Train to Turkey - Leg 7 - Belgrade to Sofia

It’s fair to say that this is the part of the journey we were most worried about. The daily train between Serbia and Bulgaria is the one which we have invested the most research and nervous phone-checking during our trip. We even had the staff in the hotel double-check that the train is actually a real train and contacted people online who had been on it before.

We woke early that morning and taking no risks had the hotel arrange a taxi to drop us off, there is no Uber here in Serbia so it was conventional transport methods only. The driver seemed to be completely clear about our destination, but after 10 minutes we arrived at the wrong station, luckily it was on the way to where we needed to go, which was just another 10 minutes or so away.

The train to Sofia departs from a different station to the one which we arrived, I’m guessing that this is because following the closure of the older main station trains were moved elsewhere while construction on the newer station (where we arrived from Zagreb) is completed. The (presumably temporary) Topčider Station was a much smaller station seemingly in the middle of nowhere, in a big park. In our taxi we passed several backpackers who were walking, I’m glad we weren’t because the weather had now turned and it was tipping it down with rain.

Now at the right station, we paid the taxi driver in what remained of our Serbian Dinars and made our way to the station building. We were at least 30 minutes early, keen to make sure we had time to take some pictures too. Topčider is a confusing station, it doesn’t have any departure boards, it doesn’t really even have any platforms and it didn’t have many other passengers either. A few locomotives were standing in what is more of a railway yard than a station but none of them looked much like what I had seen online. A very Serbian man seemed to ask where we were going and understanding Sofia signalled us to wait here. So wait we did, in the rain.

Several other trains passed through, one magnificent blue train with steamed up windows arrived and dropped off some passengers before making its way on. The man at the station reiterated his sign language for us to remain standing where we were. Another train shunted some empty wagons around, they appeared to be vehicle carriers, a little like those used in the channel-tunnel, just much, much less fancy. Finally, our train arrived and the man at the station pointed for us to go and get on it. I’m still unsure if the man worked for the railway or whether he was just a man at the station. To our relief, the train had some paper stickers which confirmed it was ‘The Balkan’ with a destination of Sofia, Bulgaria.

We walked up and down the train, there weren’t many other passengers at this stage but they all soon started arriving. There were two carriages behind the locomotive, one was an open layout and the other was made up of compartments, much like the train from Zagreb. One of the compartments we walked past had a policeman laying down and fast asleep. We decided that we’d play it safe and sit in the open carriage. There were a few local passengers but it was mostly backpackers, there were some guys from Germany and two people from Norway (I think).

Without much fanfare at all and right on time, we got moving. Owen settled into his seat and we prepared for the long day of travel which lay before us. We slowly passed through the park and then through the suburbs of Belgrade, we were surprised at how hilly the outskirts of the city were and how quickly that it changed from city to countryside. We stopped at a local station just outside of town which again looked more like a railway yard than a station, there were old wagons, locos, cranes and all sorts. A few locals got on and a few got off, I don’t think this stop was on the schedule but I wasn’t able to note the name of the station.

Continuing on it didn’t take long before we were in the full-on countryside, the train line was effectively a straight line down to Niš in the south-east, right through the centre of the country. We passed through small villages and occasionally stopped at a station where a smartly dressed station manager would greet the train, the proceed to bang something under the carriage with what looked like a hammer on a long handle. Very few passengers on the train changed, occasionally people would get on at one remote stop and then get off at the next.

There was a conductor on the train, a very stern looking lady who shortly after leaving checked everyone’s tickets. Almost everyone has an Interrail Pass and she diligently verified that we had updated everything correctly and stamped it with her special Serbian railway stamp. After the one ticket check we never saw the conductor again, I assume she stayed on the train, but I can’t be certain. The rules on this train were a little different to those which we’d travelled on up to this point, this was the first train where smoking was acceptable. Only in the vestibule mind, but still, that’s a little unusual. Whether it’s permitted or not we weren’t sure, but it wasn’t particularly bothersome.

The landscape changed as we travelled across Serbia, there was sometimes a town with a factory of some kind, many fields and small rural villages which don’t look like they’ve changed in 100 years. We held out until 12 for lunch and then tucked into our nice cool sandwich from the cold bag. The beers were too nice and cold, we were certainly the only ones with a cold beer and I was very smug about it too. The only problem with drinking was that the toilet on this train was absolutely the worst toilet I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t far away from “The Worst Toilet in Scotland” from the movie Trainspotting. How it is possible for a toilet which is just a hole in the floor to smell as bad as it does is beyond me.

The day went quite quickly and before we knew it we were approaching the outskirts of Niš. This city was not like Belgrade, it was much smaller and clearly not as visited. To our surprise, the train hung around in Niš for about 20 minutes or so. The group of Germans which has been on the train since Belgrade had somehow managed to arrange a rendezvous with some locals who had bought them beers (the 8% variety). I don’t quite know how they achieved this, but it was pretty impressive and I was a little jealous. We were joined on the train by two french girls who appeared as if they had been travelling for several months (they needed a shower) who promptly proceeded to fall asleep. The train got moving again and to our surprise, we were reversing out of Niš, this was good news as our carriage was now at the rear of the train.

As we kept moving we passed through the stunning Sićevo Gorge where the train followed a narrow track along the Nišava river, it was absolutely brilliant! I stood by the filthy rear window to try and get a few pictures, almost all of them are completely unusable but the view was fantastic nonetheless.

As we were passing through the conductor reappeared and woke the two French girls who it turns out had no ticket and no money. I can’t quite remember what happened but I think they sort of handed over whatever they had left - a very strange situation which left the conductor quite cross.

