This spring I had the pleasure of being a tour host for 3 of my nieces on a trip to Germany. All three were approximately the age I was when I first lived in Germany, and I would be traveling over to meet them at the end of their Study Abroad programs through which they were already in Europe. Their programs finished within a day of each other in late April and one of them would be in Hamburg, so we decided to use that as our starting criteria. The ending criteria was more open; I had a window of opportunity to be away from work but had to get back eventually, one of my nieces had very flexible plans with multiple options depending on how things worked out both with our trip and those she would be meeting up with later, and the other two would be heading off together at some point to pursue their own itinerary. It was a classic planning challenge – one point known, everything else wide open.
The solution to this challenge: start filling in the blanks. A few rounds of questions revealed that all of them were more interested in getting to see a fair part of the country rather than settling in to one area and exploring it in more depth. Areas of interest ranged from “whatever you’d like to show us” to “we’ve bought tickets to a concert in Munich” with a few intermediaries along the lines of “where you lived” “where our family emigrated from” “the black forest” “castles” and finally the somewhat enigmatic “a few hours in Leipzig.” On the transportation side, 2 of them had extended Eurail passes so they were all for using the trains and covering long distances, the other had a more limited pass and needed to maximize it’s value, and I was starting with a blank sheet having not purchased anything in advance. It wasn’t simply their trip either; I had some things that I wanted to do from my perspective such as visiting some friends and eating some of my favorite foods.
After several weeks of juggling interests and schedules, along with some very generous (and appreciated) invitations from friends to stay with them, the itinerary for the trip more or less fell out by itself. We would start in Hamburg, then take the train to a friend outside of Coburg with a stop along the way in Leipzig. Then we would head across the country to Wachenheim an der Weinstrasse before reversing course to stay with friends outside Augsburg and ending up in Munich. I booked my flight as an open jaw into Hamburg and out of Munich, made hotel and rental car reservations, and bought a short duration rail pass. My nieces in England made train reservations from London to Hamburg, and my other niece would be arriving in Hamburg on the ship she was on. All was in place… or so we thought.
First the French railway workers went on strike, which led to a disruption of the Eurostar from London to Brussels. My nieces were able to get a refund for that portion of their journey and shifted over to a Ryanair flight direct to Hamburg. My niece who was supposed to dock in Hamburg at the end of her Semester at Sea voyage ended up docking in Lisbon after an Atlantic storm blocked the safe passage of the ship on to Hamburg, and along with several others who had made plans to meet people in Hamburg she had to scramble to find a flight; ironically both changes resulted in my nieces spending the same night in airports (Stanstead and Brussels) before arriving within minutes of each other in Hamburg.
I had given myself a full day to adjust in Hamburg before their scheduled arrivals, and I used that in large part to revisit the city I had spent a year studying in over 20 years before. On the morning of my nieces’ arrival I checked out of the airport Courtyard hotel where I had spent the previous two nights, shouldered my backpack (I knew they would all be traveling with suitcases and decided it would be much easier to travel as a group if at least one of us always had free hands and highly squishable luggage), and headed back to the airport terminal. I picked up a group day pass for the public transportation system, then went to arrivals and waited on them to appear. The two from England were surprisingly fast to get from landing to meeting me; the one coming in from Brussels took quite a bit longer and appeared with some of her former shipmates who had also been on that flight. After some farewells to them we gathered up and stopped by a café for a snack, then jumped on the train to head into the city and check in to our hotel for the next couple of nights.
I had expected luggage difficulties, but I hadn’t quite expected it to occur right off the bat. My niece who had been on the ship had a wheeled duffel bag as her primary suitcase. Given that it had everything she had had with her for the 4 months of her voyage plus the souvenirs she had picked up in various ports and excursions, it was significantly heavier than the shoulder strap had been designed for. When I swung it on my shoulder to go down the escalator, the plastic fitting popped out and it was clear that it would need some help before any more extensive travel. Luckily we had space and time for our journey into the city, so knowing the weakness of the strap we were able to get from the airport to the city center with no further occurrences.
The weather was a perfect Hamburg spring day; clear, comfortable temperature, and a light breeze. Accordingly, everyone who could be outside was and we came out of the subway station into a comfortably crowded downtown and headed off in search of our hotel.
