Why not harness your inner Greta and travel overland by train this year, taking in some of Europe’s top cultural anniversaries along the way, says Suzanne Harrington.
Want to celebrate the new decade with a trip? One that combines travel, art and culture, but not a stress-induced heart attack brought on by cheap airlines? Perhaps your new year’s resolution, inspired by Greta, is to fly less? To travel slower?
Below is a join-the-dots of some of 2020’s cultural anniversaries around Europe (and a bit beyond), all of which are accessible overland without ever having to weigh and measure your hand luggage. 2020 is also the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Earth Day — so think scenic, relaxing travel, dreamily staring out train windows aslandscapes and cityscapes unfurl. Be in no rush, and soak it all in.
Start your trip across the water, with a bookish flavour. 2020 is the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens, who grew up in Kent, around Chatham and Rochester.
The City of Rochester Society offers free 90-minute walking tours of Dickens-related sites, and the town Chatham, despite being distinctly unlovely, has restored historic dockyards famous for rope making and where Dickens’ father worked as a clerk from 1817. Worth a look. (thedockyard.co.uk)
Change trains in London and head to Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, to the small family-run Roald Dahl museum, where Dahl spent 36 years before his death 30 years ago — kids will love it. (roalddahl.com)
From there, carry on up north to Keighley, Yorkshire, to catch the last leg of Bronte 200, a five-year series of events celebrating the bicentennial of the Bronte sisters’ births — Charlotte in 2016, Emily in 2018, and Anne in 2020. Their legacy is lovingly maintained at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in nearby Haworth, where they lived and wrote, and there’s a shop full of Bronte-related goodies. (bronte.org.uk)
You can have an even more immersive experience by getting from Keighley to Haworth on an actual steam train.
(At the other end of England, 2020 also sees the 50th anniversary of the world-famous Glastonbury festival in beautiful Somerset, but tickets sold out within seconds of going on sale. Happily, it’s televised.)
2020 has significant anniversaries from World War II — it is75 years since teen diarist Anne Frank died in Auschwitz. From Hull in Yorkshire, take a ferry to Rotterdam, then a 40 minute train to Amsterdam. The Anne Frank House, where she wrote her famous diaries, is a 20-minute walk from Centraal Station along the canals. Get a guided tour to avoid queuing, and see the annexe where the family spent several years in hiding before being betrayed to the Nazis. (annefrank.org)
It is also 130 years since the death of the Netherland’s most beloved painter, Vincent Van Gogh, in 1890 — visit his collection at the Van Gogh Museum (vangoghmuseum.nl). And take a boat trip — it may be touristy, but it’s a fantastic way to see the city. As is hiring a bicycle — you can always practice your cycling in the vast peaceful Vondelpark before joining the slightly intimidating stream of local cyclists that flow through the city.
On a far more sombre note, 2020 is also the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, near Krakow in Poland. There are guided tours of both the camp and the nearby saltmines at Wieliczka; the eerie, horrific space where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered is not for the faint hearted, but essential for contemplation of the worst of humanhistory. Try to go off season, and expect to feel unsettled.
Afterwards, recover in the medieval splendour of Krakow, with its Gothic cathedral and famous market place. Visit the Galicia Jewish museum (galiciajewishmuseum.org) in the bohemian old Jewish district of Kaizmierz, featured in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List, and home to a buzzy flea market every weekend.
Enjoy Polish vodka in a ‘lost bar’ — like a speakeasy — such as the Mercy Brown bar, a throwback to 1920s Krakow, whose doorway is hidden inside a restaurant at 28, Straszewskiego.
Wrap up warm and carry on to Moscow’s Red Square to the Tomb of Lenin, where the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilyich lies. He was born 150 years ago this year, and unlike communism, is still there on public display — 2020 is also the 30th anniversary of Mikhail Gorbachev becoming the last ever president of the Soviet Union.
Two giants of Russian culture also enjoy birth anniversaries this year — Boris Pasternak, author of Dr Zhivago, in 1890, and Tchaikovsky in 1840. Pasternak’s old house in the Moscow suburbs is now a museum, russianmuseums.info and the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall meloman.ru is surrounded by a feast of museums, galleries, theatres and parks. And vodka.
If Russia is too far and too cold, there’s always Belgium — it’s got a lot more going for it than just EU bureaucracy. Flemish painter of voluptuous ladies, Paul Rubens, died in 1640, but his quite fabulous house, which he designed, still stands in Antwerp — visit it at rubenshuis.be.
Even deader is Flemish Old Master Bruegel the Elder, famous for his detailed 16th century peasant scenes — 2020 is either the 490th or 495th anniversary of his birth (nobody knows if he was born in 1525 or 1530). Although Dutch, he died in Brussels — two thirds of his 40 paintings were inspired by the city. See them for yourself at fine-arts-museum.be
Afterwards, have a Belgian beer and a cone of frites amid the vast opulence of Grand Place. And don’t forget to visit Bruges an hour away, for no reason other than its gorgeousness, and its chocolate shops.
In keeping with the theme of long-dead artists, the Italians are having a bumper year. It’s 500 years since the death of Leonardo and the birth of Raphael, 545 years since the birth of Michelangelo in 1475, and 410 years since the death at 38 of Caravaggio.
Four good reasons to visit Tuscany, birthplace of all four. Specifically Florence, less intense than Rome, less flooded than Venice, and a feast for Renaissance fans, from Michelangelo’s house, Casa Buonarroti (casabuonarroti.it) to the town of Vinci, 40km away, the birthplace of Leonardo.
Except he was probably born in a farmhouse 3km from Vinci in Anchiano — it’s still there, and you can visit it. (museoleonardiano.it) Back in Florence, go to the Uffizi gallery uffizi.it to see 17th-century works by Caravaggio, and see Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, (accademia.org) near the Piazza Duomo.
Raphael is also at the Uffizi, even though he only lived in Florence from 1504 to 1508. All quite breathtaking. You’ll need espresso. And given the wealth of art history scattered around Florence, using a guide will bring the city even more to life.
If, however, you feel that Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael work best as ninja turtles, Florence is home to some great contemporary art — check out Museo Novecento, (museonovecento.it), and dozens more spaces at theflorentine.net. Or you could just sit in any of the city’s magnificent squares, and have a gelato.
Happy slow travels in 2020.