Visa-free travel by the numbers

Visa-free travel is easy travel. Procuring visas takes time, energy, and money, and is beyond debate a pain for frequent travelers. The erection of visa barriers responds to a number of factors, though it can be said without too many qualifications that the citizens of rich countries tend to have a much easier time accessing the world visa-free than do the citizens of poor countries.

The Henley Visa Restrictions Index Global Ranking 2011, excerpted in the Economist last week, was just published by Henley & Partners, an international law firm specializing in “international residence and citizenship planning.” Henley & Partners divide the world into 223 countries and territories.

And who gets to travel with few visa restrictions? The best citizenships for visa-free travel belong to nationals of Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, at 173 apiece. On their Nordic heels is Germany at 172 and a mess of countries (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, United Kingdom) at 171. The United States isn’t too far down the list, tied in fifth place with Ireland at 169. The US comes in ahead of Switzerland (167), Canada (164), New Zealand (166), and Australia (166).

Some of the least lucky countries, according to the Henley Visa Restrictions Index survey: India (53), China (40), Iran (36), Lebanon (33), and Afghanistan (24).

[Image: Flickr | megoizzy]

Echternach, Luxembourg: Non-stop quirks in the Grand Duchy

I recently found myself entangled in a linguistic chess match with a Luxembourg waitress.

On a morning stroll of the cobbled avenue that comprises the city of Echternach’s main thoroughfare, the sight of white foam cresting over frosty, oversized beer steins unintentionally drew me to a corner table of an outdoor café. Though a mere 90 minutes had passed since finishing my morning coffee, the lust for some local imbibing had suddenly trumped my desire to explore.

As the blonde waitress casually approached my corner table, I mentally prepared myself for the verbal jigsaw puzzle Luxembourg frequently forced me to construct. Anxiously eying her smiling young face, something about her leisurely stride tipped the scales towards going with French. I decided to strike first.

“Bonjour”, I offered, my American accent completely butchering the romance of it.

“Gutentag”, she shot back, her blonde curls bouncing as she took the final step.

Ugh. German Not my strong suit.

“Gutentag. Bitte ein bier” I countered. (Everyone at least learns how to ask for a beer).

“Oui, une bière” came the half-expected French reply.

She was catering to me. I was catering to her. We had danced a full circle.

Before I could internally translate my next thought, however, I was unexpectedly struck by a hailstorm of guttural syllables. Luxembourgish: a language I didn’t even know existed until I had entered the country three days prior.

“Big”, I sheepishly guessed, my reply in English. We had finally succumbed to our Mother tongues.

“Oui”, she giggled, her blonde locks dancing off in the direction of my incoming beer.And so begins another day in Echternach, a city of 4500 people on the banks of Luxembourg’s Sauer River. Officially, Luxembourg is the world’s only Grand Duchy, though I’m still unsure exactly what that entails. From the marked difference between the opposing banks of the Sauer River, I’m guessing it has something to do with acting remarkably aristocratic. On the other side of the Sauer lies Germany, its riverbank populated by large trailer parks and dingy flea markets. Here on the Echternach side of things, however, there are manicured walking trails and sprawling historical gardens. I figure the difference must have to do with the Duchy.

During World War II, American troops stormed across this river in the epic fight that would become the Battle of the Bulge. A monument to their bravery stills stands outside of town today. A few kilometers from that monument rises the Abbey of Echternach, a massive concrete sanctuary constructed by the English monk St. Willibrord in 698 AD, thereby making Echternach the oldest city in one of the world’s smallest countries.

In perfectly quirky Luxembourgish fashion, for the last 500 years the Echternach dancing procession has taken place each Tuesday after Whit Sunday in the large square fronting the Abbey, though no one knows exactly why they are dancing. A curious celebration that features pairs of strangely clad Luxembourgish civilians hopping and clapping their way down the cobbled streets, the dance is officially recognized on the “UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity“.

When not filled with poofy-shirted dancers, an alarming amount of bars and outdoor cafes spring from the town’s two main streets, though this should come as little surprise seeing as the Luxembourgish population potentially consumes more alcohol per capita than any country on the planet. Wedged between the vineyards of France, the Traapist beers of Belgium, and the Oktoberfest mindset of Germany, there really is little room to blame them.

More than a city of dancing and drinking (though really, what else is there?), Echternhach is also regarded as being one of the best places in Luxembourg to embark on the Mullerthal Trail. Tracing the wooded hills for 110km through Luxembourg’s Mullerthal region, the trail passes a number of natural sights that are potentially more fun to say out loud than they are to look at. Places with names like Schnellert (a forest), Schiessentumpel (a waterfall), and Wolfsschlucht (a dramatic stone canyon known as the “Wolves’ Den”), spring up along the trail, all of them part of the remarkably scenic and comprehensive network of trails that criss-cross the forests of the Grand Duchy.

