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.