Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2010/29 posted by hidden europe on

We sensed we were crossing into another world as the Moscow-bound train rumbled over the long bridge that spans the River Bug. The reed beds are full of wildfowl which are not troubled by the frequent trains that rattle overhead. This is the border wilderness that divides Poland from Belarus. It marks one of Europe's great divides: the Curzon Line.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

We sensed we were crossing into another world as the Moscow-bound train rumbled over the long bridge that spans the River Bug. The reed beds are full of wildfowl which are not troubled by the frequent trains that rattle overhead. This is the border wilderness that divides Poland from Belarus. It marks one of Europe's great divides: the Curzon Line, the western boundary of the former Soviet Union, the place where - as you travel east - Latin script is replaced by Cyrillic.

Arrival in Belarus is marked by the impressive red fortress built in the 1830s by the Russians to defend the western margins of their empire. Brest Fortress is an impressive border marker, yet seen in the soft sunlight that succeeds a thunderstorm it is beautiful rather than fierce and austere. Golden rays on soft red sandstone can be seductive.

The great star-shaped citadel at Brest makes a point, just as does the little Russian Orthodox church at Boris Gleb on the border between Norway and Russia. Border markers are important. The White Cliffs of Dover and the Rock of Gibraltar mark frontiers. Striking topography or bold buildings often signal current or former borders between continents, countries or cultures. The persuasive design of railway stations at some frontiers speak volumes. Travel south by train from Villach in Austria and the first station in Slovenia is Jesenice. Most travellers nowadays, insofar as they notice it at all, judge it to be a modernist monstrosity. But in its heyday, it was a bold welcome to socialist Yugoslavia - complete with an impressive memorial to the partisans. Just as Tarvisio, the first station in Italy on the route from Villach to Venice, was a striking introduction to Italy.

Of course some border markers can be quite subtle. Merely a matter of substituting one script for another on road signs. Or just switching languages in the on-train announcements. Aix-la-Chapelle morphs into Aachen and Lüttich into Liège on journeys between Belgium and Germany.

Within Germany you know when you have arrived in the south when 'Grüss Gott' replaces 'Guten Tag' as the preferred form of greeting. Linguists have surely mapped the precise line of demarcation. Of course some places thrive on straddling borders. Wandering the streets of Strasbourg early yesterday morning, we noticed the garlicky Rue de L'Ail (and you can hardly get more French than that) cheek by jowl with the Rue Martin Luther.

Then we went by train across the Rhine to Germany, carefully following the route that the Orient Express train took from Strasbourg to Augsburg. We have commented before that Germany marks its borders nowadays by doner kebab stalls. You think we jest, but it is true. Arriving from Austria at the border station of Lindau, the traveller's first view of Germany is a doner outlet. Stroll over the bridge that spans the Moselle from Schengen in Luxembourg to Perl in Germany and the former German customs house is now Osman's Diner. So we were keen to find out what might be waiting to greet us at Kehl, the first railway station in Germany.

Our train crossed the bridge over the Rhine from Strasbourg, just newly reopened last month after being rebuilt. There was no great fortress to match that at Brest. And the derelict station buildings, no longer populated by customs officials who would quiz passengers on great express trains, told a tale of woe. You might think Kehl is a place that has lost its way in the world, were it not for one beautiful new building that stands on the north side of the tracks beside the station. Amid the riverside decay, travellers entering Germany are greeted by a magnificent structure in restrained mustard yellow. Against the backdrop of a stormy November sky, the twin minarets of Kehl mosque looked sublime. Some communities really know the importance of border markers.

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

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.