are thoughtful touches such as oversized beds, beautifully appointed bathrooms and fresh f lowers. The style is most definitely in the old-school bracket, as befits a property of this standing. But a classic hotel is so much more than the sum of its rooms. The event venues of the hotel are draped with 17thcentury Flemish tapestries, many windows feature stained-glass coats of arms of various states and towns of northern Germany, and fine porcelain figurines decorate the restaurants. Of these, perhaps most notable is Michelin-starred Restaurant Haerlin, the Vier Jahreszeiten’s fine-dining establishment complete with fine porcelain statues depicting – what else? – the four seasons (these, and much else from the hotel, were hidden away in the wine cellars during World War II and escaped the appalling bomb damage inflicted on much of Hamburg).
Also of note is Jahreszeiten Grill, a lovingly restored art deco masterpiece in which much of the original furnishings, wood panels and fixtures remain. Another favourite is Wohnhalle, or the Lounge, next to the entrance. Dark wood panelling, plush and heavy sofas and a large open fire must make this the finest place to be on a cold winter’s day, dreaming of being snugly ensconced in the drawing room of a late 19th-century country house. Doc Cheng’s, meanwhile, is a Euro-Asian restaurant that bridges the Asian roots of the Raffles group and the European heritage of the hotel. It has been awarded 14 Gault Millau points.
On a warm summer’s day, however, there’s no better venue for a meal than Jahreszeiten Terrace, situated opposite the hotel and on the lake’s edge. The restaurant serves light dishes and snacks from its own kitchen. Not to be missed is the Aperol spritz with Prosecco and orange. It’s perfectly tart and sharp for a hot day.
Lovely though the Vier Jahreszeiten is, visitors will want to head out to explore Hamburg. The logical place to start is the docks – the heart of the city – and perhaps the engaging Speicherstadt warehouse district, which is redundant these days because the modern docks have moved downstream. One gem here is the International Maritime Museum. Surely one of the largest of its kind in the world, if not the largest, it houses more than 40,000 exhibits on 11 floors of the Kaispeicher B warehouse. Much of the old dock area is under redevelopment, including the massive HafenCity project, which will include offices, residential buildings and a brand-new university; while much vaunted, it currently resembles the building site that it is.
Hamburg is perhaps most famous for the St Pauli area and its Reeperbahn, reputedly Europe’s largest red-light district, but today’s curb crawlers seem to be mostly gawking middle-aged tourists rather than the sex-starved matelots of old. An interesting diversion here is to go on the Beatles tour conducted by the enthusiastic Stefanie Hempel, a one-woman tour de force who sings and strums her ukulele around the clubs where the moptops began their career in the early ’60s.
After the docks, visitors can walk or take the U-Bahn back to the city centre at the heart of which is the Rathaus, or city hall, and from there head down Mönckebergstrasse to browse its many shops. Alternatively, take a boat from the Binnenalster into the canal network, there to glimpse a lesser-seen side of Hamburg, and the marvellous residences that line this lovely part of town.
Nick Goodyer visited Hamburg courtesy of Finnair, which flies from Hong Kong to Helsinki and on to Hamburg daily
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