Day 14 – Take Me To The Stars

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”

We’ve seen some amazing things these past 2 weeks. We’ve climbed up Arctic fjords, sailed across seas with our train, crossed incredible bridges. We’ve travelled along a seemingly perpetual sequence of the Continent’s most spectacular train rides. But nothing can prepare you for today.  There are bad railways and there are good railways. And then there is Swiss Railways.  The entire route is really just an excuse to do this day. So this bloody train had better not be late into Milan!.

Lloyd Shepherd

It’s early as usual. No one is awake, and even Darren couldn’t tell me if we are late as this train doesn’t stop anywhere to reference. I gesture to the train manager by pointing to my watch. Thumbs up is the reply. As we approach Milan it seems we are actually early. Yes, Early! Forza Trenitalia!. The transfer from Garibaldi to Centrale is trivial. My troops marshalled and by now well drilled in the procedures of getting on and off trains. Centrale boasts an imposing entrance. Arguably the most substantial of the trip. We locate the platform and I am deposited, barely more than a helpless cripple at this stage, along with the bags and the huge picnic. The others disperse on coffee and pastry procurement duties. We have a whole hour to spare. We’re not quite in the land of railway heaven, but I’m feeling quietly confident now.

Darren Foreman

We pull out on time and I jam my head out of the window and let out a goal worthy triumphal cry. The day of days has begun. We soon reach Lake Como and spend the next hour skirting it’s eastern shores. The Italian Alps towering around us. “Oh! this is nice” they all coo. We then swing east and head up the valley to Tirano. The line is single track for the most part. We have to pause for incoming services, but my man keeps me updated. We are on target.

Dave Watson

Steve Dobson

We arrive in Tirano. Cross the small square and enter the small station, technically a border crossing, but we are Shengen all the way to Gare du Nord now. The open carriage-cum-truck, exclusive to the 11:20 departure, appears and we quickly deploy the picnic boxes and dump the rest of the luggage inside. Before long we are off.

Darren Foreman

We begin to tackle the endless picnic supplies. The train pulls through Tirano, it runs straight up the main street, and on and up. Round the famous viaduct on the banner above, and up and up and up. The weather isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough for me to do the whole run to the top and beyond in a T-shirt. Offerings are made to our generally shy travel companions. Eventually they understand that we have more food than we can possibly eat and we really would be grateful if they’d accept some of it.

Lloyd Shepherd

Steve Dobson

At the summit of the Bernina Pass at bernina we have the glaciers spawned from Piz Bernina flanking our left. My compatriots are genuinely stunned, almost speechless. The grappa is opened and toasts are made. I have several. Then more glacier, the spectacular Morteratsch. If there’s only one train ride you do before you die, do this one.

Steve Dobson

At moritz we have enough time for the usual coffee and a beer routine. We then catch the next gob smacking train of the day, the Arbula Line. Alas most of them are so shattered from their high altitude open top railway ride over the Bernina that they conk out just as we hit the good bit. The track corkscrews it’s way into the Rhine valley where we pick up the line up to the Oberalp. Another change is required to get to the top, at which point we discover that the Gotthard-Matterhorn Railway doesn’t except InterRail. It’s an extra 20 quid or so but it’s worth every Swiss Franc.

Lloyd Shepherd

Steve Dobson

Up and up and up we go again, right up to the source of the Rhine. And then down and down a near vertical drop to Andermatt. Change again, wait for beers to be delivered from the local supermarket, and on again down the line to goschenen. Down and down we go through a spectacular ravine. Change again. Last train, another spectacular ride, on standard gauge now. More corkscrews, how much down can there be ?, and then stupendous Alpine lakes. More toasting of Switzerland, it’s railways and our fantastic day.

Darren Foreman

Steve Dobson

I could have spent pages and pages describing all that, and still failed. Get a cheap flight to Milan. Stay the night. Catch the 08:20 to Tirano and then the rest of this lot. You don’t need to go all the way into Zurich, kip somewhere in the hills, it wont be any more expensive. Then fly home.  You can do that in a weekend. You’ll never forget it.

We arrive at zurich bang on time, of course. Which means we have 15 minutes to drag ourselves about a mile to the hostel. We make it. I am totally knackered. It’s another hostel. It’s tiny. It’s cheap. If you don’t like it go get a hotel.

