When a weekend day of sunshine arrives in the middle of a dreary winter, the citizens of Hamburg take to their green spaces in droves. Winter days are short, and a day of bright sun is like a dollop of fine chocolate, boosting energy levels in the grim, gray season. One of the premier jogging trails in the city is around the Alster, a man-made lake that is a short walk from our new home- Rothenbaumchaussee 34, the University of Hamburg Guesthouse.


The lake has been separated into two parts, the Aubenalster and the Binnenalster. That “b” in Aubenalster is actually a double “s”, but that is beyond the scope of this post. We would be getting into German, which sometimes seems as alien to me as Chinese, even though I did manage to plow through Chaucer.

The boundary of the two lakes now carries a considerable amount of traffic via two major bridges, but the split was created by the Wallenberg fortifications, built in the 17th Century. The inner lake is quite small, and its southern edge is in the very heart of Hamburg.


The Aubenalster measures three kilometers from one end to the other, and the jogging trail is a 7.6 km loop. Dedicated runners pound their way around it in significant numbers, even when the weather is miserable. In sunshine, it seems like the entire city empties itself on to the edge of the Alster. Joggers compete with bicycles, baby carriages, dogs and strollers, threading their way with admirable aplomb through the migrating crowd. Cell phone addicts interrupt the flow with their irregular head nods, glancing at an incoming text. The numbers of cigarette smokers shock one accustomed to North America.


The Hotel Atlantic Kempski anchors the southern end of the eastern shore. It was built in 1909, has 252 rooms and its own, private movie theatre. Known to locals as “the white palace on the Alster,” it has looked after the likes of Charles de Gaulle and Michael Jackson. On the opposite shore, not far from the Gasthaus, is another enormous white hotel, the Intercontinental. For real class, however, one must book a room at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten (the Four Seasons), on the Inner Alster. It has been around since 1897, attracting luminaries like Sophia Loren, Aristotle Onassis, and the Rolling Stones.


In addition to fine-looking mansions, boat houses and coffee stops, the outer Alster is home to the Imam Ali Mosque, the Litteraturhaus, and a number of fascinating public sculptures, from kite flying children to man-made meteorites. Everywhere you look there is a new vista and something surprising, a face in a tree or a bridge full of padlocks, linking lovers to the one spot in busy Hamburg where time stands still, if only for a moment.