Dear fellow travellers
A spring Sunday afternoon in many cities of central Europe is a moment for families to take to city parks - picnics, paddling, roller-blades and in many places a chance to catch a ride on the children's railway. Yesterday saw hidden europe in Dresden, where we joined the Sunday exodus to the city's main public park. Just an easy stroll east of the city centre, the old Volkspark (People's Park) is a classic of its kind - a place for simple pleasures, with a handsome Baroque palace, ample lakes, leafy glades, a small zoo and a miniature railway. Here it was that the young pioneers (the youth wing of the Communist party) learnt how to operate a railway, to the delight of their kid brothers and sisters who enjoyed nothing more than a Sunday afternoon train ride on a park railway that emulated all the details of a real railway. Our tickets were carefully checked by a very serious eleven year old, while one stern functionary standing on a station platform, not yet in her teens, admonished us for not paying due attention to the railway's safety regulations.
The old pioneer railway in Dresden still runs to time, although modern political pieties have demanded a change of name: today it is called the Parkeisenbahn (park railway). But it is a fine surviving example of the children's railways that were a real feature of parks in the eastern half of Europe. Many have not survived the political changes of the past two decades, but where they have, the pioneer railways continue to provide wonderful Sunday entertainment for youngsters - and, so it seemed in Dresden yesterday, a lot of fun for their parents too who could still easily recall the day when they stood in the spring sunshine wearing a smart uniform and waved off the train on its twenty-minute journey to the zoo and back.
Further examples of excellent children's railways that had their origins in the discipline of the Communist period may be found at Wuhlheide in Berlin, in Minsk (Belarus) and in Kharkiv (Ukraine). The former pioneer railway in Budapest is a particularly fine example, still operating on over 300 days each year on a round trip of 22 kilometres through marvellous wooded country in the Buda Hills.
The onetime Kingdom of Saxony, nowadays the Free State of Saxony in Germany, is a part of Europe that deserves to be better known. The Saxon capital of Dresden is overshadowed by nearby Prague. Few discount airlines fly to Dresden. Until British Airways launched its new daily service from London to Dresden a few weeks back, Dresden had not a single non-stop jet service to any other European capital. Remarkable for a city that is larger than Manchester, Zürich or Lyon.
Of course Dresden is much vaunted for its fabulous Baroque architecture, but the city has some offbeat curiosities too. The half-hour walk from the Old Town to the People's Park takes in the new synagogue, an oddball museum devoted to human hygiene (another legacy of the Communist period) and an intriguing transparent factory. The latter is an avant-garde creation in glass. The pioneer railway had to move its principal station to make way for the factory. Here, on the edge of the Volkspark, Bentley Continental cars are assembled. Or to be more specific, the new Flying Spur model, which has a maximum speed of over 300 kilometres per hour. That such a luxurious vehicle, one that comes with a six litre engine, is put together on the hallowed ground of the old pioneer railway terminus shows how much priorities have changed in Dresden in recent years. The pioneers of yesterday must surely be turning in their graves.