Thursday, November 21, 2013

JAT becomes Air Serbia and expands its route network

A few weeks ago JAT Airways, the national airline of Serbia and previously of Yugoslavia, rebranded itself as Air Serbia. The move is linked to a large investment by the United Arab Emirates' Etihad Airways. The new partnership promises to significantly expand Air Serbia's fleet and route network, increasing Belgrade's importance as a hub for travel in Southeast Europe.

The impact of the changes can already be seen in the winter 2013/2014 timetable which contains several new routes. Of particular interest to travellers in the Balkans is the expansion of short-haul flights within the region. New routes have been launched to Bucharest, Ljubljana, and Banja Luka, to be followed by Sofia and Varna in spring 2014. There will also be more frequent services on the existing routes to Istanbul, Athens, and Thessaloniki.

For a lot more information about Air Serbia and other airlines in the region, head to Ex-Yu Aviation News.

Monday, November 18, 2013

BalkanViator plans for online bus tickets

In a previous post I mentioned the BalkanViator website, which provides online timetables for bus routes in Southeast Europe, as well as information about taxi services and car pooling. Now the team behind Balkanviator are planning to add the ability to book bus journeys online. This is an ambitious goal, due among other things to the vast number of bus companies operating in the region. They have launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to fund the software development and other costs involved. If you want to know more, click through to the Indiegogo site below.

Monday, June 03, 2013

New guidebook to Slovenia's Karavanke Mountains

Most visitors to Slovenia have at least a passing familiarity with the Karavanke mountain range, perhaps without even realising it. The highest peak in the range, Stol, towers over the town of Bled and forms the backdrop to many views of Lake Bled, as in my photos below. And the major road and rail routes connecting Villach in Austria to Jesenice in Slovenia pass by, and under, the Karavanke range. But for many foreign visitors, that's as far as it goes. Even those tourists with an interest in mountain walking tend to be drawn to the better-known Julian Alps further west.



A new guidebook published by Cicerone Guides may encourage some hikers to take a closer look at the Karavanke, which run for 120km along Slovenia's northern border with Austria. "Walking in Slovenia: the Karavanke" includes 23 one-day and two-day walks, covering the whole range from west to east. For more information visit the Cicerone website or see the Amazon links below.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Cuts to international rail services in Croatia, Bosnia, and neighbouring countries

Those of us who enjoy both travelling by train and travelling in Southeast Europe are used to bad news, but even so the introduction of new timetables in December 2012 has come as something of a shock. There have been drastic cuts in international services in the northwest Balkans, due mainly to a decision by Croatian Railways to abandon more than half of its international routes on economic grounds. As well as trains originating in Croatia this also affects lines passing through the country, with services to Bosnia particularly badly affected.

Combined with previous developments such as the withdrawal of all international trains from Greece and the decline in cross-border connections between Italy and Slovenia, it seems that travelling by train in the Western Balkans becomes ever more impractical. For those readers who still want to try it, I have listed below all the remaining international trains from Bosnia and Croatia. This refers to the current winter timetable; there may be some additional services in summer.

Bosnia

Bosnia has been left with just two international services. There is one daytime train from Zagreb to Sarajevo. The overnight train on this route is withdrawn, as is the extension from Sarajevo to Ploče, at least during the winter. One train daily will run from Sarajevo to Ploče, leaving in the morning and returning in the evening. It appears this is currently the only train running on the scenic Sarajevo to Mostar line.

The useful services from Sarajevo to Budapest and to Belgrade have sadly disappeared after just a few years in the schedules.

Croatia

As far as I am aware the following are the only international trains currently serving Croatia:
- Zurich-Ljubljana-Zagreb-Belgrade (once daily, overnight Zurich-Ljubljana and daytime Ljubljana-Belgrade; this is now the only train between Croatia and Serbia, a significant reduction)
- Budapest-Zagreb (once daily, daytime; the faster of the previous two daily services has been withdrawn, as have local services across the Croatia/Hungary border)
- Vienna-Maribor-Zagreb (once daily, morning from Zagreb and evening from Vienna; again a reduction from two daily with the previous faster service having been withdrawn)
- Frankfurt-Munich-Ljubljana-Zagreb (one daily, daytime)
- Munich-Ljubljana-Zagreb (one daily, overnight)
- Villach-Ljubljana-Zagreb-Vinkovci (one daily, daytime)
- Villach-Ljubljana-Zagreb (one daily, daytime)
- Rijeka-Ljubljana (two daily, daytime)
- Zagreb-Sarajevo (one daily, see above)
- Ploče-Mostar-Sarajevo (one daily, see above).

There have also been changes to the domestic timetable, with the earlier of the two daytime trains on the Zagreb-Split route cut back to a Friday-to-Sunday service.

Serbia

Serbia has also been badly hit by the changes in Croatia. As noted above, there is no longer a train to Sarajevo, and connections to Zagreb and points further west have been severally reduced. Only the Belgrade-Zurich service will now cross the Croatia/Serbia border.

In a separate development one Belgrade-Budapest train has been withdrawn, leaving just one daytime and one night service on this route.

Slovenia

Slovenia's connections to Croatia haven't suffered too badly thanks to its position on various routes from Zagreb to Western Europe (listed above). The direct "Citadella" service to Budapest has been suspended - it seems this may be due to work on the line so perhaps it will reappear in the future. The only direct route to Budapest is now via through carriages that will join the Zagreb-Budapest train at Zagreb. This route is so slow that it is theoretically faster to travel via Austria, although this would involve at least two changes of train.




