Dear fellow travellers
Things really are about to change on the banks of the Neisse river (Nysa in Polish). One word - Schengen - can mean a lot in defining the texture of everyday life in some parts of Europe and nowhere is that more true than in the Neisse valley.
Since 1945 the valley has been split between two countries: on the west bank Germany and on the east bank Poland. History has scarcely been kind to the villages of the Neisse valley. Hard on the west bank of the river, nestling below what must today be the most easterly vineyard in all Germany, lies the Kloster St Marienthal, a thirteenth-century convent foundation of the Bohemian Queen Kunigunde. In the seven hundred or more years since its creation, this religious community has witnessed all manner of mishap. It was sacked in the seventeenth century by Swedish and French soldiers in the Thirty Years War, frequently flooded by the Neisse river, and bombed in World War II. But, most conspicuously, St Marienthal and the adjacent village of Ostritz have suffered in recent years from central Europe's political borders.
When the Potsdam conference in 1945 settled Europe's new post-war borders, nobody probably looked too closely at the maps when suggesting that the Neisse valley might make a good line to delimit Germany's eastern frontier. The railway line which runs up the valley criss-crosses the river several times. The railway station that serves the German communities of Ostritz and St Marienthal is actually over on the opposite bank of the river - so in Poland. It is a wonderful curiosity: a Polish railway station that has no Polish passenger trains at all. Only the German services that trundle up the valley once each hour stopping off at various wayside halts en route. Being in Poland, the station that serves Ostritz even has a Polish name: Krzewina Zgorzelecka.
A little metal footbridge connects the Polish railway station with the German villages that rely on the train as their principal link with the outside world. Polish and German border police dutifully attend the arrival of every train, just to make sure that travellers arriving from Germany really do cross the river bridge immediately upon alighting from the train. Whether it be residents heading for the local markets or kids on their way to school, leaving Ostritz by train demands dual scrutiny by officials on both sides of the border.
All this changes on Friday with the accession of Poland into the Schengen group of nations. For Ostritz and for hundreds of other villages that lie adjacent to, or even astride, intra-EU borders life is about to become one whole lot easier. With nine new countries being welcomed into the Schengen club this week, it suddenly becomes possible to drive from Valencia to Vilnius without any en route border controls. For tourists, a real boon. For truck drivers who have long queued into the night to be processed at major road frontier points, undoubtedly a blessing. But for communities like Ostritz, truly a revolution.
This new freedom to roam within a much enlarged Schengen zone comes at a price: tougher controls on the eastern margins of the EU. Borders may be fading in some parts of the continent, but the view from Belarus is very different. Tough new requirements for visas to enter the Schengen zone, even for a shopping trip over the border into neighbouring Latvia. Until now, Belarus citizens could get a Latvian visa for free. Now they need a full Schengen visa and that comes with a weighty price tag: sixty euros.