By Nick Selby
Knowing our Germany-based writer, Nick Selby, has a crush on Hanover we sent him to town to do a preview on the coming Expo2000. His conclusion? The town is not just for Expo.
Hanover bustles and grooves; it's a no-nonsense business city, but also one graced by both royal opulence and more proletarian attractions. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder calls Hanover's posh Hindenberg Quarter his home, and he can often be glimpsed mingling at Pier 51, a trendy bar on the shores of the man-made Maschsee lake a few minutes walk south of the city center.
And Hanover, the German city most closely tied to British royalty, expects 40 million visitors for its Expo2000, which runs from June 1 to October 31. Whether you come for Expo or to revel in royal trivia, or to take in the city's famous gardens, fountains and fireworks, this part of Germany is often under-billed.
History of Trade Fairs
Trade fairs in Hanover date back to just after the Second World War, when almost 95% of the city center was in rubble. Restricted by the Allies, until the politics of downtown reconstruction could be sorted out, the town was in a quandary: how to raise money for rebuilding and hold a trade fair when there was no city in which to hold it and no hotels for visitors?
The answer was a flash of brilliance: build a new trade fair center outside town, and put the guests in the private apartments of the widows and older folks of the town. That same system is still in place today.
Private accommodations far outnumber hotel beds, and if you're looking to stay in Hanover during Expo, you will almost certainly wind up in a private flat, with hosts Hanover residents have affectionately dubbed Messe Mutti (convention mammas).
While Hanover's center was decimated and few architectural gems remain, the city's rebuilding was absolutely inspired, creating an eminently walkable downtown that is almost entirely pedestrian-only.
The Expo2000 theme is "Humankind, Nature and Technology," and the pavilions from over 190 countries are truly impressive, with offerings like a building supported almost entirely by cardboard tubing (Japan) or one celebrating a country's natural resources and craftsmanship (Hungary). Some of the most impressive pavilions are by third-world countries such as Nepal's delightful and intricate wooden meditation building, and Ethiopia's fascinating archaeological excavation display.
Notably empty when I visited, of course, was the space where the U.S. pavilion was to sit. Locals find this both achingly funny and seriously insulting. The Yanks (according to scuttlebutt which I believe totally and have heard from several sources), committed to Expo2000 in 1997 but U.S. authorities, apparently still embarrassed about the poor showing of the U.S. pavilion at Expo92 in Seville, did nothing about raising money or corporate interest for the project.
Then this year at Hanover's CeBit, the world's largest office information and telecommunications trade fair, a high-powered group of American business people took a tour of the Expo2000 grounds and asked, "Uh, where's the American pavilion?"
That evening, legend has it, in a smoke-filled room, captains of American industry put their heads (and wallets) together to hastily whip up an American entry. For months, Expo2000 officials insisted the U.S. pavilion would be completed in time, but on April 12, U.S. officials threw in the towel. There will be no American presence. On April 13 the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ran a front page editorial saying the Yanks had tried and their failure was not a snub against Germany, just an indication the whole thing had been poorly planned from the start.
The British Connection
The Hanover/Britain connection is based on a multitude of marriages (pay attention, this gets tricky). In 1714, Georg, son of Electress Sophie of Hanover, who was a granddaughter of James I of England (who was also James VI of Scotland) became simultaneously the King of both England (the Brits called him George I) and of Hanover (Saxony, hence "Anglo-Saxon"). This bizarre union - which made several men who couldn't speak a word of English - King of England lasted until 1837.
In that context, the cause of the American Revolution becomes far clearer - George III may simply not have understood the Yanks when they said they meant business!
In any event, the royal Herrenhäuser Gardens and its Grosser Garten are in a word, jaw-dropping. They're a taste of the grand European gardens of yesteryear, and Hanover's only attraction (aside from Expo) that's not walking distance from the center (take Tram 4 or 5, about a 15-minute ride). It's a great place to either start or end your day. Duke Johann Friedrich built the gardens on his sprawling estate in 1666, and in the summer you can marvel at the Great Fountain, which fires massive columns of water to Yellowstonian heights - the record is 82 feet.
