Category Archives: Railways
On Saturday I took a train trip to Trakai, which is about half an hour west of Vilnius. It is in the middle of the Trakai Historical National Park and was once home to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The town of Trakai is built between large natural lakes and has a fairytale island castle in the middle of one of them!
The lakes were completely frozen when I visited, making for some picturesque vistas, milling tourists, a traditional kibinai van (kibinai are a bit like small Cornish pasties), and assorted small children skating on the ice.
It wasn’t so much the lakes and castle that excited me, pretty though they were, but the journey there. You can get both the bus and the train from Vilnius to Trakai, but I was urged to get the bus as it goes more frequently. But it’s been nearly two years since I first took a train in another country and I was desperate for some foreign rail travel. Plus it meant I got a lie-in, so it was off to Vilnius Railway Station, another grand, high-ceiling-ed affair, the towering facade evoking anticipation of adventure.
Getting on a train is so straightforward, but has so many possibilities. Not so much in the UK, where train travel is cramped & expensive and distances short, but international stations are so atmospheric. From having separate local and international ticket offices to having distant destinations on the departure board, to the detail and grandiosity of the buildings – Vilnius station has a wolf (which legend says inspired Gediminas to build the city) proudly howling from one of its stuccoed buildings.
And then you step onto the platform and see the expanse of tracks and carriages, any one of them waiting to take you through obscure little towns to foreign cities. The platforms aren’t even raised, so there’s no barrier to getting to the platform you need – you can just walk across the tracks. Then you see carriages heave into view. Has that huge, unhurried train at the other side of the station come from Russia? Where is it going? Where will it stop on its way? How long have its passengers been on it? Who are they going to see? Who are they travelling with? As you watch them get off one of the longer sleeper trains, it’s clear there are a huge variety of travellers – families with kids on a Christmas visit to the city, perhaps for the Christmas festival or perhaps to see grandparents. Young men waiting nervously on the platform with roses for their girlfriends, people with huge suitcases coming home after some time away. Smokers who’ve been in the carriage so long between stops they first thing they do is smoke a cigarette of relief, standing with their luggage while they take in the comfort of a journey finished.
And then I get to set off on my short trip, through countryside unfamiliar enough to me that I could pretend for half an hour I was off on a much longer journey. My old Soviet train creaked into the station the insides of the carriage, clean, wide, comfortable, but riveted together in the most sturdy fashion.
We creaked out of the station, leaving the industrial and revolution-worn suburbs, then quickly we were creaking through the bleak forests I’d seen from the plane, dotted with ramshackle wooden houses – their bright colours faded with soot, with frozen lakes adjacent holding the remnants of their inhabitants’ summers:
Through snow covered tracks, we passed into tiny local stations,
and just as quickly we were back in industrial suburbs, driving past Cyrillic printed freight containers, concrete cooling towers – but all of it so refreshingly different to my eyes that it I had half an hour happily imagining a half day’s worth of escape to somewhere new.
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!
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.
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.
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!
Well, what can I say about Istanbul? Busy? Yes. Vibrant? Definitely. Beautiful? Without a doubt. It’s pretty much lived up to expectations and then some – stunning mosques; East meets West; the noisy and bustling pace of life – and that’s just during the daytime.
We were lucky that when we arrived the sun had come out, and by the time we made it out into Sultanahmet the day was positively balmy. Well, it was compared to the crisp February Bulgarian air the previous evening! The Blue Mosque is the first thing we saw as we get off at the tram stop, with all the imposing beauty you’d expect from an ancient place of worship.
The fountains that play between it and the neighbouring Aya Sofia make me think English stately home though, and the formal park gardens as you face the Aya Sofia complete the confusing sense that you’re at once at home and somewhere very different and exciting at the same time. It’s Friday, and prayer time, and calls ringing out from every minaret (of which there are many, wherever you look in Istanbul) add to the magic of the city.
But then we pay a visit to the Grand Bazaar, one of the biggest covered markets in the world, and the wonderful smelling Spice Bazaar – and quickly learn to say “no thankyou” and “maybe later” in Turkish. It’s not a scary experience though, and walking through a Turkish marketplace is nothing like avoiding pushy UK Del Trotters. It’s almost like bidding on ebay, but with interaction with actual human beings, and ones that take actual joy and pride in the small talk that surrounds a good sales pitch. The shopkeepers here are complete masters of the art and we quickly learn that we can reply to a shout of “Where you from? English?” without obligation to stop or buy, and can stop and look without obligation to buy – as long as we buy into the dance, the business flirtation, and aren’t afraid to say “no not today” with a laugh and a smile, it’s all part of the fun of Istanbul.
