Monday, December 24, 2007
December 9th marked the introduction of new train timetables across Europe, with some important changes to international routes in the Balkans. After spending some time trying to reconcile conflicting sources of information, my current understanding of some of the changes in the 2007/2008 timetable is outlined here.
The "Olympus Express", which used to run from Ljubljana to Thessaloniki via Zagreb, Belgrade, and Skopje, will now run from Ljubljana to Belgrade only. This means that there is no longer any direct overland connection between Slovenia/Croatia and Macedonia/Greece. I've travelled on this train several times, and will miss it even though it always seemed to be late: I liked the idea of travelling from the Aegean to the edge of the Alps in a single journey. Of course it is still possible to do this trip by rail, but a change of trains in Belgrade is now required. The change also means that there is only a single daily train between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia - further weakening the already poor public transport links between those two countries.
Thessaloniki may now be less well connected to Croatia and Slovenia, but connections to some other parts of Central and Eastern Europe have improved. The "Hellas Express" continues to run every day from Thessaloniki to Belgrade, albeit with a slightly different schedule. This train will also carry through carriages to Budapest (23 hours from Thessaloniki), Vienna (27 hours), and Prague (32 hours). This is the first time in many years that it is possible to travel to these cities without a change of train on the direct route through Serbia, rather than looping around through Romania.
For truly hardcore train buffs, the Hellas Express will also have a through car to Kiev and Moscow - an epic journey of (gulp) 66 hours.
On the Belgrade-Bar line, the so-called "business train" has been withdrawn for the moment, and will now run during the summer season only. This leaves just one daytime train and one night train running year round on the route from Bar to Belgrade's main station. There is an additional night train from Bar to Novi Sad and Subotica which calls at Novi Beograd.
It's worth noting that at the time of writing, online information about Balkan train schedules is a bit of a mess. The Greek and Macedonia rail operators have not updated their websites to reflect the new timetables. It also appears that the European Rail Timetable on the Die Bahn and Austrian Railways sites has not been updated with complete information about trains through Greece or Montenegro. The nightly train from Bar to Nis seems to be missing from all online timetables, but I'm told that it still runs all year round.
I have updated the page about travelling from Croatia to Greece to reflect these changes.
All that remains is for me to wish all the readers of Balkanology a Happy Christmas and New Year - and happy travels in 2008.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
From today Canadian travellers can stop worrying about this issue, as they no longer require a visa to enter Macedonia for tourist purposes, joining the EU, USA, New Zealand and several other nationalites with this privilege. Australians, however, still require a visa. The full list of countries appears on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
For comparison, buses run about 6 times daily on this route, take about 5 hours, and cost less than 15 euro one way - with the bonus that they take you from city centre to city centre. Taking the bus also means you avoid having to deal with predatory taxi drivers at uncivilised hours of the night: the thrice-weekly flights leave Skopje at 06:05 and Sofia at 23:15. But given the relatively poor choice of direct flights from Skopje itself, the new route may prove useful to some travellers trying to reach Skopje from further afield.
Air Bulgaria also plans to start flying to Belgrade in 2008.
Saturday, November 03, 2007
The article describes a stay at the Count Mikes estate in Zabola, in the Székely Land northwest of Braşov. Like a number of estates belonging to the old Hungarian-speaking aristocracy, Zabola has been restored and now provides accommodation to tourists. There are a couple of appropriate quotations from Patrick Leigh Fermor, who enjoyed the hospitality of Transylvanian mansions in an earlier and very different era. If you want to know more, the Mikes estate has an informative website.
Monday, October 15, 2007
Bradt have now achieved complete coverage of the Western Balkans, with seven separate guides to the countries of the former Yugoslavia, as well as one on Albania. They are also turning their attention to the eastern half of the peninsula, with the first edition of their Bulgaria guide due out later this year.
The write describes the So&x10d;a as a "beautiful, unknown valley". Unknown? Hasn't he heard of Balkanology? The valley is a firm favourite of mine and has had its own page on the site for some time. That aside, the article is a useful survey of the many and varied attractions of the valley, from something called "hydrospeeding" to tours of the battle sites - from World War One, not the Disney film.
