Welcome to Switzerland

From Munich we caught a bus to Konstanz which, surprise surprise, is on Lake Constance. En route we came across Surprise Ferry Crossing #3. You’d think we would have stopped being surprised by now. But no, when the bus pulled up to a ferry loading zone we looked at each other. “No way. Not again. Surely not.” Surprise! The bus drove onto the ferry and we had a pleasant journey across a calm Lake Constance.

Our bus just drove right on

Konstanz is in Germany, but it is oh so close to Switzerland. After getting off the bus we very quickly crossed the border. It was a bit of a non-event but slightly more noticeable than other border crossings we’ve done, there was still a border control building but it is no longer in use now that Switzerland is part of the Schengen zone.

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Hiking in the Bavarian Alps = too much cheese

On Thursday we met up with Laura and caught the train to Tegernsee, from there we wanted to catch the bus to Kreuth. Laura was the unfortunate person who went first into the bus. Turns out we didn’t know how to pronounce Kreuth. “Crewth? Crowth?”. Eventually the bus driver understood. “Kroite!” (With a gutteral r) “which stop?” Umm.. pause… regroup. “Kreuth Rathaus”. The driver glared at us, it seemed like he didn’t agree with our choice but he did finally tell us the price. €3.70 each, €12.10 for three people. We tried to argue that 3.70 x 3 = 11.10 but to no avail, the language barrier and the surly driver was too much and we just overpaid by a euro.

Kreuth Rathaus turned out to be the right stop, in spite of the bus driver’s objections. It was a very un-New Zealand-like start to a tramp. In the middle of a small town on a road.

Start photo!

Day 1

We started walking at 10am through some fields with cows with bells. So European. For lunch we decided to do a side trip up Leonhardstein peak which was labelled as a black ‘difficult’ track. It involved similar scrambling to a lot of NZ tracks but there were some nice views and a surprising number of other people at the top. Also a giant cross. Where you would find a trig station in NZ it seems you find a cross in Germany. I would like to mention at this point that Laura brought three apples, a packet of blueberries and a tomato with her. I’m pretty sure she had as much snack weight as me and Andy combined.

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An attempt to plan a hiking trip in Germany (with brief interludes of drinking)

The first order of business on arrival into Munich was to meet up with our NZ friend Laura and sit in a beer garden. Munich is famous for its beer gardens, I think the biggest one holds something like 8,000 people. The standard measure of beer is 1L and they have the biggest pretzels I’ve ever seen.

Giant pretzel with Andy’s face for scale

We were meeting Laura with the plan to do some hiking in the Bavarian Alps. She was already in Munich visiting friends so it was a convenient place to meet. Unfortuanately planning a hiking trip in Germany was more difficult that we expected and when we asked for recommendations one German friend actually suggested we go to Italy to hike instead. Not a good start.

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Reunion with Luana and Milan

From Cologne we had hoped to take the Intercity train direct to Stuttgart, although we cringed at the €80/person price tag. Once we were actually at the station and worked out where to go to book bike spaces on the train, we discovered that all of the ICE trains were full up for bikes. However we could take local trains. Four different trains to get to Stuttgart and then one extra to Tubingen. On the plus side, day tickets were only €26 each.

Train 1: Two storey train, we left the bicycles downstairs and worriedly peered out the windows at every station in case someone was trying to steal them.

Train 2: Super relaxed, we just sat with a view of our bikes in an almost empty carriage.

Train 3: We had a rushed five minute transfer and then our whole carriage was full of schoolchildren. Thank god two of them gave up their seats so we could fit our bikes in, kind of. After an hour they all got off and it was blessedly silent. We met a Kazakh and a Russian who asked Andy if he smoked a lot of weed since his eyes were so red. When he explained it was due to hayfever he was promptly offered eye drops, antihistamines, and Jagermeister.

Andy is terrified by the schoolchildren surrounding him

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Arrival into Cologne (again)

We woke up on our second night in Germany at about 2am to a constant rumble of thunder and lightning flashes every five seconds. A huge storm had rolled in after the 35 degree day and it was bucketing down on the tent. Every lightning flash lit up the whole tent which made sleep difficult. I was happy that our tent seemed to successfully keeping us dry and hoping that the storm would pass before I needed to go toilet in the morning. Of course when we woke up the sky was blue and clear and pretending that the storm had never happened.