This spirit extends to everywhere we go, and street cafe waiters stand on the street and offer us tea and kebabs. In England we’d not touch places who resorted to such pushiness, but in Istanbul it’s not pushy, it’s just the way they advertise. When we decide to accept a seat and a menu, the waiters keep popping back to chat to us, laugh with us, try and guess where in England our accents are from, teach us some Turkish, and treat us like we’re long lost friends. At the end of the day of course it makes good business sense to treat your customers like this, but it’s also obvious these waiter-maitre’Ds quite enjoy chatting and gossiping with their guests. It beats standing in a hot kitchen bitching about the menu if nothing else!
The best bits of Istanbul for me were both down to my wonderful new friend Berna and her fiance Derya, who live in their native Istanbul. Berna offered to take us out and show us the famous Istanbul nightlife, Turkish style. Our first port of call was a swanky rooftop bar overlooking the Bosphorous, with breathtaking views of a spectacularly lit up city (captured, albeit through plexi-glass, above). Then onto heaving backstreet bars full of atmosphere, crammed with street tables – even electricity failure (a particularly smelly generator blow-out) didn’t damped the fun – 5 minutes later and a back-up generator had the lights and music back on again, unlike in England where if there’s a power cut we’re all unceremoniously asked to leave and go home early.
Not content with wowing us with the vibrancy of the Turkish bar and clubbing culture, Berna and Derya then took us for midnight munchies, again traditional Turkish style, and persuaded us to try deep fried mussels (very nice), deep fried whitebait (um, fishy), seasoned pig intestine (less seasony, more intestiney to my freshly non-vegetarian palate, but Dave liked it so all was not lost), and raki. Raki is of course the Turkish tipple, similar to Ouzo, and Derya explains to us how it should be drunk correctly, which involves filling your glass half with raki, topping up with water, and savouring it. In Turkey, your raki doesn’t accompany your meal, your meal accompanies your raki. We’d never have found any of these little streets or bars or restaurants without our expert hosts, but it’s safe to say that our Istanbul experience was the best night out of the trip – it’s certainly obvious why the vibe of Taksim during the day, and even more so at night, makes it the bit of Istanbul to visit if you want to feel the city.
So on to my final highlight, a tourist trip along the Bosphorus river, again recommended by Berna. The Bosphorus splits the European side of Istanbul into two (Sultanahmet on the West and Taksim on the East), and also flows out into the Mediterranean to mark the easternmost end of Europe in Turkey, and the start of Asia. Boat tours start at the noisy hubbub of the New Mosque and Spice Market in Eminonu, where the boat tour operators blare catchy Turkish pop music at you while chanting “Bosfor, Bosfor” into their microphones (doing a good impression of Shaggy practicing his MCing), while colourful but violently bobbing kitchen-boats, moored at the side of the river, dish out kebabs, donuts and glasses of Turkish tea to diners (who I’m relieved to say stay on dry land to eat, just watching the boats lurch was enough to make me feel ill).
But as the boat sets off towards Asia, leaving Sultanahmet behind, you quickly feel the calm wash over you. The Bosphorus is a busy yet tranquil river, wide and blue, and as you head for the Asian bank and watch the silhouetted skyline of Sultanahmet drift away, softened by the haze, and see the mix of modern skyscrapers and apartments and ancient minarets and palaces, you realise you’re between continents – between East and West.
And so that brings me to the end of our trip. 2 weeks by train from London to Istanbul, not quite on the old route of the Orient Express, but near enough to be able to tell my proverbial grandkids about. It’s been an experience, and as a pretty novice traveller, one which I never imagined I’d ever have. I must admit that thinking about all the things I’d managed to do and see in such a short amount of time, and that I’d actually made it in one piece (well just about, we won’t mention the food poisoning on my last night), I found myself a little bit emotional at the airport (Sabiha Gokcen, on the Asian side of Istanbul) while I sipped my Turkish tea – and waited for my flight home.
Days since leaving the UK: 12, 13 and 14
Kilometers travelled by train: 3310 + 485 = 3795. Plus another 31km by coach, which makes a grand total of… drum roll please… 3826km,or 2377 miles! (ish).
