Schengen and the disappearance of European passport stamps

schengen passport
Creative new use for border crossing posts at German/Austrian border.

In the late 1980s, an American spending a summer traveling across Europe with a Eurailpass would see his or her passport stamped possibly dozens of times. With a few exceptions, every time a border was crossed, an immigration agent would pop his or her head into a train compartment, look at everyone’s passports, in most cases stamp them, and move on. Every Eastern Bloc country required visas, some of which could be obtained at the border and others of which had to be applied for in advance.

Today, an American can enter the Schengen zone in Helsinki, fly to Oslo and then on to Amsterdam, proceed by train through Belgium, France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, then by bus to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and then by ferry back to Helsinki before catching a flight to Athens and landing in Greece without once needing to submit a passport to a border guard’s scrutiny.

The development of the Schengen agreement across Europe has altered the geopolitical map of the continent in many ways. For tourists, the development of the Schengen zone has simplified travel by drastically reducing the number of times a passport can be checked and stamped as national borders are crossed.

The Schengen Agreement is named after the town of Schengen in Luxembourg. It was here in 1985 that five countries-Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, and France-signed an agreement to essentially create borderless travel between them. A model for this agreement had been created years before by the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), which eliminated border controls back in 1948. The Nordic countries also did away with internal border posts, in 1958.

In 1995, the five original Schengen countries plus Portugal and Spain inaugurated the zone. In 1997, Austria and Italy joined. Greece followed in 2000 and the five Nordic countries joined in 2001. In late 2007, nine more countries joined the Schengen zone; most recently, Switzerland signed up in 2008.

schengen passport
Abandoned border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary.

Today, 22 European countries are part of Schengen. Every European Union country (save the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus) belongs. Other members include EU holdouts Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland. The European microstates present a few complications. Monaco’s borders are administered by France, which makes the tiny principality a part of Schengen, while Liechtenstein’s accession, approved by the European Parliament in February, is pending. San Marino and the Vatican are de facto versus official members, while mountainous, landlocked Andorra remains outside of the zone altogether.

There are five EU countries not currently part of the Schengen zone. The UK and Ireland (as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) operate a Schengen-like agreement called the Common Travel Area. Neither country is obligated to join the zone.

Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, however, are all bound by treaty to eventually join. Romania has fulfilled all the criteria for joining Schengen and Bulgaria is close to fulfillment as well. These two countries will accede together, likely later this year. Cyprus presents a more complicated situation given the division of the island between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the largely unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north.

With the coming accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union, the Schengen zone will almost definitely continue to grow. Might it one day cover the entire landmass of Europe? Check back in two decades.

[Images: top image Flickr | Mike Knell; middle image Flickr | jczart]

Europe expands high-speed train system with new bridge

high-speed train, train, EU, Europe
A new bridge across the Ill river in Strasbourg is a major step forward for the European Union’s plans for a high-speed railway reaching from Paris to Bratislava, the BBC reports.

An earlier bridge had only one track and could only carry trains going a maximum of 100 kph (62mph). The new bridge has two tracks and can deal with trains going 160kph (99mph). The Paris-Bratislava line is one of a network of high-speed railways being built across the EU, but with a price tag of 63 million euros ($84 million) just for the bridge, construction is being affected by the economic crisis. Some countries have already cut back funding and delayed projects. Still, high-speed trains are becoming increasingly popular across Europe because they’re more comfortable than planes, and more convenient since they take passengers from city center to city center.

The French city of Strasbourg is close to the German border and home to the European Parliament. It’s also attractive to tourists for its medieval and Renaissance architecture.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Ten budget-friendly destinations in Europe

budget-friendly European destinations

For Americans, Europe can be very expensive. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge this fact. Tourist costs are high, and currently the euro is doing well against the dollar, even if the pound is down somewhat from its stratospheric performance a few years ago. So yes, Europe is expensive. But its high costs are merely a marker, not a prisonhouse. There are always ways to cut costs and forge an alternative path.

One way visitors can cut costs is by forsaking traditional tourist hotels for alternative types of accommodation. There is a new wave of very stylish hostels in many cities in Europe at odds with the traditional reputation of hostels as dirty, packed dormitories. (Look, for example at Paris’ Oops! Hostel, with doubles starting at €60 [$81] to see the new hostel wave in action.) And there’s also a newish recession-appropriate embrace of owner-occupied accommodations that are often quite inexpensive. Airbnb is the latest splashy arrival on the owner-occupied scene, but there are plenty of other local options, including the Italian agriturismo network, French gîtes, and couchsurfing.

Here are ten destinations, cities, regions, and countries where traveling on a budget won’t be a struggle in the least. Budget-friendly Europe begins here.

