Friday Thought #92 Travelling by train

Europe is a wonderful continent, endlessly beautiful, with ever-changing landscapes and enough different languages and cultures to fill a lifetime. However if you only ever travel by car, the majority of the scenery you will pass by will all blend into one, fairly uninspiring blur; edge of the motorway, fairly mundane and not worth writing home about. Now of course motorways are incredible, without them cross-country travel would be a nightmare at best, but there is no question that it is not the way to really see a country. You need to get off the beaten track, and while that may mean meandering off the main roads and winding your way through those B roads at a snail’s pace, a wonderful alternative is to travel by train.

Since moving to Austria, we have discovered the joys of superb, and remarkably reasonably priced, train travel, and these days we try and cover most of our long journeys by train rather than by car. For a start, it’s so much more enjoyable; you’re not stuck in a tiny box, or in traffic, you can walk around, eat in the restaurant and go to the bathroom at your leisure! You don’t have to concentrate; you can read a book, watch a film, catch up on work, or even go to sleep. But finally, and the best part for me, is that you become privy to, albeit only by a glimpse, secret parts of the country that only those privileged train passengers get the opportunity to see.

I recently travelled from Innsbruck to Geneva by train, crossing pretty much the entire country of Switzerland in the process, and what a delightful experience it was. Switzerland is a truly stunning country, with landscapes to rival the most impressive across the World, and what better way to see these beautiful lakes, mountains and villages? Why from the comfort of your train carriage, earphones in, gently rumbling through the countryside with not a care in the world!

The photos were taken with a phone whilst on the move, but hopefully they will capture some of the beauty and tranquility of the journey.

Friday Thought #90 Romania’s dark history

To finish off our Romanian trip report, I must mention the political history of the country as it is one of the most extraordinary stories to emerge from a county so close to home, and in the very recent past.

Nicolai Ceausescu was Romania’s communist president from 1967 – 1989 and despite seemingly starting out as exactly what the country needed and wanted, it soon turned sour and Ceausescu became increasingly brutal and repressive. He maintained tight controls over the media, sanctioned a brutal secret police force and made decisions which resulted in extreme shortages of fuel, energy, medicines, and a nationwide famine. Finally, after years of growing unrest, unlawful killings and political demonstrations, Ceausescu’s communist government was overthrown, and following a dramatic helicopter escape attempt, Ceausescu and his wife Elena were subjected to a brief show trial and sentenced to death by firing squad.

We visited these sights in Bucharest and in Târgoviște, an hour north of the capital, expecting them to be busy and full of tourists with cameras, like any European capital, especially one with such a fascinating history. But what we discovered was quite the opposite, Bucharest was like a ghost town. We were seemingly the only tourists, and the only people paying any attention to these historic landmarks. We got the distinct impression that Romanians don’t want to commemorate the revolution or celebrate their freedom, they just want to forget that this ever happened.

It took us a long time to even find the Ceausescu Museum in Târgoviște, given that it had no signs, wasn’t marked, and has the incorrect address on the website. This crumbling and unremarkable building is where the Ceausescus were held, tried and executed. Eerie doesn’t even come close. You can sit in the chair where they were sentenced, see where they spent their final days, and touch the bullet holes which remain in the wall where they fell. It should signal the end of repression for Romania, a start of a new era, yet the guest book indicated that we were the only visitors in the last 10 days.

Another stark reminder of the Ceausescu’s rule, and one which perhaps the Romanians would like to forget, is the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest. Ceausescu built this in the 1980s to try and replicate the regime in North Korea. In order to build this narcissistic monstrosity, a hospital was demolished along with several monasteries and around 37 old factories and workshops, and 40,000 people were kicked out of their homes. The cost of building it was estimated at around €3 billion, of public money. Today it is the fourth biggest building in the world and the cost of heating and electric lighting alone exceeds €5.5 million per year. Despite housing the entire Romanian Parliament and several museums, approximately 70% of the building remains empty. Just what Romania needs; a country which still has one of the lowest net average monthly wages in the EU, at just €540.

