Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Look at the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable and you might think there are hardly any trains in eastern Europe. Indeed, the monthly timetable, which runs to over 500 pages, typically devotes less than a dozen pages to the eastern half of the continent. We make a friendly plea for visibility on behalf of rail travellers to Kazan, Samara and Volgograd.

article summary —

Two companion timetables have shaped the lives of many travellers. They are the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable, for long just dubbed Cook’s Continental and published monthly since 1873, and the same company’s Overseas Timetable, the very last edition of which was published in November 2010. Nicky Gardner, who is co-editor of hidden europe, reflects on how the demise of the Overseas might be just the moment to breathe new life into the European Rail Timetable.

Isn’t it interesting the way our travel horizons change over time? The Thomas Cook Continental Timetable with its trademark persimmoncolour cover was a mainstay of my early explorations. Older and wiser travellers referred to it as Cook’s Continental and I learnt to do the same.

Cast back to 1980 and the Continental nicely mapped the extent of my world. I judged myself a pro because I had ventured beyond Table 763. The interesting bits of the world started at 764, which cut across the German Democratic Republic to Poland and beyond. I dreamt of one day travelling from Vladimir to Gorki, not because I knew anything about Gorki but merely because Table 862 sternly advised that “This route is not open to tourist traffic,” giving instant appeal to a Russian rail route that would otherwise have seemed quite inconsequential.

I learnt the schedules of the little steamer that plied the coast of Istria (Table 1419) and wondered whether anyone ever actually used the MS Dmitri Shostakovich which every three weeks set sail from Odessa for Libya (Table 1475). My favourite table in the Continental was 1480 which recorded the movements of vessels crossing the Sea of Japan.

Then there was a revolution. I had a hint that the world was changing.

This is just an excerpt. If you are a subscriber to hidden europe magazine, you can log in to read the full text online. Of course you can also read the full article in the print edition of hidden europe 32.


Nicky Gardner is editor of hidden europe and also the principal author of the magazine. Where a text is not specifically attributed to an author, it is the work of Nicky. Below, you’ll find a small selection of her articles in hidden europe magazine. Nicky also writes regularly for other media. She is co-author (with Susanne Kries) of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide, the 17th edition of which was published 2022.

Nicky Gardner was liberated from a life enslaved to performance indicators and business plans to become a travel writer. She gives thanks for that daily. Nicky writes about culture and communities, about memorable landscapes and also about journeys. Over the years she's picked up a thing or two about product life cycles, the book trade and publishing, ticketing APIs, how libraries work and the high theology of grant giving.

Nicky reads geography books, railway timetables and maps entirely for pleasure - and lots of real books too! She loves nothing more than a slow meander by public transport around some unsung part of Europe. Nicky is particularly interested in issues of identity and culture in eastern Europe and the Balkans, in linguistic minorities and in island communities. Her pet loves are public libraries, Armenian food and anything coloured purple. Nicky cannot abide suburban sprawl, supermarkets and fast trains. Nicky has since 2007 been a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Nicky is especially keen on historical travel writing: Edith Durham, Gertrude Bell and Isabelle Eberhardt are among her favourites. Nicky can be contacted at editors [at] hiddeneurope.eu.

This article was published in hidden europe 32.