Start: On the approach to Milan
Train 30 – continued sleeper from Rome
Train 31 – 08:20 Milan to Tirano
Train 32 – 11:27 Tirano to St Moritz
Train 33 – 15:02 St Moritz to Reichenau-Tamins
Train 34 – 17:05 Reichenau-Tamins to Disentis/Muster
Train 35 – 18:14 Disentis/Muster to Andermatt
Train 36 – 19:48 Andermatt to Göschenen
Train 37 – 20:08 Göschenen to Zürich HB
Finish: In a hostel in Zurich, feeling like we’ve just been into outer-space and back

Also on this day
Paul’s Photos http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/sets/72157634712082362/
Lloyd’s Blog http://www.lloydshepherd.com/2013/07/19/day-14-i-have-seen-things/ and http://www.lloydshepherd.com/2013/07/20/day-15-when-only-wordsworth-will-do/
Darren’s Blog http://blog.darrenf.org/2013/07/hannibal-lester.html
Dave’s Blog http://disorientateddave.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-promised-land.html

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Day 13 – Turismo Alta Velocità

A stationary bed. A shower. Another shower. It’s’ not exactly the Ritz but it might as well be. Only 2 smelly blokes to a room. Doors don’t open till 07:30, so you could always have another shower.

Steve Dobson

Steve Dobson

It’s free play this morning. Various expeditions are launched. The adjoining blogs at the bottom of each post are especially worth reading today. I am now suffering severe back problems and am trying to follow as easy an itinerary as I can get away with. I stick with Steve. We are treated to a morning with three of the most exquisite Italian hosts. Steve’s business partner’s daughter introduces us to the chefs from an exclusive hotel on the far side of the Grand Canal, opposite the fish market. We spend an hour with them in the market, looking at food,  talking about Italian cuisine, and enjoying the canal. Then we are taken round this “hotel”. It’s really just a very posh house. Like really posh. Rooms are north of £1000 a night if you fancy it.

Darren Foreman

Photo @ Paul Clarke

It’s then back through a rather more heavily populated Venice than last night. After several helpings of spritzers outside Domus Civica we are done. But not for the day. Our next train is a high speed Pendolino through the Apennines to Rome. Much of the ride is in a tunnel, but there are fine views of Tuscany, I think. It’s all gone very Romanesque out of the window anyway. The scenery and buildings become particularly interesting as we approach the capital.

In Rome we make the mistake of believing what the internet said. It is claimed that there are left luggage facilities at Tiburtina, Rome’s whopping new mega station on the edge of town, from where we will catch tonight’s sleeper to Milan. Our in-train passes through there so we decide to get off early. There aren’t any lockers or luggage counters. It takes us half an hour to come to terms with this inescapable fact. We then have to go to Termini, where the train was going anyway. There we march around in circles trying to locate left luggage office. Once done, we then hurry off in order to get the train to the Vatican so we can notch off another domain name. I then, on consultation with anyone left in the party still capable of making rational decisions, have to make a painful executive call. The Vatican is cancelled. We just cant get there and then to the delicatessen to pick up the picnic in time. Have I told you about the picnic ?. There’s 700 euros of food wine and grappa waiting at some place near Circo Massimo.

Steve Dobson

We change tack and head for the deli. Everyone is feeling a bit down beat at the loss of the Vatican. We’ve all also eaten a lifetime’s worth of salami and cheese over the last 2 weeks. And now I am dragging them off to some fancy deli and spending over 500 quid on a ruddy picnic. We get there. Volpetti’s is it’s name. It’s a tourist attraction in it’s own right. A shrine to Italian food. And we have an awful lot of food. Tension mounts but with support from my management team we pull through and concoct a plan on how we are to get 3 humongous polystyrene cooler boxes full of salami, cheese and antipasta and a massive bag of bread back to Tiburtina station, while also collecting all the bags from somewhere else. We also ask them to make up a picnic out of some of this stuff so we can eat some of it now. We are sent to a specific place to eat it, not the road side park that some want to just collapse in, but half a mile away right up a hill. I am really getting it in the neck now. Or I would be if I could be bothered waiting to listen.

rompanAnd then. We arrive at this spot, and the most spectacular view of Rome is spread out before us. The park is empty, there is a bench, the evening sunshine is superb. We have a couple of bottles of sensational Italian wine and a platter of the finest meats cheeses and breads to help it go down. Paul takes what we all consider to be the definitive group portrait of the entire trip. Everyone gets a moment to reflect on yet another mind-boggling day that started having coffee watching the Venetians stroll to work, and is closing as the Sun sets over The Eternal City. And everyone shuts the fuck up about how much food we’ve bought.