Walking through the garden's maze on a summer morning is perhaps as dazzling as the evening fireworks displays. Each year, fireworks masters from all over the world come here to exchange ideas, demonstrate new pyrotechnics techniques, and generally bedazzle onlookers who are treated to some of the world's most elaborate displays.
A Great Hanover Day
Note: This is a suggested itinerary, but the Hanover City Tourist Office has made enjoying the city center completely foolproof. Taking advantage of the walkability of the downtown, they have painted a red line - The Red Thread - that leads to every item of interest in town. The Red Thread guidebook, available free from the tourist office, covers the city's history and its most interesting buildings.
Even if you skip the gardens, a walking tour through Hanover's bustling center is a wonderful pastime. Starting from the Hauptbahnhof, go straight south along the Passerelle, a wide shopping boulevard, towards Kröpke, where to your left you can see the classic Hanover Opera House. Right in its shadow is a justifiably popular new spot for some terrific morning coffee, the Expo Café.
Continuing south brings you to the 14th-century northern red-brick Gothic Marktkirche still open for services with its original stained-glass. Opposite is the beautifully renovated 15th-century Altes Rathaus; and inside, the Patio Café (see page 6) is a wonderful place to stop for a drink to break up the tour.
Just south is Hanover's Altstadt, where cobblestone streets are lined with cheerful half-timbered houses. Only two of the houses are actually from this neck of the woods; after the bombing the city fathers decided that instead of trying to rebuild what had been utterly destroyed, they'd take the remains of half-timbered houses from around the city and reconstruct them in one delightful quarter.
In front of the Leibniz Haus, with its dazzling Renaissance façade, is an intricate fountain. Got a wish? Walk up the fountains steps, go to the side opposite the steps, make your wish and turn the brass ring three times.
If you're here on a Saturday, you can visit the boisterous Flea Market, held on the south side of the old city walls on the northern bank of the Leine River Canal. If not, head southeast on Leinstrasse and you'll come to an absolute must for lunch, the Markthalle (see page 5).
South, across heavily trafficked Friedrichswall, are three attractions. First is the Neues Rathaus, inside of which is a fascinating and free city history museum showing large models of Hanover before and after WWII. In summer ride the elevator to the top of the dome; the shaft follows the roofs contour, Eiffel Tower-style, so at the end you're tilted at about a 20-degree angle.
Next door is the Kestner-Museum, whose building was heavily damaged in WWII. After the war, a new structure was built around the old one, which itself became an exhibit. There are also several floors of fabulous displays, including decorative art and one of the country's best collections of Egyptian artifacts.
Behind these two museums is one of Hanover's most distinctive attractions, the man-made Maschsee. This six-foot deep, three-quarter mile-long lake was one of National Socialism's early efforts to boost employment and give people a warm and fuzzy feeling about the Nazis. Thousands of men toiled to dig it out, and today, while its dark history is rarely mentioned, the lake has become a Hanoverian favorite. In summer there are firework celebrations, swimming and boating. The lake is planted with carp which are harvested for New Years' festivities. And during Hanover's Schutzenfest, held annually in early July, the parties around it are definitely to be remembered.
On the east side of the Maschsee are two of the country's finest museums: the Niederschsisches Landesmuseum with 14th to 18th century European paintings including works by Monet, Corinth and Cranach the Elder; and south of it, the Sprengel Museum, one of Europe's finest modern art museums. The Sprengel has a massive permanent collection of works by everyone from Chagall to Picasso and Duane Hansen to Edvard Munch.
To get you back in the middle of things and in a holiday spirit, the best thing to do from here is take a short taxi ride to the center for a freshly-brewed Hannöversch beer at Brauhaus Ernst August, on Schmiederstrasse. There you can also get either a light snack or a full, heavy German meal. It's a local favorite.
As mentioned earlier, Hanover is unique in that most of what is available is in private flats, and what hotels there are seem substandard when compared with the rest of Germany. During Expo, rooms are so expensive many visitors are staying in nearby towns such as Celle and Lüneburg, whose hotels have in turn raised their prices!
I recently stayed at the Kastens Luisenhof Hotel, and everyone in Hanover I mentioned this to gave a knowing nod, an approving gesture and said something like 'Ah, luxury. You are a lucky man.' Well, maybe it used to be, but I found it dark, depressing and poorly furnished.