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
Of course not all the effects of increased tourism are positive. The article points out that residents of Dubrovnik struggle to find a parking space or a reasonably-priced cup of coffee during the summer crush. Meanwhile there are signs that on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast, too many hotels have been built too quickly - a problem previously covered in an earlier article on the same website.
Monday, September 24, 2007
Photos of all of these places, as well as some fresh pictures of old favourites Sarajevo and Mostar, are now in the Bosnia Galleries.
In the next few weeks I will be updating the Bosnia section of Balkanology to reflect the changes I noticed in my most recent visit.
Friday, September 14, 2007
According to the BBC's detailed guide to the series, the first episode will be a fast-paced trip through the Western Balkans, taking in Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia. The second program will also have a Balkan feel, covering Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey, while Romania is included in episode 3.
With only 7 hours in total to cover 20 countries, we obviously can't expect much in-depth coverage. Even so the series will hopefully achieve the aim of introducing viewers, in Palin's words, to "the vigour and vitality of that half of Europe which has, for most of my lifetime been seen as grey, secretive and unwelcoming". On Palin's own site he comments that "I'm just sorry, that even in seven episodes, we haven't had time to do justice to every one of the twenty countries we passed through, but those that don't get much on-screen time are in the book and on the DVD".
Monday, August 27, 2007
The project has recently been nominated for the British Guild of Travel Writers annual Tourism Awards, in the category "best overseas tourism project". One of the criteria for the prize is that the project should "allow for interested travellers to explores landscapes, communities and cultures which might otherwise be off limits" - which seems to be a perfect description of the Peace Park.
A shortlist of three contenders will be chosen on 12 September, with the winner to be announced on 11 November. Best wishes from Balkanology to everyone involved.
More about the nomination (PDF file)
More about the Balkan Peace Park Project
Sunday, August 19, 2007
The New York Times takes a look at the Montenegrin coast in an article entitled "An Adriatic Stretch is Awaiting its Riviera Moment". I was a little surprise to read that "hotel staff members speak perfect English", but perhaps this is explained by the list of hotels at the end of the article, most of which are in the 100 euro per night price bracket.
Even more daringly, the NYT checks out the nightlife in Bulgaria's Studenski Grad in "Partying amid Cold War ruins".
Both The Times and The Independent take advantage of direct British Airways flights from Gatwick to write about Sarajevo as a city break destination. Note that although the Times optimistically says that Sarajevo is a two hour flight from London, the scheduled journey time is almost three hours.
Two pieces in The Observer and The Guardian focus on walking holidays in Montenegro, and in particular in the Bjelasica Mountains around Kolašin. I remember Kolašin as a sleepy mountain town where, several years ago, I endured a fruitless search for a place to stay during a torrential rainstorm; apparently it is now an up-and-coming resort. Frustratingly, the Guardian recommends "a half-decent guidebook" for walking in the region, but gives no clues about where such a book might be found.
Finally, today's Sunday Times heads for Romania, specifically the Danube Delta and Transylvania.
There were no articles in the English-language press about Macedonia. Again.
Saturday, August 04, 2007
I've just come across a much more detailed account of a journey on this line by Andrew Grantham, who did the trip in June 2006. It's a few years now since I was there myself, so I was glad to read that most things remain the same, including the women in brightly-patterned dresses who get on and off at some of the most remote halts.
I hadn't realised until reading this aricle that there was once another narrow-gauge railway connecting Rila monastery with the main Sofia-Thessaloniki line. Apparently it closed in the 1960s. As Andrew says, if it had survived it might now be a popular tourist route.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Thursday, July 12, 2007
The guidebook includes single-day hikes and multi-day treks. Not surprisingly Durmitor National Park features strongly, but the guide also covers ranges that are less well known to foreign visitors, such as Orjen and Prokletije.
