As you may have noticed, I have been compiling a series posts about each section of the route, learning quite a bit about the fine details as we go, and verifying the timetables as of this year. It was only when I got to the very south that it dawned on me that the Turks aren’t currently running “The Orient Express” as it were, i.e the Bosfor and Balkan Ekspresi north to Bucharest and Sofia. Right now you have to get a bus, in the middle of the night, from the Bulgarian border all the way to Istanbul, and back again if you are on a return. This is as a result of the Marmaray project to build a series of tunnels under the Bosphorus. The current completion date according to wiki is 2015, though it’s claimed the railway will be running again from Bulgaria to Istanbul by the end of 2013.
Either way, getting a bus in the middle of the night, and back again, in the middle of the night, is a totally pointless escapade, and unacceptable to the ideals of the expedition. As a result, Istanbul was instantly cancelled from the itinerary, and my T-shirt design was in imminent danger of spontaneously combusting.
But necessity is the mother of invention, and this loss of the Byzantine end of the famous route has had a sequence of highly beneficial effects to the project. As a result of reviewing the western side of the Balkans, we have come up with an even more fantabulastic route than before. The trip now includes both Skopje and Sarajevo which takes us to 23 capital cities in 2 weeks, and also rolls through two of the region’s most picturesque mountain railway lines, namely the line from Sarajevo to Ploče, and the Bohinj-Tranalpina line in Slovenia, (and a 3rd actually, the line through the Iskar gorge in Bulgaria but it will be dark alas as we go through it). We also get to chill out in Split for an afternoon waiting for our sleeper to Zagreb.
Note that the entire route consists of perfectly legitimate methods of getting from capital A to Capital B, with the minor, no major, exception of going via the Arctic Circle when travelling from Oslo to Stockholm. The umpteen world class railway lines that we cover in the process is part design, part accident, but largely the inevitable result of travelling around this continent’s amazing railways for 2 weeks. The route is essentially convex throughout, though we do have to retrace our steps travelling along the chunnel and also to and from Sweden, and a bit on the approaches to Rome and a bit more in and out of Lisbon, but who’s counting.
We have also now ended up in Venice 16 hours earlier than previously planned, landing the evening beforehand. This has simultaneously solved a logistical conundrum of where to drop the bags as the station luggage counter at Santa Lucia isn’t fit for purpose in my opinion (it takes over an hour to drop your bags there), and as a result has given us both enough time to leather a 24 hour vaporetto pass to shreds, and also allows us to get to Rome in time to do the series of derelict building they’ve got on show without having to literally run from the Circo Massimo to the Colosseum.
The Marmaray is an amazing piece of engineering involving a bewildering array of tunnel building techniques, so I don’t want to complain too much about it here. Indeed, one of the reasons for the delay has been that, given this is one of civilisations oldest and most treasured cities, they keep bumping into stuff that you don’t want to just plough a massive tunnelling machine through before letting a few archaeologists have a bash first. A whole treasure trove of ancient finds have been unearthed and salvaged during the construction. But cancelling the service to Europe for 2 years, and also south out of Haydarpaşa, does seem a tad drastic. When they have finished we will return as part of my long awaited plan “The NOT the Trans-Siberian Express”, featuring Istanbul, Kars, Astrakhan, Almaty, Urumqi and some other stuff I haven’t yet decided on.