Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2013/17 posted by hidden europe on

The waters came, and so did the European media. The water was ruthless and unsympathetic. It tore down bridges and wrecked homes. The mud and debris that came with the flood blocked culverts and drains. Lives were put on the line. So too were livelihoods as the water flooded factories, warehouses and business premises. The media were more sympathetic than the water. They jetted in and made for the Elbe Valley, deftly catching the right sound bites that enshrined a litany of misery. Images of desolation and desperation appeared on our television screens - but only briefly, for the waters was rising elsewhere.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

The waters came, and so did the European media. The water was ruthless and unsympathetic. It tore down bridges and wrecked homes. The mud and debris that came with the flood blocked culverts and drains. Lives were put on the line. So too were livelihoods as the water flooded factories, warehouses and business premises.

Only too late did people appreciate the risks that come with building on flood plains - and the years since German unification in 1990 have seen a massive expansion of low-rise sheds in the lowlands in and around the Elbe Valley. These soulless developments have marched over the plains, covering the countryside with concrete. Crazy paving takes on a new meaning in these edgelands.

The media were more sympathetic than the water. They jetted in and made for the Elbe Valley, deftly catching the right sound bites that enshrined a litany of misery. Images of desolation and desperation appeared on our television screens - but only briefly, for the waters was rising elsewhere. Hungary beckoned, and the TV crews and journalists dashed to the airport to fly south where there were new floods that cried out for attention. Our floods were old news.

The aftermath

The Elbe, for so long a demarcation line between two Europes, once again became a frontier. High waters made it impossible for the ferries to cross the river. Many bridges were damaged. Others remained intact but the access roads leading to them were under deep water. This month has been a flashback to another kind of world - one that we all accepted until the fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in better links between eastern and western Europe (and particularly between West Berlin and West Germany).

The Deutsche Bahn (DB) has struggled against the odds. At the start of this month it looked as though the principal Elbe Valley route across the Czech border would be severed by floods. It is very much to the credit of the authorities that at least a few trains still ran - many with delays of several hours. But day by day the flood wave moved downstream, and soon the main area of risk lay closer to Berlin. On 6 June, the bridge over the Elbe at Lutherstadt Wittenberg was closed, cutting the rail route from Berlin to Leipzig. Three days later the bridge at Schönhausen was damaged by the force of the waters. It has not reopened. It carries Europe's busiest east-west passenger rail route.

Recalling the old transit route

Travelling west by train from Berlin is suddenly difficult again, something that has to be carefully planned and which we can no longer take for granted. After a fortnight of chaos on the railways, an emergency timetable was launched last Friday. This interim timetable applies until at least 19 July - but many commentators are saying no-one should be surprised if it takes rather longer for full services on key routes to be restored.

The number of main-line services running west from Berlin is just a shadow of what we have come to take for granted. With the Schönhausen bridge out of action, the premium ICE services to western Germany are diverted via the old transit route that was, in the days of the German Democratic Republic, a lifeline link between West Berlin and the British-occupied zone of West Germany. The route is thus via Potsdam, Brandenburg and Magdeburg to reach the old zonal border at Helmstedt.

The flood has reconfigured, at least for now, the geography of an area of Europe that was for many decades riven by political division. Residents of old West Berlin are recalling the mental maps of yesteryear - a time when Hannover seemed a far-off place. Today they join the trains in Berlin for the long trundle west along the old transit route. Along the way they catch glimpses of places that have long been erased from their personal geographies.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

You can read about the pattern of train services in the interim timetable in an article we published on Friday in European Rail News.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.