Travel might broaden the mind, but even more certainly it empties the pockets. Unless, that is, you try your hand at a little fantasy Internet travel, sprinting across the continents powered only by a spluttering modem.
To begin any fantasy journey you need a route and the German national railway company, Deutsche Bahn, has produced an on-line railway information service that is purpose-built for travel fantasists. In fact, it has been purpose-built to sell railway tickets to Germans, but even if you don't plan to travel further than your kitchen you can still use it to plan elaborate imaginary journeys.
The Deutsche Bahn railway journey planner allows you to plot an itinerary between any rail stations in Europe, showing times, trains and connections - and because computers have no common sense, this can be as improbable as you like, such as Deptford to Birmingham, via Venice (50 hours via Paris and Geneva).
Or how about London to St Petersburg, leaving on the next possible train? This, the display announces, is going to take 52 hours and 37 minutes, changing at Brussels, Warsaw and Berlin. So if we choose this amaze-your-friends trans-continental train ride, where could we stop off?
For an atmospheric coffee break, Berlin has a long tradition of cafe culture, evoking memories of smoky Dietrichesque evenings in bars crowded with double agents and tablefuls of depressed Expressionists. But we're new in town, and we're in a hurry, so where do we go? We could go to the city's cybercafe, but the "Berlin Bear" on-line guide to the city has some more exotic recommendations. I fancy the Avaconao, where it says "natural hair colour is frowned upon". While we're here, we should browse the local paper, the Berliner Zeitung, which has a series of depressingly familiar stories - about mad cow disease and tourists being murdered in Florida. There's also a horoscope and as the forecast for Lowe (Leo) encourages travel, maybe we should hurry back to the station.
Next stop, Warsaw. When you leave the station, you'll see the city's historic centre. But almost every building in the picturesque old town is a reconstruction, the original structures having been destroyed during the last war. For an historical account of wartime Warsaw and the ferocious battle in the city in August 1944, in which 200,000 people died as the Polish underground army took on the occupying Nazis, there is a very informative site on the Internet, called the Warsaw Uprising.
The next destination is St Petersburg, a city that seems to be packed with Internet sites. To get a flavour of the place, try the St Petersburg Times - published in an English-language edition on the Internet. Giving an idea of daily life, there are stories about political corruption, news from a burgeoning arts scene and a lively account of how the St Petersburg Soldiers' Mothers Organisation had marched into an army base in the city and brought home boys that the authorities were trying to conscript.
There are several sensible guides to the city, with links to museums and tourist sites. But for an insensible guide, try an Internet site called "The Other St Petersburg", which offers such practical information as "The St Petersburg Hangover" and "Drunken Walks in St Petersburg". The latter, as well as showing you a good time, takes you under the skin of the city. The first drunken walk begins "Start with an initiatory bottle of Dzhigulovskoye bought from a kiosk or pile of crates outside Metro Chernishevskaya. Drink purposefully, but without hurrying." On that cheerful summer note, I'll take the first modem back to London.
The Deutsche Bahn railway journey planner is part of the CompuServe on-line service (0800 289378).
Berlin Bear: http:www.berlin-bear.de Berliner Zeitung: http: www.berlinonline.de Warsaw Uprising: http:www.princeton.edumkporwituprisingtop.html St Petersburg Times: http:spb.sutimesindex.html The Other St Petersburg: http:www.spb.suothr-spb