February 29, 2024
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Rail route of the month: gentle beauty journey from Hamburg to Denmark | Rail travel

What makes a fine rail trip? We all have our own thoughts on this, but I prefer not to drift and maintain an element of spontaneity, and take the chance to stop here and there along the way. So, last month I ended up taking three days for a train ride of only 200 miles.

It is possible to travel from Hamburg to Esbjerg by train in four to five hours with one change of train at Niebüll, a small town in northern Germany just short of the Danish border. However, with fine early summer weather, this was a chance to tackle. Apart from short electrified stretches at both ends – for the first 40 miles out of Hamburg and then again for the last few miles into Esbjerg – the route relies on diesel trains and for much of the route has the characteristics of a lightly used secondary railway length. . The delicate beauty of the flats and the lovely little towns along the way make the journey attractive.

Marsh Railway

A train going to Esbjerg stops at Ribe.
A train going to Esbjerg stops at Ribe. Photo: Hidden Europe

The slow train to Niebüll starts at Altona station in Hamburg. It is an unloved terminus, now to be redeveloped as part of a major urban renewal scheme. Wandering through Hamburg’s northern suburbs, we quickly reach open country with rich grasslands and bright yellow fields of oilseed rape. There is also a lot of water, a reminder that this area was drained by Dutch settlers in the high middle ages. This railway from Hamburg to the Danish border is called the Marschbahn (Marsh Railway).

We stop at rural stations and early summer vegetation is falling over the terraces. Crossing the Stör River at Itzehoe, we meander back over the Wilster marshes, gradually climbing a high embankment that affords views of Holstein’s two-dimensional landscapes. For travelers who don’t know what lies ahead, this stretch of sky is one of the great ecstasies of European rail travel. The great rise in height is necessitated by the railway crossing of the Kiel canal, which carries ocean-going ships with tall masts. This is as close as you will get to flying by train, and it is interesting to look down to the ferry cars shuttling over the canal far below.

Now, we are in the land of Holstein cattle, with riotous displays of heather by the railway, sometimes windmills and great lines of poplars. The sun comes out as we glide over the Eider River and, for the first time since leaving Hamburg, a station stop is announced bilingually, first in German and then in Fresno. “Friedrichstadt, Fräärstää.”

I love the diversity of languages ​​and I think this small town should be visited by the Eider. Walking through drainage ditches and over the canal bridge, I walk into the compact town center of Friedrichstadt, the most peaceful place on earth.

Canals in Friedrichstadt.
Canals in Friedrichstadt. Photo: Hidden Europe

At first glance, this is a fragment of the Netherlands that was transferred into northern Germany, but the story of Friedrichstadt as a place of tolerance and peace from the beginning of the Netherlands transcends the community. There is more than a passing nod to the town’s heritage in modern Friedrichstadt. Apple pie a lot, with hotel and restaurant names that play the Dutch card.

Rebels, Mennonites, Unitarians, Jews, Catholics and Quakers all settled in Friedrichstadt, taking advantage of a charter issued in 1623, which gave religious freedom to this small town in a region that was otherwise uniformly Lutheran. I am so well received in Friedrichstadt that I stay overnight (Pension Marktblick, doubles from €80, one room), and then at mid-morning the next day get back on the northbound train. I stop for lunch in Husum, a community shaped by herring fishing and welcoming of waterfront cafes.

Train crossing the Hochdonn railway bridge.
A train crossing the Hochdonn railway bridge over the Chial Canal. Photo: Image Professionals GmbH/Alamy

Crossing into Denmark

I continue to Niebüll where all passengers going to Denmark have to change trains. The summer season by train from Hamburg to Esbjerg is long gone. The train onward across the border is a comfortable modern railcar run by Arriva. We cruise north through marshy fens, enjoy the afternoon sun and make our first Danish stop at Tønder.

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Ribe is the next place up the line and, as we approach, it looks so attractive with its willows and hazel trees that I decide to break my journey again. There are cobbled streets and grass lanes, many swallows and starlings, so for me Ribe is delightful. Large churches are reminders that this town was once an ecclesiastical center. Today, it no longer makes the waves it once did. The siltation of the waterways changed the local landscape. The hustle and bustle of the port trade is long gone, but Ribe is still a watery place. The flashing of the mill wheels represents the soundscape of Ribe.

Ribe, Denmark.
Ribe, Denmark. Photo: Pavel Dudek/Alamy

This is a town that’s far too good to quit after an hour or two, so I stop overnight again (the family-run Ribe Hotel is a modest guesthouse with seven cozy rooms for €75). Travel outside of the school holidays and, in small towns like Friedrichstadt and Ribe, it’s easy to stop off without much pre-planning and find room in mid-range hotels.

On the third and final day of my trip to Esbjerg, I wake up early and walk the quiet streets of Ribe. Then it’s breakfast and a visit to the Scandinavian Museum (adults £12.60, under 18s free) right at the station. From here it is only an hour to Esbjerg. “Only at Esbjerg?” asks the train manager as she checks my Interrail pass. “This train goes straight to the Stream. With a pass you could go all the way.”

I check the timetable and see that Struer is 33 stations further up the line over 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: because in the Danish port I find a town that is a great example of sensible urban renewal with a good range of restaurants, where the tables are lit by candles even on a summer day and I promise that there will be Danish likeness and conviviality. called hygge.

The one-way fare is fully flexible from Hamburg-Altona to Esbjerg via Niebüll €63.50buy online through Deutsche Bahn or Railway Europe. A cheaper one-way fare of €42.50 is available only on phone order from NAH.SH on 0049 431 660 19 449 (open 7am to 5pm UK time, Monday to Saturday). These tickets allow stoppings but the entire journey must be completed without overnight remains. For true flexibility, follow the writer’s example and use an Interrail pass.

Nicky Gardner is editor Free hidden Europe magazine, and co-author of Europe By Rail: The decisive Guide, available from shopbook guardian.com

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