Spring – calendar, if not temperature-wise – a three week window between other commitments and a train journey to north west Europe, so no excuse not to have a city break, or three.
I was on my way to Denmark to visit friends in southern Jutland and had already organised a few days in Copenhagen in the middle of my break. But, as I was travelling there by train, via Cologne and Hamburg, the opportunity to visit these two cities was too good to miss.
First city; Cologne.
Using Eurostar and Deutsch Bahn’s wonderful ICE high-speed trains, you can be in Cologne a little over five hours after leaving London (and this includes connection time in Brussels). Have a look at By Train to Denmark for full details.
Emerging from the station the majestic edifice of Cologne’s thirteenth century cathedral dominated the skyline every bit as much as I remembered from my only previous visit many years before; the massive scale of the building perhaps best demonstrated by the dark shadow its 157m spire threw across the entire Bahnhofvorplatz on what was a very bright spring afternoon.
This Gothic masterpiece was the major reason for my return visit to the city, but that treat was for tomorrow. For the moment, I headed for my hotel, the CityClass Residence am Dom, an easy ten minute stroll from the station.
Pleasant, helpful staff, an uncomplicated check-in and great city view from my window, left a positive first impression of the Cologne and its people. As it was a pleasant late afternoon and I had been travelling for several hours, I wasted little time in taking a walk round the city to make the most of the remaining hours of daylight.
Cologne is an impressive retail centre, with many department chains and specialist stores, but I headed for a rather more specialised and bizarre shopping destination; the Scotia Spirit Whisky shop. Yes, I’m aware of the irony, but buying whisky in Germany, en route from Scotland to Denmark, is not quite so strange once the benefits of not having to carry the bottle as far and, the lower cost and greater selection – particularly compared to the paltry choice and high prices on offer at Eurostar’s terminal – are taken into account.
I’m not a whisky drinker, but I was seriously impressed with the display and the staff expertise. My visit to Scotia Spirit was equally memorable for an extended and interesting conversation on the UK’s (then) forthcoming referendum on EU membership. It also confirmed how much more the average European knows about the UK, than we do about them (or, indeed ourselves) and, in retrospect, how utterly tragic that the general goodwill on the continent towards this country has been so shattered by a decision based on unfounded hysteria and untruths.
Next morning, my only full day in Cologne, there was only one destination. In the late nineteenth century it was the tallest building in the world; it’s still the largest Gothic church in Germany and the tallest Roman Catholic cathedral in the world, so there are more than a few reasons to visit Cologne Cathedral. My first port of call was the ticket office to gain entry to the spire. 532 steps later, the view over the city and Rhine, was, as expected, spectacular, but also confirmed the strategic importance of the cathedral.
On the descent there was time to inspect the huge bells that ring out over the city. These massive castings again give a wonderful insight into the scale of the cathedral while the stained glass windows in the body of the cathedral are simply breathtaking. The grainy photograph of the twin spires, in the midst of a devastated landscape, remains an indelible image of the destruction of World War Two. Visiting churches and cathedrals is my default position on short city breaks, not for any religious reason, but as an ideal way of gaining a historical insight into the area and its people.
I couldn’t leave the city without buying an item almost as firmly associated with Cologne as the cathedral: its eponymous perfume. Although heavily commercialised, its inimitable scent and characteristic gold and turquoise bottle always remind me of teenage days and my first proper perfume.
The lure of the cathedral will always draw me back to Cologne, but this attractive, confident city has much else to offer, particularly as an easy-to-reach destination by train, as well as an ideal starting point for further travels in Germany.
Next city; Copenhagen.
I travelled there after a week with friends in southern Jutland. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of spring sunshine and I arrived in the city in the midst of a blizzard; inclement conditions that were to last for the duration of my stay. But, the few windows of intense, freezing sunlight were ideal for some vivid pictures of the lively colours of Nyhavn waterfront.
