Tag Archives: train travel

London-Istanbul by train – The geek version

I know some of you are fact fans, and some of you have asked me how my trip from one end of Europe to the other, has compared cost- time- and distance wise with alternatives like flying, or UK transport. Well, like all good “making-of” reveals, let me tell you!

Here is the map of all the main stations we travelled to and from (the most easterly one is actually Sabiha Gokcen Airport – obviously not a train station, but I’ve included it for completeness as I had to fly home to get back to work). I’ve not had time to link them up via railway lines, but you get the idea. If anyone geekier than me wants to do this for me then please let me know!

Click through for interactive google map of my trip

Transport costs have also been interesting, and have become much cheaper the further east we’ve come. I’ve put the cost of all our intercity tickets here, in local currency and converted into sterling, so you can have a look for yourself. The cost per mile really does drop compared to the UK even in Western Europe, and even though it works out more expensive than flying from London – Istanbul (my flight back with easyjet came to around £55), it’s still cheaper and quicker than flying city to city, and yes it’s true, more convenient and more fun. Our total intercity transport costs between London and the Airport in Sabiha Gokcen were 213.30 GBP.

Intercity Transport to Istanbul!

You feel like you’re still in control of your journey, you don’t have to check in hours in advance, remove your belt and shoes for the x-ray machines and say goodbye to your luggage, there are no clinical departure lounges to get bored in, and you get to see a lot more of the world and the people that are just as inquisitive about it as you are. Oh and if you get a 1st class sleeper car on the Bosfor express you can pretend you’re in an Agatha Christie novel!

All our train planning was done with the help of the man in seat 61 – an incredibly extensive and precise train travel information site maintained by a former rail service QA worker. While you can look up train times direct at Western European train companies’ websites (DeutscheBahn is pretty comprehensive), firstly it helps to know which train companies to go to, and also to have the information in English. (I came unstuck in Austria when I hadn’t understood the German small print on my print-at-home ticket – which turned out to be just the ticket reservation form which I should have exchanged for my ticket before leaving the station, so got stung for an extra €20 on the train).

You can also book through rail ticket agents like raileurope, which we found very useful for timetable information, but as agents you would end up paying their booking fee too, and a lot more overall. Seat 61.com has in particular been utterly invaluable for information about the last leg of our journey and we would never have known how to get from Romania to Turkey, or have an idea of how important it was we got our Bosfor Express bookings right, until we’d arrived in Bucharest, if it wasn’t for the detail on there.

Interestingly, our local transport costs (city trams, buses, tubes and taxis) were cheap compared to the UK too – and here’s what we spent in both local currency and converted to Sterling again.

Local city transport

To keep costs down we stayed in hostels at a cost of approx €10 a night each – as it was February though even though these were in 10-bed dorms, we often got the room to ourselves. A different story I’m sure in summer though! Couchsurfing is another great way to visit people in different places and stay low-cost, and if we’d had more time to plan in advance, we would have tried to have a couple of nights at least on someone’s sofa using this scheme.

Guide book-wise I used two Berlitz city guides to Vienna and Brussels, and Lonely Planet’s guide to Eastern Europe (although I found the Rough Guide to Eastern Europe a lot more readable, and it included Turkey unlike Lonely Planet). Because it covers so many countries, the information is brief and itinerary based, so again with more advanced planning I would have taken individual country guides (maybe on a kindle like Dave did, as long as it was charged!), but I find all guide book information hard to take in anyway so I just grabbed something I knew would give me basics to find my way and then find out where to go from tourist information and importantly, chatting to hostel staff and the people we met on our journey.

I’d definitely do a big train journey like this again, my only regret being that I didn’t really have much time to do it in – 2 days or less at each stop is nowhere near enough, not to mention exhausting. But I look on this as just an excuse to go away in small spurts more often!

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Yorkshire Cyrillic

Welcome to the Republic of Bulgaria!

If the scenery down to the southern Romanian border was a bit lack-lustre, once we’d crossed the Danube into Bulgaria things become noticeably more interesting to the eye. First of all there’s the huge colourful border notices, and of course the abandonment of our familiar Roman alphabet in favour of the native Bulgarian cyrillic alphabet (note Bulgarian, and not Russian-invented!)

Our first Bulgarian Truck!

The warnings we’d had about lengthy and complicated border crossings were unfounded, certainly until we arrived at Gorno. 15 Mins at the Romanian border and half an hour at the Bulgarian border town of Ruse and we were on our way again.

Yup, definitely in Bulgaria!

