Saved by the snow.
Day 1: Brighton to Hamburg
Like all great railway journeys, this one starts with a cancellation. The Brighton Main Line has been closed due to an incident near Three Bridges, so the only way to reach any destination north of Brighton is via Barnham, 27 miles to the west. This includes Gatwick Airport. A lady from Denver is going to miss her flight; flustered and bewildered at first, she soon settles into an unexpected detour via the unremarkable landscape of urban West Sussex.
I too will miss my connection. Thankfully, I know from previous experience that Eurostar will rebook passengers on to a later train if there’s disruption elsewhere on the network. They are less accommodating if you arrive after the check-in gates have closed, 30 minutes before departure. This is the situation I clumsily find myself in, having miscalculated the time I needed to wait for the next train to Brussels. A member of staff takes pity and helps me get through check-in, while another allows me to jump the queue for border control (only for the passport scanner to repeatedly fail just as the final boarding announcement is being made). Panicked and slightly breathless, I manage to board the train with minutes to spare. I’m back on track.
This will be the first time I’ve travelled across Europe using an Interrail pass. The one I’ve purchased allows 7 days of travel over the space of a month, but different combinations are available. Some routes, such as those with Eurostar, require making a reservation beforehand, but in many cases you can catch any train of your choosing. In Brussels I board a Deutsche Bahn ICE train — a little more weathered and worn than I’m used to — before changing at Cologne for an SBB EuroCity train headed for Hamburg.
Ideally, it would be possible to reach Copenhagen in a single day, but with no overnight services operating along this route, a stop-over in Germany is required. This suits me fine; although I can’t speak the language, and barely understand the culture, I feel a strange sense of homecoming whenever I return.
Hamburg Hauptbahnhof has the very opposite effect. While spacious and open, it has an imposing, industrial appearance. Its 70 metre-wide roof lacks windows where it matters, giving it a suffocating heft, all aided by dingy and perfunctory ironwork. Any welcome is further undermined by the abundance of advertising and the bright signage of the adjacent shopping mall. You don’t so much arrive at this station, but be consumed by it.
Day 2: Hamburg, and onto Copenhagen
I’m meeting my friend Sandra and her partner Andy for lunch, which gives me the morning to explore Hamburger Kunsthalle, one of Hamburg’s many art galleries.
Stretched across three buildings, this one houses a mix of 19th century, modern and contemporary art, as well as paintings from the old masters. I soon discover Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich’s most well-known artwork and this institution’s signature exhibit. I only recognise this painting from having seen Stewart Lee recreate it in his most recent stand-up show. I rediscover this painting several more times as the near-endless and familiar-looking rooms see me walking in circles.
I meet Sandra and Andy for lunch at Mei Moon, a popular Chinese restaurant close to the station. The portions here are generous and delicious, and on this occasion, washed down with a beer or two.
We talk about Sandra’s recent move to Hamburg (or more precisely, one of its nearby towns), different attitudes around healthcare (apparently the German’s take a far more preventative approach than the British), all while trying not to worry too much about how Brexit might affect everything. Having considered moving to Germany myself, I’m slightly put off when I hear about all the paperwork and bureaucracy such a move can involve.
After a coffee to offset the beer, I say my goodbyes, and again offer myself to the Hauptbahnhof, which this time should spit me out in the direction of Copenhagen.
Dutch Intercity trains are curious-looking vehicles, their dated interior amenable only due to their comfort. My journey is improved by having the first-class cabin all to myself. When the train manager offers me a hot drink, I’m not expecting him to bring back a kettle full of boiling water, but that’s what I end up with, along with a few individually boxed tea bags, some tiny milk cartons and a large handful of Santa’s Favorite, a chocolate that’s dangerously moreish, even after a filling lunch.
Arriving in Copenhagen, the train manager spots the remaining unopened chocolate. “Go on, have one more; it’s been a long journey”.
Cloudy with a chance of meatballs.
Finding plenty of colour amidst the grey.