1. Bulgaria. Gadling writer Meg Nesterov visited Bulgaria this fall and raved about the local price index. Bulgaria, a member of the EU since 2007, is cheap in just about every possible way. Nesterov hones in on the tried-and-true tourist stop of Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s Medieval capital, as particularly inexpensive.

2. Bratislava, Slovakia. About an hour from Vienna by train, Bratislava boasts a cute Old Town and many astoundingly cheap restaurants serving hearty Slovak fare. At Prašná Bašta, dinner can be as cheap as €6 ($8). Hotels are more expensive than they should be, though there are a few basic properties like Old City Hotel that cater to the budget set. Old City Hotel’s rates start at €53 ($72).

3. South Tyrol, Italy. This one is a bit difficult to wrap one’s head around, as this German-speaking region is one of Italy’s most prosperous corners. The landscapes are stunning up here, and simple, glamorous inns like Gasthof Bad Dreikirchen sell rooms on a seasonal basis starting at €57 ($77) including half-board (that is, breakfast and dinner). Bad Dreikirchen is open from the end of April through the close of October.

4. Berlin, Germany. The German capital remains impressively affordable and amazingly cool. Before you arrive, peruse some of the very good English-language blogs on life in Berlin; when you touch down, get yourself a copy of Zitty and get caught up to speed on what’s going on. You’ll be ready to sink into some of Europe’s hippest and cheapest corners in no time. Budget pick: Die Fabrik, a funky renovated factory, with doubles from €52, or $71.5. Brno, Czech Republic. Unlike Prague, which has become quite expensive, Brno is full of bargains. In June, Tim Bryan wrote about very affordable Brno for the Guardian. He withdrew 2000 krona ($110) from a cash machine at the start of his weekend in the Czech Republic’s second-biggest city. That outlay lasted Bryan through a program of gluttony and dedicated drinking. Think of how little you could spend with a more modest approach to dining and entertainment.

6. Chisinau, Moldova. Truthfully, Chisinau isn’t yet ready for a mass tourism moment. The prices are right for more courageous travelers, however, and Chisinau is a very attractive city of grand parks, underfunded museums, public markets, inexpensive places to grab a meal, and incredibly inexpensive public transportation. Once the government (a) deals with that annoying tendency on the part of the police to extort cash from tourists and (b) approves budget airline links into the country, Moldova will begin to develop as a destination.

7. Macedonia. Bulgaria’s neighbor Macedonia is a delightfully cheap place with a fantastic mix of cultures. Macedonia can claim an impressively complex capital city (Skopje), its very own Riviera (Lake Ohrid), and many exquisite monasteries. Skopje is divided between a modern Macedonian side full of Eastern Bloc apartment buildings and the warren-like streets and shops of its mostly Albanian Old Town. Lake Ohrid is ringed with churches and monasteries and sees some serious nightlife during the summer season.

8. Lisbon, Portugal. Located on the western periphery of continental Europe, Lisbon is a somewhat underappreciated city. This unfortunate fact translates into great values for hotels and restaurants. Lisbon remains relatively warm if soggy in winter, and is jammed full of museums, cafes, crowded alleyways, bars, monuments, and exciting nightlife.

9. Calabria, Italy. The south of Italy is full of good values, Calabria particularly so. Unlike the southern regions of Puglia and, to a lesser extent, Basilicata, Calabria has managed to remain under the radar altogether. Check out towns like Pizzo, Vibo Valentia, and Reggio di Calabria and experience a side of Italy that most guidebooks barely cover.

10. Greece. The Greek government just announced its 2011 budget, which is full of deep spending cuts. Despite this orientation towards austerity, the government plans to reduce its value-added tax on the tourism industry from 11 to 6.5 percent. Tourism is huge business in Greece. Add to that the melancholy fact that a country’s financial crisis generally means savings for visitors, and this is a great time to visit Greece.

[Image of Veliko Tarnovo by Alex Robertson Textor]

Trade Mocked

You were a cheerleader, you dated a cheerleader, or you hated the cheerleaders. As I recall, that’s how high school worked.

Thanks to travel PR, that same primeval paradigm lives on long after graduation. That miniskirts-shouting-slogans thing still works, whether you’re a used car salesman, Miley Cyrus on VH1 or the tourist board of a small Balkan nation. When it comes to selling your destination in today’s busy world of busy people, a country’s name just isn’t enough–just like school spirit, you need colors, a pep band, a mascot, a brand and most important–a cheer.