Saturday, June 30, 2007
The list of new sites includes two other Balkan locations. The Old Town of Corfu is described as "a fortified Mediterranean port ... notable for its high level of integrity and authenticity", while the Roman site at Gamzigrad-Romuliana in eastern Serbia makes the list thanks to its "unique testimony of the Roman building tradition marked by the ideology of the period of the Second Tetrachy".
As it happens I haven't been to any of these three sites - clearly I need to travel some more in the Balkans.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
One of the places Calder visits is the village of Viscri in Transylvania. Oddly enough, a travel writer for the Guardian reported from Viscri only six weeks ago. No doubt Viscri is an interesting and picturesque village, but there are many such villages in Transylvania. Why would two British newspapers just happen to converge on this particular one? It's all down to Prince Charles, apparently. He has visited Viscri, spouted some guff about how it represents the primeval past buried deep within all of us (or something along those lines), and bought a property there. Cue sudden interest in the English press.
Now they are have chosen the "ultimate" experience from each of the 25 books. The chosen candidate to represent Eastern Europe is the coast of Montenegro - no arguments from me there. Rough Guides are asking for votes for the "ultimate ultimate" experience. At the moment Montenegro is languishing in 22nd place, but I confidently expect the votes of Balkanology's readership to send it surging up the chart to ... well, perhaps to 21st place.
Monday, June 25, 2007
Another new city guide is the Bradt Mini Guide to Zagreb. Croatia's capital is often overshadowed by the more obvious attractions of the coast, so it's nice to see it getting a guidebook if its own. Bradt have also published new editions of their guides to Croatia and Dubrovnik.
Lonely Planet have also been updating their range of single-country guides. The 4th edition of Romania and Moldova is still, as far as I know, the only guidebook with any kind of decent coverage of Moldova. Although I prefer the Rough Guide to Romania, right now LP is considerably more up to date - hopefully Rough Guides will follow suit with a new edition soon. Meanwhile Lonely Planet Slovenia has moved on to its 5th edition.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of news is about a book that doesn't yet exist. Bradt Guides have pioneered the publication of dedicated guides to small Balkan countries, so it's not surprising that they plan to produce the first English-language Guide to Kosovo. The expected publication date is September 2007 - sadly too late for the hordes of foreign tourists who are no doubt planning to descend on Kosovo this summer.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
The weather has been rather unkind to me on previous trips to Macedonia, and I had to battle with the elements this time too. After some glorious sunshine in Skopje and Ohrid, which at last allowed me to take some photos with blue skies and sunshine, it was back to clouds and rain for much of the rest of my trip.
I have now finished uploading photos from the trip to my Macedonia Photo Gallery. Over the next few weeks I will be extensively revising the Balkanology pages about Macedonia.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
The Tirgu Mures route is likely to be of particular interest to travellers, as means that for the first time it is possible to fly directly from London to Transylvania. Tirgu Mures is in the heart of the province, close to Sighisoara and Cluj Napoca, and already has flights to Barcelona, Rome, and Budapest.
Sunday, April 29, 2007
The same publisher has also just launched a completely new Zagreb City Guide.
Thursday, April 05, 2007
It's not unusual for disappointed travellers, misled by the city's "Paris of the East" nickname, to comment that Bucharest is no Paris. Visitors with unrealistic expectations of architectural prettiness have also been heard to remark that Bucharest is no Prague. But it takes In Your Pocket's keen eye for the Eastern European urban scene to come up with what must surely be the ultimate put-down: "Calea Rahova, while impressive from afar, is no Tirana".
I will be visiting Macedonia in May and hope to expand my coverage of that country. Hopefully the weather will be better than it was for my two previous short visits - this time round I'd like to spend less time dodging torrential rainstorms and more time taking photos.
Later in 2007 I also hope to add some suggested itineraries for people wishing to take in several Balkan countries in a single trip, and more information about flights to the Balkans from the UK and Ireland.
Monday, April 02, 2007
Following on from last year's introduction of London-Tirana flights, I believe this leaves Skopje as the only Balkan capital not served by direct flights from London - BA does list it as a destination, but it's a codeshare with Malev and involves a change in Budapest. It's probably quicker to fly to Pristina, a quick cross-border trip away from Skopje.
