Earlier in the week I posted a blog relating to my 7 days on the support team for the Bike for Bobby charity ride from Lisbon to Newcastle. That blog focused on the ups and downs for the two riders however this gives a ‘planorak’ perspective derived from driving slowly through 6 different European countries.
I started in Lyon. A beautiful medieval city which, in common with some other major French cities has been subject to 2 or 3 strategic and well planned extensions since the middle ages. The old city lies west of the Rhone whilst a huge Victorian expansion (linked to the new railway) enabled it to cross the river. From there urban extensions along the flatter east bank and further east followed. The latest key urban move has been the Cite Internationale. A superb new linear commercial centre alongside the Rhone, built either side of a new pedestrian street and served by a dedicated busway. The scheme anchors are the world HQ of Interpol and a huge conference centre/indoor arena.
France and Switzerland
From Lyon we moved eastwards towards Switzerland. Rural France is clearly struggling in many places. Depopulation, new bypasses and huge supermarkets have drained the life out of many of the villages and small towns. We passed through dozens of villages where well over half the shops and commercial units were shut and many of the houses appeared abandoned.
Next observation was the clear wealth difference between France and Switzerland. Almost immediately after crossing the border one could sense it. Better roads, more construction activity, more spending on street management, and occupied shops were some of the more obvious signs. No obvious signs of recession as we passed through Geneva and Montreux! In Neuchatel a hospital visit was required – as expected it had superb modern, efficient facilities.
The effects of the ‘ski economy’ were also clear as we rose higher into the Alps. It seemed at least half the houses were second homes, not yet occupied in early November. Gorgeous buildings in pristine villages but the much of the area had had a ghost town or stage set feel awaiting the snow dumps and resultant activity.
We continued north through France, touching on Germany with overnight stops in Strasbourg and Luxembourg. For Strasbourg read Lyon again. Perhaps not as wealthy but another gorgeous historic city with great infrastructure. It felt as though it has been preciously planned, controlled and carefully expanded over the last 200 years. I am sure there are some ropey suburbs but they seemed well hidden to us.
Luxembourg City, by contrast, looks as though it let the modernist architects rip in the 60s and 70s. Some of the results, particularly around the edges of the City Centre have not stood the test of time.
Belgium and Holland
Ploughing further north through Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland three things resonated as a planorak. Firstly it became so obvious we were entering the golden London – Paris – Frankfurt triangle. We could somehow tell we were entering the economic engine room of Europe. Better, newer cars, better architecture, expensive public realm and infrastructure projects, road improvements everywhere, high quality frequent buses etc etc.
The second, key impression, was the quality of new domestic architecture, especially in Belgium and Holland. We really have a lot to learn in the UK. Each town and village seemed to enjoy some really high quality new housing both one offs and new estates. Some modern, some traditional, some retro. Good design, high quality detailing and traditional materials seemed to ensure most of the new houses made a really positive townscape contribution, irrespective of style.
The third impression was the extensive recreational use of the landscape and countryside. Cycle lanes are everywhere and they often appeared to lead to countryside parks, often in forest environments, with a good range of recreation opportunities.
My stint on Bike for Bobby ended at Eindhoven where the amount of people cycling as a mode of transport was hugely uplifting. Everyone seemed to be on a bike, irrespective of age. Even hipster 20 something’s dolled up for a Saturday night were happy to travel from bar to bar by bike. Not sure of the legality but the vibe was fantastic.
So in summary it felt a bit like an upside down England with prosperity increasing from south to north. Also like England there seemed to be a widening economic gap between city and countryside. Bigger cities felt vibrant but the more remote market towns and villages often felt as though they were really struggling. Even in the less prosperous regions it was clear there were still economic powerhouse cities with plenty of life left in them. For Manchester read Lyon and Strasburg.