Passing through the gorge we were on the final leg through to Sofia. About halfway through, we reached Dimitrovgrad which is the border town between Serbia and Bulgaria. We stopped at the station and were boarded by Serbian officials who collected up everyone’s passports while briefly checking the photos. Everyone on the train waited in a rather confused state hoping that we would see our passports once again. After about 15 minutes or so the men returned and in reverse order to their collection redistributed the freshly-stamped passports to passengers.

The train continued into Bulgaria where we promptly stopped once again for another passport check. Rinse and repeat of the last encounter except for this time we weren’t blessed with any ink as we had returned to an EU member state (although not in the Schengen area). At this point I think the driver swapped with the train on the other line, presumably he was from the Bulgarian State Railways rather than the Serbian counterpart.

The journey through Bulgaria to Sofia was quiet and uneventful, the train continued on and we arrived right on time, 20:30 EEST. Our 11 hour and 20 minute trip had taken us 203 miles as the crow flies from Belgrade, our longest day time train yet and we were quite tired despite having done nothing but sit down for an entire day.

Belgrade, Serbia

After spending an entire day on a train the day before we woke ready to explore the city of Belgrade. Weather was in our favour and pulling the curtains we saw everything for the first time in daylight, Europe was truly behind us, we were now in a place that neither of us were familiar, with another currency and another language - one which we had no chance in deciphering!

Outside the window of the Mercure Excelisor we were presented with the House of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia, a huge building which during WW2 is was used by the German High Command for Southern Europe - quite the building to pick! The view from the hotel was certainly better than the Ibis Budget, despite booking the cheapest room available. There were many cheaper hotels, but we thought we’d play it safe expected we’d need some proper rest.

We got ourselves ready and enjoyed the luxury of being able to leave our things in the hotel room, taking just what we needed for the day. That doesn’t sounds like a big deal, but after lugging a backpack around it really is liberating. With the confusion of the train station now behind us we thought it’d be worthwhile to walk to where we thought we were going to end up yesterday: The Main Railway Station. Turns out that is very closed and had been for the last year, the station building was in a much more central location, right on the banks of the Sava and easily accessible from most of Belgrade. The station was surrounded by plenty of traffic and of course, trams which clinked and screeched their way along the waterfront.

We headed North keeping the Sava to our left and absorbed the sights and smells. This part of the city is clearly under regeneration, there is a mix of construction and abandoned buildings, many seemed very historic but all were covered in graffiti and overgrown. We later learned that there is a significant government-led project to regenerate the waterfront, there will even be a St Regis hotel! Presumably this is the reason for closing the train station, perhaps why so many buildings were vacant too.

Continuing on we found ourselves at Kalemegdan Park, Belgrade’s most significant monument - the park is absolutely huge and takes up an enormous amount of land on the tip between the Danube and the Sava. Walking up to the park we were able to see the rivers and the two islands which split the Danube. The park itself was very well kept, with gardeners pruning trees and cutting grass, an interesting contrast to the derelict buildings we were walking past just a few minutes ago. There was history everywhere, from pieces of old wall to mounds it was a very interesting place.

Owen and I realised at this stage that 1. we had not done enough research for where to go, 2. we hadn’t brought enough water and 3. we should have brought some local currency. It was beginning to get pretty warm and the few places we passed that were selling water didn’t accept credit-cards. We soldiered on and found ourselves at a Military Museum which was located between the fortresses walls. This place was enormous! I’ve never seen so many tanks, howitzers, AA-guns, torpedos, boats and whatever the rocket thing is in the picture below. We wandered around all the exhibits and were able to identify several WW2 German and Soviet tanks. It was an absolutely fantastic display of military engineering, oddly most of it was just sitting in grass as if it had been dumped. Disappointingly though, we weren’t able to visit the inside of the museum as they didn’t take card. Whoops.

With it getting ever-hotter we thought it sensible to properly try and find something to drink. we continued to walk around the fortress walls and eventually came across the very impressive, mid 15th century Zindan Gate. While the gate was lovely, just around the corner was a pizzeria and what would be our oasis in the desert. It was hidden down a really rather spooky set of stairs but opened up to a beautiful terrace with views across the river and down into what looked to be a Zoo(!). There was nobody else in the restaurant but we sat down and soon enough we had a drink in our hands.

We enjoyed an impossibly large £5.70 pizza and plenty of delicious, fresh cold beer. It was absolutely perfect. We sat and enjoyed the view, soaked up the sun (well, I did - Owen had a fleece on) and for the first time on the trip laughed about how far we’d come on the train, all this way, to such a different place in about 36-hours. It felt very different having arrived over land (and under the channel), we felt like we had earned our right to be sitting where we were - we hadn’t cheated by jumping on a 3-hour flight.

Fed and watered we made a deal with the Pizzeria to let Owen leave his fleece behind the bar, promising that we’d return later in the afternoon for more beer. It was time for us to hit what we were now sure was a Zoo. Despite the blistering heat it wasn’t a long walk and luck was in our favour because the Zoo accepted credit-cards! I’ve been to many-a-zoo in my expectations were that this would be a rinky-dink operation with a couple of goats and a parrot, perhaps a monkey or two. I was wrong. We learned during our visit that I am an idiot and don’t know anything about zoos because this zoo had plenty crazy-critters to go around, almost 150 different types and what’s better is after our visit I learned that Belgrade Zoo is kind of a big deal and has very some cool history. My two favourite facts are: 1. It holds the worlds oldest alligator, Muja who was born in 1936. Regretfully we spent all of 20 seconds looking at him, because we just thought he was a regular old-ass alligator. 2. In 1989 after his visit to Belgrade for the 9th Non-Aligned Movement Summit, Muammar Gaddafi donated six Arabian Camels which he travelled with in order to ensure he had fresh camel milk. I can’t corroborate the later fact, but I thought it hilarious regardless.

