What makes a effective rail journey? All of us have our personal concepts on this, however I discover it’s greatest to not sprint and to retain a component of spontaneity, taking the prospect to cease off right here and there alongside the way in which. So, final month I ended up taking three days for a prepare journey of solely 200 miles.
It’s doable to journey from Hamburg to Esbjerg by prepare in 4 to 5 hours with a single change of prepare at Niebüll, a small city in northern Germany simply in need of the Danish border. But, with effective early summer time climate, this was an opportunity to dawdle. Besides for brief electrified stretches at both finish – for the primary 40 miles out of Hamburg after which once more on the ultimate few miles into Esbjerg – the route depends on diesel trains and for a lot of the way in which has all of the character of a calmly used secondary railway. The attraction of the journey is within the delicate fantastic thing about the flatlands and the effective small cities alongside the way in which.
The Marsh Railway
The sluggish prepare to Niebüll begins at Altona station in Hamburg. It’s an unloved terminus, now scheduled for redevelopment as a part of a significant city renewal scheme. Rattling by means of Hamburg’s northern suburbs, we rapidly achieve open nation with wealthy pastureland and brilliant yellow fields of oilseed rape. There’s loads of water, too, a reminder that this space was drained by Dutch settlers within the excessive center ages. This railway from Hamburg to the Danish border is named the Marschbahn (Marsh Railway).
We cease at nation stations with tangles of early summer time vegetation tumbling over the platforms. Crossing the River Stör at Itzehoe, we loop west over the Wilster marshes, regularly climbing on to a excessive embankment that affords views over the two-dimensional-looking Holstein landscapes. For the traveller unaware of what lies forward, this skyward trajectory is without doubt one of the nice enigmas of European rail journey. The good rise in elevation is necessitated by the railway crossing of the Kiel canal, which carries seagoing ships with excessive masts. That is as shut as you’ll get to flying on a prepare, and it’s attention-grabbing to gaze right down to the ferry shuttling vehicles over the canal far beneath.
Now, we’re in Holstein cattle nation, with riotous shows of gorse by the railway line, occasional windmills and fantastic strains of poplars. The solar comes out as we slip over the reed-fringed River Eider and, for the primary time since leaving Hamburg, a station cease is introduced bilingually, first in German after which in Frisian. “Friedrichstadt, Fräärstää.”
I like linguistic variety and take it as an omen that this small city by the Eider may warrant a go to. Ambling by drainage ditches and over a canal bridge, I stroll into Friedrichstadt’s compact city centre, which looks as if probably the most amiable spot on Earth.
At first sight, it is a fragment of the Netherlands transposed into northern Germany, however the story of Friedrichstadt as a spot of tolerance and peace transcends the group’s Dutch beginnings. There may be greater than a passing nod to the city’s heritage in fashionable Friedrichstadt. Apple pie aplenty, with resort and restaurant names that play the Dutch card.
Remonstrants, Mennonites, Unitarians, Jews, Catholics and Quakers all settled in Friedrichstadt, benefiting from a constitution issued in 1623, giving freedom of perception on this small city in a area in any other case uniformly Lutheran. So taken am I by Friedrichstadt that I find yourself staying in a single day (Pension Marktblick, doubles from €80, room-only), after which at mid-morning subsequent day get again on a northbound prepare. I pause for lunch in Husum, a group formed by herring fishing and with a welcome sweep of waterside cafes.
Crossing into Denmark
I proceed to Niebüll the place all passengers sure for Denmark should change trains. The summer-season by means of trains from Hamburg to Esbjerg are lengthy gone. The onward prepare throughout the border is a cushty fashionable railcar run by Arriva. We cruise north by means of marshy fenlands, swans having fun with the afternoon sunshine and make our first Danish cease at Tønder.
The next place up the line is Ribe and, as we approach, it looks so appealing with its willows and hazel trees that I decide to break my journey again. There are cobbled streets and grass-grown lanes, myriad swallows and starlings, so to me Ribe is a delight. Super-size churches are a reminder that this town was once an important ecclesiastical centre. Today, it no longer makes the waves it once did. The silting up of waterways has changed the local landscape. The bustle of port trade has long gone, but Ribe is still a watery place. The splashing of mill wheels marks the Ribe soundscape.
This is a town that’s far too good to dismiss after an hour or two, so I stop overnight again (the family-run Hotel Ribe is a modest guesthouse with seven cosy rooms from €75). Travel outside the school holidays and, in small towns like Friedrichstadt and Ribe, it’s easy to stop off without much advance planning and find space in mid-range hotels.
On the third and final day of my journey to Esbjerg, I wake early and walk Ribe’s quiet streets. Then it’s breakfast and a visit to the Viking Museum (adults £12.60, under 18s free) right by the station. From here it’s just an hour to Esbjerg. “Only to Esbjerg?” queries the train manager as she checks my Interrail pass. “This train goes right through to Struer. With a pass you could go the whole way.”
I check the timetable and see that Struer is 33 stations further up the line beyond Esbjerg and takes another six hours. I’m tempted, but know that Esbjerg deserves an overnight stay. It’s a decision I don’t regret: for in the Danish port I find a town that is a wonderful example of sensible urban renewal with a good range of restaurants, which even on a summer day have candlelit tables and promise that Danish cosiness and conviviality known as hygge.
The fully flexible one-way fare from Hamburg-Altona to Esbjerg via Niebüll is €63.50, buy online via Deutsche Bahn or Rail Europe. A cheaper one-way fare of €42.50 is available only by telephone order from NAH.SH on 0049 431 660 19 449 (open 7am to 5pm UK time, Mon-Sat). These tickets allow stops but the entire journey must be completed without overnight stays. For real flexibility, follow the writer’s example and use an Interrail pass.