Peter Cum­ber­lidge sings the praises of cruis­ing on three great Euro­pean rivers: the Elbe, Seine and Thames

Motorboat & Yachting - - Contents - WORDS: Peter Cum­ber­lidge

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.

Above Cux­haven

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.

Mid­dle reaches

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

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