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]

Photo of the Day (9-24-08)

I picked this photo because it encapsulates the very points that makes travel so incredibly interesting. It’s those details that make you shake your head and say, “What were they thinking?” And you have no idea what they were thinking because people don’t always think alike. What makes sense to the people who live in a particular country can seem stupid to those not from there–or at least nonsensical–except that it could make sense. Kind of.

According to Damiel who took this picture, this billboard is on the hotel building where he was staying in Bratislava. His room is behind the letters “o” and “u” in “navigáciou.” I wonder if that means that he could look out through the “o” and the “u”? Or were the windows covered over? Either choice seems odd.

If you have a photo you’d like for us to consider for Photo of the Day, send it our way at Gadling’s Flickr Photo Pool.

By the way, I’m dedicating this Photo of the Day to my fellow Gadling bloggers. It’s an inside joke.