Good advice from my friends led me to the Hotel Bethel a former sailors’ hostel overlooking the canal and the characteristic 17th century merchants’ houses along the harbour. Efficient, helpful, welcoming and reasonably priced by Copenhagen standards, it proved an ideal location in the midst of the bars and restaurants of Nyhavn, yet only a few minutes walk from the city centre.
Nyhavn itself, proved an immediate and obvious attraction. The waterfront along the canal, dating from the reign of Christian V in the 1670s, was originally constructed to link the old inner city at Kongens Nytorv (King’s Square) with the sea. Subsequently, it became better known for sailors, beer and prostitution. Interestingly, its most famous resident was Hans Christian Andersen, who lived in Nyhavn for 18 years.
As canal transport declined, the area fell into disrepair, but has been revitalised over the last 40 years since it was designated as a veteran ship and museum harbour. The stretch of canal between Nyhavn Bridge and Kong’s Nytorv is lined with old ships and this, along with numerous eating and drinking establishments, now attracts thousands of tourists.
The bars and restaurants tend to be quite commercialised and very crowded, so choose your venue carefully if you want to eat/drink here. Although it was bitterly cold, there were still loads of al fresco diners: the provision of blankets (common across Denmark) no doubt a godsend, but still not enough of an incentive for me to brave the elements.
Next day a relentless blizzard thwarted my ‘free’ city bus tour – technically the top of the bus may have been covered, but the tarpaulin did nothing to combat the cold and the visibility was zilch. So, where better to take refuge than in a museum? The National Museum of Denmark, centrally located, warm, with exhibits ranging from Viking artefacts to a hash stall from Christiana, ticked all the boxes. An additional attraction was undoubtedly the stylish museum shop, although prices of the designer knitwear were a little outwith my budget.
As with any good national museum, the collections are too extensive to be fully appreciated in one visit. Do your homework first and be selective with what you prioritise as a must-see, particularly if there are any temporary exhibitions on display. Sadly, since my visit, this has become even more advisable as the government has now levied an admission charge, here and at the National Gallery. Coming from a city with an extensive array of museums and galleries, almost all of which are free, I find it regrettable when other places charge for national collections.
Cold, wet days call for three things: excellent coffee, comfortable sofas and dependable WiFi and, happily, the slushy trudge to Risteriet in Copenhagen’s Inner Vesterbro didn’t disappoint. Until then, I had found the standard of coffee in Denmark, with a couple of notable exceptions, something of a let down, but this rich, creamy flat white hit the spot, the staff were unobtrusively knowledgable and the reassuringly shabby sofas ideal for a warm, comfortable, quiet half hour.
Although the weather was not conducive to sightseeing on foot, Risteriet is situated on the edge of one of Copenhagen’s coolest destinations, Kodbyen; literally translated as ‘Meat City’. Denmark has never been short of butchers, but as with London’s Smithfield Market and Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, in the last decade the Danish capital has seen the fusion of butchery with hipsters, trendy bars and restaurants, avant-garde galleries and cutting-edge hairdressers. With a fixed 24/7 modus operandi and some reasonably-priced (for Copenhagen) eating and drinking establishments, it’s well worth a stroll – at any time of day or night.
Kodbyen is only a few minutes walk back to the city centre, so what better way to spend the remnants of a dreich afternoon than in a knitting shop; yes, a proper yarn shop, complete with shelves of wool, needles, patterns and helpful, expert staff. If Scandi-mania has inspired you to get knitting, then make sure Sommerflugen is on your itinerary
Usually I have a theme for my city visits – this one was to visit iconic churches for their historical insight and then climb their spires for the view – and, although the weather had been an impediment, I was able to fit in a quick look round Copenhagen’s most visually intriguing church on my last morning.
The remarkable twisted spire of the Church of Our Saviour in the Christianshavn district, is visible across Copenhagen. Despite dire warnings that it was not for the faint hearted, I was determined to climb the exterior steps to the dome and a window of watery sunshine next morning gave me the opportunity.