After the picnic, Steve and Lloyd return to Volpetti’s and cab it back to the station with the food. The rest of us walk down to the Circo Massimo and catch the metro one stop to go see the Colosseum.  I ain’t never seen it you see. I haven’t been disappointed once on the trip so far, but alas I am as I climb out of the metro. For Pete’s sake guys, at least roof over the bloody road. We have several Germanic sized beers at appalling expense, Darren leaves his hat, and we return to get the bags.

At Tiburtina the lads are waiting on the mountain of food. We manage to get it all aboard and the usual formalities are performed, this time with grappa.  It’s been a big day, again. My only worry now is, will we get to Milan Garibaldi in time to change to Centrale and catch the train to Tirano for what is meant to be the biggest day of the lot. If not I’ll have a shed load of food and a fat lump of miserable blokes on my hands. We have about half an hour to play with. The average delay on sleepers so far is over an hour. Come on Trenitalia, you can do it!.

Start: In a dorm in Venice
Train 29 13:57 Venice to Rome
Train 30 23:04 Rome to Milan sleeper
Finish: Somewhere in Italy

Also on this day
Paul’s Photos http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/sets/72157634692917402/
Lloyd’s Blog http://www.lloydshepherd.com/2013/07/18/day-13-very-lucky-for-some/
Darren’s Blog  http://blog.darrenf.org/2013/07/the-great-circular-venetian-shanks-pony.html and http://blog.darrenf.org/2013/07/hats-off.html
Dave’s Blog http://disorientateddave.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/picnic-in-park.html

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Day 12 – Transalpina

Dave Watson

We wake on the approaches to zagreb. Yet another capital city where we have just enough time to get off, find out where the next train is, get on, plug in, send a party off to get 9 coffees, pastries, and sarnies, and leave. We did Croatia yesterday in style on the Adriatic coast. Today we will spend the day in the Julian Alps in Slovenia before walking over the border into Italy at  Nova-Gorica / Gorizia, and arriving at dusk at the Mother of all tourist destinations. Venice.

This is an Austrian train. We are heading for Slovenia, the last country of our Former Yugoslavian tour. We have to change trains in order to get to Ljubljana, another ramification of the Croatians declaring last year that they really cant be bothered anymore liaising with other countries in order to run international trains. There still are cross border trains, we are on one obviously. But they are severely reduced and I suspect the host operator, in this case Austrian Railways, foots the entire bill. At the poverty stricken other end of Yugoslavia the situation is dire. You have Greece going bust at one end and Croatia blocking any kind of escape at the other. In the middle you have half a dozen separate railways, fragmented from what was once an integrated state railway.  All of them are in a dilapidated and perilous condition. If you want to see the railways of the Balkans before they collapse, go now.

Steve Dobson

But that’s all behind us. The carriages have power, the loos have bog roll, and in theory that’s the scenario all the way home now.  We change at Sevnica , and spend a couple of hours in a most politically incorrect station café. The ride from there up the Sava river valley is unexpectedly beautiful and worthy of any itinerary.

Steve Dobson

Ljubljana. Originally we had a whole night here, then when Istanbul had to be dropped that was truncated to just a couple of hours. Then the Croatians stepped in. Have I told you about that ?. We are now down to the all too frequent regime of platform drinks and sarnies. Steve makes a valiant attempt to locate a client hotel of his and returns at least with a stack of photos to make it look as though we actually went there. Ljubljana really is a great city, or so I have been told. This is my 4th time in beautiful Slovenia and I still haven’t seen the capital.

