Hamburg’s fish market: a Sunday a.m. party

Second in a series about travel in Germany. The majority of Wisconsin residents, a higher percentage than any other state, trace their roots to a German-speaking country.

“Ein seelachs. Ein heilbutt. Ein lachs. Ein zander.” The fisherman rips a sheet from a roll of white freezer paper, balances it on his forearm, then slaps onto it a fat filet of each fresh catch – Pollock, halibut, salmon, perch and more.

I don’t hear what he says next, but the growing crowd laughs. As the spunky vendor morphs from salesman to street comedian, he waves his bounty and boasts about the quality. It takes mere seconds for a shopper to acquiesce, and she walks away with 10 pounds of assorted fish for little more than $20.

Similar pitches happen in neighboring booths, seductive mumbles to guttural roars, with varying degrees of success. When a vendor can’t make a sale, each steak is returned to its original slot, atop ice and under glass.

A few yards away, another seller wraps long and slender aal – smoked eel – two at a time and drops them into paper bags like French baguettes. It is all that remains of the day’s inventory.

Business is brisk and crowded by the time we arrive at the weekly Hamburg Fish Market, where hundreds of people also sell fresh produce, clothing and handicrafts near the downtown harbor. These Sunday transactions begin around 6 a.m. and finish within four hours.

Inside the 300-year-old Fish Auction Hall, a band plays Blues Brothers music and breakfast means beer and a brat or matjes (herring) sandwich. Not far by foot is the Reeperbahn, a mix of arts and erotica, prostitution and legit entertainment along one long and bawdy street, where the Beatles began their international career in the 1960s.

Hamburg’s port is among the largest in Europe. Get to know it by following the numerous canals, the Elbe River shoreline or the Alter Elbtunnel (for a cool tunnel walk under the harbor).

We signed up for a Reeperbahn tour, through a city tourism office, but our guide was a no-show. More reliable was the Eat the World food tour (eat-the-world.com), which got us acquainted with the city’s ethnic diversity and less-touristy neighborhoods.

Dine: Nibble on Brauhaus Johannes Albrecht tapas – sausage salad, Nuremberg links with kraut, meatballs in a tangy dip, buttery fried potatoes – with a mug of Duckstein beer, while watching canal traffic putter. Or hop the No. 62 city ferry to Elbterrassen near sunset, to feast on huge baked potatoes with baby shrimp and an ocean of sour cream; watch boxcars being loaded onto freighters like toy blocks.

Stay: We used a city transit pass to scoot easily between the Mercure Hamburg Airport Hotel and the downtown harbor via light rail. Unlike the typical U.S. airport hotel, this one was in a residential neighborhood and quick walk to a shopping area with a bustling outdoor farmers’ market, an interesting attraction all on its own.

For more about Hamburg tourism: www.hamburg.de.

Two easy side trips from Hamburg:

Kiel, population 230,000 and 60 miles north of Hamburg, calls itself the City of Sails because every June it hosts the largest sailing event in the world. Kiel Week began in 1882 and endures because of the pretty bay’s calm but steady winds and proximity to open seas. www.kurskiel.de

Visit: Follow the waterfront from spring to fall and watch the medley of freighters, cruiseships, sailboats and rowing sculls, from city harbor to sea.

Head to Kiel Canal, the world’s busiest manmade waterway, to watch the parade of vessels between the North and Baltic seas; to get there, take the No. 11 city bus to the end of the line, then follow the crowd onto a free ferry.

For beach time, take a one-hour ferry ride to Laboe, where bay meets Baltic Sea, and rent a wicker cabana to ward off windburn and sunburn. Don’t miss the Marine Memorial and U-Boat Museum, clever in design and sacred in tone.

Dine: The locals love pickled herring filets – in a sandwich or by the plateful with onions.

You’ll find them on casual to fine dining menus in spring. Several restaurants overlook Kiel’s bay; we liked the looks of Louf because of its separate menu for seasonal ingredients.

Stay: Affordable, classy and a quick cab ride from the train station is the Steigenberger Conti-Hansa, near the harbor and Holstenstrasse, the main drag for shopping and dining.

Seven spires from five churches mark the skyline of Lubeck, population 214,000 and 40 miles northeast of Hamburg. The medieval “Queen of the Hanseatic League” is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to seven-generation Niederegger marzipan production; savor the dessert café and free museum devoted to this sweet paste of ground almonds in Old Town. www.luebeck-tourism.de

Visit: On a narrow, cobblestone street is Theater Figuren Museum, theater puppets and accessories from three continents and three centuries. About one-fourth of the 40,000 items are on display.

Dine: Centuries-old ship models hang from the rafters at the Schiffergesellschaft, the city’s oldest restaurant, open since 1535. Ship captains used to live upstairs during winter. The locals order labskaus: a hash of potatoes, beets and finely ground beef. It arrives with herring and is topped with a fried egg.

Stay: The small Hotel an der Marienkirche draws raves in the heart of Old Town for its friendly staff, pleasant but straightforward accommodations and convenient location.

Trains smoothly link many cities in Germany, including Lubeck, Kiel and Hamburg. The hauptbahnof (main train station) typically is within a walk of the center of activity.

For more about travel in Germany: www.cometogermany.com, 212-661-7200. Wartime history lessons are everywhere – dominating walking tours to museums – but so are rich contemporary cultural experiences.

West Bend celebrates its heritage during the annual German Fest, Aug. 26-28 downtown. Expect daily sheepshead tournaments, German food sales and two stages of German music. The oompah overlaps with Riverwalk Art Fair. www.downtownwestbend.com, 888-338-8666

Among the entertainers: River City Blaskapelle, a 25-person brass and woodwind band from West Bend; and Pommersche Tanzdeel Freistadt, Ozaukee County dancers, children to adults.

“Roads Traveled” began in 2002 and is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.