Sunday, March 07, 2010

Weathering summer storms III - Kiel Canal: July

We are in process of cleaning up the Bergstrasse Bike Books hard disk and realised that we had written this blog but not uploaded it, so better late than never:
After trying the Eifel and Lake Constance our next foray was north to Schleswig-Holstein and the canal linking the North and Baltic seas. Our travel arrangements were fairly complicated involving carrying folding bikes on trains where all the normal bike reservations were booked on a Sunday when half Germany was travelling to view Iron Man competitions here and a Music and Fun event there. We were a bit frazzled by the time we reached Glückstadt YH on a lovely late afternoon, the sun sparkling on the little harbour, its ships and fine houses. Our companions had an even more exciting, though shorter journey, from Kassel using a Schönes-Wochenende-Karte, with luggage and full size bikes. These tickets enable up to 5 people to travel together on local trains, the snag being that bike space can be limited, connection time somewhat tight and the rest of Germany is travelling this way. However, after meeting by chance around the harbour saving the need to try phone contact, and exchanging a couple of years life and cycling stories over dinner, plus knocking back a few glasses of grape juice at their ‘out of town’ billet with a view of the sunset, journey stress disappeared.
Day 2
What had happened to the sun after it set yesterday? We met along the dyke north of Glückstadt (on the Elbe Estuary, downstream of Hamburg) in light rain or heavy drizzle, our views limited to the occasional sheep with a misty backdrop. However we were cycling together again and there were occasional glimpses of light towers and even blurred floating apartment blocks, ships heading out into the North Sea or towards the Kiel Canal. As the morning progressed the skies brightened, by Brunsbüttel the sun came out, and we stripped down to T-shirts. The locks separate the Canal from the N. Sea and we spent time on the observation platforms and the little museum. We stocked up on sandwiches for lunch (Camembert cheese with cranberry sauce, umm… delicious) and found the NOK cycle route signs out of town, roughly northeastwards. NOK? The Germans call the canal the Nord-Ostsee Kanal. Gravel surface, a bit muddy here and there but quiet apart from bird song and cries to look out for a picnic bench stop.
Following the gourmet sandwich stop we swung right and saw our first major ship gliding between the reeds even before we reached the actual towpath. Neil and I come from near Manchester, UK, so we’re a bit blase about Ship Canals but the Kiel Canal in its present form is definitely in another league to say nothing of the vessels themselves, mostly spanking new and mind-bogglingly expensive. No wonder that the investment in moving 80 million m3 of earth materials, splitting settlements and maintaining numerous ferry services has paid off, at least up to now. The economic slowdown has caused a reduction in traffic but we were kept happily entertained by the vessels, big and small that we saw. Though the weather prospects faded as the day wore on, we explored several of the loops away from the canal. Out to Neuendorf where drainage over hundreds of year has so reduced the volume of the soils that the current land surface lies 3.5 m below sea level, making it the lowest point in Germany. Then we cycled back to the free ferry at Burg our destination, over the marsh and up a steep hill into the town centre. The tourist office had closed for the day, but a phone call from the bookshop where the ‘nerve centre’ is located soon resulted in Burg’s tourist officer returning to meet us. She quickly located an interesting overnight stop for us in an old school, being converted into B&Bs/apartments. Though not quite finished, all the important bits like toilets, beds and showers were in place. We walked out of town to eat at a pleasant ‘roadhouse’ sort of pub and all found something tasty to eat.
Day 3
Next morning our friend M’s research into Burg’s bakeries the evening before resulted in the most fantastic breakfast, choice of beverages, and brötchen, ham, cheese, croissants, jam or honey (about 6 €each). We staggered out of the cafe, thankful to start the day with a quick downhill ride to the towpath, in a chilly wind with darkening skies. Still we had the wind with us, unlike a large group battling along towards Brunsbüttel. Ferry, then out through the fields away from the canal, past enormous estate farms, their enormous brick barns like some red brick beast crouching in the landscape, the ride settled into some sort of pattern. Occasionally an Autobahn bridge soared over the canal, its surface covered with tiny speeding vehicles as we kept an eye on the weather behind us, trying to guess which clouds would produce a downpour, others merely threaten. We used woods, bus shelters, overhanging eaves of barns to keep off the worst and then swung on again, thankful for the following wind. Our loops took us through busy little Albersdorf, where many Stone Age relics have been found and via remote countryside to Fisherhütte before reaching Hanerau and Hademarschen. Again the local tourist office found us quarters in a FEWO, a holiday house with two fantastic bedrooms and use of the kitchen if we wanted. For our evening meal we found an interesting restaurant a short distance away, before which Neil had managed to buy another bike helmet to replace his old one. This had got fatally damaged on the train journey north, a Viking funeral was promised by the bike shop.
Day 4