Photo @ Paul Clarke

Photo @ Paul Clarke

We have never the less seen an amazing amount of amazing scenery during our drive round Yugoslavia, and it continues today up the Sava to jesenice where we are to catch the Transalpina line through the Triglav national park and to the Italian border. Our train for the ride isa humble DMU, shamefully smothered in graffiti. But the windows open, and that’s what counts!. I spend the entire ride, along single track mountain railway, with my head, as whenever it is possible to do so, firmly stuck into the Alpine air.  There aren’t the rock faces of the last week to admire, but the ride down into novagorica through lush mountain valleys is a beautiful afternoon.

Darren Foreman

At Nova Gorica we are treated to walking over a conveniently marked border, which runs straight outside the grand station edifice, our passports now superfluous, at least till Spain. We catch the bus into Gorizia and the Italian railway system. More station café beers and sarnies, the train into Venice is late. We might not get in till 10pm, which would be after nightfall and we’d miss the view as we roll over the Santa Lucia bridge. Then it’s not so late, and by some fortune we manage not to miss it.

Darren Foreman

We arrive, as if by sea as we roll over the bridge, at . You can’t do something with Orient Express pretensions and not visit Venice. We have an evening and a whole morning here, more than anywhere else. Steve has, whilst on the trip, managed to organise a whole sequence of activities. We wont waste a second of our time here. After securing our rooms and the usual fight for the showers we set off.

A private boat up the Grand Canal followed by fantastic pizza of the back of St Mark’s at a place called Conca D’Oro. Well it is Italy, and it was very good pizza. We then have to get back at our nice cheap dorm for 12:30 before the doors are locked. Its nearly midnight. We have to walk, very fast, through the maze that is Venice, from somewhere near St Mark’s to the station area. I have been grateful for Darren’s navigational miracle machine throughout the trip, but never as much as now. Throughout the chase, my Chief Navigations Office is bombarded with demands to stray from the true path, as dictated by Google maps. He does not flinch. We arrive back at the hostel with seconds to spare after a fabulous march through a deserted Venice. Without such trust in technology we would have been kipping canal side with the pigeons.

Darren Foreman

Start: Approaching Zagreb
Train 23 – continued sleeper from Split
Train 24 07:25 Zagreb to Sevnica
Train 25 10:35 Sevnica to Ljubljana
Train 26 12:50 Ljubljana to Jesenice
Train 27 14:35 Jesenice to Nova Gorica
Local bus
Train 28 17:40  Gorizia to Venice
Finish: Speed walking through Venice

Also on this day
Paul’s Photos http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/sets/72157634680434723/
Darren’s Blog http://blog.darrenf.org/2013/07/not-in-balkansas-any-more.html and http://blog.darrenf.org/2013/07/just-one-vaporetto.html
Dave’s Blog http://disorientateddave.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/croatia-5-slovenia-4-italy-0.html and http://disorientateddave.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-lagoon-city.html

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Day 11 – Split to Split

It’s an 07:05 start on the rails today. We get three cabs from our hostel to the station. Our train to Ploče awaits. It is comprised of three carriages donated from Swedish Railways. I say donated. I do hope the Swedes paid for the transit of this shed on wheels.

Darren Foreman

Today is another “world class” train trip. We’ve had half a dozen so far on the trip. This is probably the most spectacular to date. We wind our way down through truly awesome limestone canyons. Across a plateau through Mostar, and on to the Adriatic. We are in Croatia. Not quite euro-dollar territory yet, but as of last week we are at least now back in the EU.

Steve Dobson

Next job, get the bus along the coast to splitsign. The ticket lady throws a wobbler when I ask for nine, yes NINE please, but we all get on. It’s a 3 hour bus drive along the Makarska Riviera. The views of the imposing limestone cliff face that runs the whole length of this route look spectacular on camera. They look infinitely more impressive up close , bleached white in this searing heat. The ride is actually better than I expected. It’s a big wide road, but it is still 3 hours on a bus along a very rocky coastline. My back is now definitely giving way.

Steve Dobson

We arrive at Split. It’s stupendously hot. We manage to dispense with the bags and make our way to the other side of Bacvice beach and a restaurant we can use as a base. Swimming cossie was part of the obligatory kit list, and almost all of us go for a dip while enjoying a beer and a G&T, and a beer and a G&T. There are as many voices around us from Bolton and Brisbane as there are locals. This was intended to be our beach day and it performs admirably. Once the sun has calmed down a little we go for a quick run round Diocletian’s pad and the subsequent Venetian stuff that is Old Split, and then make for the train. Everything is within 200 yards of each other.

