The Balkans

May 23rd – June 9th 2007

Richard Hingley, Mike Simpson, Nick Kelly, Tim Lockley

Introduction

As with previous reports this is a diary done (more or less) at the time with some later updates. This trip was intended as a part grice part tourist trip around Greece followed by a trans-Europe train journey.

Wednesday May 23rd

Not strictly part of the tour but left work via a lift to Ashford intending to meet Mike and Tim in London en-route to my parents home in St Albans only to find a line-side fire in south London was causing everything to run late and be diverted into Victoria, so despite leaving much earlier than Mike left Bristol I was the last to Kings Cross by a good half hour having reached there via the Northern line from Balham.

Thursday May 24th

Up early for an 08:30 flight from Luton, somewhat late due to plane loading issues so we finally rolled up in Athens at around 3pm. As hotels in Athens were rather expensive we stayed in the Hotel Triton in Piraeus which was said to be ‘right in front’ of the station but turned out to be down a side street two blocks away which we only found after circumnavigating the station in the rain. Hotel is pretty good although the area is noisy. Dinner in a café by one of the ferry terminals – lukewarm meatballs, not to be recommended.

Friday May 25th

Nick went to the OSE office to try to get a photo permit, despite faxing them they were not done and the man is away so they are supposed to be faxed to us on Tuesday. Mike, Nick and Tim needed rail-passes (I just got mine in time from Railchoice before we left which turned out to be a mistake as they are EUR100 cheaper here). The office that sells them only opens in the afternoon/ evening so we went round the major tourist sites first and also to the extremities of the metro, the way the archaeology has been preserved and displayed at some of the stations is extremely impressive. Lunch was very decent in a touristy place just outside the ruins.


Narrow gauge in the strangest places (part of the restoration work)

Saturday May 26th

To the Athens railway museum – not particularly easy to find, take the metro to Attici then a bus along the main road due south (towards the main station, over a level crossing on the left - if you cross the line you have gone to far). They do not allow photography; which seems daft. Nick still needed a railpass and we tried to book a sleeper for Sofia on Tuesday/Wednesday (why these are not on-line booked these days seems daft) but it was full (there is only one through coach). We had to settle for a sleeper to Thessalonica and seated thereafter (not too bad although the 05:30 change is annoying, pity the helpful guy in the foreign tickets office as a steady flow of people ask for things he has not got). We also had to book the IC trains on the Pelopensse, which took a while (Athens station is rather confusing with no electronic ticket issue and five or six different offices for specific areas). We returned via the tramway along the coast – this runs through some very pleasant suburbs and along the sea before connecting with the metro or a trolleybus back to Piraeus.


New tramway - very good and well integrated with the older transport

We had seen earlier the very pretty bay behind the grot of Piraeus so we headed for this (no 20 trolleybus from Piraeus) to eat (it is lined with restaurants), the one we ended up in is the last one on the Athens side (I forget the name) and served superb (if expensive) seafood in a lovely setting as the evening slowly came down over the bay.


This looked even better as the sun went down, too busy eating to phot it!

Sunday May 27th

First to the maritime museum (on the tram, Trocadero stop) this has the G. Averoff a preserved heavy cruiser (almost a battleship) built in 1911 and very well presented (you need a guide to go down the engine room and there was none, sadly). There is also an ex-American WWII destroyer (the Volos, originally the Charette) who’s main claim to fame is a pro-democracy protest in 1973.

 
The G. Averoff


The Volos

From here we went back into the city and did the last little bit of the metro we were unable to do due to engineering works earlier in the week. We then went up the funicular for the best view in Athens that was pretty spectacular. It would help if it actually started from the bottom of the hill instead of half way up though.  


