Interesting things take place at borders. Even as a young lad, Vladimir Nabokov was good at noticing them. In his autobiographical memoir Speak, Memory, the Russian writer recalls a childhood journey with his family from St Petersburg to Biarritz. The party of a dozen (11 humans and one dachshund) travelled with the Nord Express from Russia to Paris. That was in 1909, when Nabokov was just ten years old — but old enough to be fascinated by Verzhbolovo-Eydtkuhnen where two empires collided. It was here that ample Russian broad-gauge tracks were replaced by narrower German ones and — as he nicely put it in Speak, Memory — “coal succeeded birch logs.”
Coal and birch have both disappeared from the menu of motive power, but the space between the tracks — known as the railway gauge — still varies considerably across Europe. It is one of the quirks and quiddities that enliven our continent. Yet, as we see in this issue of hidden europe, it can also be mightily annoying for freight shippers keen to get goods to markets. Now there’s talk of extending Russian broad gauge to Vienna, and within these pages we review projects that could see Russian trains running right through to Norwegian ports.
It is of course the quirks and quiddities of places that give focus to our work. In this issue of the magazine, we make space for three European capitals: Budapest, Paris and Berlin. In all three we head not for the grand boulevards and showpiece sights — for hidden europe readers surely know those already. Instead we head for back streets and unsung suburbs. In Berlin, that means Gleisdreieck — a place where once the railway was king. The Austrian writer Joseph Roth, a near contemporary of Nabokov, was fascinated by Gleisdreieck and so are we. The story we tell here is one of nature reclaiming territory that was once given over to industry. That same theme underpins our feature on central Sweden.
This is the fortieth issue of hidden europe. Biblical numerology springs to mind. Forty comes with many good associations. Faith and sincerity are tested during a proving period. The Exodus lasted 40 years. Those who fast in the wilderness usually aim for 40 days. Reaching 40 shows purpose and commitment. We have discovered many things on our journey with this magazine. It has been a personal and literary adventure which has revealed one enduring truth: even with 40 issues of the magazine we have barely skimmed the surface of hidden Europe. We look forward to the next 40.
Nicky Gardner & Susanne Kries