Hamburg docks from the viewing platform of the Elbphilharmonie


A rapid change of plans was needed yesterday, when we discovered that the sensible train connections between Copenhagen and Hamburg on the dates that would have worked for us had no bike spaces left. This effectively ruled out Copenhagen as a destination, as we don’t have time left this trip to cycle there and back. Some complicated versions with multiple quick train changes would have been technically possible, but a bit too high stress for me when we have a hard deadline to get home. I did look at the Travemünde to Malmo ferry option, which was just about feasible, but we decided against a further two overnight ferry crossings.

This sort of cycling trip where we book our hotels and any train travel as we go has the obvious upside of flexibility but this is the downside: we lost out on the trip to Copenhagen to all the people who planned ahead. The man who tried to help us at the travel centre at Hamburg central station looked valiantly through many options but then shook his head sadly and told us that we would need to book one or two months in advance at this time of year. Ah well. We went off for coffee and a rethink, with Bruce keeping me calm.

A pause for a moment to consider the wondrous thing that is the queueing system in Hamburg central station travel centre. It’s based on taking a number and then being called forward to one of many desks when it is your turn, but there were at least three different interwoven queues: the main one for standard class tickets, one for first class tickets and another I didn’t manage to identify. It would be interesting to see the algorithm for the allocation of ticket numbers to each free window, which I assume was giving the first class ticket buyers some sort of precedence. It all worked extremely efficiently, although given the numbers of people waiting, it took at least 15 minutes to get to the front of the second class queue. Made me think of interesting problems in queueing theory in statistics classes back in the day: what do you think, Peter Jupp? I seem to remember having to prove that a single queue for multiple serving points minimises the maximum waiting time, but there must be something interesting to consider if three queues are merged.

Having mused on queueing theory (me only – Bruce was more fascinated by the linguistics of the Hamburg dialect), drunk coffee and had a mooch round the cycling section of Karstadt Sports, we hatched a new plan and ventured back to the mega queue. This time, success! We managed to get bookings on a train from Berlin back to Amsterdam on a sensible date. No trip to Denmark this time, but we get a chance to explore another section of the Elbe Radweg – a part of which we cycled in 2013 on the way from Berlin to Vienna.

All of this took some time, and it had started to rain by the time we were finished. What to do with the rest of an afternoon and evening in Hamburg, while not getting completely soaked? A standard tourist city bus tour beckoned, and it was surprisingly good, with some interesting and very topical commentary. We hopped off this at the docks and then explored on foot. The Old Elbe Tunnel – still open to cars but from our experience mostly used by pedestrians and cyclists – was also well worth a visit. It was built in 1911, and they are currently renovating it. It’s a single track, with footpaths, and cars can use it in one direction in the morning and the other direction later in the day. Don’t know if there is a charge for cars: there certainly was no charge for bikes or pedestrians. From there, we walked along looking at the harbour and then went into the amazing new Elbphilharmonie building. You can get a free ticket to the viewing platform with expansive views out over the docks, and there is a bar and a restaurant (and a gift shop, of course). The building is another creative architectural project that went over budget, apparently, but the end result is stunning.

After that, we found a lovely restaurant with a vegan meal option for Bruce and a traditional Hamburg fish dish for me, and then rolled back out to the hotel on the Schnellbahn. Looking back, it was quite a full day.

This morning we set off on the plan B route along the Elbe, and we had a glorious day of cycling again. There was a bit more headwind, but it was light, and we had sunshine most of the day. Once we were properly clear of the outskirts of Hamburg, we were cycling through farming country and small towns, past several flocks of sheep grazing on the side of the grassy banking of the dike. There were lots of birds, including some noisy geese, and some other humans on bikes: enough to demonstrate that this is a popular cycle route, but never enough to make it feel crowded. For a lot of the time when the path was out in fields, the only other people we saw were driving tractors. The one significant concentration of cyclists was around the Elbe ferry at Hoopte, and Bruce struck up a conversation with some fellow tourers whom we bumped into again later in the day.

So we are now heading for Berlin, with plenty of time to get there before we have to catch our train back to Amsterdam. More Elbe exploration beckons.

Elbe ferry
Looking across the Elbe to Lauenburg