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Now that some spectacular Fall weather has returned to Melbourne, it is difficult to imagine that not long ago we were walking across a lake in Hamburg, Germany. The ice is gone now, of course, and Spring is happening. Thanks to the staff at the Gasthaus, I have seen a photo of crocuses. I suspect that with all the wet weather this winter, Spring and Summer are going to be wonderful and we are going to miss it.

But I am glad to be back in my own bed, with my own kitchen and our lovely attic study up among the birds. I can look at the airplanes coming and going from Tullamarine Airport without the feeling of dread that I get when I know that one day soon I will be clambering aboard yet another fifteen or sixteen hour flight, followed by the “short” haul to our destination.

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It is impossible for me to imagine what it was like for the millions of Europeans to pull up stakes and leave everything they knew for a new life on the North American continent, South America or Australia. From the middle of the nineteenth century until the beginning of the Second World War, Hamburg was the gateway to the world for five million emigrants. They streamed into the City to board ships that would take them to new lands and new lives. Our Gasthaus home in Hamburg was around the corner from the house of Albert Ballin, which had a suite of rooms for the Kaiser’s use when he was in Hamburg.

Albert Ballin’s father was Jewish. He was part-owner of an emigration agency that arranged passages to the United States. When he died in 1874, young Albert took over the business. He developed it into an independent shipping line, saving costs by carrying cargo on the return trip. This brought him to the attention of the Hamburg America Line, (HAPAG) who hired him in 1886, and made him general director in 1899.

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In 1901 Ballin had Emigration Halls constructed on the Hamburg island of Veddel to accommodate the many thousands of people who arrived at the Port of Hamburg every week to emigrate to North and South America on his company’s ships. The original “city” comprised 30 simple, one-story buildings and included a synagogue, church, hospital, and cafeterias as well as a playground.

Eastern European Jews fleeing economic and religious hardship were especially attracted to Hamburg. The halls are the setting of the Emigration Museum, appropriately called Ballinstadt. For many emigrants, the end of the trip was an island in the harbour of New York City, — Ellis Island. I was astonished to see a map of the USA midwest with the names of German cities peppered all over it like crackerjacks. Every fifth American has a German ancestor. Balinstadt’s passenger lists are a treasure trove for genealogical research.

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My own personal journey compelled me to head for the Reeperbahn one wet and rainy afternoon. In a misguided attempt to recapture a feeling for the magic of the Beatles, I made the pilgrimage to a museum dedicated to their early sojourn in Hamburg. Beatlemania doesn’t stint on display space, but whatever it was about the Fab Four that turned me into a convert failed to materialize for me on that miserable afternoon.

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It may be time to put “Backbeat” in my DVD queue and watch the story unfold up on the screen. Or simply let go of the Beatles infatuation. The sixties have been over for half a century, and the two remaining members of the group are not doing much of interest anymore. The Yellow Submarine may putter along in the back of my brain, but the magic of “A Hard Day’s Night” is no more.

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Until I got my bright red, ten-speed Raleigh bicycle, the best present I received as a child was a Lionel electric train. I still remember the smell of the oil, the sound the engine made as it came into contact with the tracks, the hum of the transformer, the physical heft of the black steam engine in my young hands, like a small sack of silver dollars. I spent hours setting up the layout and seeing how fast I could make the train go without sending it off the tracks.

My generation may have been one of the last to be absolutely mesmerized by the electric train, but from two visits to Miniature Wonderland in Hamburg, it is evident that the magic has not completely gone away. The attraction is located on three floors of one of the wonderful old brick warehouse buildings called Speicherstadt, situated on two islands adjacent to the city center. The huge brick warehouses were constructed as something like architectural machines, designed to make the most of Hamburg’s designation as a Free Port.

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While the models of the trains, boats, planes, cars, fire engines, mountains, lakes and building may be small, the layout itself is enormous. No wonder it is the biggest tourist attraction in Hamburg. During my visits, there were kids of all ages gawking at the multi-story layout that was, as a Hollywood publicist might say, twelve years in the making. This is the world’s largest computer-controlled model railway, covering 14,000 square feet, or 1300 square meters. There are 930 trains pulling countless carriages along eight miles, or thirteen kilometers of tracks. But it is the landscape, the lighting, the miniature scenarios, the staggering imagination and attention to detail that is so enchanting.