It’s tragic but true: tourist boards don’t trust their country’s name to inspire appropriate thoughts in your brain. Toponyms are too open-ended and too untrustworthy–also, way too obvious. For example, what’s the first thing that pops into your head when I say . . . Monte Carlo? How about Australia? The Bahamas? Kuwait? The Gambia?

Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not enough. Tourist boards want you to choose their destination over all others, then allocate all of your vacation days to them and then come spend your money on very specific things–like miniature golf by the sea or hot air balloon rides across the prairie. In short, they want your school spirit so much they’re churning out cheers to fill up all the Swiss cheese holes in your mental map of the world.

Like a good cheer, a good destination slogan is simple and so memorable it sticks in your head like two-sided tape. Sex sells, but then so does love: “Virginia is for Lovers”, Hungary offers visitors “A Love for Life”, Albania promises “A New Mediterranean Love”, while the highlighted “I feel Slovenia” spells out sweetly “I Feel Love”. Meanwhile, Bosnia & Herzegovina call themselves “the Heart Shaped Land” and Denmark’s logo is a red heart with a white cross. Colombia and Dubai have red hearts in their logo. Everybody else uses sunshine.
There is a direct correlation between sunshine deprivation and travelers with disposable income–sunny places sell, which is why Maldives is “the Sunny Side of Life”, Sicily says “Everything else is in the shade”, Ethiopia quizzically boasts “13 Months of Sunshine”, Portugal is “Europe’s West Coast”, and Spain used to be “Everything Under the Sun”. Spain was also the first country ever to have a logo-the splashy red sun painted by Joan Miró in 1983. Some destination logos work–like the black and red “I LOVE NY” design of Milton Glaser that’s been around ever since the 70s. Others fail to grasp the spirit of a place (cough, Italia). Reducing one’s country to a crazy font and some cheesy clip art often detracts from that country’s best assets. Like nature.

When chasing the crunchy yuppie granola suburbanite dollar on vacation, you’ve gotta roll out Nature and promise them the kind of purity that lacks from their daily life. British Virgin Islands claims “Nature’s Little Secrets” while Belize counterclaims with “Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret”. Switzerland urges us to “Get Natural”, Poland is “The Natural Choice”, Iceland is “Pure, Natural, Unspoiled”, Ecuador is Life in a Pure State, “Pure Michigan” is just as pure, Costa Rica is “No Artificial Ingredients”, and like a clothing tag that makes you feel good, New Zealand is simply “100% Pure”. New Zealand also wants us to believe that they’re the “youngest country on earth” but that’s pushing it. The youngest country on earth is actually Kosovo (Born February 2008)–so young they’re still working on their slogan.

And there’s a tough one–how do you sell a country that’s just poking its head out from under the covers of war and bloodshed? Kosovo’s big bad next-door neighbor Serbia asks us frankly to “Take a New Look at Your Old Neighbor”; “It’s Beautiful–It’s Pakistan” steers clear of the conflict, Colombia owns up to its knack for kidnapping by insisting, “The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay”, and Vietnam nudges our memories away from the past and towards “The Hidden Charm” of today.

Our nostalgia for simpler, better, pre-tourist times invokes our most romantic notions about travel: Croatia is “The Mediterranean as it Once Was”, Tahiti consists of “Islands the Way they Used to Be”, and Bangladesh employs a kind of reverse psychology to insist we “Come to Bangladesh, Before the Tourists.” Such slogans of unaffectedness mirror the push for national validation by tourism, where actual authenticity is second to perceived authenticity, hence Malaysia is “Truly Asia”, Zambia is “The Real Africa”, and the Rocky Mountain States make up “The Real America”. Greece is “The True Experience” and Morocco is “Travel For Real”. Everybody wants to be legit.
country logos
Countries without the certified organic label try merely to stupefy us: Israel “Wonders”, Germany is “Simply Inspiring”, Chile is “Always Surprising”, Estonia is “Positively Surprising”, “Amazing Thailand” amazes, and Dominica claims to “Defy the Everyday”. To that same surprising end, Latin America loves trademarking their exclamation points (see ¡Viva Cuba!, Brazil’s one-word essay “Sensational!” and El Salvador’s “Impressive!”)

Where punctuated enthusiasm falls short, countries might confront the traveler with a challenge or a dare. Jamaica projects the burden of proof on its tourists by claiming “Once You Go You Know”, Peru asks that we “Live the Legend”, Canada insists we “Keep Exploring”, South Africa answers your every question with a smiley “It’s Possible”. Meanwhile, Greenland sets an impossibly high bar with “The Greatest Experience”.