The Zoo did have some very cool animals and we spent a lot longer than we expected walking around and enjoying our time. We were absolutely the only visitors who spoke English and it made it kind of fun because all of the signs were in Serbian Cyrillic and impossible for us to even attempt to understand. My favourite animals were the Balkan Lynx (which is critically endangered), the Black Leopard and African Ostrich (because I find them hilarious). Joking aside, the zoo was good, but it certainly doesn’t receive the best funding and in comparison to Western-European zoos the animals really do have tiny enclosures, which is kind of sad.

We headed back to the Pizzeria and had another quick beer and drew up our game-plan for getting back to the hotel and getting some food. The strategy was simple: Walk back to the hotel and have a rest. Walking back took us through the main part of Kalemegdan Park which had even better views of the river than where we were in the morning. There was a very cool vibe around the park with people doing archery, some chilling with a picnic, some people doing slackline and others exploring the ancient walls. We continued our walk and eventually made our way back to the city, we were both very exhausted but before long were back at the hotel, very sweaty.

The following day’s travel plan was the sketchy bit of the trip. We were to take a train from a station on the outskirts of the city to Sofia in Bulgaria, it was a full-day train ride and all of the blogs I had read suggested bringing plenty of food and drink. If the train wasn’t working or delayed, we would be pretty screwed for the rest of the trip so it was pretty important that we were ready. After a quick shower we headed to the store downstairs to stock up for tomorrow. We bought plenty of beer, water, Haribo and snacks. On the train to Belgrade we learnt that some cheese, bread and salami makes for quite the cost effective the meal so grabbed some essentials for this too.

The construction of the bread rolls was kind of difficult, the hotel room only had a spoon in which to slice open our rolls. We used some British ingenuity and dismantled a disposable razor and fashioned a knife which worked surprisingly well. In the below picture you can also see our improvised sock/underwear drying rack which also worked very well indeed. I assure you that is the genuine reason for it, we weren’t trying to flag down Belgradian talent from our fancy hotel.

Picnic prepared and continuing our theme of improvisation we emptied the hotel mini-bar of it’s treasures and carefully filled it with tomorrow’s food and drink, so that it is as cold as possible in the morning. We dressed ourselves up and headed out on the town for some farewell food and beers. The concierge recommended that we head to Skadarlija which is a trendy street of bars and restaurants. Once we found it, it was completely as advertised, a trendy, hip cobbled street, which was just about off of the tourist path, but only if you didn’t speak to the hotel concierge, but it was certainly no La Rambla and had a good vibe. We found a decent bar, checked the train times for tomorrow a couple more times and watched the world go by. Wanting to keep things simple (and to satisfy Owen’s desires) we grabbed a Serbian McDonalds for dinner and headed back to the hotel. A long, hot, but very fun day. Onwards east! …and back to the EU, briefly.

Kyiv, Ukraine

Kyiv wasn’t on the itinerary for the #TrainToTurkey because there are unfortunately no trains across the Black Sea. Or ferries either, for that matter. Thankfully economics were in our favour and we were able to make a literal flying visit.

There are direct flights from London to almost all capital cities in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, except it seems to Turkey’s second-largest city and national capital, Ankara. To get home Owen and I would either need to back-track to Istanbul on the train or take an indirect flight. Most of the indirect flights were via Istanbul too, which makes sense since it’s such a large aviation hub, but all of these flights were expensive and with lengthy layovers. There was a cheaper option though: flying via Kyiv. A longer route and a smaller plane but the same ultimate destination.

Even more fortunately, it worked out cheaper yet for us to leave Ankara in the very early morning and then take a late-night flight from Kyiv to London. Just £90 quid each would get us home, which was cheaper than most of the trains we’d taken over the past week. The catch, of course, was that we’d be flying over the recently Russian-annexed Crimea region, flying not far from where Malaysia Flight 17 was blown from the sky and landing in a country which is not only one the most corrupt in Europe, but which is fighting an armed conflict on home soil. But the FCO said it would be fine, so no biggie.

Our flight was the first out of Esenboga Airport that morning and we had opted to sleep in the ibis Ankara Airport, as close as we could, to not miss it. Unfortunately, the hotel isn’t within walking distance so a taxi at 4:30 am was our only option. Ankara airport isn’t particularly big and at this time of the morning, it was completely empty, although the duty-free and coffee shops were all open for business. Of all the flights in all my years this particular flight had hands down the strangest collection of passengers - there were a few rugged, well-travelled Americans, Ukrainian nationals heading back home from holidays and a few business people in the mix too. We were almost certainly the only Brits, which I always love because it’s a sure tell sign that some real travelling is going on. We boarded via bus and Owen was rewarded with a fantastic window seat, no photos of the take-off I’m afraid.

It was a very strange feeling having travelled a very long way by train to then be taking a flight and an even stranger feeling going from a city where we were completely unfamiliar to one which we were not only unfamiliar with but for which we hadn’t even researched. The only research I had done was to confirm that my Three mobile SIM supported roaming - because not having connectivity would’ve been kind of a big deal (as we’d discovered in Ankara).

The flight was short and we landed with apprehension and excitement - we were in Ukraine! We filtered through to security and it quickly became clear that this place was no Disneyland, at least two people were sent back from the border check for not having completed their landing card correctly. The agent took a good look through my passport, took interest in my Russian visa but after a swift stamp handed it back with a perfectly rehearsed “Welcome to Ukraine”.

