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Following the increased demand for greener ways to explore the world and a keen desire for genuine experiences away from the typical tourist centres, slow travel has emerged as a growing trend for 2020. But what is slow travel, how can we embrace the benefits, and where do we start?

What is slow travel?

The ‘slow movement’, as it is now known, began in Rome in the 1980s. When McDonald’s opened its first Italian outlet in the heart of the city, thousands of people rallied outside Piazza di Spagna to protest. After all, as a nation renowned for its gastronomy, corporations like McDonald’s threatened an intrinsic part of Italian culture. While the outlet remained in the square, so did the sentiment of protecting Rome’s culinary heritage. It was this incident that led one of the protesters, Carlo Petrini, to establish the Slow Food movement, which aims to preserve the value of local food and traditional cooking methods.

Today, this cultural movement has progressed to inspire the notion of ‘slow travel’, fuelled further by Greta Thunberg’s stance against travelling by plane (now dubbed ‘flygskam’ or ‘flight shaming’) and the desire for slowing down the pace of life in a world where things to be endlessly accelerating. For those who embrace slow travel, the journey itself is no longer seen as an inconvenience between the start and end point. Slow travel is about enjoying the journey just as much as the destination, like a car driver taking the scenic route even though there may be a much quicker way of getting to point B.

Airplanes can feel like time machines in how they transport us from one side of the world to another in lightning speed. Slow travel reverses this progress in technology and returns us to an era where the journey was indulged in, where we experienced places along the way that an airplane would have simply passed over at 30,000 feet. It’s about taking the time to explore these forgotten locations, experiencing authentic local life and making genuine connections with the people and places we encounter.

How can I do it?

Beginning your slow adventure in the small but culturally rich continent of Europe offers a fantastic opportunity to tick a number of items off your bucket list in a relatively short space of time. Of course, the best way to do this while maintaining the leisurely pace that slow travellers live by is to take the train.

A Superior Deluxe cabin on the Golden Eagle Danube Express

A Superior Deluxe cabin on the Golden Eagle Danube Express

In line with the growing trend of slow travel, journeys by train are continuously changing and improving. Gone are the days where the only option may have been a cramped compartment with shared bathroom facilities. Trains like the Golden Eagle Danube Express are fully en-suite, providing a hotel on wheels for your adventure through Europe. Luxuries that once seemed confined to 3,000 passenger cruise ships can now be found in a more intimate setting aboard a luxury train, coining the term ‘rail cruise’.

This is not to say that the charms of traditional train travel have been lost in our vision. Regional wines in plentiful stock and fine foods prepared with locally sourced ingredients give an authentic taste of the countries we pass through. The social heart of the Danube Express is the Bar Lounge Car, a great place to settle into the unhurried pace of life on board. Small passenger numbers allow for an intimate setting where guests can enjoy afternoon tea or adjourn for a nightcap after dinner.

A harpist performing in the train's bar car

A harpist performing for guests in the Bar Lounge Car. Photo by Steve Grogan

After all, part of the joy of slow travel is to revive the romance of travel from a bygone era, to evoke nostalgia for a time when the journey was something to be indulged in. As Maggie Shipstead, a writer for Travel + Leisure Magazine, eloquently put it: “Sometimes the train’s throwback elegance made me feel like a visitor from another era; sometimes the scenery gave me a sense of traveling through another time.” Certainly, when we ask our passengers what they most enjoyed about their trip, many say their favourite part was simply being on the train, watching the ever-changing landscape unfold outside their cabin window.

Which journey should I choose?

Our tours tend to begin in cities that are easily accessible before travelling by train to charming but remote areas that are difficult to reach by other means. A unique experience and the best way to explore the corners of Europe that flight plans have wrongly allowed us to forget! Here are our favourite journeys to embrace slow travel.

Castles of Transylvania

7 days | Istanbul to Budapest | 1 – 7 July 2020

Key highlights: medieval history and legends

The exterior of Bran Castle, Romania

The elusive Bran Castle near Brasov, Romania.

Our start point is Istanbul, which opens the door to the medieval towns and mystical castles of Europe that are best reached by train. Delve into literary legends as you enjoy a gala dinner within the walls of Bran Castle in Romania, a 14th century castle which owes its fame to its imposing towers and turrets as well as to the myth created around Bram Stocker’s Dracula.

View details of the full tour here.

Balkan Odyssey

10 days | Budapest to Venice | 17 – 26 June 2020

Key highlights: cultural experiences and spectacular views

Traditional dancing in Belgrade, Serbia

Traditional dancing in Belgrade, Serbia

Enjoy a traditional Serbian lunch in a local restaurant. Wander through ancient Bosnian bazaars collecting traditional handicrafts. Take in the view from your cabin window as the train twists and turns over the Carpathian Mountains and threads its way through the dramatic landscape with crystal clear mountain streams.

View details of the full tour here.

Balkan Explorer

11 days | Venice to Istanbul | 23 June – 3 July 2020

Key highlights: off the beaten track and must-sees for 2020

The Golden Eagle Danube Express passing through a tunnel in Neretva Valley

The Golden Eagle Danube Express passing through Neretva Valley on the Balkan Explorer tour

Discover the hidden gems of Europe on this fantastic rail voyage though the Balkan nations. One highlight is North Macedonia – this extraordinary country has earned a spot on our must-see destinations list for 2020 and for good reason. Escape the tourist crowds as you explore the little-visited Skopje, a city where the Ottoman influences are still strong and give an insight into the turbulent past of the Balkans.

View details of the full tour here.