Romania was a truly fascinating place, and I am pleased that through visiting I was able to learn so much more about the dark history of this country. If you ever find yourself in Eastern Europe I thoroughly recommend a trip.

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thumb_IMG_5115_1024A surprising lack of pride on a national monument.

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The bullet holes remain, as do the original lines drawn where the Ceausescus fell. Eerie doesn’t even come close.

 

 

Friday thought #85 Cloud inversions

The weather in the European Alps is never boring. It’s never just sunny, or simply raining, it’s always varied and interesting and often provides you with something you’ve never seen before; an incredible rainbow stretching across an entire valley, or a cloud formation so unusual that it appears the mountain peak is wearing a fleecy hat.

Every now and again you look out the window at a seemingly dreary day and find it difficult  to muster the enthusiasm to get out skiing. But when you’re sitting on the chairlift, rising up through the thick cloud, and suddenly you burst through into a perfect sky, complete with blue sky and sunshine, you grin and quietly thank Mother Nature for the wonder that is a cloud inversion…

Friday thought #83 Early season skiing – making the most of what little snow we have!

So I hear that North America is getting a huge amount of snow at the minute, however sadly this is not the case here in Europe. Winter teased us back in November and as ever the snow canons were blasting 24 hours a day, a few meagre pistes were opened and skiers hit the slopes in their droves. But since then we have had literally no precipitation, just bright blue skies, sunshine and well below freezing temperatures. So I can’t complain, this weather is gorgeous, and we have been determined to make the most of what we’ve got.

Those in charge of the ski areas have done a superb job of getting resorts open, and the cold temperatures have helped the manufactured snow stick brilliantly, so with zero off-piste or back-country touring potential, why not make the most of the magnificent sunshine and the spectacular ‘half Autumn half Winter’ scenery and hit the pistes?!

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Very respectable coverage considering we’ve had no snow!
Not a bad lunchtime view...
Not a bad lunchtime view…
A 14km track leading from Austria across the border to Switzerland. I love popping over the border for lunch!
A 14km track leading from Austria to Switzerland. I love popping over the border for lunch!
Yeah lower down the snow really does run out! Although there's something really fun about skiing along next to grass...
Yeah lower down the snow really does run out! Although there’s something really fun about skiing along next to grass…
When you get tired of the pistes, why not have a go on the airbag?
When you get tired of the pistes, why not have a go on the airbag?
Ah lovely...
Ah lovely…

Friday thought #69 A via ferrata with an unexpected bonus!

Via ferratas, or klettersteigs as they are called in German, are much more popular in Austria than in many other European countries, and we are very lucky to have several great routes within just a stone’s throw of Innsbruck. Now that the warm weather has returned we have got back out on the rocks, climbing and klettersteig-ing, and are loving it. Klettersteig is basically assisted rock climbing. You climb up and across enormous rock faces with the aid of metal staples and steps in the rock, all the time following a metal rail that you are permanently attached to, so there’s no chance of getting lost!

Most peaks in Austria have the standard summit cross to signal the top, and often there is a ‘summit book’ tucked inside for each climber to sign and date. It’s a lovely tradition, and the fantastic klettersteig in St Jodok, around 40 minutes drive from Innsbruck, is no exception. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable route, the view from the top is beautiful, and the solitude just marvellous. Hard to find any room for improvement!

So imagine our delight when we looked around and saw a large wooden chest sitting in the forest at the top of the climb, and opened it to discover a huge ‘outdoor fridge’ full of cold beer, water and soft drinks! The sign reads ‘Voluntary donations to the St Jodok mountain rescue fund.

A fantastic cause and a superb bonus after a sweaty climb on a hot day. What a wonderful idea!

Voluntary donations for the St Jodok Mountain Rescue
Voluntary donations for the St Jodok Mountain Rescue
What a sight to behold!
What a sight to behold!
What a view, not a bad spot to drink a beer
What a view, not a bad spot to drink a beer!

