When I first picked up New Europe by Michael Palin, I wasn’t sure what a New Europe was exactly. An avid traveller, this was the first time I had considered reading one of Palin’s books. I’ve already slapped myself on the wrist so you don’t have to. My last major pilgrimage overseas was in the name of interrailing. So I thought I would see how a professional tackled european travel and we could work out just what New Europe was along the way.
Palin started in Ljubljana, Slovenia before moving on via train to Croatia. My own interrail trip mirrored this starting point exactly. The school kid in me raising his hand as high as possible to get Mr Palin’s attention. Wanting to scream at the man who is now just as famous for his travelling exploits as his Monty Python genesis, “I did that too sir!” If Michael Palin started his European jaunt in Ljubljana, that is more than justification for me doing likewise. It is almost a seal of approval that I’m not half bad at this travel lark. In reality, flights to Ljubljana were cheaper than those to Zagreb when I booked the trip but keep that under you hat, I’m looking pretty switched on about the whole process here at the moment.
New Europe, it turns out is an umbrella terms for states that formally fell under Yugoslavian and/or communist rule. My own interrail experience took in seven countries (many of which would be considered a part of New Europe) in three weeks. The scale of Palin’s tour in comparison shows just how vast a continent Europe is.
Despite it being little over 15 years since the book was published certain aspects are already dated. Testament to the ever changing world that we live in. Palin talks of hopes for a more inclusive Europe as the countries he visited began to apply for membership and subsequently have joined the European Union. The endless possibilities that would mean for people living in EU states to broaden their horizons. And then we go and spoil it all by doing something stupid like leaving the EU. I must admit, at any mention of the EU and how it would unlock doors for travellers around Europe I suffered from an empty sensation in the pit of my stomach. Almost as if someone had pulled a rug out from under my feet. Apt in reality as that is just what has happened.
The book is jam packed with anecdotes from Palin’s travels, bolstered by facts and opinions picked up along the way. People make places and New Europe is very character driven. What we are left with is a snapshot of each location from both the point of view of the traveller (Palin) and locals. The brevity of time spent on each destination was slightly disappointing for me, purely as I could read about travel until the cows come home. Considering I don’t own any cows, that’s a long time. Naturally, the book was written as a companion to a television series which would have added flesh to the bones so to speak. My next mission is to try and find said series, a pack of tissues and strap in to watch it. Tissues you ask? I told you I love travel. But alas, they’re for the tears that will be shed for Britain no longer being a part of the EU. Constant reminders of which will be thrust in my face.
Palin’s trip in to New Europe lasted a whopping 123 days. Now that British citizens are only allowed to enter the EU for 90 out of every 180 days it would be impossible for me to follow in his tracks. This all just adds to the sense of sadness that I felt reading the book. Many of the people who Palin meets during his time in Europe talk of repression being lifted from their shoulders. It is warming to hear but bittersweet, knowing that we (in strictly the royal sense) in Britain have voted for our own form of repression in many ways.
While I am mindful that this review could be turning into my ode to Britain in the EU, I feel it is important that reviews speak of the way they make the reader feel. That bereft feeling didn’t leave me for the duration of this book. It is a picture of an exciting time for New Europe, a time that has changed undoubtedly. For the better for some, the worse for others. Overall, it is a book that is well worth investing some time in if you are a fan of travelling.