Sunday, November 23, 2008

Train timetable changes in the Balkans - December 2008

Once again we have reached the time of year when railway operators across Europe introduce new timetables. The next round of changes will take effect on 14 December 2008.

According to an announcement on the Serbian Railways website, a second daily train is being introduced on the Belgrade-Skopje-Thessaloniki route. Or rather reintroduced, as this restores the situation prior to December 2007. Any improvement to the poor public transport connections between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece is very welcome.

The IC "Avala", which currently runs from Vienna via Budapest to Belgrade, will now operate on the route Prague-Bratislava-Budapest-Belgrade. There will thus be no direct daytime Vienna-Belgrade service, although it will still be possible to travel between these cities by day with a change in Budapest, and the direct overnight "Beograd" service is retained.

The overnight train from Niš (Serbia) to Podgorica and Bar (Montenegro) will now leave Niš in the morning, at least during the winter - it is not clear what will happen in summer.

These are the only major developments in Southeast Europe that I have noticed so far. There are also numerous minor timing alterations.

Sadly there is no sign of any improvement in the rail links between Italy and Slovenia. Since TrenItalia withdrew their leg of the "Casanova" service earlier this year, the only direct train has been the "Venezia Express" from Venice to Budapest, which passes through Ljubljana at an inconvenient hour of the night. This seems a very strange state of affairs between neighbouring countries within the Schengen zone.

As happens every year, the various online train timetables are struggling to deal with the changeover - apparently this is too great a challenge for the current state of computing technology. So for the next few weeks, care will be required when using online timetables to plan journeys in advance.

Monday, November 10, 2008

It's a long way from Split to Dubrovnik ... if you believe Google Maps

Fellow blogger Stuart Pinfold has drawn my attention to the eccentricities of Google Maps in giving driving directions between certain points in Southeast Europe. In his post on the topic he points out that Google Maps comes up with a slightly overcomplicated route between Dubrovnik and Mostar. Instead of the conventional 150-kilometre drive that less creative mapping software might recommend, Google suggests a more adventurous approach: a ferry to Italy, some driving, another ferry to Greece, and more driving through Greece, the entire length of Albania, Montenegro, and finally Bosnia. At 1541 kilometres it's a mere 10 times longer than the usual route - and so much more interesting. I've always encouraged travellers to venture away from the beaten path and explore less well-known parts of the Balkans, so it's nice to see Google doing the same. Not only that, but it adds a sense of history by persistently referring to Dubrovnik as Ragusa - admittedly not a name that appears very often on Croatian road signs.

I tried a few test routes of my own in Google Maps to see if this was just an aberration. Surely the straightforward coastal drive from Split to Dubrovnik wouldn't cause any problems? Sure enough, Google's answer does involve a drive along the Adriatic Coast - unfortunately it is on the other side of the Adriatic, between Bari and Pescara.

I guessed that the small strip of Bosnian territory between Split and Dubrovnik (the "Neum Corridor") might be causing a problem, so I tried an even simpler request: directions from Split to Zagreb, a route that lies entirely within Croatia. The result was even more surprising: "We could not calculate directions between split, croatia and zagreb, croatia."

So the problem runs deeper than the Neum corridor; there seems to be a more fundamental problem with Google's Croatia database. But maybe it's just Croatia that is flawed and everywhere else in the Balkans is OK? I asked for directions between two neighbouring capitals, Belgrade and Podgorica. At first everything looked fine: as I expected, the results show a blue line heading southwest from Belgrade and continuing along major roads to Podgorica. But wait a minute - what is that thick blue line southeast of Belgrade? Closer inspection of the driving directions reveals the problem: Google wants us to head southeast for 150km, turn around, and drive back to the outskirts of Belgrade on the same road before finally taking the correct road towards Montenegro.

At this point I gave up.

As far as I know ViaMichelin is more reliable in providing driving directions in the Balkans. Certainly it acquitted itself well on the examples above. However it's possible that similar horrors lurk within the databases of ViaMichelin and other non-Google mapping websites - if you know of any, let me know.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Through the Balkans by motorcycle - a trip report

Not MY trip report, I hasten to add - I haven't suddenly taken up motorcycling. But I thought that readers of this site might be interested in a new travelog by Jayne Cravens about her journey through Eastern Europe, including several Balkan countries, in September 2008. The descriptions of road conditions and campsites should be particularly useful to anyone planning a similar journey, while motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists alike should enjoy the many stories of the random acts of kindness that add so much to the experience of visiting the region.

Belgrade: the best nightlife in Europe?

Belgrade's reputation for nightlife seems to be growing unstoppably at the moment. An article in the Times this week claims that you can find "Europe's best nightlife in buzzing Belgrade", and points out a selection of highlights from the city's "ever-changing cobweb of clubs and bars".

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

New photos of Croatia

Following a recent trip to Croatia, I have significantly expanded the Croatia Photo Galleries. A variety of places that I had not previously visited are included, among them the islands of Korčula, Mljet, Vis, and Šipan. I haven't forgotten about inland Croatia either - there are new photos of Osijek, Imotski, and the Samobor hills.

In the coming months I will be rewriting and expanding the Croatia pages on Balkanology to reflect my most recent experiences there.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Bulgarian bus timetables - now in English

The "" website, a database of interurban bus timetables in Bulgaria, has been around for quite a while. Until recently it was available in Bulgarian only, which made it difficult for many travellers to use - particularly given the difficulties of inputting place names in Cyrillic characters. Things have just got a whole lot easier with the launch of an English language version of the site - very useful for anyone planning to travel around Bulgaria by public transport.