Steve Dobson

The platform is strewn with backpacking youngsters, most of them American and all of who seem to think that you don’t just need one ridiculously over packed rucksack to go backpacking, you need TWO. Patronising rant time. Kids, you need; passport, wallet, toothbrush and a spare pair of undies. I guess smart phone is an item of utter necessity these days. Everything else you can bin. Of course all these guys now know that they brought waaaay too much shit.

Steve Dobson

The train leaves and we head off into the Dinaric Alps. The local and quite excellent plum brandy is consumed, and another successful day is chalked off.

Start: In a dorm in Sarajevo
Train 22 07:05 Sarajevo to Ploce
Bus 4 Ploce to Split
Train 23 20:10 Split to Zagreb sleeper
Finish: Dalmatian Mountains

Also on this day
Paul’s Photos http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/sets/72157634663303131/
Lloyd’s Blog http://www.lloydshepherd.com/2013/07/17/day-11-12-back-in-the-eu/
Darren’s Blog http://blog.darrenf.org/2013/07/hey-eu.html
Dave’s Blog http://disorientateddave.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/dalmation-coast.html

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Day 10 – Belgrade to Sarajevo, With Predictable Consequences


“What’s the wifi password ?”
“Internet ?”
“Yes, I want to connect to the Internet, what’s your wifi password ?”
“Internet!”
“yes, the Internet, what’s the password ?”
“INTERNET!!”
“yes yes, but, oh, right, sorry”

This level of miscommunication would characterize my entire day.

We are in the Serbian capital belgrade. We’ve spent all night traveling from Skopje in the general direction of home. It doesn’t seem to have made a lot of difference. We make camp at a cafe in the station, replete with wifi (see above) and electrickery. The train is in a few hours, we can charge the dozens of things that need charging. A few scouting parties venture into the Serb capital. One makes it 50 yards before aborting, the other barely 100.

Steve Dobson

As we get to within half an hour of departure I investigate where our train is. I have no reservations. This is an alternative route to the now defunct direct Belgrade to Sarajevo train that was ditched as a consequence of Croatia’s unilateral war on international train travel. You didn’t need reservations on that, it was generally half empty anyway. My mate Ognjenka from the International Office of Serbian Railways, who I discussed the trip with at length, didn’t mention anything when I told her of my devious plan to get between capitals. My scheme for the day is to catch the train south, again, to Uzice, which is the closest to Sarajevo I can get to on a convenient train. Then get a pre-arranged bus to take us from there to Sarajevo via, I kid ye not, a preserved narrow gauge railway on the Bosnian-Serb border.

Dave Watson

Our train is going to Bar, on the Adriatic coast. We are in Serbia. Montenegro is one of the few places these guys can go to these days and not be made to feel unwelcome and/or poverty stricken. The train is massively oversubscribed. I have a party of nine, with shed loads of luggage. As is the norm, no, the next train wont do. I dont even think there is one.

Darren Foreman

This is the essence of how scary it is to drag a whole bunch of guys round some ridiculous series of must-get connections. If there is anything wrong with your booking, or you are careless enough not to even have any, things can get messy.  Getting yourself and a buddy on a train that isn’t expecting you is one thing. Finding space for half a carriage of not-so-slim blokes can be far more problematic.  I fly around the station in a futile attempt to acquire reservations. I then fly back to the train manager who is marshalling the herd of people without any reservation trying to board. I make the internationally accepted sign for “I’ll make this worth your while mate” and signal that all we want is to block up the vestibule with 9 blokes and their luggage. He nods and waves me quickly in a “get yourself on now” sort of way. Of course I can’t. Everyone is lounging about on the blinking wifi. I fly back to the cafe, “Go! Go! Go!, we’re going now, get on NOW”. I then fly back to the given vestibule and proceed to mark out an area that we can all squeeze into. Where’s Paul ?. Paul doesn’t get “Go! Go! Go!” it’s not in his input vocabulary. He arrives. The train is full. Really full. He gets on, just.

