When we left South America in May we looked forward to spending spring and summer in Europe. That is the part of the world we enjoy the most, and having been there so often, the travel is easy. Our itinerary was loose, but there were countries we looked forward to revisiting, and cities in those countries we hadn’t explored. And, as I mentioned, getting around should be a trouble-free. Perhaps I spoke too soon.
We enjoyed April in Portugal where the weather was wonderful, the people were kind, and the cost of living was low. From there we dipped into France for some family time where the weather was cooler, the people were mostly kind, and the cost of living went up a bit. From there we traveled to Germany, where the weather turned downright chilly, and was often overcast. The people were a bit stand-offish, and the cost of living was definitely on the rise.
On the way to Germany, we hit a travel snafu. We shouldn’t have been so cavalier about our abilities because the problem was self-inflicted. Michael, as you know, is the Chief Travel Planner. He spends a great deal of time working out how we get from A to B efficiently and affordably. He does a great job - and I leave him to it. When it was time to head from Paris to Hamburg he gave me one of those self satisfied smiles that means “you won’t believe the great fares I got!” and then the smile turned a bit sheepish as he explained the journey was going to be a bit complicated. But the good news was, “we are going by train, and you love trains!” He’s right. I do love trains. And buses, too. The buses in Europe are more comfortable than airplanes and usually have wifi and a bathroom on board. And with either mode, you don’t have the hassles that come with flying - including weight limits and arriving up to three hours ahead of your flight. And maybe, best of all, you see more of the country when traveling overland.
A few days before our departure Michael double-checked (as always) the travel details, and I could practically see the gears turning in his head as he puzzled over something. When he found the courage, he told me he just realized our train from Paris to Hamburg was not direct. In fact, if you counted the two trains we’d take to get from Samois to Gare d’ Est station in Paris we would take a total of seven different trains before we reached Hamburg. And, um, we only had reserve seats on one of the trains. What?
Many of you know we haul two large rolling duffle suitcases, two overly-full day packs, and my large Baggallini purse (also known as the Mary Poppins bag because it holds an amazing array of emergency snacks and useful gadgetry). So we would be in full “Sherpa Mode “as we found various platforms, not knowing if there would be escalators or elevators (don’t count on it), in stations we hadn’t been to before.
This is where flexibility and kindness toward your travel partner comes in. How bad could it be? We had plenty of time and we’d just take it slowly. Except when there were only ten minutes between one train and another. Surprisingly, it went well for the first few legs. But then came the snafu. We got on the wrong train. We read the reader board at the platform that said Mannheim (our next destination), and there was a train all ready to go on our platform, so we climbed on board, happy to have gotten seats together and stowed our bags. Just as we were congratulating ourselves, the doors closed and the train pulled out of the station ten minutes ahead of our scheduled departure. Now we all know trains are sometimes late, but they never, ever leave early. We asked a passenger if we were going to Mannheim and he said yes (thank God) but we’d gotten on the local train that would stop at every single station, as opposed to the express train, leaving from the same platform 10 minutes later. Oops! The journey would take an hour as opposed to 23 minutes. Soooo we would miss our connection to Hamburg and no doubt have to pay some obscene amount to change trains, if there was one, when we arrived.
But if we let these sorts of things get us down, we wouldn’t survive as Senior Nomads. Instead we took a deep breath, and began to dance. Dance? Yes, since the car we were in had a wide open space for strollers and wheelchairs, we decided to hum a tune and take a turn around the floor. I am sure we made an interesting sight, but it seemed the right thing to do…and it made for a magical moment.
In the end, we were able to squeeze on to the last train from Mannheim to Hamburg with our same tickets and ultimately, we only took six trains and arrived at our Airbnb just a half an hour behind schedule. Lesson learned - double-check on your double checker, and don’t just assume the train waiting on the platform is yours!
Hamburg Airbnb prices were higher than we had hoped so it was challenging to find one we both liked within our $90 a night goal. We knew we’d have to go over that, but took solace in the affordable places we found in Portugal that would average things out. Also in July and August, when many Europeans take their long holidays, homeowners often list their homes on Airbnb hoping to offset some of their travel expenses. That means the most affordable listings really are “living in other peoples homes” because the owners just tidy up and leave the keys.
That turned out to be the case with the Hamburg apartment we rented. The listing had no reviews, and we could see from the photos we would be immersed in the owner's lifestyle. We have had enough experience with Airbnbs to take the occasional gamble on a place with no reviews if it meets our criteria (center of the city, WiFi, big table, kitchen, balcony, washing machine) and the photos show the place to be clean. In this case, everything lined up except the bed. It was on a raised platform accessed by a ladder. We have learned over time that beds in high places don’t work for Senior Nomads - or anyone over the age of 12 for that matter. We almost passed on this place, but everything else about it was appealing so we asked the hosts if they would mind putting the mattress on the floor. The answer was yes, and they also matched our price request, so we booked it for ten nights. I am so glad we did.
