Travel How Schengen killed the romance of travel (and why...

How Schengen killed the romance of travel (and why it's never coming back)

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Here in 2024, the Schengen Area stretches south from the frosted upper edge of Scandinavia to the sunny shores of the Mediterranean. And once Romania and Bulgaria have sorted out the land-border paperwork (the date for the lifting of these barriers is, as yet, unconfirmed), it will extend without restrictions, west to east from the Channel to the Black Sea. In theory, you can drive between the North Cape of Norway and the small Spanish town of Tarifa (from where Morocco is clearly visible, 12 miles across the Strait of Gibraltar) – a road trip of some 3,491 miles, assuming you take the Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark – without having to produce your passport once. At some point in the next couple of years, you should be able to make a similar unchecked journey from Calais to Constanta (on Romania’s coast); a matter of 1,665 miles and six countries.

This is perhaps the most visible way in which Schengen has reconfigured Europe. While there are, obviously, many other issues at the heart of the conversation – notably the impact that the agreement, along with the wider structure of the EU, has had on migration patterns and labour markets; issues which Brexit ultimately rejected – it is the loosening of the shackles on trips across the continent that has most changed things for the traveller.

The northern edge of the Schengen Area

To return to the example of that hypothetical road trip from Nordkapp to Andalusia (which apparently takes 61 hours, if you stick to every speed limit, and don’t pause for minor indulgences such as sleep) – had you attempted such an odyssey prior to 1995, you would have needed to negotiate six international border control points (seven if you fancied a detour into Portugal, which lies close to the fastest route), each with its own layers of bureaucracy and box-ticking, its tailbacks and traffic jams, its vulnerability to summer strikes and surges in numbers. Certainly, 61 hours would have been wild fantasy.

Is this shortening, condensing and simplification a good thing? In terms of the functioning of a cross-frontier community in the 21st century, the idea definitely has its advantages (hugely easier transportation) and its disadvantages (if tourists have freedom of movement, then so do criminals). But in terms of the sheer romance of travel, I cannot help thinking that something has been lost. If we are to use Robert Louis Stevenson’s ever-quotable statement from his 1881 essay El Dorado as a yardstick, then we have swapped the “better thing” of “to travel hopefully” for the basic procedure of “to arrive”.

The convenience of the journey has sapped the character. What do I mean? Well, I am old enough that I have – tucked away in a drawer – a first passport littered with stamps from holidays in Europe. Not fearless expeditions across the Balkans, but mildly adventurous mid-Eighties family breaks which – in an epoch before budget airlines – involved an estate car stuffed with sleeping bags and an occasionally fraught search (“Are we nearly there yet?”) for campsites in the sunshine. The nine-year-old me gathered inky markers which said he had visited Italy, France, Austria, Spain, Belgium and (yes) West Germany.

A passport littered with stamps is becoming a rare thing

As a British citizen, you can, of course, now collect these souvenirs again (apart from the West German imprint) – at least until the introduction of the European Union’s much-delayed digital ETIAS scheme (now scheduled to happen in the middle of 2025) renders the thunk of the bureaucratic hand on a passport page a ghost of an analogue past.

But even Brexit, that thorny separator of the UK from the EU, has not returned the mystique of the border stamp to the continental road trip. The modus operandi of the Schengen Area means that once you are in, you are in, even if your country has opted out (or never bothered to opt in). So were you, as a Briton, to embark on that aforementioned expedition from the Strait of Gibraltar to the top of Scandinavia, you would only gain one new stamp in your passport – presumably on your arrival in one of Seville or Malaga, to commence the adventure. France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Sweden would make no impression on your personal ID, and Norway would only appear as your point of exit.

That seems a shame – and I write that as someone who voted to remain in 2016. But then, perhaps I am guilty of rose-tinting. Perhaps, in reality, all European border crossings were as dull and frustrating as the inevitable hour you spend at JFK airport in New York, waiting to be processed along with the arrivals on the seven other flights that have landed at the same time. Perhaps we Britons simply have a love of queuing that will never fade.

Schengen means fewer interactions with surly border officials, however

Or perhaps there’s more to it. Back in the early years of this century, I passed through an international checkpoint fraught with tension – the road gateway between the Israeli resorts of Eilat and their Egyptian counterparts in Taba. It was a lengthy affair – bags were checked, questions were asked, bags were checked again, previous passport stamps were perused. There were X-rays and pattings down; there were crowds of scowling staff, standing around and staring. But I was in no rush, and at the end of it all, I felt like I had leapt between continents. Which, in effect, I had, and I have two swarthy imprints on two separate pages of a former passport as evidence; a meaty travel tale to dine upon. You don’t find as much on a dash down the A13 highway between Luxembourg and Germany.

You can, however, find something else. For anyone intrigued to learn more about the Schengen Agreement (logic suggests there must be someone), the village offers further detail. You cannot visit the precise location of the signing – this was a boat, the Princess-Marie-Astrid, on the Moselle – but you can head to the European Museum (visitschengen.lu), for an explanation of how the treaty was born, and its ramifications.

In contrast, for those who hanker after a lost age, the following European borders still require a conversation with a serious man in uniform – and, perhaps, a sense of nostalgia.

Three European borders with passport controls

Gibraltar/Spain

As a British Overseas Territory, Gibraltar also sits outside the Schengen Area. Not that this border – which runs for three quarters of a mile below the Spanish town of La Linea de la Concepcion – is ever less than a controversial issue. Spain closed it to road traffic in 1969, and again in 1970 – and it remained in this semi-frozen position until 1985. Brexit has not soothed the situation – and those crossing this frontier can expect to join a queue.

Bulgaria/Turkey

The point where Bulgaria rubs its shoulder against Turkey is a significant international line in the sand. It currently delineates the south-eastern edge of the European Union – to the extent that around one third of this 319-mile frontier is now, or is due to be, blocked off by metal fencing and barbed wire. There is, though, a gateway between the Bulgarian village of Kapitan Andreevo and its Turkish counterpart Kapikule – a location where the two countries also meet Greece (though you cannot enter the latter here). A road trip (750 miles) between Istanbul and the Bulgarian capital of Sofia would feasibly come this way.

Cyprus

Can you cross a border that does not officially exist? Only Turkey recognises the Republic of Northern Cyprus. However, the frontier which cuts off the upper portion of the Mediterranean’s third largest island – annexed in the Turkish invasion of 1974 – from the Greek-Cypriot south is very real. It was a locked gate until 2003, and even now, there are only nine apertures along its 112-mile length. The most accessible is the Ledra Palace Crossing in the capital Nicosia – where you can wander through using a British passport.

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