Weather: a hazy and balmy 10 degrees C
Continents crossed: 1
The once daily, overnight Bosfor Express is our only way out of Bulgaria into Turkey by train. The alternative, by bus, Elena tells us, may well be quicker, but the quality of roads in Bulgaria, the age of the buses often used, and the tendency for buses to be cancelled without warning, means that we need to get the train to be sure of getting there before I have to fly home!
As there’s only one train a day, we check the time and price straight away, and decide it’d probably be a good idea to buy our tickets as soon as possible so we don’t miss our connection. Todd at the hostel shows us on the map where the international ticket office is in Veliko, but when we get there we are told by the Tourist Information next door, that it’s closed till the end of the week and we have 2 options – first is to take a bus to the next town, Gorna Oryahovitsa, which takes 40 minutes, find the international ticket office at the railway station there, buy our tickets, and come back on the bus. Or, we can get a Bulgarian ticket to the border, get off the train (although she’s not sure how long it stops there), and go to the ticket office there to get the rest of our ticket into Turkey. Not an option that fills us with confidence, especially as it’s a sleeper and we know the border crossing happens around 1am, so we opt for a trip out to Gorna – at least we get to see a bit more of Bulgaria.
We set out to find the right bus, manage to flag it down and we ask for Gorna Oryahovitsa. We’re waved brusquely onto the bus, which is seems to be a minicoach from about 1981, and a conductor sells us a ticket. The journey to Gorna is uneventful, but the day is sunny and we get to see the Balkans surrounding Veliko fade back into the flatter area around Gorna, as well as see the rustic old buildings of Veliko disappear to be replaced by the more small-town urbanness of Gorna.
We’re not sure where to get off the bus though so as it looks like we’re on our way out of Gorna again we try and get off – but suddenly realise there’s no bell to ring and neither the conductor nor driver speak English! Fortunately standing up and moving towards the door seemed to work as I shoved Dave out of his seat, and we made the short walk back into town, and managed somehow, despite the ticket lady speaking no English either, to get approximately the right tickets for our last train journey, taking us towards the other end of Europe.
When we get on the train, it turns out our sleeper carriage was booked as a couchette cabin (for 6 people) when we had requested a private 2-person berth so we could get some sleep. To be honest I think this was probably down to me nodding and shaking my head too eagerly in the wrong places at the ticket lady, but for €15 each we were allowed to upgrade, and we were let into a dark wood-veneered (but I suspect still not hugely expensive) and brass-painted cabin, with a fold-down sink, carpeted ladder to the top bunk, and small mirrored cupboard! I feel very Agatha Christie, and we settle down and wait for our 1am customs call at the Turkish border…
…which keeps us on tenterhooks all night. We don’t know exactly when we’ll be reaching the border, all we’ve been told is maybe 1 or 2am. We think we’ll need to get off the train to get our Turkish entry visa but we don’t know the rest of the procedure, or when or where to go so we decide not to sleep until we’re in Turkey so we know we don’t miss anything. Midnight comes and goes with the train standing in a Bulgarian station (no station signs remember!) for a whole hour – all we know is it’s not the border. We think.
1 am and 2 am also come and go, but finally at just before 2.30, Bulgarian passport control get on the train, and we’re told that in 35 minutes we’ll be in Edirne, the Turkish border town, where we’ll need to get off and get our visa, show our passports, and have our bags prodded by Turkish customs. It’s a big relief to see the friendly train guard come and tell us to get off the train, and to get constant knocks on our door from Turkish border guards coming to check our things, because now we know we’ve not missed anything, there won’t be any more things to think about, and we’re safely in Turkey. Even if it is 3.30am and completely dark outside when we set off from Edirne to our final destination – Istanbul.
Days since leaving the UK: 11
Kilometres travelled so far by main train journeys: 2951 + 359 = 3310
Countries travelled through so far: 9
Cities visited: 8
Ratio of stray animals: Cats > Dogs
Weather: It’s dark outside, I’ll let you know.
The reason Veliko Tarnovo is on our itinerary is because it was listed as a stop on our Bosfor Express train timetable, because it was roughly in the middle of Bulgaria, and because Sofia was too much of a detour. A lot of the research for this trip was done in a hurry as this has been a bit of a last minute adventure, so I’m ashamed to say I’d never even heard of Veliko beforehand (having said that, no-one I mentioned it to in the UK before leaving had heard of it either).