Not only did we get a taste of “real” life in a fabulous city, but our young hosts went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable - it felt like they were preparing for their grandparents to stay. There were sticky notes on the various cupboards about the contents and on the appliances with instructions, and the place was sparkling clean. They even checked in with us a few times to make sure we were okay. The apartment itself was filled with sunlight and the bed, even on the floor, was very comfortable. The final challenge of this trip was hauling our worldly possessions up five flights of stairs. In the end it was worth the extra effort because the location turned out to be perfect.
Usually, we stay in the capital city of a country to be near the most important cultural attractions and good public transportation. But on this European Redux, we wanted to try secondary cities so we chose Hamburg over returning to Berlin or Munich. Hamburg was a great choice. Not only is it chock full of interesting museums and performance halls, it exudes history. And since many of our destination decisions are driven by interest World War I up to the present, this city would be a gold mine.
We took our usual free walking tour to get oriented and then stopped at the tourism office to find out what was on offer. We also scour posters on church bulletin boards, restaurant windows, and light posts for free concerts and other lesser-known events - when we see something with potential we take a picture of it and research the details later.
Hamburg is home to the new Elbphilharmonie performance hall. It’s a building that the Hamburgers (yes, that’s what they are called) have a love-hate relationship with. Partially because completion was delayed by several years and the final construction cost of 789 million dollars went many times over budget. But most of the controversy is over the building itself. We landed on the "love it" side and found it stunning. Last but not least, it is almost impossible for the average person to get tickets to a performance there. And it’s not about the cost because it was by the city that tickets be affordable for the citizenry. Maybe that's part of the reason concerts sell out months in advance. We stood in line for an hour one afternoon hoping snag a couple of returned tickets - we didn’t really care what the performance was, we just wanted to experience the apparently mind-blowing acoustics inside. There must have been 60 of us in line and once the box office opened they announced they only had ten tickets available.
Fortunately, the “old concert hall” had several concerts to choose from and many were free. So, on a warm summer evening we strolled through our lovely neighborhood and the bucolic Planten un Blumen gardens to attend a free chamber music concert. It was performed by the San Marco Chamber Music society - a lively sextet of middle-aged musicians touring Germany from Jacksonville, Florida. We were in a intimate performance salon so we could truly appreciate their individual talents. At the end, they received a well-deserved standing ovation. We have been so fortunate to find these sorts of serendipitous events all through our travels.
Most every day we boarded the #4 or #5 tram and zipped into the city center to find something new and interesting to do. That included a long afternoon at the Kunsthalle Museum, where there is a staggering amount of artwork (several of which are flagged as under investigation of origin in an effort to determine pre-war ownership), an evening in an Irish pub watching the USA v Sweden Women’s World Cup match, and a walking tour of the seedy St. Pauli neighborhood where the Beatles got their start and the Red Light district was in full (legal) swing.
We also spent a day apart with each of us taking in museums that appealed to us personally. My interest in graphic design drew me to the MK&G Design Haus, and Michael’s choice, due to his love of boating, was the Internationales Maritimes Museum, which he tells me is one of the best museums he’s ever visited.
Of course, there were trips to the local Gelateria, or the bakerie for warm pretzels. And more mundane activities like getting SIM cards and meandering through German grocery stores foraging for dinner (personally one of my favorite activities). And, since we maintain that “we are not on vacation”, there were times when we just stayed home enjoying the sunny deck and our birds-eye view of the Hamburg TV Tower while we did a load of laundry or played a game of Scrabble.
On a more somber note, we spent time at the moving St. Nikolai Memorial. The spire of this ancient church soars 147 meters skyward and can be seen for miles. It became ground zero for one of the most devastating bombing campaigns of World War II. Over two days late in July of 1943, during a raid called Operation Gomorrah, English bombers pummeled the city during broad daylight and American Bombers swept in during the dark of night. Over 40,000 German citizens died and almost a million were left homeless. There is a museum on-sight that takes no sides - it just evokes the tragedies of war. After learning the whole story, we looked over the city from the observation deck in the church tower and could barely fathom the bustling city of Hamburg spread before us reduced to rubble.
One last travel misstep became apparent near the end of our stay in Hamburg. Michael went online to renew our traveler’s health coverage with Insure My trip and realized he had let it lapse! We’d been merrily traveling for over a week thinking if one of us broke a hip or came down with the German Measles, we were covered. Not so! Once he realized his error he renewed our policies but we had to wait 24 hours before the coverage took effect. We considered staying in bed for an entire day while we waited. So that takes us back to the prior lesson: Always double-check your double-checker. And don’t fall over.
In each of our six years of Senior Nomad life, we’ve taken to the road for a couple of weeks. It’s a nice break from train, plane and bus schedules, and allows for some spontaneity. It also allows us to take a few roads less traveled to explore the countryside. Hamburg was our launch site for a two week trip through Denmark’s Jutland penisula. More on that next time.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads