Wachau: Steely Danube

Following the news in the summer of 2017, we hear that the infrastructure of Southern Europe is collapsing under the weight of boat people being picked up by the Mafia a few metres from the Libyan coast, we hear that Rome is imposing a curfew on running water, we hear of multiple arson-encouraged forest fires sweeping across nation after nation, we hear that activists in Barcelona and Mallorca are threatening direct action against mass tourism, we hear that Brits are missing their flights because of four-hour queues in and out of the Schengen zone; in short, we hear that there are too many people on the planet, all taking too many holidays in the same overcrowded places. With this year’s summer break I get the impression that we sacrificed world-class art, culture and iconic sights in exchange for being obscurist holiday hipsters, because in the little corner of Austria on which we took a punt we barely saw another foreigner in a week, and we came home happy with our choice. The Wachau valley is a 20-mile stretch of the Danube, roughly equidistant between Linz and Vienna, that is particularly pretty. It begins with Melk, a huge and celebrated monastery with a small town below, and ends around the medium-sized town of Krems an der Donau (‘an der Donau’ performing the same role as ‘upon-Thames’), with a string of picturesque winemaking villages in between. People who are seriously into their exercise like to cycle its entire length, and a boat down the Danube to Melk is one of the classic day-trip excursions from Vienna, but we spent a week in the Wachau to recharge our batteries and indulge in some slow travel.

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Ghentlemen Prefer Blondes (and Dunkels, and Tripels)

From Spain to the Spanish Netherlands. As I contemplate writing up this trip it dawns upon me that this is the first time I’ve blogged Belgium, and only my third visit to the country. Conclusion: I don’t get to Belgium half as much as I should. For so long Belgium was, to Britain, merely the butt of jokes in bad TV comedies. Yet the defence of this place across the water was what dragged us into World War I, and the swift Eurostar connection to Brussels means that these days we can go abroad and explore a relatively unfamiliar country without having to endure the awful experience of airports, and with a quicker journey time than we face going to Newcastle or Glasgow (although who knows what obstacles Brexit will place in our way). When Belgium was at its most unfashionable, Jonathan Meades made his celebrated film arguing that it was interesting because as devout Catholics, Belgians paired the same death-cult as Spain or Italy (where it is leavened by sunny skies and the blue Mediterranean) with perpetually grey skies that rain more than Yorkshire. My own great fondness for the place can probably be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that its brilliance is unsung, under-the-radar, and a wonderful surprise. The tourist goes to Venice in full expectation that he will find one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but what knows the tourist of Ghent? Until recently, not so much, but its greater accessibility these days seems to be waking Brits up to the fact that Belgium has the best beer, chips and chocolate on God’s earth, and much else besides.

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