Dating from the 1680s, this rare Baroque Danish church took 16 years to build, particularly as its foundations lie on a filled-in sea bed. The precise design of the interior deserved more time to admire, but it was the magnificent 17th organ, the oldest in Denmark, that took my eye. Miraculously, it survived the many city fires of the 18th century, as well as the British bombardment of 1807 and it is incredible to realise the pipes that are still used in all services and performances in the church, date from over 300 years ago.
The unique spire was not completed until 1752 and rises to 90 metres above the floor of the church. Of the 400 steps, the last 150 wind their way around the outside of the spire. At the top, I touched the golden globe (considered a test of manhood!) and was grateful that, although it can apparently house 12 adults, this morning there were only two of us. On the descent I spent a few minutes admiring another treasure of Our Saviour’s; the amazing 48-bell carillon. If you happen to be in the city at 4pm on a Saturday, listen out for the weekly rendition of the bells.
Ever since I received a childhood postcard of the Little Mermaid, I have wanted to visit Copenhagen. Unfortunately the statue, while not an unexpected disappointment, didn’t exactly blow me away. The weather could have been better but, coming from Scotland, you learn not to let the elements, however inclement, spoil your travels.
Copenhagen Free Walking Tours promised much, but delivered little. Having tour guide experience myself, I appreciate the demands, but after 90 minutes of best bar recommendations and irritating Aussie Pom-bashing, I was too bored to bother with the second half of the walk. In retrospect, the experience confirmed the old maxims that there’s no such thing as a free lunch and you get what you pay for.
But those minor irritations in no way detracted from my positive impressions of the city. As a cycle freak, despite the snow, I stood in awe and envy as the mass hordes of two-wheeled commuters swept through the city at rush hour, and as a admirer of Scandinavian design, food, knitting, hygge, I was in my own special Nirvana.
Final city: Hamburg.
Travelling here from southern Jutland resembled a living history lesson as we crossed the Kiel Canal and passed through names evocative of the Schleswig-Holstein question in the mid 19th century and several of the other momentous events that led to the unification of Germany.
My hotel, the Europaeischer straight across from the station, could not have been more convenient. With exceptionally well-informed and helpful staff, a good restaurant, small gym and inclusive free city travel for three days, it proved to be the best stay of the trip. Its central location, although slightly edgy in the evenings, provided great access to the city centre, the interesting St Georg area and a wide range of eating and drinking options.
Hamburg has been on my places-to-visit list for a long time. Maritime cities have always fascinated me and Hamburg, the historic ‘gateway to the world’, a cornerstone of the Hanseatic League, with its trading links across the globe is, by any standards, up there with the best. Its uncanny ability to survive and prosper, despite repeated destruction by fire, floods and war also adds to its attraction. Although long before I had little more than a cursory knowledge of European history, I just wanted to see Hamburg because that’s where the Beatles became famous.
Germany’s second largest city and biggest port certainly throws up the quandary of so much to see, so little time, but given my fascination with Hamburg’s maritime past, there was no debate about my first destination next morning: the fabulous Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg (IMMH) Housed in the oldest preserved warehouse in the Hafen district, the collection covers 10 floors and includes 40,000 items and over a million photographs, largely based on the private collection of journalist and publisher, Peter Tamm.
But, you don’t need to be a seafaring type to enjoy the museum. The exhibits include 47 original letters written by Horatio Nelson, over 15,000 cruise ship menus and a 3,000 year old dug out from the River Elbe. There is the requisite cafe and shop (both of rather higher standard than usual heritage offerings) and it does cost – around £10 on my visit, sadly more now given the post-Brexit collapse of the pound. But I spent nearly five hours engrossed in a fascinating, dramatically displayed collection and, if I had a complaint, it would be that even that wasn’t enough time.
It was also a brilliantly sunny afternoon and the kind of fresh, spring temperature conducive to a city wander. And as I stepped out of the museum, the surrounding Speicherstadt (warehouse district) was the ideal place to start. Constructed at the end of the 19th and now with UNESCO World Heritage status, this “City of Warehouses” is the largest warehouse district in the world. The buildings stand on wooden-pile foundations and, although the area is being redeveloped, unusually, it still has many working warehouses, including those trading goods, such as coffee, cocoa, tea and spices, around which this free trade zone originally developed.