There are three hotels I determined to be good value - one a true gem - but remember when you visit during Expo the chances are either the price will be higher than stated here or it will be fully booked.
Which leaves you with Messe Mutti; the wonderful Easy Room (tel. 011/49/1805 653 000), the Expo's official accommodation agency. While Easy Room can book hotels as well as private rooms, its strength is its extensive database of some 30,000 private rentals. All are checked by the city for standards of cleanliness and safety.
Determining the price of these rooms is like answering the question "how long is a piece of string?," but here are the guidelines. Costs are listed on a per-room, per-night basis and include taxes, and if you stay longer than a week you can probably negotiate a cheaper deal.
If you're within half an hour of the fairgrounds, a standard single room with a shared bath and toilet is 98 DM ($48), and a standard double with shared facilities is 155 DM ($76). For a room with private bath, a single is 103 DM ($51), and a double is 169 DM ($83).
"Upgraded" rooms, which are better furnished, larger and more pleasant are, with shared bath, 143 DM ($71) single and 197 DM ($98) double, and with private bath 148 DM ($74) single and 208 DM ($104) double.
The farther from the fairgrounds, the cheaper the room.
This exclusive little 14-room cottage hotel on the southeast end of the Maschsee is accessible by tram 8 and a short walk from both Pier 51 and The Insel (see page 6). The Ammann is a wonderful, family-run gem, comfortable and private, with a sweet courtyard (beverages served outside in summer) a nice restaurant and very comfortable rooms. They also have a fine American-style bar downstairs.
Staff is excellent, and this is really the place that I would have liked to have stayed last time I was in Hanover.
What's more, the owner, Helmut Ammann, is something of a local character - he's run this place for 16 years, managing both the hotel and the restaurant. And he does both well; Feinschmecker magazine gives the restaurant four out of five stars, and locals save it for a really special night out.
• Daily Rates: (Expo) Singles 435 DM ($214) to 490 DM ($241), doubles 530 DM ($261) to 590 DM ($290); (Non-Expo) singles 295 DM ($145) to 335 DM ($165), doubles 355 DM ($174) to 395 DM ($194)
Contact: Landhaus Ammann, Hildesheimer Strasse 185, tel. +49/0511/830 818, fax 843 7749
Rating: Quality: 14/20 Value 13/20
Forum Hotel Schweizerhof
I've never before written such a glowing report on an Inter-Conti, but this one is different. Nicely tucked away in the center but away from the noise, the Schweizerhof is a beautifully renovated grand hotel with fabulous service. The lobby, though modern, is very comfortable, and there are chess sets for guests. There are a couple of pleasant bars and a restaurant downstairs, and my favorite is the small and very cozy Zirbelstube, perfect for a quiet drink or even a hearty German meal.
The rooms are expensive but still decent value, even during Expo. All are spacious and comfortable, but the executive rooms are extraordinarily so and have complete offices - Web TV, printers, fax machines, etc.
But one mean trick is that breakfast is not included; it's an extra 34 DM ($17) a person (Tip: the Mövenpick restaurant at Kröpke has an astoundingly good breakfast buffet for 19 DM/$9.35 daily).
• Daily Rates: (Expo) Regular doubles 550 to 675 DM ($271-$332). King size doubles 650 to 795 DM ($320-$391). (Non Expo) Singles 375 to 675 DM ($184-$332), doubles 355 to 860 DM ($174-$423). Breakfast not included.
Contact: Crowne Plaza Hannover, Hinberstrase 6, D-30175 Hanover, tel: +49/0511/349 50, fax 349 5102
Rating Quality: 16/20 Value 12/20
Dorint Hotel Hanover
I'm a sucker for old buildings that have been renovated with absolutely modern furnishings but which retain the structure's original character. One fine example of how to do it on a large scale is the Dorint Hotel Hanover, located in a former building of the Bahlsen cookie factory.
Bahlsen still has a plant here, but the main building, an imposing oval-shaped brick structure, has been turned into 206 very modern and comfortable rooms. They're actually a little more sterile than they could have been, but the space is so nice, and the service so good, that I forgive them, and think you will, too.
