Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Hidden europe is produced close to the junction of two of Europe's great highways, the E30 and the E55. The E30 links Cork in Ireland with Nakhodka on Russia's Pacific coast. The E55 runs from Kalamata in Greece to Helsingør in Denmark.

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This text is a little piece of history. It was initially published in the very first issue of hidden europe magazine. It is not a piece for which we make any great claim, but it's a nice read and gives a few insights into our quirky way of looking at the world. We have modified it just very slightly for inclusion on our new website. The text was written by Nicky Gardner. She is co-editor of hidden europe magazine.

So where does hidden europe actually come from? From a garret in Reykjavik perhaps? Or a basement in Kiev? No, actually hidden europe is produced in the heart Europe just a stone's throw from the erstwhile border between West Berlin and the former German Democratic Republic (the DDR).

We are more or less at the junction of two of Europe's truly great highways, the E30 and the E55. Well, not actually right at the junction but merely a few kilometres away. We're not sure that any living soul has ever driven either the E30 or the E55 from end to end, but if they have, we would certainly like to hear from them. The E30 is one of the world's greatest overland routes, and the E55 is no trifling byway either. It is among the longest north-south roads in Europe. Both routes converge from different directions near Berlin, briefly share a few kilometres of the city's southern ring, then go their separate ways again.

A half hour sitting by the side of that cardinal artery is enough to spot the licence plates of a dozen or more European countries: Finland or Moldova, Belarus or Bulgaria . . . this shared stretch of the E30 and the E55 is paradise for those of more nerdish inclination. But somehow, number plates aside, these two roads between them seem to sum up what hidden europe (and indeed so much of our work) is all about.

The E30? Where does it actually go? It's often colloquially referred to as the Moscow to Rotterdam highway, though in truth it doesn't really go to Rotterdam, but passes some way north of the Dutch city. Even to claim that the E30 runs from Holland to Moscow is sorely to diminish this road's full extent. For the E30 casts its tentacles much further across the continent. It is the Eurasian equivalent of the Pan American Highway.

The E30 links a port on Europe's Atlantic seaboard with one on the Pacific. It starts in the southern Irish city of Cork, and, aided and abetted by a ferry or two, traverses Wales and southern England to reach the Hook of Holland. And then via Den Haag and Hanover, passing close by the hidden europe offices and on over the Oder River into nearby Poland. Then across the open expanses of Belarus and so to Moscow. Now that's close on 3500 km already, but actually once it reaches Moscow the E30 has run less than a third of its total route.

For the E30, newly extended eastward a few years back, when Vladimir Putin ceremonially opened a new bridge over the Amur River, now traverses Siberia to reach the rocky Pacific coast at Nakhodka – 9500 km east of Moscow. It eastern extremity used to be the city of Celjabinsk, in Russia's Ural region, where the E30 ground to an uncertain end under the gaze of a monumental statue of Lenin on Revolution Square. No longer though. Nowadays, the once great tea trading city of Celjabinsk is no more than a staging post on a much more ambitious journey, one that takes the E30 east through Siberia, and across swamps, forests and great rivers, only eventually to end on the Pacific coast at Nakhodka, where the steamers still set sail for Japan.

That makes the E30 the longest numbered highway in the world, though British reticence to play the European game means that the E30's very existence is kept curiously secret by the British traffic authorities. The M4 from south Wales towards London, as well as stretches of the A12 in eastern England are designated elements of this great European highway, but you'll search in vain for any hint of the E30 on the local traffic signs. We think Nakhodka might be worth a trip sometime, even though its Far East location renders it off limits for hidden europe. But it would be good to see where the E30 ends, and the name itself is enticing: Nakhodka means ‘discovery’ in Russian.

The other route that identifies us is the E55. So what of that? It's one of Europe's longest north – south routes. Its Mediterranean extremity is at Kalamata in southern Greece, more famous for its olives than for long distance traffic, and the road tracks north up through the Peloponnese into Epirus, hops over to SE Italy on a ferry, then follows Italy's Adriatic Coast all the way to Venice, before crossing the Alps to Salzburg and on through Prague and Dresden to Berlin. No rest here, though, for the great highway heads north to the Baltic, on to Copenhagen and to Helsingør where it ends on the shore of the Öresund under the shadow of Hamlet's great castle. Shakespearean trinkets abound, even though the bard himself never went near the place. Nowadays, of course, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would, as likely as not, be long distance truck drivers pondering their next trip south on the E55 rather than courtiers exchanging banter with a wayward prince.

One day, when we've a week or two to spare, we'll head up to Helsingør, stock up with a jar or two of Kalamata olives, and drive the E55 south. And if we can, we'll mark our arrival in Kalamata by buying a copy of Shakespeare's Hamlet. As to the E30, well that would take a month or more, and it's a journey which we'll start in Nakhodka Port with a pint of Guinness, and end in Cork, where, surely, by the time we make it, some enterprising soul will have opened a Russian restaurant. If anyone does both the E30 and E55 trips before us, let us know. It's roads we're talking about here, not food additives!

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This article was published in What we do.