What does the name Hamburg call to mind? What are the snapshots that flash though your mind? People who’ve been there are sure to recall the strange effect of standing on the docks of a river port and seeing a river looks for all the world like a sea. And they’re sure to remember strolling along the Reeperbahn in the notorious St. Pauli neighborhood, with its sex shows, pubs, imbiss—typical takeaway food kiosks—and dance halls, where punters are still expected to be ‘suitably attired’.
If you’re familiar with Hamburg’s night life, then you’ll also be acquainted with the place where it comes to an end with a ‘five o’clock snack’ every Sunday morning—the Fischmarkt. Don’t be deceived by the name; the Fischmarkt doesn’t only sell fish. Whether you’re fresh from a night on the tiles at St. Pauli, or a tourist just out of bed, you can’t afford to miss this old Hamburg market. Held since 1703, it attracts an average 150.000 visitors a month. Today it is housed inside the Fischauktionsthalle, a pavilion restored to its original appearance by work in the early eighties. It is held very Sunday morning, starting at five o’clock and ending at nine or thereabouts.
Hamburg’s long tradition of fishing and fish trading is still visible at the Fischmarkt. The market came into being following a dispute between the cities of Hamburg and Altona (a suburb of the present-day metropolis) over the legislation regulating the sale of fish. In 1703, to settle their incessant quarrelling, fishermen were granted a license to sell fish directly form their ‘landing places’. In 1895-1896, the Fischauktionsthalle was built and used initially to house fish auctions.
Amid dusty oiled porcelain teapots and battered old mirrors, stands piled to the brim with oranges and tangerines and stevedores pushing their way through the crowds with boxes of tomatoes and lettuce, you can walk round for hours. Stop for a quick cup of boiling hot coffee and you’re off again the fishmongers, who shout as if they were at an auction, and women, who scream at you to buy their myriad street snacks, including Hamburg’s specialty, the Aalbrötchen—a sandwich made with freshly fished eels.
It’s worth getting there early just for the fun of the people-watching. Nightowls float round the stalls in search of their lost vitality. Small groups of students dash here and there, their eyes peeled for the best bargains (the stallholders start making discounts on their wares from seven o’clock until stocks run out). The omnipresent tourists are overcome by the scents and colors that clash only apparently with the austerity of this northern European metropolis (which elsewhere, behind closed doors, is coming slowly and quietly back to life after the ‘tempest’ of the night’).
Here, instead, the spectacle begins in the streets with a river of people rushing to the Fischauktionhalle. On display on the stalls is an incredibly vast quantity of goods, fresh and lively and beckoning, calling out for you to pick them and touch them. It’s still only five o’clock in the morning but the hawkers are already bawling their wares, calling out to you to taste them and haggling over the prices. Who knows where they get all their energy from? And how patient they are, too, as they see passing by not only their everyday customer but also rivers of tourists who take photographs and finger the merchandise and ask questions and look on skeptically at first but then end up buying an Aalbrötchen. It’s with these eel sandwiches that the city is trying to make people forget that it gave origin to an odd meat patty that, in a rush of native pride, a cook on an emigrant ship en voyage from the port of Hamburg to the United States had the idea of christening ‘Hamburger’!
How to get there
Starting from Landungsbrücke, the port of Hamburg, take the Hafenstrasse on the right and proceed to St. Pauli Fischmarkt. You’ll find the pavilion in front of you just off to the right.
If you’re coming from the Reeperbahn (S-Bahn Reeperbahn), turn left into and proceed to the junction with St. Pauli Fischmarkt. Turn left and continue for about 200 meters.
Simona Malatesta works at the Slow Food International Office
Adapted by John Irving