Easy - we’re in! Unfortunately, my mobile data wasn’t working and despite Three saying they operate their Data Passport in Ukraine, it seems that it doesn’t really work. Thankfully, a few Ukrainian Hryvnia’s got us up and running with a tourist SIM - drama over. Since we were still on a train holiday, we did the natural thing and headed for the train. One of the strangest trains we’d been on for sure, I don’t really know how to describe it other than it was a brand new, short, wide, industrial but perfectly fine little train. It took us directly to the Pasazhyrskyi Railway Station in the city, after passing several other stations, bridges and over the enormous Dnieper river. The scenery, architecture and surroundings were a world away from anything we’d seen yet, high rise soviet era tenement blocks, ragged old cars, trucks and of course, vintage, packed railway trains ferrying blue-collar workers out of the city. It was all very bizarre, even more so when viewed from a brand new airport train.

The train station was enormous, it had a strange 50s vibe and was full of people going about their business, as you’d expect in a train station. It wasn’t like any other train station I’d been to before, it was overwhelming and intimidating and where I’d usually hang around and take pictures I wanted to do nothing but get out on to the street. Passing through the big wooden doors of the main hall we were presented with the city, it was raining, not a lot but enough to be gloomy and annoying. The atmosphere was live, everything was moving and happening, busses, cars, taxi touts and plenty of soldiers geared up and presumably heading west.

We took shelter in McDonald’s just across the street but there was no escaping the madness, it was just as busy inside. We’ve been spoilt in recent years, with the advent of the multi-lingual self-serve ordering system it doesn’t matter what language you speak or what country you are in, you get exactly what you want with no confusion. That doesn’t yet exist in Ukraine, the menu was just as familiar as you’d see in London, but of course, everything is in Cyrillic and completely illegible to me and Owen. We queued up and got our pointing fingers ready. The girl who took our order spoke zero English (which is naturally understandable) and despite my pro-level pointing ran away to find a manager, who also spoke no English but seemingly understood my pointing better. A short while later and after a few minutes of embarrassment we ended up with two breakfast meals and a large coke.

Owen and I headed to the upstairs of this enormous McDonalds and found ourselves a table. We sat there for about 15 minutes laughing about why on earth we thought it was a fun idea to come to Kyiv and how much of a fool I had made of myself in front of the McDonalds staff. It was about the point where we started to relax that the man behind us got up after having finished his breakfast and strapped to his belt was a handgun. We don’t have many guns in the UK and the guns we do have are only ever seen in public in the hands of the police. Seeing a handgun strapped to someone’s jeans isn’t just a bit weird, it’s completely alien. Our thoughts then turned to whether this man was making some kind of point or perhaps making his presence known to the obvious tourists in the room - I have no idea, but we got the hell out of there after sneaking a quick snap.

With a bit of a google in McDonald’s, we had established that the best way to get to the places we wanted to see was to jump on the metro, which happened to be just across the road. Easy, we thought. The station building had an entrance and an exit and the entrance was completely backed up with hundreds of people slowly entering. We queued up and after a lot of shuffling and pushing managed to get into the building. We then discovered that we’d followed the wrong queue for if we wanted a ticket. This presented a problem as we were now in a nether-zone where we couldn’t get out (since we’d need to pass the barriers and had no ticket) and wouldn’t be able to get out of the entrance we’d just squeezed though on account of it being a one-way door full of people. So we stood back and had a bit of a think, perhaps it would calm down a bit. Well, it didn’t, the door was the only way out. We rolled up our sleeves and prepared to do the impossible, this topped the embarrassment of McDonald’s but we managed it in the end.

With the Metro off of the cards we decided that we’d just walk, how far can it be anyway? I have to admit, after walking 20mins or so and seemingly ending up nowhere further than where we were I was getting a bit peed off and Owen certainly was too. After trudging through the pouring rain (in shorts!) we pulled into a restaurant/cafe to have a breather. The best thing we did, it all cheered up from here on! The coffee shop was cool, we have a drink, used their loo and best of all, remembered that Uber is a thing. No more walking for us!!

We took an Uber to the city centre which wasn’t all that much further away and engaged tourist mode. Independence Square wasn’t quite what I had expected, despite seeing it on TV frequently during the 2014 revolution. It’s big, well, massive, but because the buildings are so absolutely huge it doesn’t feel nearly as big as it is. That said, it is pretty impressive and has a strange, sombre feel to it, probably as a result of those who were killed. It’s an absolutely iconic part of the world though, so I’m glad we were able to visit. We set off from the square heading north and up towards St. Michael’s Square and Monastery.

We were getting a bit more comfortable with the city now, the madness of the station behind us and after a wander round found of all things, a funicular railway. We were a bit surprised to see such a thing but having failed in our attempt to ride the metro thought that this would be a reasonable consolation. The funicular was opened to the public in 1905 and takes passengers between the top of the hill, Uppertown and the district of Podil on the banks of the river below. There are two funicular cars, left (Λ) and right (П) which counterweight each other and are driven by an electric motor at the top station, there is a passing loop in the middle of the track which allows the cars to use the same track in the station buildings. A ticket on the funicular costs 25 pence or 8 hryvnias and the ticket booth exchanges cash for a small plastic town which is used in the entrance turnstile.

At the bottom of the hill in Podil, we went in search of a bar so we could dry off and have a quick break and after quite a lot of walking, we found a place called Punkraft. We had seen little in the way of craft beer during the trip so far and I was particularly keen to have some been that wasn’t just macro-brewed lager - this was the place. We walked down an uninviting staircase to a basement bar which wasn’t open but the bartender (who thankfully spoke English) was happy to serve us anyway. The best bar of the trip by a long shot, we played on the vintage pinball machine and had plenty of delicious Ukranian local craft and laughed about the man with the gun in McDonald’s.

