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Hamburg: A head for heights

I’ve been to the top of the Empire State Building, crossed the glass floor in Toronto’s CN Tower and bungeed from the 134m Nevis in New Zealand. So why am I baulking so badly, and breathing so deeply, in the tiny capsule carrying me up the spire of St. Michael’s Church?

Hamburg: A head for heights

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Perhaps it’s my surprise at finding a lift inside a 230-year-old spire in the first place. Perhaps it’s the fact that, when I set foot inside, the floor bobs like a bottle in the ocean. The octagonal vessel is like Willy Wonka’s great glass elevator, gathering pace as it rises skywards, populated by passengers with a penchant for bad jokes and the pong of currywurst on their breath.

There are 10 of us in the small space. A digital display shows our rate of our progress, two floors at a time. When we come to a halt at 132 metres, the doors open, disgorging us into a blinding light. My eyes adjust to the panorama, and it’s like being in a crow’s nest.

To the north is the python-like River Elbe, its constant traffic of container ships picked at by cranes and shepherded by tugboats. Out south is the city proper, braided with waterways — Hamburg is said to have more canals than both Venice and Amsterdam — spotted with smaller spires, commercial towers, shopping arcades and redbrick warehouses.

Against one set of railings, a couple kisses. Against another, a woman angles her camera between the bars for a photograph. A group of students resists the urge to spit from a height. Come at 10am or 9pm, and you may even find a watchman playing a tune on his trumpet. Me, I can’t stop my legs from wobbling. I wonder when the hell I got so rotten with heights.

The baroque spire, for years the emblem of Hamburg and a landmark for ships approaching along the Elbe, is completely covered in copper. Before I left home, it occurs to me, I had a conversation with a guy who works in telecoms. His industry is increasingly concerned with copper wire theft. Now I’m picturing thieves making off with the entire thing in a helicopter.
Operation Archangel, we’ll call it.

Done with the lift, I head down to earth via the zig-zagging stairwell. After my uneasy ascent, there’s an earthy, reassuring clunk to the steel steps. They wind their way down, past musty wooden beams, the intricate workings of a clock, the pale green lift shaft. I pass several tourists travelling in the opposite direction, pausing to catch their breath.

Finally, I’m back at ground level. The church dates from 1649, I learn, and has survived despite being struck by lightning in the 1750s, and bombed in WW2. It’s dedicated to the archangel Michael, whom you’ll find conquering the devil in a large sculpture outside.

I know how he feels.