Steve Dobson

When the manager comes by I, quite discreetly, offer him 10 euros for not being a railway tyrant. “No no” he says. I guess someone may have been looking,  As he slides past me his upturned hand trails and I press my offering into his grateful palm. It was worth it just for the comedy.

We are consigned to 4 hours of corridor, it’s not ideal but we get through it. I spend as much time as possible with my head jammed out of the window, which I’ve been able to do for most of the way since Vienna. At Uzice I march out to locate the bus I have ordered from Asim, who I believe to be the hotel owner for tonight’s crash pad. We scan the car park. No bus. There’s a Transit. Is it a bus ?. No it isn’t. Oh bugger. The next phase of today is to get to Sargan Vitasi and negotiate the only remaining part of the narrow gauge railway that used to run from here to Sarajevo. We’ve got half an hour.

Photo @ Paul Clarke

There’s three cab drivers. “Sarajevo?” they say. “Yeah, via Sargan Vitasi ?, 300 euros for the lot of us ?. Did Asim send you ?”. Perhaps I should have pushed him a bit more on the last point, but as he was fine with points 1 and 2 that was good enough for me. And this train would leave soon. Well it would if we drove there in a normal way. As it was, even stopping for a desperately needed beer from a petrol station, we make it with 15 minutes to spare. It is an “exhilarating”  drive.

Steve Dobson

And what a lovely little railway it is. If you are looking to get from Belgrade to Sarajevo in a day while using as much rail as possible, this is a great route. The return fare is under 5 euro each. I have a delightful interaction with the conductor who doesn’t realise that we are more than happy to pay him 50 euros for the 9 of us to go just one way. The ride is akin to a roller coaster and to the uninitiated it may look as though it was really only built for fun. It wasn’t. It was a real railway once, one of the longest narrow gauge railways anywhere.

On arrival at Mokra Gora I march off to locate the three cabs with our luggage. There’s only one of them, but that’s better than none. But there’s this grumpy looking bloke with a face like a slapped backside saying “big problem” a lot. After a while it becomes clear that he is the booked minibus. Actually there are two of them. He has a younger guy with him who is clearly embarrassed about all this.  He was late by 20 minutes at Uzice. If we’d waited we’d have missed the Sargan 8 railway, which was today’s prime railway activity.

Dave Watson

I am now faced with two lots of people wanting 300 euros each to take us to Sarajevo. We are in Serbia, 10 minutes from the Bosnian border. Srebrenica is 15 miles away. Višegrad is even closer and we will actually drive through it later. On my left I have a grumpy old bald Bosnian who keeps telling me I have “big problem”. To my centre and right I have three Serb guys, one of whom is 7ft tall and appears to have anger management issues. Behind me I have eight compatriots, most of whom are keeping an ever increasingly respectable distance from all this. Steve is standing right behind me to make sure I don’t just do a runner with the kitty at this stage.

Dave Watson

I make my stand, the guy was late, if we’d waited we’d have missed the days big event. But it is a tense situation and before long I am spent. In the end I pay the Serbs 150 and we all have a hug, including the younger Bos guy who clearly thinks his boss is an utter dickhead, and it is good. I think I have agreed a 50 euro fine for grumpy bald Bos. I haven’t. I am in the second mini bus with the young guy. As we drive through Višegrad we pass the old viaduct. The driver explains by mime what happened on that bridge. Just how tense the recent taxi negotiations must have been for all concerned has really only just sunk in.

We get taken into Sarajevo then right up a hill for no reason at all. This is obviously another of Asim the fixer’s client hotels. I am apoplectic. The e-fag ran out about 100 km ago and I am now not a man to be trifled with. After screaming at Big Problem, we magically appear back in town. Asim materialises, we share a Muslim greeting, and then he disappears just as quickly before I have had time to give him an earful.

Darren Foreman

So the day has cost 50 euros each. We get a cramped ride on a Serbian holiday special. 15 minutes of riding with a Formula 1 test driver. A world class preserved railway in the middle of the Balkans. An incident. And then a drive through genuinely stunning limestone mountainscape from Mokra Gora to the Bosnian capital.

Darren Foreman

In Sarajevo we go out for a fantastic meal. The cevapcici, so revolting in Skopje, are fantastic. It is an enchanting city, only surpassed by Prague on the “I must bring my wife here sometime” front. We have a dorm, for all of us. There is one existing occupant. I pity whoever this might be. From here on in, I make it very clear to the entire party. If I’m not spending enough on your behalf, go find a hotel.