We left Podil and headed back up the funicular to another little bar, but it wasn’t nearly as good so didn’t hang around for long. We walked back to the square feeling a bit more comfortable in the city and grabbed a burger for lunch. Walking around the city we explored the Golden Gate a restored version of a medieval city gate which had a church on top. With a renewed confidence in Kyiv we thought it was worth a second attempt at the Metro system. We boarded at Zoloti Vorota (Золотi ворота) and paid for some tickets with no intention to actually go anywhere. The metro stations in Kyiv are incredibly deep, this particular station is 96 meters below the surface and the deepest in the world, Arsenalna a little further towards the river is 105 meters down. For context, the deepest London station is just 58 meters down. As a result of the depth, the escalators are steep and very long, it’s almost a journey in itself.

We rode the metro train to Lukianivska just one stop, but a fantastic experience. The trains go FAST and they have a wonderful vintage vibe about them, whilst being perfectly serviceable. They are somewhat similar to those I remember in Moscow, certainly the station architecture below the surface is similar if not completely comparable.

Metro ride over we visited a local craft shop and Owen bought some Russian dolls to bring home, this took far longer than it needed to, there were hundreds of different options. Just after that, we realised that we should probably think about getting back - that’s when it all went wrong. We had just two hours until check-in closed and the airport isn’t exactly around the corner - whoops. We dialled up an Uber and hoped for the best, a little Dacia Logan turned up with Boris (Борис) at the wheel.

This was the slowest journey in history. We hit traffic for almost all of the 38 miles from the centre to the airport while Owen and I sat in the back sweating about the impact of missing our flight. It did reach the point where I waved our boarding passes insistently at the Uber driver for him to get a shift on. In fact, it got so close to us missing the flight that I was researching where we were going to stay that night if we did miss it. The one good part of the ride was that we were able to see the Motherland Monument from the car, the traffic was so slow we probably could have got out and walked up to it. Thankfully we arrived in the nick of time and ran like madmen through security and to the gate, with just enough time to pick up some incredibly cheap Ukranian vodka!!

We arrived back at Gatwick exhausted, smelly, tired but full of stories. A flying visit to Kyiv, complete and the longest train journey of our lives in the bag. What an incredible week!

Train to Turkey - Leg 6 - Zagreb to Belgrade

With an hour before our train we didn’t have much time to spend in Zagreb and we were very keen to make sure we don’t miss the train. We left the station and headed towards to city in search of supplies for the trip ahead. We failed, but probably went the wrong way or something. The parts of the city we did see were good, a very different Croatia to that in Dubrovnik. Giving up on our quest for food we walked back to the station and managed to find a small convenience store, there were a few other backpackers here too which was a good sign. With limited options we stocked up on beer, bread, cheese and salami.

After a short wait on a buy platform a train turned up which looked like it could be ours, it was longer than I expected. We were waiting in the wrong part of the platform, all the rear carriages were on their way to somewhere in Austria and only the front two carriages were headed to Belgrade. We figured this out after seeing our two Canadian friends boarding there. Also boarding were a 30-strong female dance troop, much to Owen’s dismay.

On the train we found ourselves searching for a compartment, both carriages consisted of 6-seater compartments with a sliding door - very old school. We settled into a cabin with a Slovenian guy who had bagged the best seat, facing forwards and by the window. The group of girls were frantically searching for somewhere to sit until about 10 minutes in they decided that they had reserved several of the compartments and kicked people out. Our friends who had sat in an adjacent cabin were among the victims and ended up sitting with us.

The train set off under electric power with a big red locomotive at the front and before we knew it we were out of the city and heading across Croatia. It was quickly getting pretty warm, and we opened the window to get some air in our small compartment. The bloke who was already here wasn’t too happy and insisted that we only have a small part of the window open. Owen was pretty hot and made a bit of a cake of it, sure it was warm but it wasn’t like we were in the Sahara desert or anything. As the countryside passed us by we saw sunflower fields, corn fields and rapeseed oil plants too. It was field after field after field, the land was flat and the track felt like it was built by the romans, straight as an arrow. Thankfully this meant that the engine got some speed up and there were times where it was recalling making some pace.

It was a long journey, we managed to enjoy it for the most part, drinking some beers, eating our sandwiches which we constructed on the train and of course smashing out some blogs too. We spent time sharing stories with Tony and Helen who we later learned had taken a similar journey in the 1980s where before they had met had even crossed paths(!). The best story they told was during a camp when a black bear had stuck his snout on their tent, which was a frightening thought!

The train itself was good, the journey was nothing to complain about and made good headway. The toilet wasn’t ideal but we had some water so were able to wash our hands. Since it was a straightforward drop onto the track there wasn’t much to go wrong, although I wouldn’t have wanted to be a girl! Seats were comfortable and the cabins covered into three beds, the girls in the adjacent cabin had a bit of a party in theirs and were having the time of their lives! The music could be heard when the door was open but otherwise wasn’t a problem.

At the Serbian boarder we had a ‘Papers please!’ Situation, a Croatian policeman checked passports as we left the train then moved into Serbia where we were boarded once again for another check, this time we were stamped but again a very painless process. We had accumulated late-ness on our way and arrived into Belgrade about 60mins late, which wasn’t really a problem. The last stretch into Belgrade was painful, it was slow and since we knew we were close took an extra long amount of time.

We pulled into Belgrade Centre Station which still seems to be under construction, mostly by China Railways. This wasn’t the station I was expecting and with no mobile data proved to be a bit of a problem. Luckily there was a city map printed on the wall so we were able to find a route towards the hotel. A Hot and sweaty 4km walk later we found ourselves at the hotel. It was a pleasant sight, we were tired, hot and in need of a shower!

This was the first decent hotel of the trip, we were staying at the Mercure Excelsior at 70 euros a night wasn’t too bad either. We dragged ourselves out in search of food and walking down the main shopping street found lots of small bistro restaurants. A beer was £1.30 the food was equally cheap and we had no complaints. We had made it to Belgrade.

