City Breaks: Roll up for the mystery tour

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The Independent Online
"It is quite amazing when you think of just four little lads from Liverpool having such an influence on the world," said Sir Paul McCartney this week. Simon Calder went to Hamburg, where the Beatles cut their teeth and grew their hair.

First stop on the Beatles trail to Hamburg should really be Newhaven in Sussex, This was the port from which the not-quite-fab Five (McCartney, Lennon, Harrison, plus drummer Pete Best and the ill-fated bassist Stu Sutcliffe) set sail a third of a century ago; intra-European routes in the early Sixties were more circuitous than today. Now, cheap flights can take you from Liverpool to Hamburg for about the price of the complete Beatles collection on CD.

Staff at the tourist office in Hamburg's huge Hauptbahnhof give meticulous directions to the venue, they say, for the Beatles' first German gig on 17 August 1960: the Salambo club, number 11 Grosse Freihei - a mean little street near Altona station. Sources argue fiercely about the geography and chronology of the Beatles in Hamburg, but most agree that the band never played this seedy dive. Right area, though: they spent almost every beat of their time on this tawdry thoroughfare and its shabby big sibling, the Reeperbahn.

Hamburg is a great city, but its extravagant style and substance resides well away from the tacky east end of the port where the took up residence. In the summer of 1960 it must have looked much like Liverpool, scarred by war and struggling to make up for lost time and lost lives. For the Mersey, read the Elbe - the broad, leaden waterway that is still the lifeblood of Germany. After an exhausting drive across Europe, the Beatles' battered van emerged from the 1,000-foot tunnel beneath the river and took them a few blocks to the Reeperbahn.

The local police happily help the beat pilgrim (it makes a change from busting drug dealers). The location for that first performance, they say, was the Kaiserkeller at 36 Grosse Freheit. In fact the Indra (number 58) was the original, though the band was obliged to move on to the Kaiserkeller after complaints about the noise.

Each band member was paid DM30 (which was then about pounds 2.50) for every five-hour session. They soon began to moonlight at the Top Ten Club, just around the corner at Reeperbahn 136. Today this is a 1960s disco called the Music Box, with the Beatles performing on CD rather than on stage. The mauve gables above the entrance, presumably hangovers from the 1960s, look especially exposed now that the club is wedged between the Eros Centre and a tacky amusement arcade. The Reeperbahn is pretty grim these days.

The Beatles' first visit to Hamburg ended messily, when a 17-year-old George Harrison was deported for working under age. The rest of the band straggled back to Liverpool under a series of similar clouds. About the only surviving Beatles connection is their old drinking haunt, the Gretel & Alphonse bar at number 29 Grosse Freiheit. The proprietor cashes in with Lennon posters and McCartney T-shirts.

Paul called in at the bar one day in 1991 when he returned to Hamburg for a concert, and bought every customer a drink. If he had repeated the exercise when I was at the Gretel & Alphonse, there were so few customers that he would have had change from a DM20 note (about pounds 7). These days, the Magical Mystery Tour around Hamburg has few takers.

The Travel Section's annual end-of-year competition will appear next Saturday, 27 December. Its contents are still a heavily guarded secret - but a copy of the Beach Boys' greatest hits from Santa could help.