The need for speed has seen Europe investing for many years now in ultra-modern rail networks with state-of-the-art trains running on them.
The likes of the TGVs (Train à Grande Vitesse) of France, ICE (Intercity Express) trains of Germany, Austria, Switzerland etc. and Spain’s AVEs (Alta Velocidad Española).
The UK is also now catching up with HS1 & 2 networks and London North Eastern Railway’s Azuma trains.
As a result, speeds of up to 250 km/h are achievable fairly commonly across Western Europe.
Not so in the east of the continent, very notably in the Balkans. Refreshingly so in my opinion.
Diesel monsters roar and trundle reliably along the tracks of Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro, in Albania trains often seem not to run at all, in Kosovo just a single train runs twice daily from the capital Pristina towards the border with North Macedonia.
Not very environmentally friendly, not always overly reliable or comfortable for that matter, but a real throwback to that post-steam, pre-electric era of train travel. I love it!
Having ridden the rails many times over the years in the often volatile but always amazing region, I decided to write a book about it. My most memorable journeys have included:
Tirana to Durres, Albania
I undertook this journey in 2007 from the now defunct Tirana Central Station. Despite being only 72km, the journey to Albania’s second city situated on the Adriatic Coast, took over an hour.
Just being on a train in Albania was all the excitement I needed however. Sadly I was unable to repeat it during a 2017 visit as despite positive noises being made, there has been no move on building a new Tirania Central and all trains in the country were not operating at that time.
Pristina to Hani-i-Elezit
My 2017 trip from Kosovo was supposed to take me to Skopje, but for operational reasons it came to an abrupt halt at the nondescript border town.
We travelled on a pretty dilapidated train with hard seats and zero frills, but again loved the fact that we were moving slowly on a train in the fledgling independent nation.
70km was completed in a tad under two hours this time at an average speed of around 36 km/h.
Nis to Sofia
The 2006 journey from Serbia to Bulgaria is undoubtedly the most tortuous train journey of my life.
Faulty electronics, an incompetent train crew and sub-zero external temperatures meant that we arrived in the Bulgarian capital six hours late in the pitch black whilst we displayed the early signs of hyperthermia!
Istanbul to Thessaloniki
My first overnight train journey in the Balkans was on a route sadly no longer running. Apparently this has nothing to do with Greek-Turkish relations and is purely down to economics.
This is a great shame as the 2006 journey between the two magnificent cities was brilliant and gave us plenty of opportunity to drink dark beer and talk all things train travel.
Zagreb to Split
The 2014 overnight train journey within Croatia was memorable taking us from Croatia’s capital to the ancient city on the Dalmatian Coast. This was a special arrival as we pulled into the station by the sea on a beautiful morning.
Coffee & croissants in a small cafe by the water’s edge left us in no hurry to go and find our old town hotel. Just as well that we got refreshment as it took us ages to find our accommodation in the labyrinth of narrow streets that make up Split old town.
Skopje to Belgrade
2017 Skopje is massively different to 2006 Skopje. Back then the city was a pleasant if unremarkable place with a single ancient stone footbridge across the Vardar River. Nowadays it is a bling capital with more footbridges, statues, lampposts and hideously grandiose buildings than is tastefully good for it.
We couldn’t get out quick enough, pleasingly waking up to the sight of Belgrade’s wonderful old central station. Sadly the great building has been pensioned off in favour of a new out of town version.
Nothing is forever. I urge you to take some trains in the Balkans before it is all sanitised and the nostalgia lost.
You can read about my journeys by train and other transport across the whole of the region in my book ‘Travelling By Train Across The Balkans’ available as an e-book or paperback on Amazon.