Worth the climb

For the sake of the view we went back on the tram and there was just time to gab a sunset shot of the Acropolis


Grab shot but we got away with it

Monday May 28th

We had intended to go up to Kalavrita on the rack railway (acknowledged as the most scenic in Greece but arrived at Diakophto to find it shut. We had had rather contradictory reports in Athens but it turns out to have closed for bridge repairs in April and is also to have the rack replaced (the gap may result in a brief re-opening, no one knows). OSE have made no effort to remove the line from the timetable (printed or on-line) and only a notice in the booking office in Diakophto gives minimal information (no reopening date but said to be one month for the bridge works, one year for the rack). No bus or taxi is provided which is pathetic. The standard of OSE information generally seems very poor – the on-line timetable does not show replacement bus services that are running, while the paper one shows services to Piraeus that cannot possibly run as the line is lifted for rebuilding! Luckily we found a hotel fairly close to the station and the one we were booked in accepted our cancellation by phone. It also appears that nothing loco-hauled runs on the narrow gauge anymore, with some suburban units displaced from Athens running on the IC diagrams.


Diakophto station

Just to see what we missed we walked out of town on the rack route and it seems every bit as impressive as advertised even on the adhesion section.


Silly shot of the moon while trying to walk back down the track in the dark

Dinner was in a point and eat place just off where the rack line enters the town.

Tuesday May 29th

More bad news – the depot photo permits have been refused (no reason given). We headed to the current head of steel at Kalamata during which the guard objected to us taking scenic photos out of the window (no idea if these events are related but this is absurd in a tourist area).


One of the damaged locos

The locomotive park at Kalamata (follow the harbour line from the current terminus) has been horrifically vandalized which is a shame as the exhibits are interesting. The crew on the way back did not seem to give a sod what anyone photographed and we were not the only ones doing so.


Quite what was wrong with taking this....

To allow us to do the Olympia branch (Katakolo will have to wait as the timetable is not very convenient) we stayed in Pirgos where the first hotel we saw near the station seems fine (other than the sleeper nothing else is booked).

Wednesday May 30th

There seem to be little used (but in good condition) locos all over the place and some freight still working but all the loco-hauled passenger stock we saw was derelict. this example with very long dumped steam loco behind is at Pirgos.


Example with very long dumped steam loco behind at Pirgos

A delayed run up the Olympia branch (the train was full of people who had been to the market and lost time at the station stops) left us reaching the junction just behind the Corinth train we needed but the crew arranged for the connection to happen at the junction (there is a platform there presumably for that purpose).


Olympia

The journey to Corinth was uneventful but the alleged Loutraki train running on the old narrow gauge route did not exist. The mixed gauge section of the new line involves wrong direction running so this might be a nightmare to operate, the third rail looks used however and there is an overnight train on the old route that was shown on the boards at Pirgos. This meant getting back to Athens via an airport train and the metro (luckily we still had valid tickets as they last a week). Dinner again in the touristy bit near Monastariki (just being lazy really) and just time for the changing of the guard although it was getting rather dark.


Poor shot of the guard changing

We took the night train to Thessalonika (pity really as the main line is scenic and Tim and I have never done it, when awake even the view in the dark was good), rather hard going in a four-berth couchette but the whole train was booked out so there was no option.

Thursday May 31st

Thessalonika has not noticeably changed in twenty years (Mike and I were stuck here overnight in 1989 on the way back from Turkey), there were less dumped kettles however (I recall a whole line of USA tanks)

 
Thessalonika first thing in the morning

The Sofia train turned out to be a three-coach affair (one first, one second and the sleeper, no buffet), which was not especially full in seated, a pretty good run trundling along mostly single track with plenty of scenery. We spent the traditional hour and a half at the border before crawling into a rain-soaked Sofia an hour or more down. After a pit stop (pizza with ketchup) we headed to Plovdiv (nicer city and nearer the narrow gauge), finally rolling up around 6pm after approaching 36 hours on the move. The first class coach on this train was like something from the 30s with pleated back seats and monogrammed carpets.


Not what you would expect in Bulgaria

The hotel just across from the station is cheap (80.8lv the lot or about £7.50 each) but they were nearly full and a double room with sofa bed is not really enough for the four of us. Dinner in an Italian restaurant just off the city square once we found a cash machine that worked.