Working the totality of a country’s experience into a good slogan is a challenge that often leads to open-ended grandstanding: “It’s Got to be Austria” might be the answer to any question (and sounds better when spoken with an Austrian accent). Next-door Slovakia is the “Little Big Country”, insisting that size is second to experience. Philippines offers “More than the Usual” and small, self-deprecating Andorra confesses, “There’s Just So Much More” (I think what they meant to say is, “come back please”). Really big numbers carries the thought even further: Papua New Guinea is made up of “A Million Different Journeys”; Ireland brightens with “100,000 Welcomes”.

When all else fails, aim for easy alliteration, as in “Enjoy England“, “Incredible India“, “Mystical Myanmar”, and the “Breathtaking Beauty” of Montenegro. (For more on the correlation between simplistic phrases and high mental retention, See Black Eyed Peas-Lyrics).

The point of all this is that today, the internet is our atlas and Google is our guidebook. It’s how we travel, how we think about travel and how we plan our travel. Punch in a country like Tunisia and you’re greeted with a dreamy curly-cue phrase like “Jewel of the Mediterranean”–Type in next-door neighbor Algeria and you get a glaring State Department warning saying “Keep Away.” In a scramble for those top ten search results, destinations compete with a sea of digital ideas that pre-define their tourist appeal. It’s why we’ll never find that page proclaiming Iran “The Land of Civilized and Friendly People” but why a simple “Dubai” turns up Dubai Tourism in first place, along with their moniker “Nowhere Like Dubai” (which should win some kind of truth in advertising prize.)

That aggressive, American-style marketing has taken over the billion-dollar travel industry is obvious. Nobody’s crying over the fact that we sell destinations like breakfast cereal–that countries need a bigger and brighter box with a promised prize inside in order to lull unassuming tourist shoppers into stopping, pulling it off the shelf, reading the back and eventually sticking it in their cart. I guess the sad part is how the whole gregarious exercise limits travel and the very meaning of travel. By boiling down a country into some bland reduction sauce of a slogan, we cancel out the diversity of experience and place, trade wanderlust for jingoism, and turn our hopeful worldview into a kind of commercial ADHD in which we suddenly crave the Jersey Shore like a kid craves a Happy Meal.

Nobody’s ever asked me to join their tourist board focus group, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own opinions and tastes. For instance, my daily reality is a stereo cityscape of car alarms and jackhammers. Any country that simply placed the word “Quiet” or “Peaceful” in lower-case Times New Roman, 24-point font white type in the upper right hand corner of a double-truncated landscape spread–well, I’d be there in a heartbeat. Better yet–how about a one-minute TV commercial of total silence. (“Oh, wow honey, look!–that’s where I wanna go.”)

This is probably why I’ve never been in a focus group. For all the focus on authenticity and reality, I find most tourism slogans lacking in both. For the most part, they are limiting and unoriginal, easily dropped into any of the above categories. Even worse, today’s slogans challenge actual truths gained through travel experience. One day spent in any place offers a lifetime of material for long-lasting personal travel slogans. My own favorites include Russia (“Still Cold”), Turkey (“Not Really Europe At All”), England (“Drizzles Often”), Orlando (“Cheesy as Hell”), and Ireland (“Freakin’ Expensive”).

As a writer, I must argue against the cheerleaders and in favor of words–the more words we attach to a destination the better the sell. I think it’s safe to assume that Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia has done more for Argentina tourism than any of their own slogans. Similarly, Jack London gives props to Alaska, Mark Twain mystifies us with the Mississippi, and Rudyard Kipling keeps sending people to India. All four authors wrote about love, nature, and sunshine. They wrote long books filled with enthusiasm and punctuated with exclamation marks. They made us fall in love and yearn for places we never saw or knew.

No matter how many millions get spent on tourist slogans, today’s trademarked PR phraseology has generally failed to hit the mark. Perhaps they’ll make us rethink a place–reconsider a country we’d somehow looked over, but can a two or three word slogan ever touch us in that tender way, make us save up all our money, pack our bags and run away?

I don’t think so.

A video bike trip from Berlin to Istanbul

Josh Wedlake spent a month riding a bicycle from Berlin to Istanbul. Not only was his ride an impressive feat of endurance, the animated video recreation he’s made of his trip is nearly as amazing. For over four months upon his return, Josh was animating and editing a 3D version of his journey using an open-source animation tool called Blender.

Not only does the film provide viewers with a beautiful visual feast, Wedlake provides a wonderful accompanying narration, loaded with deep reflections and plenty of poignant moments. Passionate travelers like Josh are inventing a new method of travel storytelling, using digital tools and new methods to bring their experiences to life.

Best of all, Josh is raising money from his ride and the video to donate to charity. If you like the film, you can offer a donation here and here.

[Via Metafilter]