We had really given up bothering about the weather forecasts, rain, torrential, pouring, heavy showers with thunder, were evidently normal in July here. What really annoyed all of us was that way down south in our ‘home bases’ the sun was apparently shining and egg frying on pavements was becoming a community sport. So bear it we did, mostly grinning, at least in the photos. The clouds scudded low at our backs as we returned to the canal bank, crossed by ferry and turned north east. Our eyes adjusted to the gloomy light and only looking at my pictures of the old sluice at Giselau did I realise how it was. Over the next ferry at Oldenbüttel we sailed along through the marshlands with the wind blowing the grasses lining the dykes. Soon we left the canal on a detour through a nature reserve and bird watching paradise, sheltering in a convenient bus shelter in Lütjenwestedt to take lunch perched on a rise above the marshes. There were wonderful views of cloud-wracked skies as we descended through Todenbüttel and on through small villages of Schulberg back to the towpath and the ferry at Breiholz. From here into Rendsburg our route lay parallel to the River Eider formerly used as a ships route as far as Rendsburg. The Eider itself was mostly invisible beyond the canal embankments. The run into Rendsburg was extremely pleasant with tree lined banks and lots of groups of walkers who mostly moved aside for us gracefully. Grain silos and docks mark the beginning of Rendsburg proper but we were all looking forward to seeing the ferry suspended between the Meccano-inspired high level rail bridge. The Ships’ Greeting Point on the north bank did us proud as a Gibraltar registered freighter prompted a verse of ‘God save the Queen‘ as we strolled down to watch. We finally tracked down the Tourist Office in a bookshop in a main square and soon found reasonably priced accommodation in an hotel on the south side of the Canal. Too soon we breathed a sigh of relief at having avoided the downpours for the clouds finally unzipped themselves and we were all drenched en route to a supermarket for provisions. We can only recommend the tunnel under the canal, complete with lifts for cyclists and pedestrians, despite the odd drip it was much drier than outside. Within minutes we reached our hotel, stowed our bikes in a garage and ourselves in a warm, comfortable annex whilst the North German monsoons raged outside. Our only exploration that evening was the excellent hotel restaurant next door.
Day 5
Occasional awakenings during the night suggested more storms and there were puddles aplenty on the loop we made south and west next morning through railway workers cottages and out through suburbia to Jevenstadt before returning to the canal and taking the transporter ferry below the railway bridge. This is a famous spot for railway fans since the trains make a huge U-shaped loop to lose height over the rooftops down to the station in Rendsburg. We used this route on our September visit and it is spectacular. We swept through the centre of Rendsburg and out over the bridge where the Eider escapes from a large inlet through a commercial centre then villas along the Obereider shoreline. We risked a picnic in fitful sunshine, followed shortly by the first rains of the day. On through pretty villages where boatyards had been for hundreds of years and where the route climbed and fell allowing interesting downhill plunges. We turned away northwestwards to climb towards Bünsdorf and were forced to shelter once more, in the lee of some farm buildings. The owners did come to look at us enquiringly but were evidently reassured by our muddy bikes and damp appearance, without the need to set the dogs on us. On a sunny day we are sure that the Wittensee and the little sailing resort of Bünsdorf are both delightful but we did not linger but sped on towards Sehesedt, an estate village chopped in two by the building of the canal. Luck was with us as we found comfortable quarters in a FEWO, conveniently across from the pub/restaurant. Anyone needing supplies (as we did) must head out 4 km (on a cycleway parallel to the busy road) to Holtsee where there is an excellent supermarket. On the way home we explored the little village with its enormous brick barns and country house Dodging the increasingly violent wind and rainstorms we dined well in the pub that night.
Day 6
The meteorologists promised another day of wind and rain and it was dark and gloomy as we set off to visit the old sluices of the Eider Canal across the ferry and through the villages of Hammer and another estate village of Osterade. Though undoubtedly picturesque, the weed lined canal remains, the old sluices and pump house at Kluvensiek were definitely melancholy so after a quick photo session and discussion of falling eel populations in the Eider (global warming, pollutants?) with a biologist collecting samples we returned to the canal the way we had come. We had decided to press on to reach Kiel that day, in view of the unpromising weather though there were touches of sun for part of the day. We had hoped to pick up lunch in one of the villages en route but were either too late or arrived on a rest day so we kept going until we found a convenient bakery on the run in to Kiel. The cycleways took us right into the city centre though a certain nerve and savoir faire are needed to mix with the traffic near the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station). We found Kiel Tourist Office easily enough on the quayside close to the station and were fixed up with reasonable rooms in a somewhat old fashioned hotel though we had the impression they were more used to people arriving by ship or posh four wheeled vehicles. Big city, thousands of visitors, famous sights, our few Euros were largely irrelevant I suppose, but it was such a difference not to be made welcome. We were quartered over in Ellerbek, where the shops catered for much of the immigrant population and the street scene was lively but very different from ‘Downtown’ by the Tourist Office. It suited us and in the evening we wandered on foot back to the centre and ate in a bustling restaurant watching the shoppers rushing past under their umbrellas. The meteorologists had unfortunately got their sums right.
Day 7
Our companions T and M took a train back to Kassel whilst we entrained as far as Neustadt (Holstein). After the usual gloomy start the weather rapidly improved and we enjoyed a pleasant run along the Ostsee (Baltic) cycle route via Travemünde to Lübeck where we stayed a couple of nights in a Youth Hostel, to visit a friend and collect our impressions of our trip. Our verdict was that we would return in a couple of months and explore further.
We did, the weather was much kinder and you can order the resultant: ‘Cycling in Northern Germany - a Loop through Schleswig-Holstein’ on:

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