I’ve missed a day of the journey due to a combination of 02 price gouging on data roaming and lack of power in ancient Balkan carriages. I’m now sitting in an Austrian train carriage in Zagreb station on a train which ultimately goes to Vienna but which well jump off at Sevnica. Tonight we’ll be in Venice, and in tourist terms this trip goes supernova. Venice then Rome then the Swiss Alps then Barcelona and on and on and on.
On paper, we’ve just chiselled our way through the Balkans. That at least was how we thought about that leg when we were still in England. A complicated interlacing of ancient trains and private buses and obscure hostels appeared, before we left, to be an unenjoyable exercise in meeting deadlines and adopting Plans B when those deadlines were missed.
This, as it turned out, was a miserly undertelling of the Balkans. From the moment we pulled out of Sofia we’ve seen some of the most soaring scenery Europe has to offer, and this was a total surprise, at least to me. Bosnia in particular is astonishingly beautiful. Yesterday we took a train from Sarajevo to Ploce which climbed up through mountains which were as eye-melting as anything in the Alps. A blue-green river, dammed up in places, was our travelling companion, and in the places where reservoirs had been collected the locals had built pretty little floating houses. As our train passed I looked down on a rib making its way to one of these water-dwellings, its engine carving a great arc in the blue-green surface.
But there was always a disjunction between the splendour of the scenery and the poverty of the country. The carriage we were in was an old Swedish one, donated by the Swedes to the Bosnians, and it reminded me of an old cinema badly needing a bit of love.
Sarajevo was a busy and charming place, where we ate kebabs and mezze in a little square. Minarets were everywhere, and as we walked back to our hostel we passed hundreds of locals at prayer in front of a mosque, women to the left and men to the right. We raised our cameras and then brought them down again, oddly respectful of the ceremony.
Yesterday we reached Split via the train from Sarajevo and a coach ride up the Dalmatian coast from Ploce. The insane internal architecture of the western Balkans presented itself more powerfully than any map could have done. Bosnia stops at the last ridge of mountains before the coast, and the strip of land between these and the sea is Croatia. The only access Bosnia has to the sea is via that same river we’d followed through the mountains, now broad and flat and Bosnian out to the sea but lined with Croatian flags to remind anyone using this corridor by whose authority it was permitted.
We took a coach from Ploce north. This politically laughable ribbon of country can’t accommodate a railway line; all it can squeeze in between Ploce and Split is half-a-dozen holiday communities and astonishing views. This coast is Southern Europe’s equivalent to the Norwegian fjords – a landscape of drowned mountains, such that from the coastal road one looks west towards overlapping islands and dozens and dozens of yachts.
Those yachts demonstrate the other line you cross as you leave Bosnia, because this ribbon of land on the western side of the Bosnian mountains is of course in the European Union. Within only a mile or two the roads are smoother, the houses sharper-edged and whole-roofed, the cars shinier and the bellies rounder. Croatia, compared to the countries we’ve left behind us, is rich.
We had an afternoon in Split, at the point where the mountains dwindle into the hills in the north. We sat by the sea and went swimming and walked through the extraordinary skeleton of Diocletian’s palace, now rammed to the capitals with souvenir tat and beautiful nonetheless. Then we climbed onto a Croatian sleeper towards Zagreb: three couchettes to a room, hot-and-cold running water, firm mattresses. But the Balkans still had a last flavour of splendour for us: the sun set and the train pulled away and up into the bare hills above Split, and looking out of the window we could see the engine mazing its way through rocks, its light picking out caves and boulders, and for a moment we were riding through the old Wild West, anxiously waiting for Butch Cassidy to bring his gang down on top of us and steal our iPhones.
It’s now the morning after all that. We’re heading into the Julian Alps, and all being well we arrive tonight at the Doge of all tourist destinations: Venice.