The bike ride to Cologne was hot but pretty straightforward. On the outskirts of the city we passed a huge bike shop and decided to stop by. I needed a new drink bottle to replace the now-very-squished disposable plastic bottle I had been using since Belgium.

Cycling cycling cycling

The store turned out to be huge and full of almost every type of bike I could imagine. We got into a conversation with one of the staff and he told us that bike stores are tending to be bigger and bigger. This store was 1000 m² but another one nearby was apparently 6000 m². With each model of bike you need five different sizes and potentially several different colours so it all adds up. We also started talking about ebikes which are becoming super popular, apparently not just with old people any more. The guy in the shop reckoned you need three factors to be able to sell ebikes:

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Riding down the Rhine

Our goal after Amsterdam was to ride towards Germany and meet up with the Rhine River where there is a Eurovelo route. We planned a route from Amsterdam to the border based on the location of Natuurkampeerterrein campsites. To navigate we used the Fietsplanner app to plot a route following the node point network. This network of cycling routes covers the whole country, each intersection (node) is numbered and has a map. You can work out a route and then just follow the signs to each successive number. There are similar systems in Belgium and Germany and we thought it worked really well.

My notes on what numbers to follow, scribbled on a leftover tourist map

The first day was fairly scenic, mostly alongside water. We met a Dutch guy who told us that the land we were cycling on was all completely reclaimed land and used to be water which was pretty interesting – no wonder it was so flat! Unfortunately we had a headwind pretty much the entire way so we were pretty happy to arrive at the campground.

The campground appeared to be unmanned but had a high-tech check in computer. After several false starts we managed to interpret the Dutch and enter our details to check in. Then we tried to pay. The machine only accepted cards so we used one of our credit cards: rejected. We tried our other credit card: rejected. I used the phone to call the help number and the woman at the other end told me that the machine didn’t accept credit cards, only debit cards. “Why didn’t you bring your bank card with you?” “I’m from New Zealand.” She seemed a bit flummoxed, it turned out that there was actually no way for us to pay. She told us just to set up tent and that she would let the ranger know about us.

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A tale of two Hamburgs

In Hamburg we decided to spend a little bit of time apart. We had been travelling together for about six months and in that time had spent probably less than one whole day apart. In Phnom Penh Andy went to the killing fields without me since I had already been, that was for half a day. Then in Hong Kong Andy went shopping for gas canisters with Warwick while I stayed at home to work on our Russian visa applications (divide and conquer), that was about three hours. Other than that we’ve been pretty much together the whole time. So Hamburg seemed like a good place to split up for a bit before we start cycling together. To this end we actually booked two different hostels in the same city. We would meet up at the bus station three days later to travel to Belgium.

All this means that we had two completely different experiences in Hamburg. So Andy will be writing on the blog for the first time! Woooh! Get excited. I’ll put his stuff second to build suspense…

Brittany

I had booked a hostel in St Pauli which turned out to be the alternative artistic and rebellious area a few kilometres from the centre of town. Almost all of the buildings were covered in graffiti which threw me a little at first but once I got used to it I found it pretty cool. The St Pauli logo is a scull and crossbones which probably tells you a little bit about the type of people living there. It is also home to the largest red light district in Germany and is the place where the Beatles became famous (at least according to the locals).

Typical buildings in St Pauli

My experience in Hamburg was basically characterised by trying to go on a free walking tour and somehow failing miserably. It shouldn’t be that hard right?

My first night I cooked the classic backpacker staple – pasta – and made friends with some of the others at the hostel. Several Australians and an American who had spent six months in NZ. I also met a German guy who seemed overly concerned that Andy and I were staying in separate places. Most other people supported the idea but this German seemed to be worried about my well being whenever I saw him.

Lots of people recommended the free walking tour which is another backpacker staple but something I’ve never tried. It seemed like it might be a good way to see the city. They were held at 11am and 2pm starting in the main square.

Hamburg city bikes – StadtRAD

I went out for breakfast and then picked up one of the bikes from the city’s bike share system which I had signed up to. By this time I was already too late for the morning tour, so I thought I’d go for a cycle then go on the afternoon one instead. I had read in a forum online that the section along the Alster between Ohlsdorf and Poppenbuttel was ‘great for a lazy Sunday afternoon ride’ which sounded perfect after not having cycled in so long. It was indeed pleasant and I was super impressed at Hamburg’s cycling facilities. It seemed like every road had a separated cycle lane. And you can even cycle both ways on most of the one way streets.

