Seeing Europe slowly on city and country walks
See London, Paris, Tuscany and more at your own pace on foot.
The New York Times
So much of the travel experience involves the schedules and deadlines of airlines, trains, buses and cabs. But there’s another way to see the sights: at ground level. Here are nine suggestions for appreciating the bustle of the city and the solitude of the European countryside at, literally, your own pace.
Berlin canal walk
Berlin might not be defined by its waterways — like, say, Amsterdam or Venice — but they are among the city’s most endearing characteristics. On a spring day, there are few better walking routes than the stretch of the Landwehrkanal that runs through the Kreuzberg quarter and the rapidly gentrifying immigrant district of Neukolln. Built in 1850, the Landwehrkanal was once used as a drainage system and to transport goods. Today, it’s used mainly by tourist boats and other watercraft, many bearing anti-capitalist flags or rigged with bass-heavy sound systems.
Start at the Lohmuhlenbrucke, where the canal forks out to the River Spree. The former East Berlin district of Treptow starts just on the other side (the bridge used to come to an end at the Berlin Wall). Follow the weeping-willow-lined canal westward. If it’s Sunday, ironically attired residents can be found selling hand-drawn comic strips and vintage costume jewelry at the canalside Nowkoelln Flowmarkt. Tuesdays and Fridays, the lively older Turkish Market unfolds a bit farther down. Produce, baked goods, spices, fabrics and other wares represent the Turkish-Kurdish-Arab community that has historically resided here. In the barking cadences of a seller at an Istanbul bazaar, Turkish men in tracksuits belt out the price of tomatoes — in German.
Cross Kottbusser Damm and follow the canal past the startlingly grand, curved facades of the Jugendstil residences that stare across the water at the remaining wing of the neoclassical-style Fraenkelufer Synagogue, which was desecrated by the Nazis but once again houses an active congregation. Continue on to the Admiralbrucke, a wrought-iron art nouveau bridge; depending on your level of tolerance or inebriation, join the backpackers and others drinking beer and listening to Spanish street musicians play bad Oasis covers. Finally, venture on until you reach the grassy banks of the Planufer where residents picnic and read as boats slide by.
London’s wobbly bridge
They nicknamed it the “wobbly bridge” when it opened, in 2000, because an engineering miscalculation caused it to sway so badly that people who tried to walk across it grew dizzy and even fell down. But after it was modified and opened again two years later, the Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian-only suspension bridge across the Thames, connecting Bankside on the south side to the City of London financial district on the north, became one of the great walking experiences in a city that might have been invented for strolling.
At 1,006 feet long, the bridge takes just five minutes to cross and can be a destination in itself. At one end is St. Paul’s Cathedral, and that is where I like to start; you climb up to the top and get someone to whisper at you from across the Whispering Gallery, and then you climb down again. Then you walk straight down to the Thames and the bridge, slender and elegant in gleaming steel.
As you cross, the noises and bustle of the city fade away, replaced by the caws of sea gulls. It smells like the sea. You think of Dickens and the character dredged from the river in “Our Mutual Friend.” All of London seems laid out around you: Blackfriars Railway Bridge and Southwark Bridge up- and downriver; the Shard, a tall, thin, new addition to the London skyline, upriver; St. Paul’s Cathedral, with the ovaloid building known as the Gherkin in the distance, behind you; the Tate Modern, a glorious celebration of art housed in an enormous building that was once a power station, directly in front. And next to that, the small and humble Globe Theatre, a replica of Shakespeare’s original theater, authentic even down to its thatched roof. There is no better spot than the Millennium Bridge from which to appreciate London as a palimpsest, the new gracefully overlaid on the old, as if every era coexisted with every other era in perpetuity, all at once.
In the 2004 film “Before Sunset,” Jesse, an American (Ethan Hawke), and Celine, a Frenchwoman (Julie Delpy), spend an afternoon traversing Paris as they flirt with love. At one point they ascend a staircase to an elevated park called the Promenade Plantee.
The 2.8-mile-long parkway, inaugurated in 1993, follows the abandoned Vincennes railway line; it was the inspiration for New York City’s High Line. In the film, Hawke and Delpy use the staircase midway along the promenade. I prefer to start at the staircase entrance at the promenade’s western end, which rises from the Viaduc des Arts, the redbrick arches filled with boutiques and galleries.
