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A month round Europe

Exploring thriving places

Final route plan

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I’ve bought my ticket, so it’s really happening.

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Thanks for your feedback. I’ve changed my route to include a bit less hopping from city to city, have cut out Milan and am including some days in La Spezia for the Cinque Terre, and then to include Florence for symbolic reasons. Italy is probably my favourite country in the world, and the language I’m most trying to learn.

Day one: Straight down to Genoa in one big day of travel.

Day two: Explore Genoa then later to La Spezia

Day 3 & 4: Explore Cinque Terre

Day 5: To Florence

Day 6: Florence

Day 7: To Ravenna

Day 8: Ravenna

Day 9: To Verona

Day 10: Verona

Day 11: To Padua then Venice by the evening

Day 12: Venice to Trieste

Day 13: Trieste to Ljubljana

Day 14: Ljubljana

Day 15: Out to Lake Bled

Day 16: Ljublana to Vienna

Day 17: Vienna

Day 18: Vienna to Budapest

Day 19 & 20: Budapest

Day 21: Budapest to Bratislava

Day 22: Bratislava

Day 23: Bratislava to Prague

Day 24 & 25: Prague

Day 26: Prague to Dresden

Day 27: Dresden

Day 28: Dresden to Brussels (via Cologne)

Day 29: Antwerp from Brussels base

Day 30: Brussels to London

 

 

Draft route plan

OK, I think I’ve arrived at a route plan. It misses out some places I really want to visit (Romania, Sweden, Sicily, northern Spain…) but this is the most places I can visit without just passing crazily through everywhere. I’d be grateful for any comments, especially places & people I should seek out in any of these places, or nearby.

Day one: London to Brussels on Eurostar

Day two: Day trip to Antwerp (45 mins frequent trains)

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Day three: Brussels to Heidelberg  (change Frankfurt or Mannheim – fastest trains under 4 hours)

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Day four: Heidelberg for the day, then to Freiburg (1 hr 45 mins)

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Day five: Freiburg for the day, then to Zurich

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Day six: Zurich for the day, then to Milan

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Day 7: Milan for the day, then to Verona

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Day 8: Day in Verona

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Day 9: Possible stop at Vicenza then to Padua

Day 10: Day in Padua, then to Venice in the evening

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Day 11: Venice

Day 12: Venice to Trieste

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Day 13: Trieste to Ljubljana (using advice of Man in Seat61 – tram, taxi, train)

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Day 14: Ljubljana

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Day 15: Ljubljana to Vienna

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Day 16: Vienna

Day 17: Vienna to Budapest

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Day 18: Budapest

Day 19: Budapest (staying an extra day to use spas & rest)

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Day 20: Budapest to Bratislava

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Day 21: Bratislava

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Day 22: Bratislava to Prague

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Day 23: Prague

Day 24: Prague

Day 25: Prague to Dresden

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Day 26: Dresden

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Day 27: Dresden to Berlin (early)

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Day 28: Berlin

Day 29: Berlin to Cologne

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Day 30: Cologne to London (via Brussels)

Your suggestions

Here are some of your ideas about where to go, with some tips and stories about your own travels, and a few links to some interesting things to see.

Italy: “Florence is very special”; “Venice is essential”; Go to the Liguria region of Italy. Stunning beauty, amazing food, tons of religious art and some great music too”; “Maybe Emilia Romagna for all the co-op stuff and high quality of life”; “You can go by train from Genova to Sestri Levante and then from there to Cinque Terra. Five beautiful villages on the coast some of which can be accessed by train, others by boat and one by car.
…Lovely boat ride to Portovenere where there’s a Pestomat (pesto dispenser) in the village. I’d also then head from there to Viarregio and Lucca (rich in history and culture)”; “Always wanted to go back to the Aeolian Islands – ferry from Naples or Milazzo, Sicily. Stunning otherworldly little volcanic islands. Amazing people.”