Train to Turkey - Leg 5 - Munich to Zagreb

We were ready for a good sleep after the adventures of Munich and a day travelling across most of Germany. I have to admit, a sleeper train at this point wasn’t terribly appealing, the knowledge that we were going to end up in Croatia and that we did have a bed was fine enough to make me want to jump aboard. We waited on the platform for our train which arrived on to the platform about an hour early. The train was very long and it seemed that the carriages were all heading to different destinations, this was pretty confusing as the train information boards just said Budapest and Rijeka and not Zagreb.

Climbing aboard we were shown to an available cabin, the whole thing was a little different to the pleasantries of Jean in Penzance. The guard explained to us that we should go to bed, lock the door and that at about 7am we would be woken for the police checkpoint when crossing from Slovenia into Croatia. The passport check was necessary since Croatia is still in the process of joining the Schengen Area. The train was filling up fast with an interesting mix of people, mostly toting backpacks but some asian tourists too, with suitcases. Bedding down the train left relatively on time and I fell asleep without any problem. There was a lot of shunting in the night, I assume where the carriages needed to be moved to different locomotives, it wasn’t the best nights’ sleep but honestly it wasn’t bad either. The bunks were reasonably comfortable and the cabin was bigger than that of the Penzance train.

I woke about 6:30 and eager to know where we were in the world got up to scout things out. It seemed that everyone was still asleep and the only person I found awake was an elderly lady right at the front next to the toilets, she seemed to have kept her cabin door open throughout the journey and for some strange reason had a cardboard box on a trolly which was full of salad. I was surprised to see that our carriage was now directly behind the locomotive, which wasn’t the case earlier in the night, we were also travelling in a different direction too. The train was Swiss which was different to the one which brought the train into Munich. Eventually the guard saw me and explained that we are 75 minutes delayed and told that I should go back to bed. I said I’m up and in need of coffee which after an hour or so he brought to me. It was awful coffee but it was free, so I can’t really complain.

The views from the train were fantastic, we were passing through Slovenia along the River Sava, following it’s banks for almost the whole journey. Unfortunately the carriage windows were very dirty so all of the pictures I took are pretty poor, the train was also going at a reasonable pace and my iPhone doesn’t manage that too well! I was joined in my hallway spot with our cabin neighbour, Tony who was also travelling from London to Istanbul with his wife, recreating the orient express route. He was Canadian but spoke fluent Slovenian which for him was pretty handy. We had a chat for a good few hours as our breakfast arrived and we passed through the border.

At the border the train was stormed by police, a Slovenian and Croatian police men checked each passport and in Tony’s case stamped it as leaving the Schengen zone. We were soon on our way again and as the topography flattened out had arrived into sunny Zagreb. We were late but had an hour before the next train which Tony and his wife were also joining. We packed out bags up had a quick wash and said goodbye to our train guard. Four countries in one night, one of which we didn’t even see! Not bad.

Train to Turkey - Leg 4 - Cologne to Munich

Day 3 was set to be a warm up for what was to come, long days spent on trains doing nothing but relaxing and looking out the window. We started the day getting up early and leaving the Ibis, it has served us well, but we couldn’t wait to leave. The walk to Messe/Deutz station was quiet, nobody was really awake, clearly everyone had a late night partying in the streets. We hoped to find some breakfast at the station and needed something for the trip ahead and were pleased to find a McDonalds, which I’m sure won’t be the first of the trip. A beef and egg McMuffin later we were refuelled and headed to the platform.

This is where things started to go pear-shaped. We discovered quite quickly that the train was delayed and then discovered that there was only half of the usual set of carriages, and the carriages missing were the ones where we had a seat reservation. Not good. We hung around on the platform for about 90 minutes hoping that all will be well, the increasing number of passengers congregating on the platform was also a worry.

The 09:36 service to Munich eventually turned up and we jumped aboard and grabbed the first set of seats we came across. It seems that in Germany you can screw up half of the reservations and just pretend like nothing happened to that half, but the other half continue to remain valid. In the UK if there’s ever any kind of delay or technical screw up reservations are simply cancelled and it becomes a free for all. I think I prefer this system more, at least you know where you stand. We were safe in our seats for the time being and settled down and I pushed out the first of two blogs which I hoped to complete that day.

Aside from it having some parts missing the ICE train really was quite lovely, the seats were very comfortable and the recline was more than I’ve ever had on a train before. Toilets were clean, easy and available and best of all the carriage was very quiet, we pushed 300Km/h and I barely even knew it was fantastic. We began to catch up to the previous schedule and were soon at Frankfurt where our squatted seats were expected to soon have their owner arrive. After a small lecture from the conductor we decided to go in search of replacement seats, we failed.

So we squatted again and looked busy, tired and grumpy. 10 minutes after leaving Frankfurt it seemed we made the right call as no seat owner had arrived. Phew! The rest of the journey was very relaxing we sat back, enjoyed the ride and got into the groove. Managed to upload the blogs with images which while on the train has been a bit of a problem. The cellular signal and free train WiFi just don’t cut the mustard, I will say that the ICE WiFi was the best of all though, much better than Thalys and Eurostar.

We arrived a little late into Munich but frankly it was nothing to write home about, in the end the journey was good. Munich station is HUGE we spent some time taking it all in, I have vague memories of that station from when we visited Oktoberfest in 2010 but there’s a lot of time between then and now so I had absolutely no idea where anything was. Outside it was torrential rain, which seemed to come out of nowhere because it was dry when we were on the train, we opted to hang around for a little while and threw Owen’s bag into bag locker to save carrying it around with us.

Five minutes later and the rain had stopped so we headed into town, we had no plan except to drink beer and see some old stuff. Munich centre is very easy to navigate and everything seems to revolve around the main street which at the end of which is the train station. We first headed for the Dom which was not as impressive as the “Big Black Church” this one instead had two big nobbly bits on top, inside it was pretty impressive huge too.