Friday thought #46 The wonder of the EU

It’s a commonly discussed fact amongst Brits that ‘70% of Americans don’t even have a passport’. Whether or not this is factually correct nobody is really sure, but it’s one of those ‘facts’ that everybody seems to know, most likely because living in Europe, the thought of not owning a passport is utterly ridiculous.

2 months ago I think I would probably have agreed, how could anybody live without owning a passport? Flying is so commonplace for us Brits, and with our country being so small, to fly pretty much anywhere means to leave the country. Our passports are somewhere close by at all times. For many years I lived in France and worked in Switzerland, so crossed the border twice a day without giving it a second thought. But I must admit that spending some time travelling around the States has made me view the no passport issue in a completely different light.

The USA literally has everything you could ever need with regards to landscape, climate and sports. It has coastlines and beaches, mountains, deserts, lakes, snow and sun; meaning that every sport from skiing to surfing is possible somewhere in the States. Within Europe, if you wish to ski, you need to fly to a country which has mountains and snow, if you want a beach holiday, countries such as Spain or Greece are an obvious choice. People in Europe take it for granted that they can jump on a plane and in less than 2 hours be in a completely different climate, scenery, culture and language. But what they forget is that the entire continent of Europe could fit neatly in to the outline of the USA with an enormous amount of room to spare. The distance from one side of Montana to the other is approximately 560 miles. As a comparison, if you were to start in Milan, Italy, and drive north east for roughly the same distance, you would cross Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Germany, finally ending your journey in Prague, deep in the heart of the Czech Republic. That’s 5 European countries versus not even leaving one of America’s 50 states.

Many Europeans would consider themselves well travelled, worldly people, after all, they may visit 2 or 3 different countries each year. Yet although it would be an impossible statistic to calculate, I would be very interested to know the percentage of Europeans who have never left Europe. I’d guess the vast majority. Europe contains approximately 50 countries (debatable due to questions such as whether to class the UK as one country or 4 separate ones), the USA contains 50 states. I would hazard that most Europeans rarely leave Europe, most Americans never leave America. It’s really not that different. Europe is made up of countries, the USA of states. It’s a big expense and a long journey to leave Europe and travel to Australasia, Asia, Africa or America, so we tend to stay within the confines of the continent. This is presumably no different for Americans. If you live in Texas and want a ski holiday, why fly to France when you have Colorado just a short flight away?

Being in the States also brought it home to me just how unique the European Union is. I completely take it for granted that despite being British, I’ve lived in France for the last 9 years, worked in Switzerland for the past 4, and am about to move to Austria. No visas needed, no green cards and no need to make a special application. You can move around freely within all the countries in the EU, working and living. In no other place in the World does this happen, and we are so very fortunate that we have this available to us.

Put in perspective it becomes a lot more clear why so many Americans would choose to stay within the States. Europeans must simply count themselves lucky that they have such a diversity of cultures at their doorstep and the freedom to move around amongst them, and cut their American friends a bit of slack!

A comparison rarely considered...
A comparison rarely considered…

Friday thought #43 America’s RVs

One of the most commented on sights throughout our US road trip was not just the amount, but the sheer size of the RVs flying along every highway. I guess being British we’d notice them a lot more as we simply don’t have vehicles like that where we’re from. For starters they simply wouldn’t fit on the roads. Your average European road is firstly too narrow and secondly, far too busy! I would love to see one of these trying to fit down a narrow country lane in rural Wales! (in fact the pick up trucks alone wouldn’t fit, let alone an RV!) But not only are they enormous, I also observed that when stationary, they also extend out to all sides and angles, making them even more gigantic. And much to our delight, we also spotted many of them towing a 4×4 truck behind them.

It put our tiny tent to absolute shame on the campgrounds; I’d hazard that some of them are considerably bigger per square metre than many residential apartments, especially those found in either ski resorts or large cities. We loved watching these blast through Montana, Idaho and Utah in their thousands, but it really did leave us wondering, just how much space does an average couple need when on holiday??!

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Check out all the extra compartments!
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Public coach or single family holiday home??
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Obviously towed by the obligatory giant truck!
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Of course, we’ll need our mobile house AND a pick up truck whilst away…!