Friday, May 12, 2017

Europe by Rail (guidebook review)

I have recently been reading the 14th edition of "Europe by Rail", a guidebook written by Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, the editors of the excellent Hidden Europe magazine. The core of the book is a selection of 50 rail journeys covering most countries in continental Europe. Each trip is described in detail, with the focus on the journey itself rather than the arrival and departure cities. The selection reflects the full variety of European rail travel, ranging from a high-speed dash across Spain to a meander through Germany's Harz Mountains on narrow-gauge lines and an overnight train from Stockholm to northern Norway. There is plenty of useful practical information, such as advice on whether each route rewards advance booking or is suited to those who prefer to just turn up and buy a ticket for the next departure. But the book is a potential source of ideas and inspiration even for experienced travellers who are already comfortable dealing with the mundane details. The authors' love of travel and appreciation of Europe's complex web of history and culture is evident throughout, especially when they describe slower lines off the beaten path. They are especially good at linking their journeys with the experiences of previous generations of travellers. I would recommend this book for anyone with a general interest in exploring Europe by train.

But what of rail travel in the Balkans in particular? The authors must have faced some challenges here: the railway system in most of the Balkans was never as dense as in other parts of Europe to begin with, and recent years have seen further declines in the route network, especially on international lines. Given these restrictions the authors have done well to include five routes that are fully or partly in Southeast Europe:

- "Historic Hapsburg Cities" takes us from Vienna to Zagreb and Ljubljana, and includes some pointed comments on the transport policies that have somehow contrived to leave rail connections between Italy and Slovenia in a far worse state than during the Cold War.
- "The Long Haul South" follows the direct route from Budapest through Belgrade and Skopje to Thessaloniki, with a suggested side trip to Kosovo. In current conditions bus transport will probably be necessary south of Skopje, or perhaps even south of Nis depending on engineering works.
- "From the Danube to Dalmatia" again starts in Budapest but heads towards the Adriatic rather than the Aegean, taking in Zagreb and Split and using ferry or bus transport to finish in Dubrovnik.
- "Slow train to Bosnia" links Zagreb and Sarajevo, crossing the Sava, Una, and Bosna rivers en route.
- "The ultimate challenge" is the last of the 50 routes in the book, and happens to be a personal favourite of mine. It is a 1200km trek that starts in Belgrade, crosses the whole of Romania, and continues to Chernivtsi and Lviv in Ukraine. The last paragraph is a fitting sign-off not just for this route but for the book as a whole: "If you have followed route 50 all the way, then you are clearly an independent spirit and no longer need our guiding hand. The next 50 routes are yours to decide and plan alone, for now the world is your oyster".

You can find out more at the Europe By Rail website, which also includes news about major changes to rail services.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

The Alpe Adria Trail

The Alpe Adria Trail is a recently developed long-distance hiking trail through Austria, Slovenia, and Italy. The project connects existing paths into a single well-documented trail linking the Carinthian Alps with the Adriatic sea via 43 stages and 750 kilometres. Although it passes between high mountains there are no technical Alpine sections and it is described as an "easy to moderate" trail, with many stages suitable for families.

Travelling from north to south, the trail first enters Slovenia via the ridge of the Karavanke Mountains. A long Slovenian section leads from Kranjska Gora across the Vršič Pass to Trenta, and then follows the beautiful Soča Valley downstream. The towns of Bovec, Kobarid, and Tolmin are visited along the way. The trail then crosses the border into Italy, but this is only a temporary goodbye to Slovenia. Further border crossings come later in the journey, with two further Slovenian sections taking the walker through vineyards, orchards, and karst landscapes. The path crosses into Italy one last time to reach the Adriatic at Muggia just outside Trieste.

Comprehensive information about the trail is available online at the Alpe Adria Trail Portal. If you'd prefer to have everything you need to know collected into a convenient book, Bradt Guides have recently published a guidebook dedicated to the trail. The guide is by Rudolf Abraham who has written extensively about hiking in this part of Europe.