Thursday, January 17, 2013

By train through the Rhodopes

Regular readers of Balkanology will know that one of my favourite train journeys in the Balkans is the narrow-gauge line that meanders between the Rhodope, Rila, and Pirin mountain ranges of southwest Bulgaria - see the page on scenic train Journeys in the Balkans for more details. I'm certainly not the only fan of the railway from Septemvri to Bansko and Dobrinishte. A recent edition of the Hidden Europe newsletter has an evocative account of the trip. It sounds like the red engine and four green carriages are the same ones I travelled on almost ten years ago ... which reminds me, I really must try to get back there some day soon.




Sunday, August 19, 2012

New site about transport in the Balkans

BalkanViator is a new website that aims to make life easier for anyone travelling by public transport in the Balkans. As many travellers in the region are aware, details of bus routes in the region can be frustratingly difficult to pin down when planning a trip. Websites with bus timetables are often fragmentary and provide limited information (for example departure times but no arrival times, or routes listed by final destination with no indication of intermediate stops). The idea behind BalkanViator is to put an end to all this by making available in a single website the information about bus routes held by the Ministries of Transport of Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia - more than 20,000 routes in all.

I tried out the database by asking if there are direct buses on August 20th from Dubrovnik to Skopje, Ohrid to Blageovgrad, and Budva to Sarajevo. These are all routes people have asked me about in the past, and for which I have had trouble tracking down a definite answer. The answer turned out to be "yes" in all three cases. BalkanViator provided full timetables including intermediate stops, and the names of the bus companies operating the routes.

As well as the bus timetables the site has a carpooling section, and details of taxi companies in many Balkan cities. The site is available in six regional languages as well as English.

BalkanViator has the potential to be a very useful resource for travellers in Southeast Europe and I wish the team the best of luck with the website.

Monday, June 25, 2012

No more slow trains to Pogradec

Both Seat 61 and Europe by Rail report that it is no longer possible to travel by train from Tirana/Durres through central Albania to Pogradec on the shores of Lake Ohrid. This probably won't disrupt the travel plans of many travellers, few of whom were ever prepared to submit themselves to the rigours of the famously slow 6-to-7 hour trip. But the distinctive character of the journey did appeal to some visitors, and I had hoped to travel the route some day myself. I have not seen any indication of what prompted the closure or whether there is any hope of a resumption of services in future.

There is still one service daily on this line, from Tirana via Durres and Elbasan as far as Librazhd, a town I have to confess I had never previously heard of. It takes around five hours from Tirana to Librazhd, four hours of which are accounted for by the meandering route between Tirana and the the substantial town of Elbasan, a trip which can of course be done much more quickly by bus.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Changes to Romania-Serbia rail connections

A couple of weeks ago the rail operators of Romanian and Serbia announced revisions to the main cross-border train service between the two countries.

For many years the overnight train from Bucharest to Belgrade was the key rail link between Romania and Serbia. This train called at Timișoara, with a painfully early morning departure time for those joining the train there, as I well remember from my own trip several years ago. There was also a stop at Vršac just over the Serbian side of the border. Apparently the "direct" aspect of this service has recently become a rather notional concept, with replacement buses being used for stretches of the journey. Now the train has been withdrawn from timetables.

The good news is that it has been replaced by not one but two cross-border trains daily - a rare example in the time I have been writing this blog of an increase in frequency on a cross-border rail route in Southeast Europe. These will be regional trains between Timișoara and Vršac only. A standard single ticket will cost around 5 euro.

Coming from Romania, one service retains the early morning departure from Timișoara, so it is presumably still possible to connect with a night train from Bucharest. This train will be met in Vršac by a bus to Belgrade. Similarly a bus will leave Belgrade in late afternoon to connect with the Vršac-Timișoara train. The second daily train (late afternoon from Timișoara, morning from Vršac) doesn't have a specific bus connection with Belgrade. In any case there is a good bus service between Vršac and Belgrade so travellers shouldn't feel restricted to the connecting bus if they want to spend a little more time in Vršac which is a very pleasant town.

More information including timetables is available in the press release from Serbian Railways, and on the excellent Europe by Rail website. When reading timetables don't forget that Romanian time is one hour ahead of Serbian time.



Sunday, May 20, 2012

Summer 2012 closure of the Septemvri-Bansko railway (UPDATED)

UPDATE June 24, 2012: it seems that the construction work referred to below has been deferred until 2013, so services on this route will run normally in 2012 ... probably.

A reader has alerted me to some news about Bulgaria's narrow gauge mountain railway from Septemvri to Bansko and Dobrinishte. It seems that the line will be closed for construction works between June and September 2012, with the trains being replaced by buses for that period. There are more details (in English) at the Hiking Guide Bulgaria website, which also has other useful information such as the summer opening hours of various gondolas and chair lifts in the Bulgarian mountains.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A honeymoon on rails in the Western Balkans

In today's Independent Adrian Phillips describes his slightly unconventional honeymoon: a journey by train (mostly) from Hungary to the Croatian coast, calling at Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Mostar, and Ploče before a final leg by road to Dubrovnik. Unluckily, the couple missed out on the scenic trip by rail between Sarajevo and Mostar. The conclusion: "Dubrovnik fits the classic honeymoon mould. But we'd found romance too in the other stage posts on our Balkan journey: not frilly, chocolate-box prettiness but the hardier stuff of Shakespeare, tales of spirit forged in adversity's fire."

The Sarajevo-Mostar line