Downstairs is a restaurant that changes cuisines regularly - it was Italian when I visited. There's also an exhibit of some of the factory's machinery, in a room that would make an exquisite guest bar; but sadly and to my amazement it is used only for private functions.
The Dorint is definitely a class act, except they, too, charge extra for breakfast, and then have the gall to charge an extra 4 DM ($2) for it during the Expo!
• Daily Rates: (Expo) Singles 460 to 770 DM ($226-$379), doubles 550 to 770 DM ($271-$379); (Non-Expo) Singles and doubles 235 DM ($115) to 325 DM ($160). Contact: Dorint Hotel Hanover, Podbielskistrasse 21-23, D-30163 Hanover, tel. Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 12/20
Feuchter's Lila Kranz
I only list this place because no one else on earth seems to know it's a hotel, and there's a good chance you'll be able to book during Expo for less than outrageous sums. While the rooms are clean, and there are nice extras like breakfast in bed and the fact that you're sleeping above a really nice restaurant (see page 6), the fact is that the traffic noise is pretty loud.
However, the rooms themselves are nice and clean, but unfortunately there are only four of them.
The good news is that the prices are not so bad considering the location, and they include breakfast.
• Daily Rates: (Expo) Singles 250 DM ($123), doubles 300 DM ($147). (Non-Expo) Singles 150 DM ($74), doubles 200 DM ($98).
Contact: Feuchter's Lila Kranz, Berliner Allee 33, D-30175 Hanover, tel. +49/0511/85 89 21, fax 85 43 83
Rating: Quality 9/20 Value 10/20
While some regional foods are simply fabulous, like the sublime asparagus and potatoes that come from the Lüneberger Heide to the north, other Saxon specialties bring up some of the same feelings as the terror meal in Indiana Jones; brain sausage with browned cabbage, for example. Really.
Others simply sound bad but are in fact quite tasty, including Steinhudemeer, a smoked eel dish. That, and other fish dishes like trout in a dozen ways, and the carp you'll be lucky to get around New Years' celebrations, balance out the list.
Simply put, a lunch here is an absolute must when visiting Hanover. This is one of Germany's best indoor markets.
It's not much to look at but inside this covered market is absolutely teeming with fabulous stalls, selling everything from typical Hanover specialties to Italian delicacies to sushi and Chinese food, and from fresh horsemeat and pigs trotters to foo-foo drinks with the requisite paper umbrella, and all things in between. It's a scene and a half, a popular business-persons networking place and definitely worth a trip.
Another good plan is to use this as a supply depot for picnics on the Maschsee, with everything from starters to desserts and wines (mainly Italian and German, though if you're up for something a bit different, cross the street and try the Aussie Wine Shop, which has great deals on a wide range of excellent Australian wines).
• Markthalle, Königstrasse 47, tel. 341 410
My love affair with the Insel began the moment I laid eyes on the layout - it's in a 1920s boathouse at the southeast corner of the Maschsee, and it just feels like home: wooden floors, enormous picture windows and two floors of rooms. The downstairs dining rooms are far more posh.
There are traditional regional dishes as well as sort of a continental and Asian fusion. The best deal is the three-course business lunch, for 47 DM ($23) per person. In the evening the set menu is also good value: 89 DM ($44) per person for four courses and 125 DM ($61) with the wine of the day. A la carte main dishes range from 29 DM ($14) to 44 DM ($21).
The upstairs bar doubles as a bistro, where you can sit of an evening and watch the boats (though for drinking, plus boat and people-watching it's better to hit The Pier [see next column]), as well as sample the food, or even just stop by for something from the extensive menus for dessert and dessert wines.
Both upstairs and downstairs, service and food is excellent, and the wine cellar has the largest selection in Niedersachsen.
• The Insel, Rudolf-Von-Bennigsen-Ufer 81, D-30519 Hanover, tel. 0511-83 12 14
Of course, for serious people watching and to perhaps catch sight of German political big-wigs up to and including the Chancellor himself, the place to be is Pier 51, a bar-restaurant that's one of the trendiest in Hanover. It's on a floating pier on the east shore of the Maschsee.
The crowd here is Cohiba cigars, serious suits and dark brown drinks in heavy crystal glasses; outside it's a bit more festive. Dress to kill.