Returning to Bosnia, the Christian Science Monitor this week published an interesting article called Come See the Pyramids... in Bosnia?, looking at the growing pains of the Bosnian tourist industry - including the somewhat dubious promotion of the (in)famous Visoko Pyramid.
Monday, March 19, 2007
Not before time, I have finally got around to creating a Belgrade page on Balkanology. I've also expanded the Vojvodina page to include a number of places that I visited last autumn.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Recently they added a new feature to the site. "Return to Europe: A Balkan Journey" is an interactive map of the Balkans that aims to lead the visitor on a journey of discovery through the region. There are some fascinating quotations from past visitors - did you know that the streets of Sarajevo were once plied by double-decker London buses?
By the way, if you think some of the photos look familiar - yes, they're mine.
Saturday, March 03, 2007
Other new editions appearing in recent months include Lonely Planet Croatia, Rough Guide Slovenia, and The Bradt Guide to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Rough Guide to Slovenia is excellent, but on this occasion the blurb writer has rather let the side down, describing the new edition as a guide to "one of Europe's least discovered countries". That description might apply to Belarus or Albania, but Slovenia??
Lonely Planet have also released a new version of their Eastern Europe Phrasebook. The most obvious change is that the section on Serbian has been omitted - or rather subsumed into the Croatian section. This certainly makes practical sense, and avoids duplicating large amounts of text (although I would have liked to see more examples of Serbian Cyrillic). While I'd like to think that LP have done this as a reflection of linguistic rather than political reality, I can't help suspecting that a desire to save space may have played some part - in keeping with the general trend in LP's guidebooks, this phrasebook is slimmer than its predecessor.
Apart from that, my first impression is that this edition is better organised than the previous edition, with better use of colour coding to make it easier to find the section you want. But if you have an earlier edition, I wouldn't advise rushing out to get the new one, as the content doesn't seem much different. If anything there are more omissions than additions. One that I immediately noticed is the section about how to say "I am English/Australian/whatever". The previous edition included Irish,
Scottish, and Welsh in the list of nationalities, but apparently we Celts are no longer considered part of the English-speaking world by Lonely Planet.
Balkan cities for which full downloads are available currently include Tirana, Shkodra, Skopke, Pristina, and Bucharest. Instant guides are also available for Dubrovnik, Osijek, Rijeka, Sofia, and Zagreb.
Monday, February 19, 2007
In a pleasant change from the usual press focus on beaches and skiing, the author visits some of the highlights of Bulgaria's southwest, including Rila and Melnik. Although he does have some troubles with poor maps and poorer roads, his overall impression seems to be positive.
I can't help wondering if the writer really waited until he was actually on the road in Bulgaria before starting to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. A few hours of advance preparation might have made his first day a lot less stressful - but perhaps it wouldn't have made as good a story.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Since 1965 a design by Meštrović has been used by the Central Bank of Ireland as its official seal. But the design was not intended for this purpose. When the Irish Free State issued its first coinage in 1927, Meštrović submitted a design featuring a woman with a harp. It seems that it arrived too late to be considered.
This week, 80 years on, the Central Bank of Ireland has issued a commemorative 15 euro coin featuring the original design. At the same time the Croatian Central Bank is issuing a 150 kuna coin with a similar design.
Saturday, February 10, 2007
But it's not all relentless expansion in the world of low-cost airlines. Wizzair have announced the cancellation of their London-Ljubljana flights from March onwards.
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Originally my attempt to answer this question was confined to a few paragraphs within the Croatia FAQ. In response to the level of interest, I have now created a completely new page to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about travelling from Croatia to Greece but were afraid to ask. Whether you prefer ferries or flights, buses or trains, I hope you will find a route that suits you.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about all this. In creating this site I was trying to show that the other Balkan countries, the ones that don't appear so often in glossy travel supplements, are just as much worth visiting as Croatia and Greece. So it's a little ironic that so many people seem to want to find out how to zip through the heart of the Balkans as quickly as possible. I hope that just a few people who read the new page will be encourage to slow down on their way through the Balkans, and get to known some of the in-between bits.