Back at my corner table, a curious clamor in the distance draws my attention away from perusing a pocket map of the Duchy. Cheerily in the midst of draining my second Belgian import, a rogue troop of nearly 30 local children are now marching down the main street beating a variety of drumsticks together in a mal-rhythmic terror. There are no words to accompany their impromptu march, just the clashing of wood on wood and little footsteps moving out of synch across the cobblestone. The blonde waitress shoots me a glance that she has no idea what’s going on either. It seems no one knows, yet oddly, no one seems to care. This is just another morning in Echternach, medieval Luxembourgish city of incessant curiosities.

Five ways to get the most out of your Luxembourg trip

Luxembourg is a tiny, interesting place. It probably isn’t a destination in itself for most people, but it can be a great side trip from Paris, parts of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. If you can tack a few days onto your next vacation to that part of Europe, Luxembourg is a fun spot that you’d probably never visit otherwise.

Since your time in Luxembourg is likely to be short – and dependent upon other factors in your vacation – it can help to have a few ideas in mind before you hit the ground. You want to make the most of your experience, of course, while minimizing the aggravation that can come with going from Point A to Point B. Below, you’ll find five tips for making your Luxembourg visit easier and more enjoyable.

%Gallery-129220%1. Dip into the valley: up on the hill, Luxembourg is a city. It’s reasonably large and more interesting (as a city) than the likes of Amsterdam and Brussels, but it’s still a run-of-the-mill city. Step onto one of the walking paths, though, and you’ll descend into the Old Europe you’d expect from this microstate. Wander the winding streets, and enjoy the architecture that reminds you what the meaning of “classic” is. Interestingly, you’ll get a shock to the system when you see old and new side by side. There’s an interesting mix of contemporary and traditional architecture in Luxembourg, which gives the towns below a more organic vibe.

2. Drink the local wine: it’s old hat for most travelers to sample the local stuff when visiting a new place. Trying new food and drinks is part of the fun! The food in Luxembourg won’t strike you as particularly exotic (though you can find a good meal there), but the wine is a different story. Crisp, flavorful and a pure pleasure to drink, you’ll find the perfect afternoon kicking back bottle after bottle while sitting outside and watching the people pass by.

3. Don’t bother paying for the bus: in the mood for some international crime? The buses in Luxembourg provide the perfect opportunity. You have to pay to take them, but the bus drivers don’t check to see if you have a ticket. They don’t care. So, you can step onto the bus and go where you want without paying a dime. You are running a risk, however. The fines are steep if you get caught by the authorities tasked with spot-checking for tickets.

Of course, I’m not advocating such illicit behavior. Buy a damned ticket – they’re cheap.

4. Stay for the right amount of time: you don’t want to breeze through Luxembourg in an afternoon … but staying for a week probably doesn’t make sense. Give yourself two or three days, depending on how much time you want to invest in #2, above.

5. Spring for a hotel downtown: to save a few bucks, I stayed out in the business district. It was a lot cheaper, and bus access to the city was fast, easy and reliable. But, it’s still a lot more enjoyable to roll out of bed and head right into the action.

Schengen and the disappearance of European passport stamps

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.

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]

Why Luxembourg matters

Europe has lots of tiny countries. The rest of the world reminds itself of this fact periodically, almost as a running joke. How Vatican City is the smallest “independent” state, but (come on people), is it really a country? Andorra sounds charming, too, until you go there and discover it’s only the European Union’s largest outlet mall. Likewise, Monaco‘s just a casino with a racecar track, and Liechtenstein‘s a drive-thru bank for dodgy Russians with Austrian passports.

Despite the less-romantic realities of present-day Europe, we travelers still get a kick out of these nifty, little hold-out principalities and monarchies. Somehow, they’ve prevailed in the tempest of European history, avoiding absorption into their larger neighbors all the way into the 21st century when we can ironically celebrate quirky existential nationhoods in the face of supranationalist sentiments.

I first visited Luxembourg on a whim–hopped a train in Brussels and three hours later, stepped off somewhere deep in the Ardennes. I was young, brave, and poor and it was late at night. I walked away from the one-room station in Arlon and disappeared into the forest, bumbling in the woods until the sounds of passing cars disappeared. When I found a comfortable spot, I pushed away the pine needles and lay down on the cold ground, using my lumpy canvas backpack as a pillow.I woke up well past midnight to the softest sound–approaching footsteps? A gentle, rhythm-less pit-pat all around me. It took me several minutes to figure out that all I was hearing were leaves–dead autumn leaves falling from ancient trees and hitting the ground, one by one. That is the silence of Luxembourg–you can hear each leaf hitting the ground.

