Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2013/22 posted by hidden europe on

We sped from London to Brussels at lunchtime on Friday, swapping a pleasant English summer day for sultry Belgium — pausing along the way at Calais. There is always a little frisson of excitement on those rare Eurostars which stop at Calais. English travellers bound for Brussels peer out of the windows and are evidently surprised to find that Calais still exists. This is the tale of that journey. But it is also the story of one book that communicated a powerful vision of a networked, integrated Europe.

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Dear fellow travellers

It should have been the most predictable of journeys. It started with Eurostar, which was as impressive as ever. No queues at St Pancras, a train that was fairly full, but still that quiet efficiency which makes travelling by train from London to the continent so very pleasant.

Touching France

We sped from London to Brussels at lunchtime on Friday, swapping a pleasant English summer day for sultry Belgium — pausing along the way at Calais. There is always a little frisson of excitement on those rare Eurostars which stop at Calais. English travellers bound for Brussels peer out of the windows and are evidently surprised to find that Calais still exists.

We are creatures of habit and always make the most of that brief Calais stop. We hop off the train and stand on French concrete — it's a sort of postmodern equivalent to kissing French soil. The station is spartan, a minimalist retort to the style of St Pancras. One minute is all that's needed, and one minute is all we had to take the pulse of French life. Then it was on at high speed through Flanders to Brussels.

Overnight in Brussels

On Friday evening, we wandered through the Belgian capital. It is a place for sightseeing, to be sure, but Brussels is a place for listening too. What a gloriously complicated soundscape this city offers: snippets of Brabantian, Walloon and a dozen African tongues.

With the city enduring the hottest day of this long hot summer, the pace was slow and sweaty. We like Brussels, but on Friday we managed little more than the statutory walk though the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert and La Grand Place.

Saturday morning, bright and early, we walked again and then made our way to the Gare du Midi for what should have been the simplest of onward journeys to Berlin. Just one change of train in Frankfurt.

Saturday morning Europe

The cancellation of the direct ICE train from Brussels to Frankfurt is hardly a rarity. It happens all too often. Yesterday morning, we were quick off the mark and hopped on a Thalys service instead.

Thalys was sleek, smooth and carried a full load. Quite why so many Brusselaars need or want to travel to Germany on a Saturday morning is a mystery. The crowds were out in force. Happily there were seats for all. Thalys trains are always comfortable, and the amiable train staff are fluent in many languages.

Some commentators may assert that Brussels or Strasbourg capture the very essence of Europe. We think, however, that Europe is most perfectly distilled on the Thalys trains that connect Brussels with Paris, Amsterdam and Cologne.

Thalys plays the European card with an astute cultural confidence. In a press release a year or two back the company reminded us that their on-board bistros are “symboles de convivialité et d'échanges interculturels.” Yesterday morning, there was certainly an amiable hubbub as passengers queued for coffee, croissants and the code for Wi-Fi access - for the modern Brusselaar the three essentials of weekend life.

Cologne to Frankfurt

We paused in the Thalys bistro. Somehow just being there makes one feel a shade more cosmopolitan, a little more European — and proud of it! But we passed on the refreshments (and the Wi-Fi), thinking it might be nice to relax later in the restaurant car of the German ICE train from Cologne to Frankfurt.

At Cologne, we hopped on the first Frankfurt-bound express. The ICE 121 was running exactly two hours late, and so perfectly timed for us. We settled into the restaurant car. It turned out that the catering crew had abandoned the train, but the guard who checked our tickets rewarded us with a voucher for a complimentary cup of coffee if ever we had the good fortune to find ourselves on a German train with a bar, bistro or restaurant that was open for business.

Cancellations galore

The onward train on which we were booked from Frankfurt to Berlin was cancelled. “Ah, yes. The ICE 598,” said an official, “that one hasn't run at all this week.” So we consulted the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable and plotted an alternative route to Berlin, changing trains along the way at Leipzig.

For very many years, we have rarely left home without the European Rail Timetable. We were surely the only passengers booked on yesterday morning's cancelled German train out of Brussels who managed to take instead the slightly earlier Thalys departure. Having a printed timetable to hand is very empowering, and allows one to discern the pattern of a train service rather than merely specific arrivals and departures.

Cook's European Timetable

The overall pattern of trains on any route is something that no internet site reveals. Print has its virtues. More's the pity, therefore, that the current edition of Cook's European is the last. For 140 years, this monthly timetable has been used by travellers to plot journeys around Europe (and beyond). Its demise is a major blow to those who cherish independent travel. Its real value for us has been on those occasions when things go wrong. Yesterday, we actually arrived back in Berlin much earlier than we would have done on our planned itinerary. We used four trains instead of two. Cook's magnificent book was the key to finding alternatives (although the serendipitous delay to the ICE 121 at Cologne also helped).

The final issue of the European Rail Timetable is the August 2013 edition. This publishing swansong comes without fanfare or tributes. But it does have a particularly fine front cover. The content will quickly date, but the book deserves to be kept for the long-term. One day, we predict, it will be held up in archives and great libraries as a herald of our times. August 2013 may well be remembered as the month in which the book which has helped make European rail travel so civilised eventually hit the proverbial buffers. Not all the conviviality of the Thalys bistro can make up for the loss of the European Rail Timetable.

A word for Brendan and the lads

Thomas Cook Publishing closes this month. The company's flagship product has been its European timetable. Over many years, the book has shaped our view of Europe. It has inspired generations of travellers. It has communicated a vision of a networked, integrated Europe.

In 140 years of publishing history, the book has had only five editors. The current editor, Brendan Fox, has been in post for 28 years and he has been supported by a fine team of timetable compilers. We know the current crew well. So we dedicate this issue of our Letter from Europe to Brendan and the lads in Peterborough who have so enlivened our journeys through Europe, our journeys through life. This is our vote of thanks to Brendan Fox, John Potter, Reuben Turner, David Turpie and Chris Woodcock — five true Europeans.

This month may mark the end of Thomas Cook's association with the European Rail Timetable but the Peterborough Five are not ones to give up easily. There is talk of the title being revived in some form later this year. The timetable compilers are busy setting up a company to secure the future of the timetable independent of Thomas Cook. We wish them every success. This is a book we cannot do without. A book that Europe cannot do without.

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

Just for the record, we paid 79 euros each for the journey from London to Berlin. No extras for luggage. No fuel surcharges.

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.