Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2012/17 posted by hidden europe on

This evening, a train will speed from Córdoba to Valencia in just a shade over three hours, marking the inauguration of another link in Spain's growing high-speed rail network. True, the new stretch of line in this case is very modest, but it is enough to facilitate a new fast service linking the Guadalquivir Valley in Andalucía with the Gulf of Valencia. And it will help reshape the mental maps of citizens of both the Spanish Levante and Andalucía.

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Dear fellow travellers

This evening, a train will speed from Córdoba to Valencia in just a shade over three hours, marking the inauguration of another link in Spain's growing high-speed rail network. True, the new stretch of line in this case is very modest, but it is enough to facilitate a new fast service linking the Guadalquivir Valley in Andalucía with the Gulf of Valencia.

A conventional train already links Córboba with Valencia, but it's a slow and meandering run - a six hour journey. In truth, it's rather wonderful as it takes in Despeñaperros Pass, a rough gash through the Sierra Morena. In the nineteenth century Despeñaperros enjoyed a good sprinkling of banditti. We travelled this route by train in March, and very fine it was too. Not a bandit in sight, but some fabulous scenery and - on the north side of the Sierra Morena - plenty of windmills of just the kind that once diverted Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. When our train stopped at Alcázar de San Juan, an entrepreneurial local came on board selling lottery tickets and penknives. We paused at dusty towns like Socuéllamos and Villarrobledo. In short, it was easy to understand why folk in Córdoba see Valencia as another world, and vice versa.

The new fast train service launched this evening will help reshape the mental maps of citizens of both the Spanish Levante and Andalucía. Just as the inaugural TGV service in France in 1981 seemed to bring the Rhône Valley so very much closer to Paris.

Links to the past

It's interesting to note another rail link that debuts this month. It's a new train from Budapest to Pula on the coast of Croatia. True, it's no great shakes. This is a holiday train that features in the summer timetables for the first time. It even has a name: Istria. And it serves a route with a history.

Cast back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Pula was second only to Trieste in the roll-call of Habsburg ports. Then as now, the Istrian coast was a favoured holiday destination among the elites of Budapest, and Pula was the railhead that served the Istrian resorts. So when the Istria, with its sleeping cars and couchettes carriages pulls out of Budapest Keleti station next Friday evening for the first time, it will track a route that recalls a bygone age.

It's interesting to note that there was a seasonal holiday train called Istria in the 1970s. It ran from Belgrade to Pula, reflecting the holiday patterns of former Yugoslavia. The train disappeared with the country.

Hints of nostalgia

In late 2010, a new Moscow to Nice train service was launched. It runs year-round and recalls the pre-Revolution Riviera holidays of Russia's elite. The new train very purposely plays the nostalgia card, recreating an old map of Europe which was superseded by the First World War and the advent of the Soviet Union.

In similar vein, a new daily train service from Berlin to Gdansk started earlier this month. It too evokes some old geographies - not all of them entirely positive. But there is no evidence that modern Germany covets the city on Poland's Baltic coast that Germans still call Danzig. And the new rail link will allow Berliners to rediscover an area that has a rich thread of German history. The run from Berlin to Gdansk is surely a great ride - and most certainly an invitation to ponder on the changing geography of the continent we call home.

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.