On the way back to my hotel I passed the lovely churches of St Katharina and St Petri – both very definitely on my radar for a churches, spires and bells day tomorrow.
Retrospective reading can often be interesting and so it proved with the St Georg district of the city. If I had read, and believed, the lurid warnings about drugs, prostitution, violence and so on, that seem to preface any mention of the area, I doubt I would have ventured out of the hotel at all, let alone at night. But unaware of the its infamous reputation, I went out and wandered around on a cool and light evening. A tasty snack in an efficient Middle Eastern fast food outlet, a stroll to the waterside past the grandiose Hotel Atlantic and a beer in the company of some well-informed young Americans, combined to bring an excellent day to a very pleasant end.
A brilliantly sunny final day provided the ideal conditions to conclude my theme of church visits and spire climbs. In Hamburg, as with everywhere else, the difficulty was selecting a few from the many. Starting with the nearest, Hauptkirche St Petri (St Peter’s Church) is built on the site of several previous cathedrals. Its bronze lion-head door handles are the oldest works of art in the city and, last but not least, its 132m tower afforded wonderful views of the city, its river and canals on a crystal clear morning.
Its near neighbour St Katharina’s (St Catherine’s) is another of the five principal Lutheran churches (Hauptkirchen) of the city. I was particularly keen to see the base of its 13th spire as it is the second oldest preserved building in Hamburg. St Catherine’s traditionally served as the church of the seamen of Hamburg and, although the spire was closed for repairs, the highlight of the visit was seeing its marvellous restored organ – the original, which survived until the bombing of WW2, dated from the 15th century and JS Bach was one of the famous musicians who performed on it.
On then to St Michaelis (St Michael’s) via a much-too-brief at the stunning Neo-Renaissance town hall, the Rathaus (definitely on the list for a longer, future visit). Known colloquially as Michel, St Michael’s is regarded as the most famous church in Hamburg. One of the finest of all Hanseatic Baroque churches, it is unusual as it was purpose built as a Protestant church. A similar height to St Peter’s, its 132m high copper-covered spire has long been a dominant feature of the Hamburg skyline, as well as a landfall mark for ships sailing up the Elbe. And, apropos nothing, I did climb all the way to the top and walked back down, forgoing the lift.
Located in a secluded corner of the 17th century Neustadt district, St Michael’s is just round the corner from Elbe Park. A now warm and sunny late afternoon and the chance to see the Bismarck Memorial at close quarters put paid to the original plan of visiting what was once, also (albeit very briefly) the tallest building in the world, the tower of St Nikolia (St Nicholas’) Church. But St Peter’s, St Catherine’s and St Michael’s had provided a compelling insight into the importance of the Lutheran church, as well as the style of Hamburg’s ecclesiastical architecture; and of course, a useful cardio-vascular workout.
Hamburg, as Germany’s second largest city, is another first-class shopping centre. Until now, I had confined myself to some limited window shopping, but I couldn’t help but notice the abundance of outdoor gear shops in the city centre: and not just small specialist retailers, but huge sports department stores with separate floors devoted to running, hiking, aerobics, cycling and just about everything in between.
I’m something of a Germanophile when it comes to footwear, so the opportunity to buy a pair of leather-lined Meindl multi-activity boots, unavailable in the UK, was too good to miss. The attractive, helpful, multi-lingual young men who served me were also happy to dispose of my trusty, old, scuffed pair.
I set off from the Hauptbahnhof next morning, determined to return to Hamburg for a future visit: always the ultimate accolade for any destination.
Verdict: already a convert to continental rail travel, I needed little excuse to include some city stop-offs on my way to and from Jutland. As always, the contrast between urban discovery and rural exploration was a highlight of the holiday. All three cities are sophisticated, confident metropoles, with distinctive character and history, plenty of culture, coffee and cycle friendly: definitely my kind of places.