A TALE OF THREE CITIES
Peter Cumberlidge sings the praises of cruising on three great European rivers: the Elbe, Seine and Thames
Cruising up a major river feels like real exploration, especially if you have arrived off the mouth after a significant passage. For me, just gazing at a river on a chart creates a frisson of anticipation that an ordinary harbour can’t match. And when you finally see the gap in the coast from a few miles offshore, the excitement always quickens.
In Europe, we are lucky to have dozens of glorious rivers. France is awash with them. Holland too. Our own home waters offer a tempting choice in picturesque country. There are some gems in Devon and Cornwall, and Ireland’s timeless waterways are still a well-kept secret.
The greatest rivers often meet the sea through a wide, tricky estuary that is littered with sandbanks, so finding your way in feels an achievement in itself. Then, as the rough and tumble of open water is left astern, there are all the pleasures of seeing new landscapes as you push upstream and the banks draw slowly together.
The most memorable river passages provide a unique thrill and take you to the vibrant cities of the world. In this article I describe three of the finest in Europe – the River Elbe up to Hamburg, the Seine to Paris and our own magnificent River Thames, right up to the City of London.
The Elbe is a real seaman’s river and needs treating with respect, but in quiet weather it’s stunning arriving here with your own boat. Opening into the south-east corner of German Bight, the estuary is eight miles wide where it meets the sea at Cuxhaven. The low coast is fringed with vast tracts of drying sand and frothy tides swirl past a procession of beacon towers with seething shoals on either side. There are echoes of the Thames but on a grander scale.
Some cruising boats arrive here from Heligoland, a strange island of sheer red sandstone 15 miles north-west of the outer Elbe buoys. You often spot these buoys before seeing any land and then a long shipping fairway curves in past the Scharhörn banks and lonely Neuwerk island. The ebb recedes 10 miles from the faint Hanover shore and there are horse and cart trips across the flats. Beyond Neuwerk the channel follows a training wall to starboard, which finally joins the coast not far below Cuxhaven marina, a natural staging post for visitors.
Even fast boats should carry a fair stream in the Elbe and for a passage up to Hamburg it’s best to leave Cuxhaven just after low water. Then the early flood will sluice you inland between a stark dyke to starboard and acres of exposed sand to port. The south shore is pierced by small rivers, where fishing boats shelter behind marshes. The distant north shore may be practically invisible.
Ten miles above Cuxhaven the banks draw closer together and at Brunsbüttel the river is a more welcoming one and a half miles wide. Most boats turn off here, locking into the Kiel ship canal through to the Baltic. Brunsbüttel has a yacht harbour inside the locks and it’s worth staying a night or two to watch traffic entering and leaving this incredible waterway. But don’t miss a cruise up to Hamburg, one of Europe’s finest waterside cities. From the canal entrance it’s easy to follow the buoys to the heart of this German giant among seaports.
Glückstadt harbour is a delightful halt, a dozen miles above Brunsbüttel on the north side. The outer pontoons are accessible anytime, or you can lock into a picturesque basin surrounded by colourful buildings dating from when the state of Schleswig-Holstein was Danish. Car ferries shuttle across the Elbe near Glückstadt, by-passing the manic Hamburg ring road. The river banks are low and grassy, with lush farms not far inland.
At Wedel, Hamburger Yachthafen is a large sheltered marina 16 miles above Glückstadt. Snugly berthed in this leafy oasis you can visit the city by metro, but for the full Hamburg experience press on upstream and moor in the centre of things at the City Sporthafen.
Above Wedel, the north shore of the Elbe becomes more populated, though the houses are substantial in spacious grounds. Hamburg’s Blankenese and Altona suburbs are prosperous residential areas traditionally favoured by bankers and merchants, so affluent vibes prevail all the way to Altona ferry terminal. Here the city becomes more densely packed on the north shore, with docks to the south as far as you can see.
Then comes St Pauli, where steps and alleys lead to Hamburg’s red-light district – a magnet for sailors over the years. The splendid three-masted windjammer Rickmer Rickmers is moored below the Sporthafen, a friendly marina where you can savour the views and constant activity all around. Baumwall metro station is nearby and trains shuttle along an elevated line. Classic launches run trips round the harbour, their venerable engines adding to the background of sounds.
heart of hamburg
Upstream from the marina, around the city canals, are the elegant red brick warehouses from the era when the Hanseatic League was a prosperous force for trade and cultural exchange between Baltic and North Sea ports. Striking architecture from this period survives around the original harbour quays. There are city sights galore – the beautiful Alster lakes, which you can tour by boat; the Kunsthalle art gallery on Glockengießerwall; and the Reeperbahn nightlife quarter where the Beatles cut their musical teeth in 1960.
South of the marina stretch miles of modern dockland, with container terminals, massive dry-docks and specialised quays for handling every cargo under the sun. Watching the perpetual motion of Germany’s largest port, it’s the shipping that strikes you most – its mind-boggling capacity and staggering frequency of movements.
And that’s not the whole story. The Elbe rises hundreds of miles away in the Czech Republic, entering Germany near Dresden, with busy waterway links to Prague, Berlin and Poland. A fantastic river indeed.
Rural moorings at Brunsbüttel yacht harbour. Opposite left, the old centre of Glückstadt
This sleepy waterway flows through the heart of Hamburg
Many have enjoyed the vibrant café life of Hamburg
The grand waterfront of Hamburg’s old Hanseatic city
The distinctive red cliffs of Heligoland in the North Sea