A louder rustling woke me a few hours later–a little louder, a little closer, and a little more disconcerting. Panic, then peace set in: it was only a doe in the forest, rummaging, peeling bark from the pine trees and stepping timidly closer and closer to my little clouds of breath rising from the ground.

I shivered in the forest until dawn, then hiked back to a road where I fell asleep at a bus stop like a grungy homeless person. I woke up bleary-eyed and asked one of the more respectable citizens nearby if this was Luxembourg. It was.

This was long after the EU but also long before Google Maps. Nowadays you can just google Luxembourg and see how a thin grey line–an international border–simply traces the length of a road, jumps a stream and cuts corners through some farmer’s field (“Well, nine-tenths of my wheat’s right here in Luxembourg but the other tenth is over in Belgium”).

Somehow in the night I had entered this new country and now I was determined to explore it to the fullest extent. Using my finger and a map, I determined that Luxembourg’s fullest extent was around 30 miles–the length of road between Belgium and Germany. Thirty miles is nothing, really. I could walk that in a day, I thought. And so I did. I started that morning and ended at sunset when a bridge crossed the Moselle and I came to a polite, little square sign (chest-high) that barely announced “Deutschland”.

To figure out my to total walking distance across Luxembourg, I retraced my steps online. After punching in my start and end points, Google Maps shouts a stern warning in a yellow box: “Use Caution–This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths.” Indeed. My jaunty one-day trek across one of the smallest countries in the world was performed without the assistance of sidewalks or pedestrian paths (or a compass or a map). Most of the time I spent walking in open fields, loving the quaint freedom of fenceless Europe.

By walking, I saw tiny Luxembourg up close and personal. As countries go, it’s a good one. Much of it is very green, divided into forests, fields, and hills. Light yellow stone cliffs and the deep gorges offer a sense of wild landscape, untamed even by these most European of Europeans. Perky castles stand out in the countryside–real life castles where people live and a mailman still delivers the mail. Palaces fill the capital–grandeur and pomp without any particularly urgent purpose. (Remember, this is a country run by a duke, a nobleman who’s latest headlines involve his birthday party and a tumble dryer catching fire in his palace basement.)

Only half a million people live in this country–an odd mix of imported Eurocrats, happy farmers, tax refugees, rich people with titles, and polyglot investment bankers. Maybe it’s not the twee world we had hoped for (black-booted princes on horseback or whistling peasants sticking pitchforks into haystacks), but even in the midst of today’s bland supermarché EU Europe, Luxembourg retains its heirloom personality in its customs, unique government, thousand-year old culture and its even odder language.

In the city of Luxembourg, I attended a Catholic mass read in Luxembourgish (aka Lëtzebuergesch, Luxembourgeois, Luxemburgisch) and found myself delighted by the strange mashup of French and German pronounced like guttural Dutch. Geez, I thought, it’s a whole different language spoken by fewer people than live in the Tallahassee metropolitan area.

Luxembourg’s national motto is Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn or “We want to remain what we are.” The meaning is clear and pretty much sums up every country’s deepest patriotic longing. Because Luxembourg, too, is the red, white, and blue. Well, the red, white and light blue (turquoise?). This is a Grand Duchy folks–the only sovereign duchy left in the world–and the average American traveler to Europe overlooks it like they overlook high-fructose corn syrup. In the rush from Paris to Amsterdam to Munich and back, Luxembourg is the no-name brand of Europe that fails to inspire the uninitiated vacationer.

It’s a terrible mistake though, because honestly, nowhere is Europe more alive than in little Luxembourg. There is no Eiffel Tower or Oktoberfest or legalized marijuana but there is a glint of Europe as it once was–as it still is. Where quiet and pastoral comforts are much valued, where Sunday strolls pass over stone bridges and alongside flowered hedgerows, where no matter where you’ll look, you’ll find a tiny castle poking above the treeline in the distance. It’s nice.

In a time of megacities and mega-construction, we should be glad for a country like Luxembourg. Downtown Shanghai is larger than Luxembourg–Los Angeles County is four times as large. A lot of places are bigger than Luxembourg . . . and yet Luxembourg is the perfect size for travelers: big enough to be an actual country but still small enough to walk across in a day. Epcot Center attempts a similar feet with their 11-country World Showcase, but even your kids aren’t fooled by that set-up. Luxembourg, on the other hand, is the real deal.

I will be going back to Luxembourg–someday–and this time it won’t be for bragging rights. I can already say that I’ve walked across the entire country, but there is still so much of the country I have yet to see, for example, the North. Perhaps I will find a new route using Google Maps–a new, wandering path down the length of one of the smallest countries in the world; a long-winded itinerary that comes with a stern warning, “Caution: This Route May Be Missing Sidewalks.”

(Flickr Photos: Andrew Michaels [Flag], Hendrik [Yellow Field])