But oh my goodness am I glad the Bosfor express stops there! VT, as the locals often refer to it, has been the most peaceful, tranquil and picturesque stop on our journey. The old town, where we’re told everything is (the new town is nice but mainly just residential), is made up of a mediaeval fortress, monasteries and churches, and higgledy piggledy hillside homes, cafes and shops, interspersed with firs and what I like to think could be olive trees. Oh and lots and lots of grubby stray cats, plus the odd stray dog.
There’s a very Mediterranean feel to it – well, what I imagine a sleepy Mediterranean town to look and feel like, as I’ve never been, unless you count four days in Barcelona one October when the nearest we got to the sea was the cocktail bar.
VT is set at the foot of the Balkan mountains, with houses nestled into the hillside that twists round the Yantra river flowing through the tree-lined valley in the middle of the city. In the summer we’re told, it’s impossible to see the river as there are so many trees and plants making the place green and vibrant.
Greek and Turkish influences in the architecture are obvious – the cyrillic script was based on the Greek alphabet, and in fact VT was initially a Thracian settlement, then Slavic, then Byzantine, before Veliko Tarnovo was crowned the capital of Bulgaria when Bulgaria was independent in the 13th and 14th centuries. There is an evocative mediaeval fortress, Tsaravets, whose current incarnation dates from this time, and no shortage of monasteries. I had an entertaining morning exploring the ruins, which have loads of precarious ladders provided with refreshingly no more health and safety provision that some notices telling you to be careful.
There’s a long history of invasion and occupation in Bulgaria, and our English speaking Bulgarian friends at the hostel explained how the most hated period was the harsh Ottoman occupation, or enslavement as it’s generally known in Bulgaria. It only ended in the late 1800s after 500 years, thanks to revolutionaries like national hero Vassil Levski, who was hanged for his part in orchestrating the revolution. There’s a statue to him in Veliko, which we found by accident but worked out who it was by deciphering the cyrillic inscription, a bit of an achievement for us after less than 24 hours in Bulgaria!
The Bulgarians here cheerfully mind their own business, and don’t seem suspicious of us or annoyed that tourists are in town. I wonder if this might be because Veliko is so off the beaten track and poorly served (by Western standards) by public transport, that they know we’re here because we’re interested, and not because we want to invade their way of life – or whether it’s just a natural Bulgarian tendency to take everything in their stride. Everyone we’ve met has been friendly and even though only a very few have spoken English (and we have only managed to learn yes, no, hello, thankyou and goodbye in Bulgarian in our 2 days here), we’ve had some genial, if confused exchanges.
One oddity about Bulgaria which adds to the confusion, is how they shake their heads for yes and nod for no. One of our new hostel friends, the lovely Elena from Sofia, explains it’s quite easy for her and most Bulgarians to switch though, and that we will probably still be understood – but when we go into a shop to see if they have something, this still doesn’t stop me thinking for a good few seconds that we’re being told it’s not possible, like a dodgy car mechanic trying telling you how much your repairs will be. Nor does it stop me nodding my head eagerly when we’ve managed to explain to someone what we want, and then being given the wrong thing after all!
We did manage to sample some traditional Bulgarian food though, including salad (extremely popular here in Bulgaria – we had the staple Shopska variety), a huge portion of Tsatch, a meaty cheesy vegetably dish (you choose what exactly), brought to your table still sizzling in Tsatch (the heavy iron plate it was baked in) – and of course some Bulgarian red wine, served with a lemon!
We also tried the Banitsa (a cheesy pastry), the Aryan (a drink which comes from Turkey originally made from the traditional Bulgarian runny yoghurt, which tastes, funnily enough, like liquid natural yoghurt) and the revolting-looking Boza (also Turkish in origin), which despite looking rather like runny vomit, is actually a sweet suspension of what tastes like ground up Rich Tea Biscuits.
For now I’ll leave you with some pictures of this breathtaking and slow-paced city (not that I think my photos do it justice), including some snaps of the “most romantic street in Europe” Gurko, a narrow winding cobbled street with rustic houses and drinking fountains, all overlooking the valley memorial park.
Days since leaving the UK: 10
Kilometres travelled so far by main train journeys: still 2959
Countries travelled through so far: 8
Cities visited: 8
Stray animals: Cats > dogs
Weather: Snow on the ground but sun in the sky!
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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