Start: Approaching Belgrade
Train 19 – continued sleeper from Skopje
Train 20 09:10 Belgrade to Uzice
F1 cabs to Sargan Vitasi
Train 21 14:22 – Sargan 8 Sargan Vitasi to Mokra Gora
Big Problem cabs to Sarajevo
Finish: In a dorm in Sarajevo

Also on this day
Paul’s Photos http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/sets/72157634655051720/
Darren’s Blog  http://blog.darrenf.org/2013/07/balkan-trips-and-balkan-kips-and-balkan.html and http://blog.darrenf.org/2013/07/the-incident-at-mokra-gora.html
Dave’s Blog http://disorientateddave.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-latest-balkan-conflict.html

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Day 9 – It’s Pronounced Skopje

Daren Foreman

It’s early again. Darren is awake. “You’re up early ?”, “I haven’t been to sleep”. Delighted as I am that Darren is enjoying himself so much he cant even close his eyes, I am concerned that this mode of operation isn’t sustainable.

We are in the mountain range known as The Balkans, from which the region takes it’s name. It’s rated as a world class ride through limestone gorges into the heart of Bulgaria. It doesn’t disappoint.

Steve Dobson

We arrive. Sofia is the highest capital in Europe, a real mountain city. The huge constructivist mural dominating the station concourse is punctuated by the golden arches of consumerism. There’s a tube system!, brand new!. We take it several stops and then walk with bags to the wash stop I have arranged.

Steve Dobson

Originally, the timetable dictated that we would have to ditch for the night in Sofia. Then the ghost train from Kiev turned up and so I could keep everyone on-board for another night.

Steve Dobson

The hostel I booked in Sofia is £8 each. I elected to keep it as a wash stop and emergency crash pit should we end up turning up in the middle of the night on a bus. It is a master stroke. We are all able to take a rapid and most welcome shower and have a few coffees. Darren is able to sink into the 90 minute coma he so desperately needs. Burek, the staple breakfast food for everywhere within a 1,000 km radius, is discarded. Perhaps it’s a good job we aren’t actually stopping anywhere really between here and Sarajevo. Culture shock and sleep deprivation is being exhibited by most of the group now.

The pre-arranged bus turns up to take us by road to Skope, the Macedonian capital. We have a nice shot gun tour of Sofia, and perform a now well drilled raid on a supermarket before setting off for the border.

“We’ve come on holiday by mistake”

At the road border between Bulgaria and Macedonia, Paul is required to submit his preposterously heavy suitcase for intensive examination. Passports are submitted, and eventually returned, and submitted, and, eventually, returned. And we conclude the process with a visit to what is the worst bog on the entire trip to date.

Dave Watson

Most of the group had never driven through a border control before today. We are standing in the bottom end of the bits and pieces that once comprised Yugoslavia. Our next country will be Serbia. Narvik was less than a week ago. It feels like a lifetime.

The scenery on the drive to Skopje is pleasant enough across a plateau. As we arrive, a giant crucifix is noticed positioned on a mountainside overlooking the city. It appears to be confronting this openly liberal but Muslim city. We get taken to the tiny Old City area. It’s deserted. All the shops are shut tight.  They are tourist shops. Its a Sunday. It’s summer. Where the fuck are the tourists ?

Steve Dobson

I locate the little square with the kebab restaurants. I don’t know if I chose the wrong one or if they all serve super greasy ćevapčići . It is stupendously cheap though.

We return to the station. The greasy kebabs were the last straw for most of the group. Macedonia is facing a hammering in the press already. And now this station. I present myself at the ticket office. I have booked this, without paying yet, via the internet from a contact I got from the Serbian railways lady. I am greeted as “Lester” by the bloke. I peer over and see my name scrawled across a print out and the number 10. Relax.

Photo @ Paul Clarke

The station at Skopje makes Sofia station feel like Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. Seriously. The bogs are a genuine challenge to the ones at the border. There aren’t even place name signs on the platform.  If you are unlucky enough to find yourself here you presumably don’t want reminding how careless you’ve been. A mild panic starts to build among the group. A rumour has spread that there isn’t a train to Belgrade. We could be stuck here, indefinitely.