Tunnels, embankments and trenches have been preserved. Benches and trellises have been installed. Wild moss, lichens and bamboo grow wild. Lime, quince, cherry and holly trees, climbing roses and honeysuckle are among the plantings.
Visitors can peek into windows and look down at narrow streets. On the left is the steeple of the St.-Antoine des Quinze-Vingts Church. On the right is a police headquarters decorated with a dozen reproductions of Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave.” (The original sculpture sits in the Louvre.)
For much of the way, the flaneur (stroller) reigns supreme.
“The practice of jogging is tolerated to the degree that it does not annoy the walkers,” a sign tells visitors.
At the midway point, the promenade descends to the Jardin de Reuilly, an expanse of grass, trees and statues.
At the eastern end of the promenade it is a short walk to the National Center of the History of Immigration. Built in neoclassical style for the 1931 international colonial exhibition, it is now celebrated as an art deco-era masterpiece. The interior, with its original marquetry, lighting fixtures, staircases and mosaics, has been frozen in time. Bas-reliefs on the facade byAlfred Janniotcelebrate the success of the French empire. It is a brilliant work of propaganda: tropical plants, animals, colonial faces and agricultural and mineral riches extracted from the colonies. France, naturally, is an allegorical figure of abundance at the center.
Prague’s public art
Much of Prague’s art scene is moving out to the rough-hewed Zizkov neighborhood, where the year-old Drdova Gallery and the tiny 35m2 exhibition space will soon be joined by the new location of Hunt Kastner Artworks. Other art attractions hide in the Holesovice or Karlin districts. But in the city center, travelers can link several thought-provoking public installations into an art walk without leaving Old Town.
Start out on Dlouha Street, where a giant golden sculpture of a human femur hangs over the intersection with Rybna Street, installed last year by the artist Jiri David. Continue west on Dlouha, turning right on V Kolkovne Street, until you come to the Spanish Synagogue, where Jaroslav Rona’s memorial to Franz Kafka has the young author riding on the shoulders of an empty suit.
Head west on Siroka and turn left on Parizska, the home of high-end boutiques; in a city of beer and sausages, the $6,000 saddle in the window at Hermes counts as conceptual art. Follow Parizska and cross Old Town Square, turning right and briefly entering Karlova street, but continuing straight onto Jilska, then veering right onto narrow Jalovcova, then left at Husova. Two blocks down, look up for David Cerny’s statue of Sigmund Freud hanging contemplatively by one hand above the street. For another controversial Cerny piece, continue to Narodni, turn left and follow 28 Rijna Street up to a right turn onto Wenceslas Square where you’ll find the equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas. Then backtrack to turn left on Stepanska Street. After 100 feet, enter the Lucerna Passage, where Cerny’s witty parody has the Czech national hero sitting upright on a bound, upside-down horse.
The perfect view in Tuscany
Close your eyes and think of Tuscany. Do you see hillsides bathed in golden sunlight? A patchwork quilt of vineyards? Small villages, with their terra-cotta roofs, perched on distant hilltops?
The quintessential Tuscan landscape is etched in the minds of many thanks to decades’ worth of idyllic images cast on the silver screen. But there’s no substitute for lacing up your walking shoes and experiencing the scenery firsthand. A favorite route that takes less than two hours links the medieval hilltop towns of Radda in Chianti and Castello di Volpaia in central Tuscany. Starting in Radda, head west down the town’s main street, with its stone walls and valley views, and bear right onto the narrow road immediately after the sign for Castellina. Olive groves and vineyards line this leafy lane, from which a backward glance will reveal a glimpse of ocher-hued Radda. Turn off at the sign for Sassaiola and follow the path alongside the woods to emerge on the main road toward Castello di Volpaia.
Along the final, gentle uphill stretch, stroll past gravel drives leading to ancient country estates and marvel at views of the valley where grapes and olives have been cultivated for centuries. As the road gets steeper, rows of slender cypress trees usher you to Castello di Volpaia, a medieval village where most of the structures are, naturally, devoted to wine and olive oil production. As the sun sets behind the Tuscan hills, you’ll see: It’s like the movies, only better.
— Ingird K. Williams