A day in Hamburg: witbier and the Third Reich

Germany began with another free walking tour of Europe. It began over at the Hamburg Rathaus, the German word for town hall, so we walked towards the city center. We arrived early and decided to sit down at a café and kill the time until our tour started. I decided to order apple strudel (German strudel made me think of Inglorious Basterds) and my first beer in Germany.

In the United States I might get disapproving looks for ordering a beer with my breakfast but there were numerous locals enjoying a cold one despite the early hour. Beer in Germany is cheaper than water, and thus I think their societal attitudes towards the brew is very different. In the United States, a beer normally means five o’clock. It means sitting in the hot sun barbecuing or lying on the beach, or out at a bar getting the party started. In Germany, it seems like just something to drink. I don’t mean to suggest that the Germans don’t take their beer seriously (there are so many varieties available that it’s importance is quite clear). It just seems that Germans are responsible enough when drinking beer that it’s not anything close to being taboo.

Our tour guide Ralph was a colorful character. In his lifetime he’s has many professions including tour guide, courier, cocktail waiter, and taxi driver. He led us around to the various sights in the Hamburg city center. Hamburg is a beautiful city but I find myself going numb to old cathedrals and cobblestone lanes. What I really appreciated about Ralph’s tour was his commentary on what life in Hamburg was like through the various centuries. He began his story at the beginning when Hamburg was a small village and continued the tale through its rise as a trading port, the destruction of World War II, and it’s modern revival. I’ve always wondered how native Germans feel when talking about World War II and Ralph definitely answered my question. There’s no shame amongst Germans in 2013. Most of them weren’t alive during the Third Reich, or if they were, they were the ones suffering under the oppressive regime, not the ones oppressing. However, they are fully cognizant and weary of their country’s past and feel that it’s an important to remember what happened to ensure that it does not happen again.

After our tour we settled at a small German restaurant on a quiet pedestrian street for lunch. The restaurant offered a special deal on schnitzel or haddock for members of the tour group. As much as I enjoy schnitzel, I wanted to order something different; a German food that is rarely found in the US. I ordered labskaus, a Northern Germany specialty consisting of corned beef, potatoes and onions that are boiled, minced, and fried in lard. It looks like corned beef, especially in context with the fried egg that’s plopped on top, but it certainly doesn’t taste like breakfast. It was yummy and a finished every bite, but I don’t see myself ordering it again.

Once we were settled into the restaurant, our tour guide Ralph bid us adieu and was on his way. Some of the other SASers essentially stiffed our guide, tipping him at the rate of 83 cents an hour, and so I felt obliged to make up the difference. One of my biggest frustrations in traveling on “a college budget,” is that people use this as an excuse to short change people when they’re given the opportunity. The “college budget excuse” is readily given when it’s time to pay the tour guide, who works only for tips, but at the bar there’s usually enough money in that same college budget to make do. Regardless, I paid the man what he deserved and we enjoyed some hours in the warm sun sipping witbier and watching life in Germany go by.

Exploring Reykjavik

Our first day in Iceland began with peanut butter toast. Most hostels offer free toast or cereal to appeal to us budget-conscious travelers, and with a little peanut protein, white bread was enough to fuel our adventures. We headed out on foot towards the city center as a cool drizzle came down. Donned in raincoats we barely noticed the rain as we walked down the main road. So far, not much was exceptional about Iceland. The streets seemed very clean but besides that, it felt like being in any small coastal city on a rainy day. A few hours later we made it to a mall and decided to have lunch. The food court was full of foreign foods, as in foreign to the Icelanders, which meant they didn’t hold any appeal to Erin and I. Instead of the food court, we got food from the supermarket. We chose a box of Ritz crackers, salmon spread, shrimp spread, and herring spread, along with some Icelandic cow cheese. We bought two Icelandic beers to compliment our spread and then headed to the food court.

The spreads were delicious and fresh, which was no surprise given that Iceland is an island that once had no industry besides fishing. The beer, however, tasted like seltzer. It turned out the beer was only 2.5% alcohol and completely lacking in flavor. We later discovered that supermarkets can only sell light beer, which means light alcohol in Iceland. You have to go to a liquor store if you want anything that you can actually taste.

We took a leisurely stroll back to the hotel and decided it was time to map out the rest of our days in Iceland. Consulting a myriad of brochures we decided what we were interested in doing, starting with a long list and then making cuts. It was then clear from the brochures that the appeal of Iceland lies outside the city. The volcanoes, glaciers, and waterfalls garner far more interest than the stores and spas, and it became apparent that it is not the capital city that has driven tourism in Iceland from 250,000 visitors a year a few years ago to the latest 800,000, but rather everything that lies beyond.

We arranged for two separate day tours; one for each full day we had ahead of us. After sticking around and learning about pigging, the sport of killing wild pigs in Australia with large knives (you meet interesting people in youth hostels), we changed our clothes and set out in search of dinner.
We found a restaurant on Trip Advisor, but finding it in-person was a lot harder. It was called the Grill Market and was supposedly a fancy place to try uniquely Icelandic food. We circled around the area where the address suggested we would find a restaurant until I gave up and asked a shop clerk for directions. The clerk pointed out that the restaurant was located behind the building, off the street. At first I assumed that this restaurant would be small and quiet, given its hidden location, however, the exact opposite turned true.

We entered into a hip, two-story restaurant complete with spiraling staircase and modern chandelier. Patrons ate in a variety of spaces, ranging from coffee tables that were actually giant enameled tree stumps to bar seating where chefs grilled on an open flame behind glass. The host informed us that the restaurant was actually completely booked that night, so we made the first reservation available: 10:30 PM the next night.

Instead we ate dinner at a nearby noodle joint and then set out in search of a place to experience the local nightlife. There was a street with numerous bars and restaurants on it. Erin and I opted for a bar called Big Lebowski, named after the movie. Like most bars that I’ve been to overseas, the music was all American. We danced and drank as I worked my way through the Icelandic beers. They were all pretty average and none of them had unique bottle caps, which was unfortunate for my collection. Eventually exhaustion got the better of us and we headed back to the hostel. There we found our Australian friend (the pigger) and a German girl he befriended. We had a long and rousing conversation about America, traveling, and conspiracy theories (standard late night hostel talk), and then collapsed in bed.