This is only the second border we’ve had our passports checked at (not counting when we left the UK), but never fear Daily Mail readers! I’ve been reading up, and a substantial number of EU countries have also signed up to the Schengen agreement, which removes border controls between signatory countries (the UK, Romania and Bulgaria are not currently signed up). The removal of border controls actually makes a lot of sense – having spent a week trying to spot similarities between languages and cultures to understand what’s happening around us, and it’s incredibly obvious, even after just a week, just how much of a continuum there is between language and culture in Europe.

Northern Bulgaria

Bulgaria soon becomes green and undulating, with twisting rivers, deep valleys, cosy-looking villages and green fields with sprinklings of snow dust (it’s not snowing today but it is still pretty grey outside). The rolling scenery in fact reminds both of us of the Yorkshire Dales.

Northern Bulgaria (again)

There are plentiful level crossings and the odd horse and cart waiting in the small queue of cars for us to pass. Fortunately we’re not cold in our carriage as the (we assume) compulsory Eastern European practice of turning train compartment heating up to 30 degrees C.

Villages!

It’s certainly worth heeding the advice of travel guides if you’re coming to Bulgaria by train, and bringing a map of the country and train route with you. We didn’t know for certain what our expected arrival time was going to be (although our tickets suggest, in Romanian, 1805), there are no on-train announcements or conductors to ask, and there’s only one sign at each station, which you will only see if you are in a coach that stops opposite the station building – so if you don’t know where you are expecting to be then you could easily miss your stop.

The last big stop before Veliko Tarnovo was at Gorno, so we rang Randy our hostel host for landmarks to look out for. While we were waiting for the train to set off again, some “undesirables” we were warned against finally got on board, and predictably plonked themselves in the compartment next to us, yelling aggressively over each other for the last half hour of our ride. On leaving Gorno, we looked out especially hopefully for Randy’s landmarks. “Look out for a ghost station, and Veliko is the next stop, I’ll be waving at the station so you won’t miss me!” Sure enough the scenery changed pretty abruptly from Yorkshire-reminiscent dales, as the train trundled through dramatic Byzantine mountains and dense and spooky snow sprinkled forests. Then – at last! We saw Randy’s abandoned town, its train station – and then at the top of a gorge, we saw our first Turkish-influenced towers of Veliko, followed by the twinkling house lights of the streets at dusk covering the hill that Veliko is set on, and finally Veliko station itself. Still screaming at each other, we snuck past the “undesirables” to freedom, and to Veliko Tarnovo!
Days since leaving the UK: 9

Kilometres travelled so far by main train journeys:  2824+135 = 2959

Countries travelled through so far: 8

Cities visited: 8

Hours spent on a train today: 10.5

Hours spent travelling from Brasov-Veliko:  13

Border checks completed so far: 3

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A First Class Accident

TEA

I’ve set off! Despite the obligatory mysterious-cut-finger-that-won’t-stop-bleeding, the last minute oh-my-god-i’ve-forgotten-something paranoia, and a shit-is-that-the-time-we’ll-miss-the-train moment, I am indeed on the train to London. From London tomorrow (the stunningly ornate St Pancras International to be precise) I will be catching the Eurostar to Brussels and via various stops over the next 2 weeks, making my way to Istanbul.

The most interesting thing that’s happened to me so far (we’ve been going 44 minutes) is the discovery that I have accidentally booked myself a seat in 1st class. This means several things. Firstly, and most importantly, it’s hilarious. I’m here with a giant rucksack I can hardly carry, walking boots and a bobbly lopapeysa I bought from a charity shop in Reykjavik, and I’m surrounded by perfectly coiffured people with very plummy accents, very expensive jewellery and/or rugger shirts, with Louis Vuitton luggage, all reading the business and politics sections of The Times or catching up with iplayer on their ipads. They all do seem I must add, very nice, even if topics of conversation include a good natured discussion about whether the free cups of tea the very-polite-but-obviously-trying-hard-to-be-on-his-best-behaviour attendant is serving us comes with fresh or UHT milk, and the dizzying conundrum the answer launches us into, vizaviz whether we should use the free (UHT) milk provided, or go black, or use our own (fresh) milk…..

Which I feel misses the point entirely. IT’S A FREE CUP OF TEA!! And mine is delicious! *does a happy dance*

The downside of this 1st class compartment is that there are curtains on the windows. No doubt it’s the height of luxury to be able to decide whether to shut out the daylight, but it’s impossible to pull them back fully, which means there are only 4 seats on the carriage that have an unimpeded view of the drizzly fields of cows and sheep and commuter villages on this glorious British February Sunday. The seat I am in, needless to say, is not one in a blessed position, although I can catch a glimpse if I turn my head 120 degrees behind me. So I can’t really complain can I?

I think they must know I’m an impostor.

To St Pancras!

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Filed under Europe, Food & Drink, Railways, Travel, UK