Port of Hamburg is Czech Republic's gateway to the world


An old bilingual sign is attached to the bridge leading to the Saale jetty on Veddel island in the port of Hamburg. For decades, the Saale harbour and the neighbouring Vltava basin were the gateway to the world. Photos: dpa

Blackberry bushes have overgrown the bridge leading to the abandoned Saale harbour jetty in Hamburg, Germany.

The run-down facility in the Elbe river is closed and paint is peeling off the wooden planks.

No ship has docked at the Saale jetty for a long time, despite its location in one of Europe's busiest seaports, overlooked by the brand new Elbphilharmonie concert hall.

"What can I say? The Czechs are gone," says Magdalena Meierdirks, who runs a snack bar across the harbour.

Ships used to come and load and unload cargo here, from Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, thanks to a provision anchored in the Treaty Of Versailles.

The treaty agreed after Germany lost World War I stipulated that Germany had to provide sea access via the Vltava and Elbe rivers to the Czechoslovak Republic which emerged from the Habsburg Empire. That meant in Szczecin, now in Poland, and in Hamburg.

In 1929, after a decade of negotiations, Hamburg and Prague agreed on a lease for 28,000 sq m of quay area at the Saale harbour and neighbouring Vltava basin.

View of Saale harbour on Veddel island in the port of Hamburg.View of Saale harbour on Veddel island in the port of Hamburg.

Germany granted free access to inland vessels bringing goods to the port of Hamburg through the Vltava and Elbe rivers.

The area blossomed, with a club ship housing a cinema and a pub for Czech crew and workers serving beer from their homeland. There were Czech-run repair workshops and accommodation on land, until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

That not only ended Communist rule in then Czechoslovakia, it also brought the golden era of the Czech outpost in Hamburg to a halt.

At the jetty, the only evidence remaining are a few signs in Czech and German and a forgotten phone booth at the administration building of former state shipping company CSPL, now bankrupt.

Back in 1929, the lease was agreed for 99 years, meaning the Czech Republic still has a right to use the area until 2028.

Limited possibilities

For now, shipping companies have set up storage areas for containers at the Saale and Vltava harbours. But the possibilities for using these port areas are limited as they lack access for seagoing vessels, says Jan Bukovsky, spokesperson for the Czech Waterways Directorate which is manages the outpost in Hamburg.

The large seaport on the Elbe, known as Germany's gateway to the world, 100km from the river mouth on the North Sea, is still the most important overseas port for foreign trade in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, says Vladimir Dobos who works with Czech and Slovakian customers as the representative of the Port of Hamburg in Prague.

Most cargo is transported in containers these days, often by rail, with a total annual volume of some 500,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, Dobos says.

Around 5% of cargo reaches the German port by truck, meaning little is left over for inland vessels that could dock at the Saale and Vltava piers.

Meanwhile northwards, Hamburg's new HafenCity port is growing fast, a new urban area set to expand across the river.

Development on the cards

Once the Czech lease expires, Hamburg plans to develop the areas along the Saale harbour as new commercial sites connected to the port, says Ullrich Kerz of the Hamburg Port Authority.

But exactly how the arrangement will end is unclear. Hamburg and Prague have long been in negotiations but talks have stalled time and again.

"At the moment, negotiations are being held with the city of Hamburg about an exchange of areas," says Bukovsky.

The Czech Republic wants to return the Saale and Vltava harbours to the city in exchange for an area around the same size in the port for seagoing vessels.

Interest is great among Czech companies, also due to the current geopolitical situation, says Bukovsky, referring to Russia's war on Ukraine.

Officials in Hamburg are also open to the idea and the city has offered the Czech Republic an alternative area to rent beyond 2028, Kerz says.

Mainly, the Czech Republic wants to negotiate a long-term lease agreement, says Bukovsky. In return, the Saale and Vltava harbours could be further developed.

They could otherwise extend the current lease agreement, though there is less interest in that option, it appears. – dpa

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