Monday, May 09, 2016

New city e-guides: Podgorica, Skopje, Tirana

Bradt Guides have announced a new series of city e-guides that includes three capital cities in the Balkans: Podgorica, Skopje, and Tirana. All the guides can be purchased and downloaded from the Bradt Guides website.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Daytime train from Belgrade to Sofia

Mid December is traditionally the date when European rail operators make significant revisions to their timetables, and 2015 is no exception. The most significant change in the Balkan region is a welcome one: after a gap of several years, there will once again be a daytime service between Belgrade, Niš, and Sofia. The existing overnight service continues, so travellers will have a better choice of departure times. The daytime train (named "Balkan") leaves at 07.35 from Belgrade and 11.30 from Sofia, and the trip takes around 9 hours.

It seems that this train will carry at least one Russian Railways sleeper car from Moscow, probably with extensions to the Black Sea and Adriatic coasts in summer. This is by no means the first time it has been possible to travel directly from Moscow to Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro, but there had been a break in service due to the withdrawal of many services that passed through Ukraine. These sleeper cars will now take a more northerly route via Minsk, Warsaw, and Budapest.

There are few other major changes affecting Southeast Europe. The "Serdica" Budapest-Sofia service introduced last year will continue to operate but with a completely different timetable. It will now leave Budapest in the early morning and Sofia late at night, so the part of the journey through Bulgaria (and probably the crossing of the Danube) will be covered in darkness in both directions. There is also a significant timetable change to the "Citadella" from Budapest to Ljubljana, which now leaves in the morning rather than at lunchtime, allowing a late afternoon arrival in Ljubljana.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

New photos of Kosovo: Prizren

I have added the fourth and final set of photos to my Kosovo Gallery. These photos were taken in and around the city of Prizren.


Prizren by night, from the fortress

Prizren and Pashtrik Mountain

Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš

Sinan Pasha Mosque

View towards the Sharr Mountains from the fortress


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

New photos of Kosovo: Prishtina

I have added a third set of photos to my Kosovo Gallery, this time from a very brief visit to the capital Pristina (or Priština or Pristina...). The fourth and final set will be from Prizren.


National Library of Kosovo

Mother Teresa Boulevard

Fatih Mosque

Prishtina by night

Kosovo Museum


Saturday, July 18, 2015

New photos of Kosovo: Peja (Peć) and Rugova

I have uploaded a second set of photos to my Kosovo Gallery. The photos in this set were taken in and around the city of Peja (Peć) in northwest Kosovo, including the mountainous Rugova region to the west of the city.


Peja Centre

Patriarchate of Peć

Rugova Valley road

Drelaj Village, Rugova

Peja Train Station


Friday, July 17, 2015

New photos of Kosovo: Gjakova, Visoki Dečani, Isniq

Following a short visit to Kosovo in late April and early May of this year, I have started uploading photos to my Kosovo Gallery.

The photos in this first set were all taken in Western Kosovo. The majority are from the city of Gjakova (Djakovica), and there are some from Visoki Dečani Monastery and the nearby village of Isniq. Photos of Peja, Rugova, Prizren and Prishtina will be added later.


Monastery Church, Visoki Dečani

Bazaar, Gjakova

Çabrat Hill, Gjakova

Mountains and minaret, Isniq

Hadum Mosque, Gjakova

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Updates to Bradt guidebooks in 2015

Bradt Guides continue to provide more extensive coverage of the Balkans than any other publisher, and have published new editions of four of their country guides so far this year. The guides to Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro all move on to their fifth editions. It seems like only yesterday that I welcomed the first editions of all of these books, at a time when travel information about those countries in English was difficult to come by, and it is great to see that they continue to be updated. Meanwhile the Bulgaria guide, a relative newcomer, is on its second edition. All are available in electronic as well as paperback format.

Monday, July 06, 2015

The trains of Bulgaria - a recent experience

Blogger Jon Worth, who writes about European politics and travel among other topics, travelled across and around Bulgaria by train in June 2015. He entered the country on the international train from Thessaloniki, travelled to Sofia, Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo and Burgas, and left on the international train to Budapest. His blog post about his experiences is well worth a read for anyone planning a trip to Bulgaria.

It is some years now since I travelled by train in Bulgaria but it doesn't sound like very much has changed. Despite the availability of online ticketing on certain routes on the BDZ website, Jon suggests it is generally easiest to buy tickets in cash at the departure station. His summary is in line with my own experiences: "Bulgarian railways are old style, and generally rather slow ... if you want to see the landscape of the country, meet fascinating people, and feel the wind in your hair through an open window, and all of this on a shoestring budget, then a trip on Bulgarian railways is worth considering".