It arrives. All three carriages. Oh! how cute, I think to myself. We spend the evening covering about 10 km. We have to leave Macedonia and enter Serbia. It takes time. We get a passport stamp, at last. And it’s got a train on it!. Drinks are had, a picnic is made. A supplement is paid to the manager to secure exclusive tenure of our two cabins. Bucharest was the most easterly point, Narvik was the furthest, but Skopje certainly feels the most distant. 

Lisbon will be both the most westerly and southerly city on the trip.

Start: In the Balkan Mountains
Train 18: continued sleeper from Bucharest to Sofia
Bus 2: Sofia to Skopje private hire
Train 19: 20:10 Skopje to Belgrade
Finish: Preševo valley, Serbia

Also on this day

Paul’s Photos http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/sets/72157634634335458/
Lloyd’s Blog http://www.lloydshepherd.com/2013/07/14/day-9-on-william-gladstone-street/ and http://www.lloydshepherd.com/2013/07/15/day-10-graves-trains-and-mountains/
Darren’s Blog http://blog.darrenf.org/2013/07/are-we-there-yet.html
Dave’s Blog http://disorientateddave.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/cyrillic-zone.html

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Day 8 – Transylvanian Traversal

Darren Foreman

Today we will visit Romania. We are in Transylvania, winding our way through the Carpathian mountains. We are running late. We are enjoying the lie in. Prague one night and a Romanian rail party the next has taken it’s toll. I elect to keep us all on past Brašov and continue to Bucharest.

Darren Foreman

Now it may be that they’d have left the door open into the adjoining first class carriage and allow us to use the shower there even if we hadn’t shared our booty and tipped heavily the night before. And it may be that with a modest contribution we could have flouted Romanian Railway rules and stayed on a train that we hadn’t technically booked onto. But may be not. Either way, while NSB in Norway are a fine lot, CFR in Romania are a great bunch to hang out with.

Steve Dobson

It’s a lovely day in Romania. Fields and fields of sunflowers, people farming with horses, Romany kids smoking fags, sail past our window. We are then treated to the stunning views around Sinea and Predeal. We arrive at the capital a convenient three hours behind schedule at 3pm.

Mick Pope

We dispense with the bags and see what can be done. I am the only one of the group with any previous in Romania. I feel like I’m introducing a wayward old friend. Bucharest was barely more than a recently vacated war zone in the early 90s. I warn the group to be on their mettle.

niks

As it turns out, the old girl isn’t as scary as she was all those years ago. The tourist cafe zone is easy walking distance from Gara Nord and we have a pleasant evening. A slap up meal is had outside an establishment that boasts the most opulent of interiors. The staff dress code for waitresses includes what can only be described as a Wonderbra double plus. We tip well. A party make a close up inspection of Ceaușescu’s monstrosity. We return to Gara Nord for our “ghost train”.

Photo @ Paul Clarke

The Bucharest to Sofia sleeper we are about to get has the most questionable reputation of any train on the trip. It doesn’t even exist on any online timetables. Contacts in both Bucharest and Sofia have dealt us dire warnings as to what is likely to happen to us.

But it is an excellent train. Large cabins of only two tiers of amply sized beds. Ornate carpets like a Russia flat. And a samovar in the corridor. I get to unload my entire Russian vocabulary in the direction of the carriage attendant.

legsSo far so good. We’ve done Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania on our Eastern-Bloc Odyssey. Nobody has freaked out so far. Bulgaria,  and the former Yugoslavian states of Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia lie ahead.

Start: Having a shin dig in a Romanian train bar
Train 18 – sleeper to Bucharest, continued from Budapest
Train 19 – 23:00 Bucharest to Sofia
Finish: On the way to our final crossing of the Danube and to Bulgaria

Also on this day
Paul’s Photos http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/sets/72157634617746809/
Lloyd’s Blog http://www.lloydshepherd.com/2013/07/13/day-8-a-travel-happening/
Darren’s Blog http://blog.darrenf.org/2013/07/when-in-romania.html
Dave’s Blog http://disorientateddave.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/slow-train-to.html and http://disorientateddave.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/bucharest-and-on.html

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