France: “Montpellier”; “Carnac”; “Bordeaux – Biarritz – San Sebastian and then back across to the Cote d’Azur on the train – great three or four days of your month”; “La zad…the territory lost to the french republique”; “Ile de re in France. It’s very old fashioned and has cycling routes.”; “Venice; It’s quite easy to get away from the crowds, and it’s magical And I’m not a city person at all.”; “Ravenna is seriously under-rated. Easy journeys to Rimini (if you are a Fellini fan) and wonderful Padua. Capital of the Byzantine Empire & still has the mosaics & wood-fired ovens to prove it.”

Spain: “Ronda, Córdoba, vejer de la frontera. Explore the old frontier between Cristianos y Moros. Descover the beauty and grace of the old Islamic world.”; “Granada and the Alpujarras mountains”; “Cordoba, a unique city which in the 11th century was 1/3 Christian 1/3 Jewish & 1/3 Muslim”

Germany, Switzerland, Austria: “When I went interrailing Bavaria was a high point – Neuschwanstein castle and the surrounding area were fabulous.”; “Freiburg in Germany, lots of green stuff going on there and beautiful surroundings.”; “The Black Forest region of Germany is brill. The Vauban District of Freiburg is a fantastic example of sustainable urban design, be great to spend some time there , and Schönau where the Community contrived to buy the local electricity grid and sell renewable energy Nationwide!”; “Lake Lugano – beautiful quality of outdoor cafe life in summers evenings by beautiful lake”

South-east Europe:

“You can see much of Western Europe on holiday quite easily. Head East and visit all those more distant and unfamiliar parts of the continent.”; “If you haven’t been to Bosnia before Sarajevo and Mostar should be on your list. Beautiful, resonant, tragic.”; “Mostar”;

“Slovenia”; “I second this! I found Lake Bled one of the most magical places I have ever been to. Fly into Trieste, which is also really beautiful and a really interesting mix of cultures (now Italian but formerly Hapsburg/Austrian), stroll around and have some of the best seafood in your life, take the tram up to the Slovenian border, and then call a car. I went in the winter but I’ve seen gorgeous summer photos too.”;

“Croatia (particularly the coast, but also Zagreb) is fabulous. Check out the island that was once Tito’s retreat – it’s like a Bond Villain’s hideout, complete with almost perfectly preserved Roman seaside villas.”

“Timișoara – Romania newly announced City of Culture 2021. The City of Roses with the worlds fastest broadband. The only place in Romania which had a revolution & so has the museum of the Revolution. Direct (cheap) trains from Budapest.”

Scandinavia: “Norway was lovely! Up to the top as far as you can go by train!”; “Northern Norway or Finland, again.”; “Bornholm was a revelation – amazing light and a haven for artists.”

Belgium/Holland: “Bruges”; “Come to Brussels and hang out with the globalistas”

Off the edges: “The night train from Helsinki to Moscow!”; “The train between Warsaw and Kracow. See Warsaw first.”; “Travel overland through Spain , dip a toe into Portugal and then get the boat from Tarifa to Morocco. You must see Fez.”; “Take the trans Mongolian slowly”; “In terms of places thriving & falling apart I’d say definitely Istanbul and all the historic capitals Cairo l, Athens, Rome, Istanbul etc”; “Tbilisi and Armenia”

Cultural focus:

“I’d include all the great art galleries in my itinerary – and places where artists painted.”; “Now there is a TGV to Bordeaux you might want to visit a city with UNESCO world heritage on one bank & Darwin eco-systeme on the other. Darwin is a unique green digital cultural regeneration project.”

Scenic routes:

“Lichtenstein & Luxembourg are worth passing through & a brief stop.”

“Bosnia is incredible, particularly the train journey from Sarajevo to Mostar which cuts through the mountains.”

“If you’re on the trains, don’t miss out the journey from Geneva (via Zurich) to Vienna. That’s a stunner, high through the mountains, eight hours.”

