Have you ever celebrated Easter / the Vernal (Spring) Equinox with a gigantic bonfire on the beach?
I certainly hadn’t, until I visited Blankenese for the first time over the Easter weekend in 2014. This year we went back to Hamburg to celebrate Easter with family, driving up from Frankfurt on Thursday (6 hours on the road!) with the Osterfeuer celebration on Saturday night and an Easter-egg hunt for the nephews on Easter Sunday. Blankenese is about 30 minutes outside of Hamburg city centre – it’s part of the Hamburg-Altona district – and it’s famous for its beautiful historic houses perched on the hills overlooking the Elbe River. Altona was once governed by the Danish monarchy, and you can see a lot of Danish influence in the architecture of the houses. It’s one of my favourite places in Germany.
The Osterfeuer (Easter Bonfires) celebration in Blankenese is the epitome of organized chaos – teams of local men and boys stack the fires with the previous year’s dead Christmas trees, the local fire brigade is out in force dousing the thatched roofs with water as a safety precaution against sparks, and everyone is getting ready for a night of drinking and celebrating the symbolic ushering in of a new season.
We had a surprisingly beautiful day on the Saturday, with unusually bright blue skies and sunshine! We were lucky to arrive in Blankenese early to witness the preparations, which had started early in the morning. As per tradition, there are four bonfires set up along Blankenese beach, representing the historic four feuding families of the village. The goal is to have the biggest and brightest bonfire, and the young men are tasked with collecting scrap lumber and dead Christmas trees and dragging them from Blankenese homes down the hills to the beach. Then, the bonfire building begins!
We decided to have a drink in the rare sunshine (Aperol Spritz anyone? It’s the cheeriest, most orange spring drink you could imagine!) and then take a walk in the Treppenviertel. It’s a steep walk at times, and I’m not the fittest person alive, but the views are well worth the physical effort! Besides, it’s so unbelievably pretty that you will be stopping frequently to enjoy the view, and to take photographs. It’s the kind of place I can imagine living in – writing in an attic studio with a view over the river, drinking Glühwein while wrapped in a blanket, sitting on the beach.
I really loved walking along the tiny streets, feeling the wind in my hair and smelling the sea, with the sun on my face. It reminded me of my childhood visits to my grandparents house in Simon’s Town, South Africa. Bitter-sweet nostalgia.
Once the sun sets, everyone is restless and eager for the fires to be lit. Gigantic fires on public land may seem crazy, but the safety protocols are very strict. The fires cannot be lit until the fire brigade gives the OK, and even then, the fire-fighters stand by to jump in in case of emergency. The great thing is that you can view the fires from multiple places – from a boat cruise on the Elbe, on the beach, or from the hill overlooking the whole event.
When this fire (above) finally came to life, it only burned for about 20 minutes before the firemen put it out (the wind was fierce, and it made them incredibly nervous). It was fantastic while it lasted – a huge pillar of fire that turned into a flame-thrower once the wind picked up! Once the fire was extinguished, much to the crowd’s anger and disappointment, it quickly turned cold and dark, and so we made our way back. The smaller fires remained lit, with groups of people gathered around them, enjoying the novelty of a log fire on the beach.
The Easter Bonfires in Blankenese are wonderful to experience if you’re in Hamburg over Easter! If you’re staying in Hamburg city centre, you can travel to Blankenese via train or ferry. I’d recommend the ferry, as it’s the same price as an S-Bahn trip, and it’s a great scenic journey along the Elbe. Or, you could stay in one of the charming BnBs in Blankenese, and enjoy the peace, quiet, and beauty of the little river-side village.