• Pier 51, Rudolf-Von-Bennigsen-Ufer 51, tel 0511 6460 9912
Feuchters Lila Kranz
This has been a local favorite since 1978, a lovely French-inspired interior with lots of frilly decorations but positively serious service, and dependably good seafood and wines. The daily changing menus are 98 DM ($49) per person including wine, and while the restaurant is justifiably famous for its fish dishes, don't skip the other offerings; I had simply the best Perlhuhnbrust (guinea fowl) ever here, complete with an assortment of veggies and all done in a typically Saxonian sauce (39 DM/$19).
My friend Bill went with the tender Argentine beef fillet done perfectly medium rare in a cognac and green-peppercorn sauce, and we fought over each others plates the whole time. Dessert was a scrumptious caramelized apple pancake with vanilla ice cream.
• Feuchters Lila Kranz, Berliner Allee 33, D-30175 Hanover, tel. +49/0511/85 89 21
In the lobby of the Altes Rathaus sits The Patio, a charming bistro offering terrific Italian and continental foods in a wonderful setting: towering vaulted ceilings, and that mixture of modern renovation and ancient building that I've already expressed a weakness for.
The best time here is for late morning coffee or a light lunch, with pasta specials such as rigatoni in a fresh sardine and caper sauce running about 11 DM/$5.50. It's not an overtouristed place at all, and locals enjoy the relative solitude and great friendly service.
• The Patio Café, Altes Rathaus, Marktplatz, tel. +49/0511/300 80 40
The restaurant at Landhaus Ammann is about as comfortable as the hotel, with a very intimate dining room (the kind where they push the bar around on a trolley-cart) and a widely ranging menu that changes often. Herr Amman has been cooking here for 16 years, and Hanover residents save his restaurant for special occasions. It's a mixture of Saxonian, German and continental foods, usually done up in thematic menus.
His "Culinary Arrangement" (350 DM/$172 for two), for example, is a little sadistic: you visit the restaurant for soup and starter courses, then are whisked off to the Opera for a performance, after which you're driven straight back to the restaurant for the main course and dessert. Highly recommended.
• Landhaus Amman, Hildesheimer Strasse 185, tel 0511-830 818
Right behind Herrenhausen Gardens sits one of the most romantic settings for a restaurant you'll find in Germany - beneath the towering stone walls of the Georgenhof is Restaurant Sterne, run by the Santa Clausianly affable Herr Sterne, an award-winning chef who personally oversees the kitchen.
The stone house is impressive enough, but in summer the courtyard is simply idyllic: ivy-covered stone walls and tables fronting a sweet little pond.
Try the Regional Romantik Menu with a mushroom, ham and pistachio terrine appetizer that'll knock your socks off, red-beet and apple soup with crab, Zanderfilet with leeks in a mustard cream sauce, and two more courses plus dessert for 126 DM/$62.
The Sterne family also operates a 14-room hotel, but I wasn't overwhelmed by the rooms.
• Georgenhof & Sterne Restaurant, Herrenhäuser Kirchweg 20, tel. +49/511/702244
Altitude: 177 feet
Hanover Tourist Office: Ernst-August-Platz 2, tel. +49/0511/301 420. The helpful staff here is one of the best in Germany. The office is to the right as you exit the main train station. Here, you can purchase the HanoverCard, which offers free or discount admission to tons of attractions and free rides on local public transport. The card costs 14 DM ($7) for a day, 23 DM ($11) for three days and is worth every pfennig. During the Expo and other trade fairs the tourist office also provides a room-finding service.
Euraide: The Hanover branch has an office in the rail station and will serve as an Expo information counter, assisting English-speaking travelers with fair-related questions plus train ticketing and reservations. The office is open 9am to 8pm daily during the fair.
Expo Tickets: Available at Euraide Hanover, the Hanover Tourist Information Office and many other outlets around the world as well as on the Internet.
Tickets generally cost 69 DM ($34) per person for the day, and grant access to all areas. Half-day tickets are available as well. For the complete rundown on the complex ticket offerings, plus information on buying tickets in the U.S., Germany, Europe and online, go to www.expo2000.de/englisch/ticket_shop_40.html.