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  • Writer's pictureHiker Tom

Europe: Part 5

Making Friends and Pushing Boundaries

When I first set out on my travels I had anticipated that my route through Germany would begin in Hamburg before proceeding on to Berlin, and so on and so forth, yet none of it was set-in-stone. I had consciously opted not to plan anything beyond Copenhagen in an attempt to feel the sense of freedom that might be achieved by not knowing where I could end up next. In this way, if I particularly liked a place that I was in then I could stay there for longer without any repercussions, or perhaps if there was somewhere that caught my eye then I would be free to pack up my belongings, get on the next bus there, and find my way in some place new and unexpected. Thus, as I sat in Copenhagen I came across in my research a small medieval town fifty miles to the north of Hamburg that appealed to my historical passions, and before long I had decided that Hamburg would not, in fact, be my first stop in Germany. The next day I was sat on a coach travelling south to the ‘City of Seven Spires’, Lübeck.

The imperious Holstentor

Lübeck is a medieval town in the Schleswig-Holstein region of northern Germany. It was once the powerful figurehead of the Hanseatic league and today is a UNESCO world-heritage sight characterised by its imposing western gate – the Holstentor – and Gothic architecture built in red and black brick. While I appreciate that there can be times where it is appropriate to spend the day traipsing tirelessly from sight to sight all across a city, most of you who know me will be aware that I much prefer to take things slow when in a new place, allowing myself ample time to enjoy wherever I am and see what I may come across. I mention this because Lübeck is the perfect place to do the latter! The primary tourist attractions are of course amazing and worth seeing; there is, for example, the aforementioned Holstentor – a looming arch suspended between two bulky red spires – and also the third largest church in Germany, Marienkirche. However, losing myself in the old town was much more entertaining; it sits on an island in the centre of the city, and so as long as I avoided crossing the river at any point I was continuously surrounded by quaint historical buildings with turreted roofs that are reminiscent of medieval castles, and almost every street I ventured down would have a reward for me in some form or another. I stopped in cozy pubs that date back to the 17th century, found a small church with a viewing platform at the top of its bell tower, and encountered a square where locals Ice-skated and ate Currywurst (traditional German street food comprised of fried sausage and curried ketchup). In contrast to my fast-paced time spent in Scandinavia, then, this gluttonous day in Lübeck served as the perfect introduction to Germany.

My next stop was Hamburg, a place that hadn’t been on my radar this time one year ago, but a city that I had since heard numerous praise about both for its grand aesthetic and for its vibrant, if at times scandalous, nightlife. I arrived at my hostel and found my way to my room which, unfortunately, smelled terrible; a group of men had been staying there for a few nights already who, judging from the pungent odor of sweat that hit me upon entry, I guessed had not washed any of their clothes since they had left their homes two weeks ago. In the grand scheme of things, this is an insignificant detail, but it is amazing how at times the smallest thing can have such an impact, and when travelling alone that impact can at times feel amplified. Needless to say, I locked my bag away as quickly as possible and headed for the hostel bar. I had been hoping to meet some other travelers there with whom I could enjoy a night out, however, given the time of year there were not that many others at the bar, and so that did not happen.

Nevertheless, I soon got talking to a kind and friendly barmaid called Anni who is a student in Hamburg working part time to fund her education. Anni is well travelled, having spent a year in New Zealand and Australia after school, so we easily spent a few hours exchanging stories across the bar, and before I headed out to explore Hamburg she had kindly agreed to meet me the next day and show me some of the sights. Being alone as I left my hostel that evening I opted not to go to any of the big bars or clubs, though I still wanted to witness one of the city’s most famed attractions: the Reeperbahn. The Reeperbahn is the primary centre of Hamburg’s nightlife. It is the largest clubbing strip in Europe and the largest Red Light district, too, thus it comes as no surprise that it is known traditionally by locals as “The Most Sinful Mile”. Having been to Magaluf when I was eighteen the raucous bars aplenty did not really surprise me. However, being a Brit I was most definitely taken aback by the sheer indiscretion with which prostitution was advertised there, epitomised by the five-storey building at the heart of the street that was at least twenty metres long, had walls embossed in fluorescent pink paint and an enormous neon sign above that simply read “SEX HOUSE”. Being by myself I didn’t hang around on The Most Sinful Mile for long, but it was certainly an interesting sight. The next morning I met Anni as planned and she showed me to the opera house (the newest architectural addition to Hamburg’s modern district, a wave-like structure rising out of the city’s famous old trading warehouses) , the St. Nikolai Memorial (remains of a church that was bombed during the war), the Town Hall, and the Alster (the lake at the centre of the city). After all of the sightseeing we stopped to get a beer and discovered that we are both huge fans of The Lord Of The Rings, and I was fascinated to hear all about her LOTR themed trip through New Zealand. It really was lovely to spend the day with someone so welcoming and interesting. Moreover, I got to see the city through a local’s perspective, and I am sincerely grateful to Anni for taking the time out of her day to make mine a better one!

