Perceptive Travel Book Reviews August 2019
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: Two very different books about European train travel that complement one another nicely, plus another view of Europe through the lens of the final two years of World War II.

Slow Trains to Venice: A Love Letter to Europe
By Tom Chesshyre

In the spring of 2018, less than two years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, Tom Chesshyre set off from his home in London to explore by train some of the further corners of Europe. The subtitle of the book makes it clear where he stands on the dreaded Brexit question which has dominated and divided Britain (while uniting Europe against Britain) and brought so much gloom and misery to those of us who highly value the European project. In the course of 38 train journeys, he aims to "take Europe's pulse from the tracks." Conversations with a host of people met along the way—from two homeless Eritrean refugees in Calais to a citizen of Budapest depressed by the rabidly anti-refugee rhetoric of President Orban—lead him to the conclusion that Europe is deeply troubled and that immigration issues lead the political agenda.

Rail travel is both an entrée to being able to record snapshots of a continent and a means of escape from thinking about the mess the world is in. Following an entirely fluid itinerary, the author's final destination is Venice, where he will rendezvous with his Polish girlfriend. Serendipity directs him to the overnight sleeper between Lviv and Odessa, as recommended by someone he meets in France. In his day-to-day travels he follows his nose or more specifically music overheard from the street which lures him into a church mass in Lille and a party at the Slovene Ethnographic Museum. Whether you enjoy sharing these gentle, sometimes aimless travels and encounters, will probably depend on whether you feel a kinship with the author.

Chesshyre is an unpretentious writer and capable of poking fun at himself. While enjoying a burger and pint of lager at an Irish-themed pub in the Ukraine, he idly wonders whether a real travel writer (his emphasis) would instead be pounding the streets in search of a traditional restaurant in order to ruminate on the nature of Ukrainian culture. Similarly he questions his credentials as he snaps photos of the Széchenyi Bridge over the Danuble alongside hordes of tourists, and rides a toy train in Verona. His modest budget confines him to some pretty grotty hotels, such as the Premiere Classe in Calais which looks like a small prison with a concreted-up front door and tiny rooms with cereal-box-sized TVs. In Poland, he stays in one horrid place, one adequate place, and one quirky interesting place, concluding that "these online bookings can be so hit and miss". Being a travel writer is not as glamorous as it sounds.

At first I thought he was too encyclopedic in the coverage of his trip, cataloguing each station he passes through (enormous glasshouses in Saint-Omer, a musical instrument shop in Bailleul...), commenting on the style of conductors' beards, and so on. But I came to enjoy the easy rhythm and to concur with his assessment that "moving onwards is a joy, somehow settling and calming." While sipping wine in a station café in Zagreb, he notices the minutiae of life and concludes: "Not a whole lot seems to be going on, but quite a lot is actually," which might apply to this book too.


Great Railway Journeys of Europe
Edited by Nick Inman and Tim Locke

This beautifully illustrated survey of some of the most scenic rail routes in Europe works better for honing wanderlust than for giving practical guidance. To take just a couple of examples, anyone planning a trip to Greece will be intrigued to learn of a charming and historic rack railway up from the Gulf of Corinth to Kalavrita in the northern Peloponnese, near the monastery where the Greek War of Independence was launched in 1821. Or they may add to their itinerary in Budapest a visit to the Children's Railway in the hills above Budapest, which has been run by young people aged 10-14 since the 1940s (and which I was surprised Tom Chesshyre's book missed out). There are all sorts of gems like this throughout the book, from the shores of Northern Ireland to the shores of Sicily.

The information on tickets and rail passes is of necessity very general, with no price guidelines at all. Europe-by-rail is simply too vast a topic for sidebars of 40 words on the "main attractions" of a country to make sense. However the boxed tips are more gripping: for example we learn that a 3.7-mile floodlit toboggan run starts at Preda station in Switzerland.

The maps are pretty good and the photographs are fabulous. Perfectly framed photos of trains passing through beautiful landscapes in dappled sunshine and glistening snow (never rain or fog) are bound to entice. Castles, beaches, mountains, not to mention stations, are all spectacles for the eager train traveler. Railway buffs will be in heaven since heritage lines, railway museums and historical background are all provided in an easily digestible form. In the country-by-country A-Z at the back, relevant vocabulary in foreign languages looks useful, although visitors to Hungary may prefer to follow a map than ask a local for directions to the vasútállomás (station).

Travel the Liberation Route Europe
By Nick Inman and Joe Staines

Now we come to a tour-de-force of a book about World War II. This book is an important contribution to the arena of remembrance tourism, focusing on the routes followed by the Allied armies in the last two years of World War II, combined with meticulously researched historical context. It starts from the premise that "To remember is to make people aware that living in a peaceful society, democratically run and governed by the rule of law...should never be taken for granted." Perhaps another anti-Brexit plea.

The book arises out of a collaboration between the Liberation Route Europe Foundation created in the southern Netherlands, and the respected guidebook publisher Rough Guides. Many of the stories of WWII, both well known and forgotten, can be attached to specific places, and it is this route that is celebrated here. The trail connects 600+ remembrance sites—museums, cemeteries, memorials, fortifications, etc.—in nine European countries: Italy, UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic and Poland. For the 75th anniversary of the end of the war, the LRE Foundation has an ambitious plan to launch a signposted hiking trail between London and Berlin in May of next year, along the routes of liberation.

I have a personal reason for taking an interest in this book. During the war, my father served with the Royal Canadian Airforce in Britain. As a Canadian war veteran, he and many like him were invited by the Dutch government to attend the 50th anniversary of VE Day in 1995, to honor the Canadian contribution to the liberation of Holland. Being billeted with a big-hearted Dutch family and marching in a commemorative parade was one of the highlights of my father's long life. So I was pleased to note that one of the nine suggestions for themed trips at the back of the book includes one called "The Netherlands in Canadian Footsteps."

The book attempts a dual focus: to set out the complicated history of 1943-5, and to act as a travel companion. For me the balance was skewed a bit too much to history over travel. Unlike normal Rough Guides, very little practical travel info is included—only an address and website for the hundreds of sites briefly described, with no tips on where to eat or stay. I sometimes found the accretion of historical detail on military campaigns, etc. a little overwhelming. Predictably a lot of the listings are depressing—cemeteries, bunkers, necropolises, tunnels and so on, with gruesome stories of atrocities and suffering.

The authors have impressively synthesized a great deal of information, while excellent maps and archive photos bring the material to life. Stand-alone essays cover topics such as "Living Under Occupation" spelling out the moral dilemmas. The book repudiates a simplistic assessment of the past, emphasizing that some Nazis defied their stereotype and some Allied forces behaved barbarously, which should not be whitewashed.

This carefully and attractively designed volume can be dipped into when wanting to supplement more standard travel itineraries. Never mind the Colosseum, the Greek theatre in Sicily or the Rijksmuseum. Using the single-lens focus of this book you will instead find yourself visiting Mussolini's residence in the Villa Torlonia in Rome, the Commonwealth Cemetery in Syracuse and the Verzetsmuseum (Dutch Resistance Museum) in a former synagogue in Amsterdam. The authors have succeeded in presenting "our shared European past in all its complexity."

Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World and Teaching English Abroad, she has also turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes hotel reviews to the Daily Telegraph, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

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Great Railway Journeys of Europe

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Travel the Liberation Route Europe

Buy Travel the Liberation Route Europe at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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