Cycling along the Alster River

Unfortunately I was a bit ambitious with how far I went, so I had to race back into town to arrive by 2pm. Along the way I got completely lost and ended up taking a wrong turn and biking in a complete circle before managing to get back on track which just made me even later. I arrived in the square at exactly 2pm, still with my bike and realised I didn’t know exactly where the tour was meeting. It ended up being just too hard. Tomorrow would be the day! I did manage to visit one random church and some parks before heading home.

That night I went out with the American, a Brazilian, an Australian and a kiwi couple from Auckland. We didn’t see much of the Reeperbahn which is the centre of the nightlife and the red light district, just an Irish pub and a couple of side streets. However we did get a photo at Beatles Square.

In Beatles-platz

I somehow drunk way too much beer which left me feeling terrible the next morning. I’m going to blame it on the blurry Brazilian in the photo above who kept buying rounds. Terrible idea. On the plus side, I wasn’t the person in my dorm who vomited off the balcony into the hostel garden.

Too hungover to leave the hostel that morning, I prioritised the English-language tour at the Chocolate Museum over the walking tour which now just seemed impossible to attend. Chocolate Museum!! You even get to make your own chocolate bar. How could learning about Hamburg’s history compare to that?

To be honest, this turned out to be probably the wrong choice. I had previously visited the Cadbury Factory in Dunedin and learnt how chocolate is made. Making your own chocolate bar turned out to be just adding toppings to liquid chocolate in a mould. But there were lots of opportunities to taste the chocolate at different stages in the process. Om nom nom.

My work of art

With no internet on my phone I kind of wandered aimlessly around the city again. I made my way to the Ubersee area which is like the new Wynyard Quarter in Auckland. The weather was turning a bit so I ended up just retreating to my hostel to eat pasta for the third night in a row and hang out in the kitchen with the other backpackers. I had a fun time in Hamberg but I don’t feel like I really made the most of my time there, a little more research and planning (and a bit less beer) would have been benefiical.

Andy

My time in Hamburg could be characterised by one theme –  self imposed stingy-ness.

I had booked a dorm bed at the relatively pricey Generator Hostel Hamburg without realising the hostel didn’t include a guest kitchen. After kicking myself repeatedly for about 10 minutes and stressing over the small fortune each meal would cost me, I decided to embark on a new plan. Operation Andy-stays-on-budget-in-Hamburg.

My hostel cost the equivalent of about $33 NZD per night, as our budget is $50 NZD per day that left me $17 NZD for food/activities per day (approx. 10 €). After some quick google searching of various travel blogs, I developed a plan of attack to see a decent amount of Hamburg, without breaking the bank. Here are some of the many highlights:

Running around Alster Lake

Have you heard of this new fad called “jogging” or “yogging” – it might be a soft j. I’m not sure which, but apparently you just run for an extended period of time! It’s supposed to be wild. – Ron Burgandy

One of the really enjoyable activities I tried was running around Hamburg’s Alster Lake (Aussenalster lake). These lakes sit right in the centre of Hamburg, and features a collection of peaceful green spaces and quiet cafes. A loop around the main Alster Lake totals about 7km’s, which seemed like the right number of km’s for me.

Running route around Alster Lake, Hamburg

Unfortunately the lake’s many green spaces do not feature regular toilet facilities, as I happened to find out about two-thirds of the way through my run. I don’t know how many of you have tried running in the past, but there seems to be some kind of link between running and pooping – it’s like nature’s laxative! Luckily I was able to complete the loop without soiling myself using a combination of slow jog and quick walking back to my hostel – crisis averted!

The Old Elbe Tunnel

North Entrance to the Old Elbe Tunnel (head over to the right by the green roofs)

The Old Elbe Tunnel (A.K.A. St. Pauli Elbe Tunnel, A.K.A. the tunnel ‘o’ love) is an old transport tunnel that runs under the river Elbe connecting central Hamburg with the bustling dock area. The tunnel was built in 1911 and was initially used for vehicle transport beneath the river. Nowadays, the tunnel is only open to pedestrians, cyclists, and budget conscious tourists. I think the most impressive part of the tunnel was the four huge elevators that used to provide access for vehicles at either end. The elevators drop you from the surface 24m down a huge shaft to the tunnel. No gentle gradient for this transport link!