We then went in search of beer feeling like we have satisfied the historic culture requirement. The first stop was to try and find some Kellerbier and we succeeded at a small beer-restaurant where Owen had his ID checked (Ha!) . The beer was good, but wasn’t the best I’ve ever tasted so we quickly finished up and went in search of more.

The best spot for beer in Munich it seems in the Hoffbrau House, an enormous beer hall in traditional Bavarian style with beer served properly in 1 litre steins. We sat ourselves down and strapped in for what would be a good three-hour session. My goodness - the beer here is heavenly. I love Kolsch but this is special, the atmosphere is missing in Cologne, here it is an absolute party. The first litre went down like it was nothing, crisp, cold, malty, perfect. We ordered a pretzel from the Pretzel-girl (6 Euros!) and dived into number two.

This is where we should have stopped. The second for me was just as good as before, it was getting a little louder and we put ourselves in the corner so that I could upload the second blog of the day, which doesn’t take long provided there is good signal. Owen continued to claim that he wasn’t hungry and despite my persistent nagging that he should eat he wasn’t interested. I ordered a wienerschnitzel and coming to the end of the second (and now in the groove) ordered us one last stein because I’m sensible and measured.

Owen decided at this point to reject the beer and filled up the empty steins with the contents of his very liquid stomach. The Irish couple who were sharing our table were not mega impressed, but persevered with their freshly served food while Owen semi-discretely blew chunks. Not ideal. My food arrived just in time for him to need to step outside for some air, seems 2.5 litres of German beer is Owen’s limit.

We headed back to the station and got ourselves some sleeper-train snacks and waited an hour or so for our train to arrive. We enjoyed watching out across Munich station as people came and went the big Grundig logos on the back wall slowly disappeared into the black night sky. With that, we wrapped up Day 3 - thank you Munich, you did your job.

Train to Turkey - Leg 3 - Brussels to Cologne

On to third train of this trip and after a short break in Brussels we were keen to get onboard and to Cologne for some beer and a chance to stretch our legs. We waited on the platform in Midi for our Thalys train which was right on time. This train like the Eurostar requires seat reservations so we booked them in advance, they weren’t cheap, 20 euros each but it seemed like we didn’t have much of a choice. We learned later that Deutsche Bahn also run a train from Brussels to Cologne and reservations are optional and a lot cheaper too.

Once at our seats we found that the window was not aligned, which was a bit disappointing. We got to work updating our Internal travel diaries although the guard reached us before everything was completely filled out. We had a bit of a lecture about how important it is to fill out the details before getting on the train as he should charge us for a full ticket. Whoops. We promised to be good from now on! Once the guard left I shuffled seat so that I could see out the window.

Most of the trip I spent blogging, which worked out well. Signal was very bad, but I managed to download pictures and upload when we stopped at intermediate stations. Owen was tired and slept in the most uncomfortable position imaginable. The trip took a long time, the train was on time but it felt like half the time it was either stopped or going very, very slowly. I think they announced that there are works on the track between Brussels and Cologne and as a result had to reverse the train in Aachen. It’s no problem sitting on a train for a long journey but it’s another thing sitting on a train for a long journey when it’s not moving. Hey ho, we arrived into Köln on time!

Once at the station we needed to head to the hotel sharpish, we had reserved a room but hadn’t guaranteed it which meant that after 6pm it would be up for grabs. Given that literally everywhere in Cologne was booked, we didn’t want to be in that kind of situation. We walked over the bridge and towards the hotel, we underestimated the distance, it was a good 35 minute walk and didn’t take best advantage of the trams and trains which would have probably saved some time and effort off! We arrived to the luxurious Ibis Budget hot, sweaty and ready to have a beer, so we did.

Our room was a bit of a gamble, the website showed a picture with a normal bed and a small bunk which mentions that it’s great for kids. There was every chance that Owen wouldn’t fit in the bunk given his length. The room was as basic as it gets, and for some reason the bathroom was in the room itself, and not in a separate bathroom section - with the exception of the toilet which did have it’s own room. Very confusing, not sure if it’s been designed that was to make it seem more budget than usual or if it’s genuinely cheaper to build and service. Who knows! All was fine in the end and after a quick shower we dumped anything that wasn’t worth stealing and booked an Uber to the city centre for some food and drink.

Arriving into the city centre you couldn’t ignore the fact that it was Pride, it was very, very busy and there were more rainbow flags than on @geeklyjames’ stag do. Everyone was polite, friendly and not breaking any rules, all very civilised. We were dropped off at Heumarkt and so walked over to Malzmuhle to see if we could find a table, this was my favourite place when we came and visited Cologne in Christmas last year, it was also the chosen brew house of Anthony Bourdain when he visited. Once again it didn’t disappoint, we were given a table straight away and before I could blink the famous Kölsch had arrived in front of us.

We were joined on our table by a Belgian man called Freddy who spoke English, he was a very polite man who shared stories of his travels around the world. Pretty hungry by this point in the day we both ordered food pretty sharpish, Owen went for a bratwurst and I had the boiled pork knuckle with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. As before, the food was spot on, good German pork-based deliciousness with enough salt to provide encouragement to drink even more beer. We stayed a while longer in the restaurant and Freddy showed us pictures of his trip to Antarctica where he somehow managed to get himself on a Chilean military ship for a week!

With enough beer in our bellies we went off to walk around the city, we hit the main stage and caught a few classics from a tribute act. There was a lot going on, people were enjoying enormous cocktails and phallic-shaped ice lollies. Walking around as brothers we certainly had a few unusual looks, I think we needed t-shirts or something. We made it to the Dom and hung around for a few pictures, this area was less busy than during the Christmas markets which was surprising given that it was bloody freezing during the markets.