City square fountains

Friday June 1st

We moved up the road to the Hotel Leipzig (ex communist high-rise but refurbished to a fairly high standard and a much better bet, even with a view of the city-centre quarry that was once a hill!).


Our view!

Nick spent most of the day riding trolley-busses while the rest of us wandered round the very nice old town.


Plovdiv old town


In the afternoon a short photting session at the station (no one seemed to care what we did) in very nice light.

Then to a Chinese across the road from the hotel, that seemed absurdly cheap but good.

Saturday June 2nd

To Bansko on the narrow gauge (the first class to the junction was more 1980s this time and Nick caught an earlier train that was through from Istanbul and reckoned this was very grotty).


Shunter at Septemveri

The narrow gauge from Septemveri is a fantastically scenic 750mm line, which is over 100km long and takes five hours including three spirals. This line is a real period piece – fully manned stations, loco hauled (mixture of 1960s German and 1980s Romanian), the incoming train seemed to have been double-headed too. Also has the hole in the floor karzi and upright seats of course…. There are two semi-preserved locos at Bansko, plus a railcar that looks pre-WWII, one of the gaurds told us later that there is a working steam loco kept for specials at Septemveri although it does not work up the steepest part of the route.  


Bansko rolling stock collection (intention or just left here?, someone cares enough to paint them at least)

The town at Bansko is split almost in two – a half finished ski resort higher up and an older town below, after a couple of false starts we found a hotel in the centre of the older part (this is very off season and many things are shut). A touristy restaurant supplied a meat hot pot (recognisable items rabbit, chicken and lamb), which was pretty nice but rather lacking in vegetables.

Sunday June 3rd

All sorts of noise outside turned out to be a Sunday market being set up – handy as the hotel does not do breakfast and the burger stall was thus useful.


Sunday market - cow bells here, mobile phones on the next stall

A walk up through the ski part found it mainly shut (the cabin lift was not running).


New part of Bansko

An afternoon run took us to the terminus at Dobrishenti then back to a random halt (not sure of the name, the station name-board was in Cyrillic only).


Luckily it stopped raining for this

Here we waited for the incoming train for a phot and ride up to the terminus again in rather poor weather with thunderstorms coming off the mountains.


But when it did rain it did it properly

Monday June 4th 

Another very long day – first the narrow gauge back to Septemveri then what turned out to be a very tatty Russian-built unit on a local (stopping at every bush) back to Sofia, which distinguished itself by catching fire and blocking the main line for an hour


Narrow gauge trains crossing

. We were pulled clear by the diesel off a coal train running the other way and an express then passed us (annoying as it could have stopped for Sofia passengers).


Should have taken the narrow gauge guard's advice and waited for this

They must have isolated the fault as the unit then continued into Sofia where we noted some arrivals showing 120 minute delays probably down to our failure. This still gave plenty of time for the Rila Bureau to book us tickets on the sleeper to Belgrade, dinner however was constrained to a pizza just outside the station.  There was however some time to phot the very well restored narrow gauge loco and coach on the station (there is a before picture showing how decayed they were) and a selection of random trams outside.


A decent plinth for once


Nightfall in Sofia

Tuesday June 5th

To Belgrade in a comfortable sleeper – I was last here in 1989 and little appears to have changed (the station bog is still disgusting for one thing) there is no longer an in-steam USA tank in the yard though. We lingered long enough for breakfast and booked onward to Zagreb as soon as the office opened (the rovers do not extend into Croatia).


Approaching Belgrade

This took ages as the line across the new border has not been fully repaired and we crawled for well over an hour with out the benefit of signals. Zagreb proved lovely but did cause an accommodation problem as Croatia were playing Russia and cheaper rooms were all full, after getting soaked looking we had to accept a fairly expensive 4-star Best Western option that is, however, very nice.

Wednesday June 6th

Time was getting a little short so we spent only this one day looking round Zagreb that was not really enough.

