BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Three months ago, the trip from Brussels to Warsaw involved a direct flight of about two hours, plus travel to and from airports.
After the coronavirus pandemic closed borders and grounded most planes, the 1,300 km journey across Europe took seven times as long and involved a cancelled plane, trains and an automobile … and a walk across a revived border checkpoint.
Lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus have dealt a blow to easy movement across Europe, although restrictions are being lifted and some travellers’ lives should become easier over the coming days.
The journey from Brussels to my home town of Warsaw started with a setback before it even began.
On the evening of Tuesday, June 9, my flight to Frankfurt scheduled for the next morning was cancelled after a Brussels airport luggage handler went bust, the latest business to fold during the coronavirus crisis.
That put paid to plans to fly to Berlin via Frankfurt and take a train to the German-Polish border.
Instead, I booked Deutsche Bahn tickets from Brussels to Berlin and set off from home the next morning at around 9 a.m.
With a connection in Cologne, where the station platforms were unusually empty, the trip to Berlin took nearly seven hours.
Wearing face masks was obligatory on board, and coaches and train stations were marked with signs reminding travellers to stay at least 1.5 metres apart.
There were no special controls as the train crossed from Belgium to Germany, but at least 17 of the 26 countries inside Europe’s Schengen zone have had emergency checks in place due to the coronavirus.
After another switch at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, an afternoon train took me to Frankfurt (Oder), a German border town across the river from Poland’s sleepy Slubice.
It was about a 2 km walk from the station to the middle of the bridge across the Oder, which marks the frontier between the countries. Polish border guards had set up a tent for passenger checks, and signs reminded pedestrians to keep their distance.
After a quick, contactless temperature check and a glance at my ID and documents confirming business travel, I was in.
With Poland reporting record numbers of daily cases of the coronavirus this month, the country was excluded from travel bubbles arranged between neighbours – Baltic nations to the north and Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria to the south.
The Polish government has since announced it would reopen its borders for EU travellers from June 13.
From Slubice, it is some 470 km to the Polish capital. Driving on new, EU-sponsored highways took more than four hours, and, as dusk fell, I arrived in Warsaw a few minutes before midnight – around 15 hours after setting off.
In some ways, the voyage was pleasant and interesting. But it also harked back to a time, several decades ago, when Europe was less accessible, less affluent and less open.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Mike Collett-White)