Simon Calder: an ode to the joy of travelling in Europe

The man who pays his way

Simon Calder
Friday 24 June 2016 15:12

Europe. Thinking of going there? Good idea. Of all the continents, it is surely the richest in culture, cuisine, scenery and all the other virtues of importance to travellers.

If you can’t find what you want in Europe, you’re probably better off without it. Oh, hang on...

We all remember where we were on Friday morning when we heard of the vote to leave the European Union. A good few hundred thousand people were at airports, ports and railway stations trying to leave for the European Union.

Assuming their views reflect the UK as a whole, many of them will have voted in favour of Brexit – and presumably saw no conflict in demanding to leave the EU while simultaneously wanting holidays in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy or Greece. And why should they? The Leavers’ menu of promises was so wide-ranging that it could provide whatever message you wanted to hear – in particular, that we could cherry-pick the attributes of Europe that appeal, and hang on to them.

No impact on the choice and price of flights we enjoy; the freedom to roam, telephonically speaking, for next to nothing; health care on the same basis as now under the EHIC scheme. Let’s see how many of those assurances are delivered.

Meanwhile, may I prescribe a holiday in the company of two avowed Europhiles? Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries are the editors of Hidden Europe, a magazine “dedicated to exploring European life and landscapes”. And they have chosen this week to publish Europe by Rail (£15.99;

The book is an alluring combination of evocative writing (“Speed soaks up detail as poppies in the fields of Flanders become a red haze”) and practical advice on topics such as luggage: “We judge a small torch, a corkscrew and appropriate plug adaptors to be essentials.”

Subtitled The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers, it is also a history of Europe in 50 train routes.

The first is Eurostar from London to Paris. We learn that a young architect named Thomas Hardy worked on the Midland Railway’s approaches to St Pancras station, before changing career to become a writer; and that on the approach to the Gare du Nord in the French capital, the train crosses the Oise at the spot where Aethelwulf, King of Wessex, demonstrated an early sense of European unity by marrying Judith Flanders in the year 856.

The last is a challenging trans-Carpathian adventure, far from the madding crowd. It takes you from Belgrade to Lviv, embracing Serbia, Romania and Ukraine, and delivers you to Belle Epoque charms of Chernivtsi - "a crucible of so much European history". Over the past century the city has been variously part of Austria-Hungary, the Kingdom of Romania and the Soviet Union, until that geo-political experiment fell apart in 1991.

Susanne's and Nicky's prediction of the journey time for the final 90km stretch across the Romania-Serbia border to the city of Chernivtsi is “about five hours”. That may just give you enough time to explain the UK’s decision to leave the European Union to curious fellow passengers.

Ahead of the trip, prepare answers to questions such as “Why would the country that single-handedly freed Europe from Hitler’s domination want to turn its back on a union that has kept the peace?”

At least responding to a request to “List all the benefits to British travellers of leaving the EU” won’t keep you long.

Bon voyage.

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