By James Fixter
Astra in Hamburg
It's not so much an optional activity as a hallowed tradition when my colleagues convene for a Friday afternoon beer. It's time to put into practice what may as well be Hamburg's official motto: work hard, then play harder. And so we find ourselves standing before one of the colossal concrete flak bunkers that still loom over the city. An unusual choice of venue, but one that certainly provides plenty of food for thought over a beer.
The entrance is uninviting. The path meanders through clammy corridors that once echoed with rushed footsteps as air raid sirens howled across the city, and the cold light of electric bulbs on bare concrete walls quickly induces claustrophobia. We stepped in from a chilly October afternoon, yet it actually seems to be colder inside as we crowd into the elevator.
We emerge on the top floor, surprised to find a sleek rooftop bar that now stands where the massive anti-aircraft guns once did. We seem to have beaten the Friday rush and have an unbeatable view of the city to ourselves as the waitress plants chilled glasses of Astra on the table in front of us. The name of this cult lager can be found everywhere here, whether stacked in stubby bottles on supermarket shelves, atop a sticky counter in a seedy bar on the Reeperbahn, or in the neon glare of a sign hanging off a pub wall. If any beer can be said to represent Hamburg, then this is surely it.
The venue for today's session is more remarkable than our brew of choice, however. If Astra epitomizes the spirit of Hamburg, then so, too, does the old bunker in which we are now enthusiastically swilling it. Once used to repel Allied bombers in the World War II, it was later left standing as a crumbling and overgrown ruin after a botched demolition. Sixty years later, developers embarked on an ambitious project to transform it into a solar-power station and renamed it the Energiebunker. Photovoltaic panels now cascade down the southern wall and the stripped-out interior has been filled with machinery to harness the green energy.
"This kind of pragmatism is typical of Hamburg," one colleague tells me with more than a hint of local pride. In fact, there is a track record of taking a pragmatic approach to the bunkers in Hamburg, where these unlikely contenders for beloved landmarks have found a new lease on life as apartments, restaurants, bars, music studios, and outdoor climbing centers. There are even plans to construct a modern interpretation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon on top of the other remaining flak bunker in order to "alienate" it from its original purpose and create more valuable green space.
Civic initiatives have transformed these wartime relics into symbols of a thriving contemporary culture. Where else but Hamburg can you go to a poetry slam in a flak bunker or eat Portuguese food in a converted air raid shelter? Taking the leftovers of a reviled regime and putting them to good use makes a clear statement about the liberal Germany of today. It isn't possible to rewrite painful history, but Hamburg can certainly teach us about coming to terms with it.
As I sit -- beer in hand -- I feel that this is something worth drinking to.
You can explore more dispatches from the Five O'Clock Somewhere series here and see Roads & Kingdom's Breakfast series here.