Train Tours Around Eastern Europe
This is more an account of several train tours undertaken between 2006 and 2014, some of which are featured in my book about train tours in the Balkans.
2006, Istanbul – Thessaloniki – Meteora – Skopje – Lake Ohrid – Nis – Sofia
We were due to take a October train across Turkey to Syria, but had to postpone that due to violence in Lebanon, so travelled West from Istanbul instead on an overnight train. Having taking a side trip from Greece’s second city to the amazing monasteries of Meteora, we returned to the waterfront city for Greece’s Oxi (No) day parades.
From there we took another train to the capital of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (now officially North Macedonia), followed by a bus trip to beautiful Lake Ohrid situated very close to the Albanian border, back north to Nis in Serbia and finally we undertook the coldest train journey west of Siberia, on to Sofia.
A splendid two weeks where we were also introduced to the finest dark beer we had (and still have) ever tasted, called, Nikšićko brewed in Montenegro.
The trip did have a few dramas, including nearly freezing to death on the train from Nis to Sofia. The train was six hours late and the heating & lighting both packed up. With sub-zero temperatures outside, we were soon wearing almost the entire contents of our rucksacks to try and stay warm!
This reminds me, packing the right stuff for your trip is absolutely vital. Forgetting your thermals in Siberia or your jar of peanut butter anywhere, can be the stuff of nightmares!
Check out this handy packing advice from foreign lemonade.
2007 Albania (Tirana, Durres, Shkodra) – Kosovo (car) – Montenegro (Bar, Podgorica, Kotor) – Dubrovnik (bus) – Mostar (bus)
This was one of the most eagerly awaited trips ever, such was the mystique that Albania conjured as I was growing up. We were not to be disappointed with the country providing some fabulous memories (and Korca, the second best dark beer ever!).
The amazing day trip to Kosovo, the awesome setting of Kotor, the beauty of Dubrovnik and the historic bridge and river setting of Mostar made the whole trip wonderful. I recommend all of it!
2011 Budapest – Bucharest – Chisinau – Odessa – Sevastopol – Lviv – Kiev
The main thrust of this journey was Ukraine (as it all undisputedly was back then), but as ever we made a meal of getting there via the capitals of Hungary, Romania and Moldova, including two memorable overnight journeys.
The Crimea and the the northern cities of Lviv & Kiev were all superb. The 27 hour journey from Sevastopol to Lviv becoming my longest ever journey (just eclipsing Narvik to Nice).
The absolute highlight was the visit to the former nuclear submarine base at Balaklava – a boy’s own experience if ever there was one.
2012 Zagreb – Split – Ploce (bus) – Sarajevo – Belgrade – Sofia – Veliko Tărnovo
Our trip started in the Croatian capital and ended with the Bulgarian version via Bosnia’s & Serbia’s premier cities.
The Adriatic city of Split and the charming Bulgarian town of Veliko Tarnovo were brilliant places to visit, but Sarajevo was top of the pile.
Europe’s Jerusalem as Sarajevo is known has recovered physically if not yet mentally from the atrocities of the ’90s and once more one of Europe’s foremost old towns, where churches, synagogues and mosques all stand in close proximity is bustling again.
Veliko Tărnovo is home to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Tsarevets, a mediaeval fortification complex, whilst the iconic waterfront and old town of Split offer a great short break, easily coupled with the likes of Dubrovnik or Ljubljana as well as Zagreb.
2013 Gdansk – Kaliningrad (bus) – Minsk – Vilnius
From the historic shipyards of Gdansk with its fine cobbled centre, we took a bus over the border to Russia. That is to the enclave of Kaliningrad, home of the Great Bear’s Baltic fleet. It was an unusual place most memorable for its maritime museum complete with foxtrot submarine that you were allowed to clamber around.
From there we took a twelve hour train journey to Minsk in Belarus via Lithuania. Minsk felt very Soviet and certainly dealing with officialdom seemed is difficult as it had ever been. The visit to the state circus was a highlight, as were the fab statues that fronted the circus building.
We finished with a night in Vilnius for a whistle stop tour of the Baltic state, a fitting end to another great trip.
2014 Istanbul – Erzurum – Batumi (Georgia – bus) – Yerevan – Tbilisi
Once more we found ourselves in Turkey’s best known city. This time we stayed on the Asian side in Pendik, meaning that we took the new train under the Bosphorus.
The journey east via Ankara to the Kurdish part of Turkey was an epic train ride, featuring one of my favourite venues in the world – a restaurant car!
From Erzurum we took a bus to Hopa on the Black Sea and then a taxi to the Georgian border, where we walked into our latest new country.
Batumi itself has more rainfall than Iceland and sure enough it tipped down for our entire stay. The coastal resort is still remarkably popular despite the precipitation.
From there we took an overnight train to Yerevan in Armenia via Tbilisi. We shared our train compartment with a blind cat for part of the way, one of our more unusual travelling companions.
Both Yerevan and Tbilisi and their environs were all really wonderful and definitely worth the effort of a visit. We flew home via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines.
The whole region is perfect to visit by train and brilliant value for money. If you do, downloading my book could be an excellent accompaniment.
Travelling By Train Across The Balkans
My book featuring more details about some of the journeys mentioned as well as many more are contained in my book available on Amazon.
“Archduke Ferdinand’s Least Favourite Bridge” – Hehe, Love this.
Balkans and Caucuses are on my list after things open up. I prefer trains although I’ve heard it’s better to use car in Balkans. Also, hope the current Armenia-Azerbaijan war doesn’t escalate.
All fabulous places to visit, albeit with an undercurrent of old tensions. Train for sure – slower than road but a brilliant throwback experience. NK dispute will never be solved and will flare up from time to time but hopefully no escalation as you say.