“Sit in the dining car on the journey north through the Austrian alps, heading up from Slovenia towards Munich. Best view from a railway carriage I’ve ever had.”

Shared experiences:

“We did our own small interrail this year from Verona over the alps to Innsbruck along to Vienna and then down into Slovenia – Lake Bled and Ljubljana. Perfect combination of mountains and cities.”

“I would go back to Munich, Strasbourg and Oslo…places I visited and loved as an 18 year old backpacker! More than 30 years ago now…gosh…I caught a boat from Amsterdam up to Bergen then hitchhiked around some of that area and then down to Oslo – it was an adventure! Gothenburg was interesting too.”

I did it at 18 and had a great time, you must do the ferry from Italy to Corfu, we did that and then went onto Greece.”

“I travelled from Paris to Geneva (to see CERN) and then across to Milan – great journey, so scenic!”

“I went with some mates earlier this year, for the first time (at 40 lol, but they were 20 so… I just paid more). There’s a church in Czech made from skulls I’d visit.”

“I think having interrailed several times in the early 80’s, the then soviet east, a lot, was a revelation; still war torn and suspended. I was rather more blessed by finding unfound places and not the now over found places.”

“My daughter went interrailing a few years ago and loved it – of all the places she visited she said Montenegro was the best”

“I’ve found some places need a longer time because they are well known to be full of fascinating features, while others need a longer time to see what is there and find the things the locals love. The form that interrailing takes (a pass for travel) encourages movement through places fast, but I am sure you plan to give yourself pauses. I’m speaking up for slow engagement as well as slow travel.”

“When I went Interrailing in my youth, I used to just get on the most interesting/or pretty/or ugly/or dirty train in the station (depending upon my mood), and see where I ended up (I didn’t know where many of the names were at that time). Some places were great and some a let-down, but I liked getting on a train and not knowing where I would end up, and sometimes, a place that was not traditionally pretty and not somewhere I’d have planned to go to, turned out to be one of the highlights.”

“Lyon is a magical city. It was the first city out of the U.K. I lived in alone. I was 19 and had chosen french as an elective at University so went to live there for the summer and one term. I had a magical little apartment in the heart of the old city on the top floor so I had views of the river. The stairwell was incredibly Hitchcockian – stone steps that entwined themselves around an ancient metal elevator – so as you rode up and down in it you would only get a partial impression of the people who were on the staircase. The street was full of antique clock shops, little cafes and wine bars. I would leave the windows of the french balcony open and the music and chatter of the wine bar on the street below would float up along with the hypnotic breezes from the river below. I felt very grown up. I had a little Vespa that was stolen the second day I bought it ( after I had run out of petrol on the highway and had to bring it back to my apartment in the boot of a taxi), I was introduced to opera, wine and fine food. The old city was a magical maze of hidden streets and little markets that specialised in various produce – a market for flowers, for meat and so on. My one regret was that I wish I had been braver.”

And Paul Clarke’s experience of a massive route in 18 days. Here are his photos. He says “favourite city Sarajevo, favourite country, Norway”.

Resources and inspirations:

The Man in Seat 61;  Eurolines pass;

Romania, Great Continental Rail Journeys

“Have you seen the movie The Way with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez on walking the Camino de Santiago?”

“Roads to Santiago by Cees Noteboom”

Lumiere brothers film of train at Le Ciotat, now there is a new Lumiere cinema there.

Images of Britain

My new passport has arrived, and it’s the first time I’ve had a look at the new design, which sees every page adorned (or messed up?) with illustrations of what makes the United Kingdom so creative. My journey will include looking at the question of how national identity, amongst other frames of identity, is constructed through culture and imagery, so it’s funny that I’ll be carrying round a passport declaring the creativity of my nation.

As Oliver Wainwright says “It looks like a photocopied moodboard, the result of someone typing ‘icons of Britishness’ into Google, putting them through a pastel line-art filter and scattering them willy nilly across the pages.”

