If you like three dimensional landscapes, then Germany's most northerly state of Schleswig-Holstein is probably not for you. It is not quite pancake-flat. The hills are there, but you have to look hard to see them. This is where Germany nudges up against Denmark, and a good chunk of Schleswig-Holstein is on the Jutland Peninsula. Back in the 1880s, German engineers hit on the smart idea of cutting a canal through the peninsula from the estuary of the Elbe to the Baltic port of Kiel. The canal is still a major maritime artery today, and no doubt every mariner embarking on a voyage through the canal enjoys reading the 76-page instruction to navigators, issued by the canal authorities, as much as we did. Gripping stuff.
Of course the railway company that ran trains north from Hamburg towards Denmark was a tad perturbed at the idea that this new canal would cut their tracks. But necessity is the mother of invention and in 1913 the Rendsburg Hochbrücke (High Bridge) was opened. This magnificent box-girder bridge spans the Kiel Canal at a great height, so that ships can pass unimpeded below. A gondola, suspended from the main structure, ferries pedestrians and vehicles across the canal.
We took a local train across Schleswig-Holstein last Sunday on a route that happily included the Rendsburg bridge. It is interesting how few folk really gaze out of train windows nowadays. Most passengers are too preoccupied with their laptops, mobile phones or newspapers to bother about the landscape that slides peacefully by outside the window. So it was curious to note how things were different on that Rendsburg journey. Our local train consisted of just a single railcar, carrying some thirty passengers through snow-covered landscapes in brilliant sunshine. One of those stunning winter days that stay in the memory forever. And, just for once, it seemed that everyone aboard was transfixed by the sheer beauty of the icy wilderness through which we were gently gliding.
Rendsburg was Danish until 1866, when it was rather impertinently annexed by Prussia. From what little we saw from the train, the modern town is not a happy sight. We had somehow imagined timber-framed houses nestling on the banks of the River Eider, but it was more low slung sheds scattered around main roads. No matter, we'll certainly give Rendsburg a second chance and stop off there for a better look before too long.
No sooner does our train leave Rendsburg station than the climb up towards the bridge begins. This is pure theatre, as the train processes in a great loop through the Rendsburg suburb of Schleife (the name of the place means 'loop'), slowly climbing ever higher above the rooftops. After a full circuit of 360 degrees we gaze down on snow covered allotments and houses far below, and eventually we gain sufficient elevation to cross the bridge. This extraordinary feat of engineering, with several kilometres of rail line supported by girder trestles, gives the lie to the claim that Schleswig Holstein is flat and uninteresting.
Our fellow passengers all seemed as transfixed by the spectacle as we were. Glimpses of the Rendsburg bridge from all angles - and a fleeting view of the gondola creatively gliding over the canal far below with a couple of cars on board. Intriguing perspectives on grain elevators, shipyards and cranes. Haunting silhouettes of the giant girder bridge moving ever closer against the backdrop of a crystal-clear January sky. Travel sometimes rivals cinema, and often at the most unexpected moments. Last Sunday was one such moment.
This article was first published as a hidden europe e-brief.