Me and Anni in front of Hamburg’s town hall

On the Wednesday I visited the Miniature Wonderland, a model railway that has grown increasingly over the years to become the largest model track in the world, and it is a stunning feat of engineering. The track itself measures fifteen-thousand metres long; it has a variety of sections that replicate different parts of the world including Hamburg and central Germany, Rome, Venice, the Amalfi coast, Switzerland, the USA, and Scandinavia. It is not just limited to trains but also has fully mobile cars, buses, cyclists, cable-cars, boats, and even planes that are operating continuously day and night – indeed, the lighting above faded from dark to light and everything in between. Furthermore, it uses visual and sound effects to create truly captivating and immersive experiences for the viewer such as a thunderstorm over the Swiss Alps or the eruption of Vesuvius over Pompeii. I spent three hours marveling at the model like a kid in a candy shop, alongside a host of other kids… who probably felt like they were in candy shops! The attention to detail really is breathtaking, and I never considered before that something like this would blow my mind, but it did.

For my final night in Hamburg I had planned a quiet evening watching the Champions League with a beer, however, less than half an hour after entering the bar that I had found I was talking to an Italian lady named Camila and a Brit called Luke. She was just taking a short break in Germany to get away from her job; he had travelled from Frankfurt - where he lives and works - and was in Hamburg for a stag doo starting the next day. My quiet night took an entertaining turn and consequently I spent the evening in a lively local bar with great company and interesting conversation, before getting the best kebab of my life (the lamb was grilled fresh to order) on my way back to the hostel, not bad!

Before long my time in Hamburg came to an end and I knew that at some point I would travel eastwards to Berlin, however, having visited a number of large cities in quick succession, I felt like I needed a break. I am not much of a ‘Big City Person’, and much prefer being in smaller towns where I can access the countryside, so I decided to take advantage again of my flexible plan and checked a map to see where I could go next… the answer was Schwerin. Schwerin, I soon discovered, is a small town to the east of Hamburg built across seven lakes and home to a large regal castle. It was en route to Berlin and seemed to be perfect, however, there was no Hostel in the town and the hotels were out of my budget, so if I wanted to stay there then I knew would have to push myself to do something that I was very nervous to do: Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is an online platform which brings the travelling community together in the form of travelers and hosts, connecting these people through a safe and efficient manner and thus enabling travelers to stay with hosts for an agreed amount of time – all free of charge! Giving it a go had posed somewhat of a personal challenge for me when I set out back in January and Schwerin presented me the perfect opportunity to take a leap of faith into this unfamiliar activity. I jumped, and it took me less than half a day to find myself a host in my destination.

Schwerin Castle

I was to be staying with a Russian lady named Ekaterina who lived in the town centre, and as my bus was arriving in Schwerin I was equal parts excited and nervous. I knew that Couchsurfing is a global institution with over fifteen million users, and I also knew that Ekaterina’s validity had been verified by means of government ID, yet the irrational part of my mind was continuously imagining ludicrous scenarios in which I would be victim (think Liam Neeson’s Taken), and the closer the bus got to the station the more I contemplated getting onto the next one to Berlin. I didn’t, however, and when I arrived it was clear that those worries had been dumbfounded. Ekaterina welcomed me with a hug and poured me a drink, and she even had dinner for the both of us cooking on the stove! We had a tasty, healthy meal and chatted about the UK, Russia, and my little hand (Ekaterina is a radiologist, and was fascinated to see, hear about, and feel my abnormality) before I settled down onto a comfy couch to sleep.

The old bike that got me to the gorgeous lakeside beach behind

The next day she went above and beyond to accommodate me! Firstly, she took the bus to work instead of cycling so that I could take her bike out with me for the day. I therefore had a brilliant morning cycling round one of the lakes. The bike was a rusty old thing and its gear change didn’t work, so the going was tough, and what was supposed to be a pleasant twenty miles turned into an intense workout. It felt great to be exercising, and along the way I found a quaint, isolated beach to where I sat totally alone on for an hour enjoying the combination of a stunning view and peacefulness. My afternoon was then spent exploring the town’s fairytale-esque centre. The sky above me was blue the entire time, and the way in which everything reflected pristinely off of the water’s surface made the already impressive scenery appear magical. That evening, Ekaterina cooked Russian style pancakes for dinner, and hosted a small party during which I got to meet all of her friends. We drank beer (which she had provided), played board games, and I failed miserably to speak German. By the end of the evening I couldn’t believe that I had been so nervous beforehand; in truth it had been the perfect first experience with Couchsurfing, and it has left me eager to do it again. Schwerin itself was a gorgeous and interesting place, but thanks to the wonder of Couchsurfing and Ekaterina’s kindness towards me it became place that I believe will live long in my memory.

Ekaterina and I, at the end of my stay.


📚Read: Europe - Part 6 📚

📚Head back to: Europe - Part 1 📚


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