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Here we have a multicultural mash-up, including an Indian dancer pushing aside some Scottish pipers, and a Chinese carnival lion
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Here is Gilbert Scott, architect of Battersea Power Station and the red telephone box
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A page devoted entirely to Anthony Gormley, with the Angel of the North, Another Place (figures on Crosby beach) and Quantum Cloud 
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Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and two computers

It’s a very stultified and yawnsome approach to representing the creativity and diversity of the UK, giving quite the opposite effect. Of course, the Scandinavian countries do it much better. Oliver Wainwright shows the new Finnish passport which is an animated flipbook of an elk, and this cool effort from Norway.

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Working out where to go

I posted this question on Facebook:

“Next year (my 50th) I have an itch to do something I so wanted to do when I was 18 but was too poor then, which is to go interrailing. I’m thinking about exploring how places thrive, the role of culture in their thriving, and the idea of Europe. And writing & photographing, of course. If you could go somewhere beautiful and interesting in Europe, where would you go, or revisit if you loved it?”

Already 60 of my friends have given my suggestions! Thank you!

Your suggestions were inspiring. It is interesting to hear how much you’ve enjoyed journeys to Croatia, Bosnia or Poland. You’ve recommended some scenic train journeys, and overlooked places such as Ravenna, a church made from skulls, and often places on the edge or beyond Europe.

I do very much want to explore Scandinavia, as surely it showcases some of the best thrivable places. I know there’s much of interest in Spain and Portugal, especially in terms of how Moorish people developed resilient ways of living on the land and there are a lot of eco-communities around there. And islands also offer interesting material for exploring how people thrive, especially as many islands are now home or resting post to refugees, and as rising sea levels will be a significant threat to them.

But, I think partly I need to plan for efficient train journeys, where I don’t need to make too many extra reservations and where it’s cheaper to stay, so I’m thinking about heading south East for a good part of it.

Galvanising myself to go

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This year I am 50. I’ve decided to go on a train journey around Europe to discover why some cities or towns are thriving, and what role is played by creativity, arts, heritage and ecological thinking in making them thrive. When I use the term ‘thrive’ I don’t mean that some of the inhabitants are wealthy, I mean that the whole community is well and that they apply what they learn. I have a theory that the most thriving places will allow ‘positive deviancy’ and that this comes from accepting a diversity of cultural influences and having a well-resourced Cultural scene.

I’m bound to come across some places that aren’t doing so well, or that are fragile, and this will be interesting too. I’ll be thinking about the idea of Europe and how that sits alongside terrain, local cultures, languages and civic communities. While I travel I’m going to write, photograph and draw, and hopefully it can become a book.

My plan is to buy an Interrail pass that allows daily travel for 30 days. I have to buy it before the end of December to get the early bird discount. In part, starting this blog is a galvanising act, to make me do it.

I am conscious that I’m extremely lucky to be free enough, and have just enough resource, to make this happen. I couldn’t do this when I was younger as I didn’t have the resources then, and gave all my time to voluntary work and study. And in the intervening years I have never been able to have much of a break, and pretty much all my travelling has been short trips for work, or to do creative courses or to plant trees.

Also, I have been annoying my friends over the past 5 years by talking about writing a book, about ‘the people the future needs’, about ecological and creative learning. This feels like my last chance to say what I need to say.

I heard a story about how the Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim dreamed of an hourglass fallen on its side, which symbolised for her that her life was half over. It chimed with me, because when I heard it I happened to have chosen an hourglass as a significant object as my dominant thought has been that time is running out. At 50, it feels a symbolic year in which to embark on the second half of my life with a special journey. And to explore a continent, or at least an administrative alliance, from which we may soon be ripped away. And to explore this place in a time that promises to be increasingly challenged by right wing and xenophobic politics and worsening climate change. I think what I’m most looking for is signs of hope.

 

 

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