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Europe by Rail: Balkan images

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Mosque and minaret in Baščaršija, the Old Town of Sarajevo (photo © Xseon / istockphoto.com).


hidden europe editors Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries showcase a new book which they have edited. Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers was published in March 2011. This well-established title from Thomas Cook Publishing now has a very new look, and here the editors present extracts from a Balkan rail journey that features in the book.

Thomas Cook Publishing this month released ‘Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers’, a 704 page volume that explores fifty very varied rail routes around Europe. This is a wellestablished book, but one which now has a very new look with the geographical coverage much extended to include new routes in central Europe, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union. As editors of this new edition, a task that nicely complements our work with hidden europe, we have selected, researched and written the many new routes that feature in the book. In this special article for hidden europe, we give the flavour of Europe by Rail with some abbreviated extracts from two of the routes in the 2011 edition of the book. You will not find the detail here that accompanies these same routes in the volume. For example the book’s description of Belgrade (which was researched and written for us by Paul Scraton) runs to a full six pages.

Our sample journey is from Budapest to Dubrovnik, and takes in two of the fifty routes in the book (viz. Route 42 from Budapest to Belgrade and Route 44 from Belgrade to Dubrovnik). With four countries along the way (Hungary, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina), this is a route that could easily be spun out to a week’s travelling. The following cities would make great places to break the journey for a night or more: Subotica, Novi Sad, Belgrade, Sarajevo and Mostar. This need not be an expensive journey. Using completely flexible oneway tickets for the entire journey, valid without restriction for a month, you could travel by train from Budapest to Ploce (on the coast of Croatia), using the route we describe here, for just €93 — not bad for a rail journey of over 1000 km. You can stop off along the way and hop on and off trains at will. For travellers making return journeys, and especially groups of two or more, cheap deals are available that will considerably reduce travel costs.

In the book, you will find a wealth of additional detail, including recommendations for accommodation at a variety of price levels. We include a good mix, ranging from great value independent hostels to stylish boutique hotels, emphasising where we can smaller independently- owned and managed properties that have local character. We also advise on museum and gallery opening times. Merely in the interests of space, we have excluded these more factual details from this feature for hidden europe. — Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

Part One: Extracts from Rail Route 42

Two Danube capitals and the Vojvodina

This is one of the shortest routes in Europe by Rail, but it is nonetheless a key link in Europe’s rail network. For travellers bound for the Balkans from western or central Europe, the 350 km hop from the Hungarian capital to Belgrade is a standard leg in many itineraries.

Leon Trotsky travelled on this line to Belgrade in 1912, when he was heading south to report on the Balkan Wars. He nicely captured the essence of the journey with the observation in his diary that “although the railway line from Budapest to Belgrade proceeds mainly in a southerly direction, from the cultural standpoint one moves eastward.” Trotsky went on to remark on the multilingual and motley kaleidoscope of cultures that he saw as his train paused at remote wayside stations along the route.

This is not a route that wins any prizes for dramatic scenery. It traverses landscapes that are often pancake flat. The Pannonian Plain is the dried-up bed of a vast inland sea that once lay between the Carpathian mountains and the uplands of southern Serbia. Despite the unremarkable scenery, this route is very interesting, mainly on account of the changing cultural landscapes. Our favourite section is without doubt the two-hour stretch from the Serbian border south to Novi Sad through the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina. Although the route has Danubian landscapes aplenty, you will not see much of the river itself, but there is a dramatic crossing of the Danube at Novi Sad.

With a choice of one night- and two daytime direct trains on the route, we would strongly suggest making the journey by day, ideally using the trains which in each direction leave at about 10 in the morning. These are train numbers 342 (southbound) and 343 (northbound), both named after Ivo Andri?, the Nobel Prize-winning author whose prose so vividly captured life and culture in Yugoslavia. These trains are not great international expresses, but they are full of local character. Both services are usually composed of just a couple of Hungarian through carriages that crawl rather than dash between the two capitals with two dozen stops along the way.

South from Budapest

Heading south from Budapest, you might well wonder why Hungarians refer to this great plain as puszta, a term that has only derisory connotations. This is no arid wasteland at all, but a varied landscape with areas of productive farmland, prairie-like grasslands, forests and great saline depressions, often filled with brackish waters. There is something of the Hungarian soul in these sweeping landscapes. They have inspired Csontváry’s art and Sándor Petöfi’s poetry.