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Hamburgmania

Stutzki has taken me back through his club and out the front door, onto Grosse Freiheit, and we've strolled just a few doors down to an archway that used to be the front entrance of the Star Club.

In the '60s, you walked into what was more or less a tunnel that took you into the main club. Ever since the fire, though, all that remains is the archway, which now leads into a recessed, open-air courtyard where the interior of the club once stood. You step in, and immediately on your left you see a black marble marker with "Star Club" etched on it, along with the names of some of the rockers who once thrashed about its stage.

Several bars ring the courtyard, but one in particular is interesting, Stutzki says: the Rock Cafe, a black box not much bigger than a large efficiency apartment. Inside, Stutzki points to the back wall of the bar and the immediate area in front of it, and says, "Over there was the Star Club's bandstand."

According to "Shout!," Philip Norman's biography of the Beatles, it was typically about this time of night -- about 2 a.m. -- when the Star Club was "packed with the Freiheit's own population of whores, pimps, bouncers, strippers and transvestites," in addition to sailors and fans of what was then called "beat music," all swilling alcohol and dancing until dawn. That is, when they weren't fighting or throwing up. It's the kind of place where Lennon once appeared onstage wearing nothing but his guitar and a toilet seat around his neck, and nobody really noticed.

Between the Doll House and the archway, on the same side of Grosse Freiheit, sits Gretel & Alfons, a restaurant-bar. The boys ate their breakfast here; they ran a tab until every Friday, when they were paid and would then settle up. Now the place is run by Horst Jankowiak, Gretel and Alfons's son, a stocky, bespectacled man of late middle-age. Inside is a nautical theme, with models of old ships decorating shelves and corners. But hanging on one wall is a diorama of the Fab Four in those too-cool Edwardian suits. "They were great customers," Jankowiak says. "Some of the best we ever had."

Jankowiak doesn't say who his favorite Beatle is, though odds are it's McCartney. After the group finished its last Hamburg gig -- the Star Club in late '62 -- they skipped on a bill of some $20. Jankowiak says that in 1989, McCartney's manager walked in and handed him the money, plus interest.

Fab Foot Tour

On a dreary, rainy Sunday afternoon, the complexion of Grosse Freiheit, without its heavy neon makeup flashing, is a pallid, beaten gray. A couple blocks away from the Reeperbahn, in an area you'd do well to avoid at night, you do find some color, a kind of sickly orange-red painted over the lower half of a very old, graffiti-streaked building. A broken dishwasher sits abandoned near the doorway. Welcome to the Indra Club.

The Beatles played their very first Hamburg gig in this dump on Aug. 17, 1960. The audience numbered maybe six, the majority being vendors and buyers of purchasable love. The boys never developed a following at the Indra; eventually the club owner moved the group to another of his Grosse Freiheit venues, the Kaiserkeller, nearer to the Reeperbahn.

Today the Kaiserkeller looks rather unassuming -- just another joint on a lurid drag. There's really only one trace of visible history -- an old, glass-encased poster hanging near the entry, from 1960, grandly announcing Rory Storm and the Hurricanes as headliners. Near the bottom, in smaller print, it adds, "mit The Beatles." What the poster doesn't tell you is that this is where Lennon and McCartney first saw Rory's drummer, some kid named Ringo Starr, who they thought was a lot better than theirs.

While the mop tops often ventured out to other parts of Hamburg, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Best and, until his death from a rare brain disease in 1962, Sutcliffe spent most of their waking hours in the relatively tiny district of St. Pauli. On the Reeperbahn itself, for instance, is the police station where McCartney and Best spent one night on a trumped-up charge of arson (they burned a condom in a stairwell). Also in the neighborhood are all the dives they slept in. It makes for a nice little foot tour.

As with all nostalgia trips, the main thing to watch out for is the tendency to romanticize, something Lennon was loath to do. "The dream is over," he famously declared when the band broke up, wanting to be free from the past. No argument there, even from me, a sentimental pilgrim who thinks almost every Beatles song is as fresh as ever. But it's still boss, fab and very gear to see where the dream and reality first began to twist and shout.

William Triplett last wrote for Travel about Paris's Pere Lachaise cemetery.

Details: Beatles' Hamburg

GETTING THERE: A number of carriers offer connecting service from D.C. to Hamburg, such as United, Swiss, Lufthansa and Air France. Round-trip fares start at $615, via a European capital such as Paris or London.

WHERE TO STAY: Deluxe accommodations are available at Kempinski Hotel Atlantic (An der Alster 72-79, 011-49-40-28-880, www.kempinski.atlantic.de), a grand and gorgeous old building overlooking Lake Alster. Doubles start at around $125 a night. The more contemporary InterContinental Hamburg (Fontenay 10, 888-567-8725, www.inter continental.com) is another top-flight hotel, also overlooking the lake; doubles start at around $200. For less expensive lodging, try the comfortable Hotel Berlin (Borgfelder Str. 1-9, 011-49-40-251640, www.hotel-berlin-hamburg.de), with doubles from about $65. At Hotel City-House (Pulverteich 25, 011-49- 40-2803850), just south of Lake Alster in St. George, $46 will get you a double with breakfast.

BEATLES SITES: While you can go on almost any number of themed tours in Hamburg, from shopping to art to architecture, I was not able to find an official tour of Beatles sites. Hence, the value of K&K (Laufgraben 16, www.center-of-beat.com), a Beatles and beat music memorabilia shop. Besides souvenirs and photos, for about $10 you can pick up a copy of "Beatles Guide Hamburg," a handy booklet full of maps and details on all of the relevant Fab Four sites.

INFORMATION: Hamburg Tourist Board, 011-49-40-300-51-300, www.hamburg- tourismus.de

-- William Triplett


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