Disorient Express, Fourth Leg: Bucharest to Venice

OK, here’s where it gets?really?interesting.

Up until now, we’ve been passing through political boundaries with much of the heat taken out of them. The westernmost countries of the old Eastern Bloc (Hungary, Czech Republic) feel part of ‘old Europe’ again, while Romania and Bulgaria are now EU members and, whatever the Daily Mail would have you think, firmly within the Brussels sphere of influence, with all that that entails. I’m sure these countries have problems which dwarf anything in Britain – but blood-drenched borders and bitter sectarian memories don’t seem to be part of them.

But now we’re heading into the Balkans, and railway connections and railway timetables start to be bound together with national identities and complicated historical narratives. We did hope at one point to get to Istanbul, but this seems to be a trip that is getting harder to make. As it is we have to get a train from Bucharest to Sofia which started in Moscow, but which doesn’t seem to appear on any railway timetable.

But, wow. A train from Moscow to Sofia via Bucharest. It’s Murder on the Orient Express rewritten by Le Carr?.

So, fingers crossed.?We’re into our second week, climbing on a sleep train south to:

Sofia (City 19)

We arrive, hopefully, in Sofia on?Sunday July 14th.?And now a combination of timetables, route disjunctions and who-knows-what cross-boundary disputes mean our rail circuit is broken. It happened to us before, in Narvik, but now we’ve got to take another bus: four hours, southwestish into

Skopje (City 20)

Now things get really complicated.?We’re tip-toeing through boundaries and governments which are at best freshly-minted, at worst ancient and venomous. Even the name of the country we’re now travelling through – Macedonia – is the subject of fierce international debate and disagreement.

We always knew the Balkans were going to be a tricky proposition, and that was only confirmed when the 2013 railway timetables finally came out and it transpired that Croatia had dropped several significant international rail services. Here’s how?Mark, our team leader and the creator of this odyssey, has described this on the main GCERC website:

The 451 service direct from Belgrade to Sarajevo has, as a result of the Croatian Railways policy of abandoning international rail services, been cancelled. Croatia is unique in having a border with Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia and Bosnia, and has more Adriatic coastline than the rest of the Balkans combined. It?s also due to become a full member of the EU the week before we start our journey next year. I don?t know how much the process of joining the EU is forcing Croatia to slash over half of it?s international rail services, but it?s a sorry state of affairs and one which will cause extreme difficulties across the region and especially for Bosnia. All of Bosnia?s railways have to travel over the Croat border to get out of the country. There are now no trains running up the Bosna valley into the country, and the services from Budapest and Belgrade have been chopped. It?s hardly the kind of action that is likely to improve relations and foster peace between these once brotherly members of the former Yugoslavia.

The Belgrade-Sarajevo train was a dusty old two carriage affair, used by locals travelling only sections of it, and the occasional tourist. It took longer, and for anyone buying a single ticket cost more, than catching a bus. The road journey between the Serbian and Bosnian capitals sounds tedious in the extreme, so I have been left with the problem of trying to do as much of the route by train while sticking to the schedule. My cunning plan is to catch the train to Podgorica (one of only a handful of capitals we couldn?t manage to squeeze into 2 weeks) and jump ship at Uzice, or possibly Branesci a little further along. The scheduled bus service from there to Sarajevo left hours beforehand, so if you take this route you?ll need to get private transport. With our group that?s quite feasible, and a bus will be waiting for us.

So here’s a summary of the next few days –

  • leave Skopje at 20.10 on Sunday July 14th, via sleeper
  • arrive?Belgrade (City 21) on morning of Monday July 15th
  • leave Belgrade on train to Uzice
  • take a bus to Sargan Vitasi
  • train from Sargan Vitasi to Mokra Gora (of which more in a second)
  • bus to?Sarajevo (City 22)

Got that? I’m not at all sure I have. But whatever happens, these transborder shenanigans open up a little treat of a train ride for engine buffs:?a mountain narrow-gauge railway with the rather magnificent name of ?argan 8.?The line was actually closed in 1974, and in the 1980s they even built a reservoir ?in its path near Uzice (which is why we need to take a bus from Uzice now), but in the 1990s they restored the most famous section of the line, between ??argan Vitasi and Mokra Gora. There are no ?regular scheduled services on the western end beyond Mokra Gora, which actually crosses the Serb-Bosnian border at Vardiste – and team leader Mark is still making noises about ‘hiring our own train’ for that bit.

Right. Phew. We’re in Sarajevo for a night. Not a bad town in which to spend the night, so I’m told. And after the craziness of the Sunday,?Tuesday July 17th seems a bit calmer, though still involves buses as well as trains.

First, we take a train from Sarajevo to Ploce.??Then, we take a bus from Ploce to?Split (City 23), and we’re at the Mediterranean for the first time. I reckon that’s our third sea, after the North Sea and the Baltic, and we were only a few hundred miles from the Black Sea, too.

We’ve got a really nice few hours in Split to dip our toes in the Med, before we get onto another sleeper train. Overnight, this will take us to

Zagreb (City 24)

We arrive in Zagreb early in the morning of?Wednesday July 18th. There then follows another crazy day of connections – although we’ve left our last bus behind, and it’s only iron horses from here.

First is Zagreb-Sevnice, a matter of an hour or so.

Then it’s Sevnice to?Ljubljana?(City 25), as we cross into Slovenia. But we’ve got less than an hour here.

Then we’re onto a train from Ljubljana to Jesenice.

Then Jesenice to Nova Gorica. But the next train is from Gorizia which – and I didn’t know this – is part of a common municipality with Nova Gorica, but Nova Gorica is in Slovenia and Gorizia is in Italy. Sometimes you have to tip your hat to Europe. Imagine: the Iron Curtain once went through the middle of this municipality (sort of – Yugoslavia was always peeping out from the curtain).

Then Gorizia Centrale to – wait for it – Venice (City 26).

We have a night in Venice. Oh yes. And I think we’ve earned it.

If you’ve read this far, my admiration. But at least I think I’ve got?my head around it now. I’ll leave us there in the old Republic of Venice, having crossed from the old Eastern Roman Empire into the Western Empire. The history is just as ancient, but perhaps not as raw.

Boilerplate: Find out more about Disorient Express at?GCERC HQ. Follow us on?Facebook,?Tumblr?and?Twitter.

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