Inside Ye Olde Elbe Tunnel

Climbing St. Michael’s Church

Visiting St. Michael’s Church seems to be one of the classic tourist activities for people visiting Hamburg – it was also one of the few options that I could squeeze under my tight 10€ budget.

St Michael’s Church

For the very affordable price of 5€, you get the opportunity to walk up 453-ish steps to a viewing platform within the church tower (if the thought of voluntarily climbing so many steps doesn’t sit well with you, don’t worry there’s also an elevator). The view from the top is fantastic and gives 360° views of central Hamburg and the dock area. Definitely worth a visit if your interested in a small amount of exercise and ‘dem views.

Watching the sunset from Hafen City construction site

Sunset on the Elbe River

One of the best ways to avoid travel costs is to hang out in construction sites – at least that was my logic when I decided to try and find a place to practise some sunset photography. I headed out toward Hafen City, an area of Hamburg adjacent the river which I figured would provide some unobstructed views as the sun set. A fenced off area caught my eye which sat directly opposite the Elbe Philharmonic Hall (a really fancy concert hall that looks like someone attacked it with cloud cutout scissors). The area looked like a cleared section of land that was awaiting development, and to my untrained eye would be perfect for taking some sweet pics from.

I sidestepped the fences using cat-like agility and found a nice spot overlooking the river. As the sun got lower it started to light both the sky and the surrounding buildings with a soft orange glow (#ShouldHaveAnIntagramAccount). Overall it was an excellent place to watch the sunset, however I must have looked a bit odd to passing passenger boats (think Gore-tex clad weirdo hunched over his camera in the middle of nowhere).

Walking Tour of St. Pauli’s Graffiti

St. Pauli Street Art

In my research into Hamburg’s best activities for the frugally inclined, I discovered this blog post about Hamburg’s famous street art. Being the total sheep that I am, I decided to follow the author’s advice to the letter and set off toward Sternschanze metro station (walking of course, taking the metro was NOT in the budget).

It took me a good few hours to trip around checking out the various tags, stencils and murals that decorate almost all of the buildings within this area of town. I don’t think there was a single doorway that didn’t feature some form of graffiti. I don’t know if I would classify all of it as “art”, but the vast majority definitely had some form of aesthetic merit. Even if you’re not into street art, I would recommend a visit to the St. Pauli area purely to see how graffiti has been integrated into this entire neighbourhood.

Meal plan

Here’s a brief snapshot of what my meals looked like while keeping below my 10€ budget.

  • Breakfast consisted of muesli + yogurt eaten stealthily out of my travel mug (my hostel did not allow outside food)  ≈ 1€
  • Lunch, mostly local bakeries and was either a bread roll and pastry, or coffee and pastry (German’s make nice pastries)  ≈ 3€
  • Dinner, one word – kebab. Kebab shops are everywhere in Hamburg, and I could generally net an absolutely huge kebab for ≈ 4.50€

Total cost  = 8.50€ per day. (Note that when visiting St Michael’s Church I counted the projected savings from the other days and made sure I ate slightly cheaper that night – yes I am that stingy.)

Reunited

After three nights and two quite different approaches to Hamburg, we met up on Friday morning to swap stories and catch the bus to Belgium. I think it was nice to spend some time apart before setting off on the next leg of our trip – cycle touring!

 

Crossing the border from Finland to Germany

“Wait a second” you say, “Finland and Germany don’t share a border”. You are correct. However there is a ferry service that runs a daily 28 hour crossing from Helsinki in Finland to Travemunde in Germany. Overland travel for the win.

It was a bit hard to find information about the ferry crossing since it seems to mostly be popular with truckers and families in camper vans. Two groups that don’t typically write travel blogs as much as backpackers do. I think most backpackers would just fly, it would be much quicker and probably also cheaper. Thanks to our self-imposed overland travel rules we didn’t have a choice but we managed to get tickets for about 100€ each (~NZ$155) which we thought was pretty reasonable.

To get to the ferry terminal we caught the metro to Vuosaari/Nordsjo and connected to bus 90 which took us right up to the terminal. We were the only people checking in. Well, the only foot passengers. There were a tonne of cars and trucks queued up. Check-in was open from 3.5 hours to 2 hours before our departure at 5pm. Bang on 3pm we were shepherded into a van which then proceeded to lead all the cars to the boat. We felt pretty important in the van right at the head of a long trail of vehicles weaving through the container shipping port.

Helsinki container port

 

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