I had decided that after several months in tight quarters and youth hostels my nieces might appreciate starting off the trip on a slightly higher end of the accommodation spectrum and had cashed in some loyalty points to book rooms at the Renaissance a short walk away from the city center. To my surprise I had received an e-mail from the hotel shortly after booking asking if there was anything they could do to make my stay more pleasurable, so I took them up on the idea and sent back a response with a bit of detail about our trip and planned activities in Hamburg, and that early check-in would be appreciated. I had not gotten confirmation, so I halfway expected to just drop our bags off and then head back out to the city, but not only had they accommodated our early check-in request they also upgraded me to a suite. My nieces choose to stay together in one room, so while they freshened up a bit after their extended travel I set up tea in the sitting area of my suite and we had a fairly relaxing visit for a couple of hours until everyone was ready to head back out.
Armed with a subway pass and re-invigorated after our break, we launched off on a general exploration of the city. We spent the early afternoon enjoying the area around the Rathaus and Alster and, perhaps not surprisingly, ran into some other Semester at Sea participants and their parents. What was perhaps more unexpected was when one of my nieces from England stopped in her tracks, pointed across the Alster, and exclaimed “Mr. and Mrs. Andrews!” I had assumed that she was talking about someone that she knew in England, but then realized she was pointing to the large advertisement on the side of the Kunsthalle advertising an exhibition of English landscape paintings. It turned out that she had taken an art class in England and as part of it had an excursion to the National Gallery in London where they had been surprised to find that particular painting was not available for viewing.
After getting acquainted with the city center area we headed down to the harbor and explored the Speicherstadt and the new “HafenCity” area, including the outside of the Elbephilharmonie. My nieces who had been in England are both classical musicians, and while there were no concerts or tours available to be able to see and experience the inside of the building they thoroughly enjoyed simply being in the area around the building. We then made our way over to Landungsbrucke and I enjoyed introducing them to the stereotypical German cuisine of bratwurst and beer on a lovely rooftop terrace overlooking the harbor… though I opted instead for fish and chips. As we were just days away from the 21’st birthday of the oldest one, and I had celebrated my 21’st birthday in Hamburg, I made a point of ceremoniously being the first family member to buy her a drink.
After dinner we continued our introduction to the city with a leisurely stroll back toward the hotel, and quite fortuitously as the evening came to a close we encountered a gelato shop that was still open. If buying them beer was not a corrupting influence upon them, then I am certain that introducing them to gelato was. We passed multiple drinking establishments on our subsequent travels without stopping in, but off the top of my head I can’t recall passing a gelato shop without at least strong consideration given to stopping…
The next day we had a bit of a lie-in and then headed a bit further afield in our explorations. We started off with a cafe breakfast at the bakery near the hotel on Gansemarkt – the same bakery I used to duck into and pick up a pastry on my way to class if I was running late and had come out of the U-Bahn just in time to see my bus leaving… We then went to the Dammtor train station to get rail passes validated and seat reservations made, then walked over to the University area. Classes were not in session and so it was really fun to explore a quiet campus and it’s environs and relate some of my experiences there to my nieces, who having just completed their own study abroad periods were very much attuned to what I was saying.
After the university area we headed back over to the Alster and then found our way to the Kunsthalle where we had a chance to visit with Mr. And Mrs. Adams as well as see my favorite painting, Casper David Friedrich’s “Wanderer ueber das Nebelmeer.” After that I took them over to the area I had lived in and walked past my old student housing before stopping in a small Turkish Imbiss to introduce them to Doener Kebabs. We were only a few feet away from the grocery / department store I used to use, so we stopped in there and found shoe inserts for a couple of my nieces and a better suitcase to replace the overloaded duffel bag for the rest of the trip. That provided a good reason to head back to the hotel for a bit of a break (and more tea).
Following our tea break we headed back out and followed the Alster to the harbor, taking in the remains of the Nikoli tower and the various canals on the way. From the harbor we headed back through the city to the Bismarck monument, and from there down to the Fischmarkt and up to St. Pauli. For the sake of the experience we headed over to the start of the Reeperbahn and had a quick look at it before heading back to the S-Bahn and over to the Hauptbahnhof for a late dinner of Currywurst and fries capped off by more gelato on the way back to the hotel.