Europe has endless possibilities of places to explore, sights to see and delicious foods to taste and my favourite way to get a true sense of European life is by heading to fairly off the radar places.
This summer I sailed on a cruise to the islands and cities of Scandinavia, sailing from Southampton on Fred Olsen’s smallest ship, Braemar.
I was so thankful for a smooth crossing of the North Sea to enter the Baltic Sea via the Kiel Canal at the mouth of The Elbe River in Germany.
Well, if you believe that transiting a canal is dull, you are sadly mistaken, especially if you are transiting the Kiel Canal on a warm, sunny, summer’s day.
First, Braemar was “short” enough to make the 61-mile transit – short enough to slip under the nine bridges which span the waterway, saving a full day’s sail around the Jutland Peninsula. With the help of a pilot or two!
Bridges carrying cars, trains, bicycles and people. Modern bridges of concrete, older bridges of lattice ironwork.
Also crossing the canal were a variety of small ferries, transport for local residents to get across the canal and back, and pedestrian/bicycle tunnels allowing people and their bicycles an easy passage underneath.
We started our journey at around 8 a.m. at Brunsbüttel where our entry lock was situated, and exited at Holtenau at our final lock, just as dinner was served.
There were 10 hours to reflect on the significance of this historical waterway and surrounding regions of Germany.
The Canal itself has its origins in the Eider Canal which was built in the 18th Century to extend the Eider River to the Kiel Fjord. The 61-mile-long waterway made it possible to avoid the high taxes imposed by the Danish King for passage through the Øresund Strait at Copenhagen, but it also benefited local agriculture and commerce. However, at only 10 feet deep and 95 feet wide, it became obsolete all-too-quickly. As such, the construction of a new canal started in 1887, bypassing the Eider River and linking Holtenau to Brunsbuttel (at the mouth of the larger Elbe River). It took 9,000 workers just 8 years to build the canal. But even that new build wouldn’t last long as modern ships were too big to use the (new) canal, so it was widened between 1907 and 1914, with new locks being installed at both ends. All traffic was suspended by Hitler in 1936, but after WWII, it was opened to traffic once again.
It is extremely difficult to transit the Canal without thinking about its role in and importance to Europe, many times divided, but today, united.
However, there is also the today of the Canal, a today of a very normal existence. We saw lots of people on bikes, biking for pleasure, to ‘walk’ their dogs, to spend time with their families, to go about their business.
We saw many local residents on the banks, extending a friendly, vigorous wave to their maritime guest.
We saw many people coming out of canal-side cafes and restaurants, also to welcome us during our transit.
What we saw was a moving tableau of life along the Canal, of villages lining its banks.
In other villages we saw average suburban homes, while in still others, patrician homes.
At either end were forests of wind turbines, ever present in our northern European landscape, and a few original windmills!
We knew that we were privileged to have an opportunity to reflect on a not-too-distant tragic past as well as on the peaceful life that the region enjoys today.
As we set sail into the Baltic Sea I felt excited to be experiencing a glimpse of Scandi life on the way to the Danish island of Bornholm. This is a perfect little island that’s regularly missed when traveling around the Baltic Sea. My next post!
PS Some of the photos were taken by my dinner companion, John, who was very knowledgeable on all things maritime, photography and life in general. Thanks John!!