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The trains are a rhythmic backdrop to a world in motion. Transport trucks lumber toward warehouses, fire trucks speed toward burning buildings, traffic jams hold up long lines of frustrated motorists and jetliners actually take off and land. It is as if Walt Disney had stuck with his original vision, retaining a child-like delight in his wonderful sense of play. The quarter million inhabitants of Miniature Wonderland are busy at all sorts of activities, doing everything from nude sunbathing to coal mining, cheering on football teams to washing cars, steering antique British sports cars up twisting alpine roads to blasting through thick walls to get at bank vaults.

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It all started with a dream, of course. In 1967, Frederik Braun was born a few minutes earlier than his twin brother Gerrit, so he got to be the “dreamy” one while his brother took on the mantle of responsibility and practicality. Initially, Frederick dreamt of childish things such as collecting “a 10,000 copy collection of Mickey Mouse comic books” or a “huge collection of autograph cards from sporting stars.” For a decade, he and his twin brother started and ran a successful club, the Voila.

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In July, 2000 a new dream emerged, triggered by a visit to a model railway store he and his girlfriend stumbled across on a trip to Zurich. It was a vision of the world’s largest model railroad layout. But Frederick wasn’t interested in the kind of layout that would appeal only to model railroad fanatics; he wanted to create a world bustling with action and intrigue, founded on activities and characters that were silly and scary, as well as everyday activities, like in the world around him.

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Fortunately, the enthusiasm and drive of the twins brought them in touch with talented technicians and marketers who could help make it happen. They began modestly enough, with the Harz mountains of Germany, the fictional town of Knuffingen, and Austria. They moved on to Hamburg and central Germany, followed by a cross-section of American landmarks, Scandinavia, and the technically taxing three-story construction of Switzerland.

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This section alone took two years, but it was topped by the stunning reproduction of Hamburg’s airport, which was started in 2005 and only completed in 2011. France and Italy and parts of Africa are in the works. They don’t plan to have the complete layout finished until 2020.

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I’m sure it gets very crowded in the summer, as most of the available space is dedicated to the displays. You can check out some videos on the website or order a DVD called “Small World, but Larger than Life.” It may just whet your appetite for seeing it in person, but in the meantime you will have a ringside seat in front of your T.V. Most of my visuals are in video format rather than stills, but it may be a month before I have my mini-movie up on Flickr. Check back, and stay tuned. We’re off to Berlin.


We are fortunate enough to be within walking distance of a large lake, offering us a pleasant place to  walk every morning. I wrote it up for the blog shortly after we arrived in Hamburg.  This time of year it is usually fairly quiet except on weekends, when the walkers and joggers come out in earnest no matter how cold it gets.

The Alster lake freezes over every decade or so, on average, but the last couple of years have been exceptionally cold.  When the temperature drops to below freezing for a sufficient number of days for the ice to get thick, the city allows commercial vendors to invade the perimeter, setting up booths for the sale of everything from skates to mulled wine, mittens to waffles. The Alster Ice Festival is on!

Then the hordes descend. The estimates vary considerably, but 100,000 Hamburgers were out on the ice on Saturday, and the current guess is that a cool million, over half the population of the city, will have visited the lake by the end of the festivities on Sunday night.  The ice was jammed!

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The official festivities started Friday, February 10, and will run through Sunday, the 12th. It’s being billed as Germany’s largest winter party. The lake froze last year, but the last Alster festival was fifteen years ago. Yesterday, there were impromptu ice hockey games, children playing with adults, awkward amateurs with flashy stickmen.

Out on the broad white expanse, people of all descriptions took delight in simply walking on water.  Some skated, others cycled, parents pulled the children on sleds, offering many youngsters a first time experience.  Dogs barked.  Teenagers looked cool, which wasn’t hard to do with the wind chill.

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There is even an Alster Golf tournament! No need to worry about your ball landing in the water.  Just be sure to bring a colored golf ball.  It is all very peculiar and interesting. It is the first time I have ever witnessed well-dressed matrons strolling along in fine mink coats and hiking boots.  There were rescue teams, paramedics and helicopters hovering overhead.  The surface is very rough in places, and I saw one poor skater being taken off the ice in a sled.

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I am delighted that we happened to be here for this event, but I suspect that global warming will throw a spanner in the works sooner rather than later.  I doubt if my grandchildren will be able to see this even if they put it at the top of the bucket list.

The festival is a little too popular for my taste, but the ambiance has charm, reminiscent of the paintings of Bruegel and other Dutch artists. I am glad to say that the sleds are made of wood and everyone is self-propelled. Some of the fuel may be alcoholic, but by Monday everything will be back to normal.  The Alster will be ours again for another week.  Although the days are getting longer,  our time in Hamburg is running out.

Click on any picture alongside this post to see more action.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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