 
Zagreb - really OTT architecture here

We tried to go up the cable car but it was not running (the tram route that leads to it was also shut but with a bus alternative). The lower station of the cable car is approached through an enormous tunnel that looks like a former double track rail formation but is too steep and not obviously connected to anything; a bit of a mystery.


Zagreb tram

Quite a few trams (there is a lot of variety here) were bashed and we also had a long stroll round the upper old town at the top of the funicular and an evening session on the station.


Zagreb furnicular


 
In Zagreb station (we would have bashed this but no train back it appeared)

Thursday June 7th

The intention was to visit the technical museum but today is a public holiday and it was shut, leaving time for this also meant we reached Ljubljana rather late (the train was already booked) so we also lost the opportunity to visit the railway museum there.


Lake from the train window

The line in between runs along a highly scenic river with a long section of gorge and a man-made lake. The Ljubljana resort hotel (booked over the net to avoid a repeat of the Zagreb experience) is good and has a very well appointed camp site as well.  It is easy to get too once we found the right bus stop and overlooks a local line that produced a GE-hauled freight. An evening wander found the new (2006) funicular which is a similar counter balance design to the ones we saw last year in Portugal.  


Ljubljana furnicular

The castle (open late which is good), offered a good 3D virtual history presentation and stunning views (the actual castle is very odd with much modern concrete mixed with the remains).

 
Ljubljana castle

 

Dinner in a nice café/bar/club near the river, cut short by the need to get the last bus.  Interestingly there was a live band playing near the triple bridge, the occasion seeming to be win a car by who can kiss it the longest (at over 50 hours when we were there).


Ljubljana riverside

Friday June 8th

Unfortunately there is only one day train to Italy at this time of year so we had to head straight for Trieste via Monfalcone in the morning. Again we had pre-booked a hotel across from the railway station, sussing out the busses (we have no guide book for Trieste) to look at the railway museum took a while however (a minor curse on cities that don't provide any sort of bus map). Museum turned out to be shut as was the tramway to Villa Opocina (due to overhead line damage, reopens Monday), in stark contrast to OSE a proper replacement bus service was provided and the driver kindly pointed out the vintage trams in the shed at the top.


Outside the tram depot

The bus service must also be unique in that it actually reversed into the platform at the terminus. We will have to come again as the unique use of cable hauled pushers on the steep bit demands a bash.


Speed boat style tram pusher (a previous generation are in the railway museum)

We then strolled around the grand canal and the main square (fantastic in the evening light) and up to the castle before having a very nice dinner enlivened by Mike and Tim ordering what they thought was soup and getting mussels!

 
On the way to the castle

Saturday June 9th

The railway museum is volunteer run so is open on Saturday mornings and proved most interesting – as usual with such organisations this showed much more restoration required than the people involved are ever likely to have time to deliver. Some of the small relic displays and models are exceptionally good. There is no direct link to the airport by rail so we settled for a bus, this is a normal city bus and is cheap at EUR3.

CONCLUSION

A sign of the times is that this trip involved six countries and we saw not a single working steam loco throughout (having decided to avoid the IRS/LCGBs overpriced trip originally intended for the middle of the journey being the reason).  Greece was a contrast - the new line to Corinth is very impressive as are some of the new units they are using, less impressive is the level of graphiti and pathetic is the only word to describe their information - we need to return to go up the rack (and the rest of the narrow gauge if it is not simply replaced with standard without re-opening) but how will we know when it is running?

Bulgaria demands a return visit, the narrow gauge needing a car-based chasing session (it seems to follow roads pretty much all along except where it crosses to other valleys).

Things being closed has probably been more of a problem on this trip than any other, this habit of thinking museums are for kids and closing them on holidays, Saturday afternoons and Sundays has always seemed silly.  The Trieste tramway will need a visit when it runs and the town is more than nice enough to justify a weekend visit.  Similarly the Ljubljana fireless needs to be visited while it is working and again the city is more than worth a long weekend.

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