Too early for bed we headed to the Früh brewhouse just around the corner for some desert since we’d walked the pork off. The guys here were the same as at Christmas, which I always find strange when going back to places elsewhere in the world. Our Apfelstrudel arrived and it was as delicious as before, full of sugar and in a vanilla sauce it perfect match for more beer. Even Owen liked the strudel which frankly I didn’t even expect him to!

We sensibly took the train back to the hotel and got our heads down for the night, still exhausted from the sleeper train the night before. The mattress was not great, neither were the paper thin walls or noisy people outside but melatonin did it’s job well, day 2 was over.

Train to Turkey - Leg 2 - London to Brussels

Early start on our second day after arriving on the sleeper. We were up and ready for the journey ahead, day two should leave us in Cologne, Germany in time for tea which means we have some serious mileage to get through and the two tightest connections of the trip. From Paddington we took the Hammersmith and City line to St Pancras for connection with the Eurostar, oddly the tube was really quite busy, but we arrived without issue. We realised at this point that we should have stayed on the sleeper train for longer than we did, we were are St Pancras about 90 minutes early with nothing to do but twiddle our thumbs.

So we grabbed a coffee and went for a walk! You can’t do much better than a 49p Pret filter coffee, I’m convinced this is the best value coffee anywhere in London and it’s actually very good filter coffee too. The problem is that it’s always a million degrees and literally impossible to drink, especially from a thermal cup - somebody needs to invent a dispensing machine that allows you to select a certain temperature. Perhaps I need to patent the concept and become very rich.

Coffee in-hand we walked around to Regents Canal, somewhere that I look at almost every day but have never actually visited. It was fantastic, lots of fresh flowers, a nice hot sun and a great mix of old and new architecture which makes for a very pleasant area. Owen even said that he wouldn’t mind living here despite not wanting to live in London! I do wonder if it was only pleasant because it was 7am on a Saturday morning, I’m sure it gets busy later and turns into something quite different. Walking back to the station we passed the new Google HQ being constructed and noticed that the floor numbers on the concrete core are the Android Drone, which is pretty fun. We also walked past the YouTube offices and YouTube Space which seems to have been the venue of quite a lively party yesterday!

Checking into the Eurostar was reasonably painless, we had no troubles apart from Owen walking through the metal detector with all of his pockets full - doh! We managed to throw them in the bag before succeeding on the second attempt. Once through we found a seat in the busy departures hall before realising that Owen’s brand new Nalgene bottle was now gone - “Well, that didn’t last long”. Luckily everything important was still in possession.

On board the Eurostar we had a bit of a rest, the journey is one of the shortest of the trip and we didn’t really have time to get too comfortable. The train arrived into Brussels perfectly on time, we lost an hour because of the time which meant that it was now beer o’clock. We walked out of the station and found the most awful looking bar near the station, but it had some nice seats outside. Owen had his first legal European beer, unfortunately it was a Carlsberg.

Heading back to the station we arrived in plenty of time for Leg 3, the ride to Cologne.

Train to Turkey - Leg 1 - Penzance to London

We’re on our way! The weather in Cornwall was fantastic, a tropical 25℃ with unspoilt sunshine, it better stay like this across Europe, we’re going to have a mega time if it does. Before we could get going with Leg one we needed a final positioning trip to get to Penzance, we travelled as a four so we could be waved off in proper Cornish fashion, with a G&T! Before we get to that it was time for something new, on the train we had a brand new beer from Padstow, Freddy Has Landed, not a bad beer but not to my taste and was stronger than it needed to be at 6.6, still no complaints. We chased that with a Frog Brothers from Black Flag, a much better beer (in my view). The train was pretty quick, it’s less than an hour down to Penzance and that goes very quickly when you’re passing such stunning views of Cornwall.

Once we were in Penzance we headed into town for a goodbye meal, the first pub was a let down but we eventually found our way to The Turk’s Head on Chapel Street. Now THIS was a pub, absolutely fantastic line up of cask ales with that real pub feeling. Regretting that we didn’t just come here first we set to work with a perfectly served pint of Bath Ales Prophecy, a wonderful light pale ale which is remarkably similar to St Austell’s Proper Job before it changed. The pub reminded me that I still need to write my scoring matrix, I’m confident this place would have done very well. After a bit of a rushed but perfectly served dinner we headed down to the station and en-route had a quick paddle in the water, as you do.

When we got to the station the sleeper train was ready and waiting for us, we weren’t mega early so we had to run to the front for the obligatory photo with the engine. We all boarded and jumped into the onboard lounge bar, which was all new since we last took the sleeper. Newer isn’t always better and as lovely as the lounge looked, with sofas and cute little two seater tables the old one was much more comfortable, fun and nostalgic. The old one had tables service too, which sadly is now a thing of the past!

We shared some lovely Tarquins and tonic and as the train pulled away were officially on our way! A week of trains and travel awaited us (and we were pretty excited about it!). We set to work filling out our Interrail passes, making sure not to mess them up before we’d even got on our way. As the train made it’s way we were spoilt with the most stunning sunset and red sky across Cornwall, not bad at all. At St Austell we waved goodbye to the parents and (now a little worse for wear) I decided to get off and say goodbye, luckily the train wasn’t in a rush!

Now on our own we headed to our cabin and got ourselves some sleep. I was on the bottom bunk and it didn’t take too long before I was fast asleep which isn’t something that usually happens on the sleeper train! A few bumps in the night but nothing really to report, 7 or so hours after we left Penzance we were woken up to a bang on the door where Jean, our attendant had our breakfast and tea ready. We were in London, easy. This really is the best way to commute between London and Cornwall, while I enjoyed the 4 and a bit hour trip the day earlier waking up and being where you need to be is just fantastic. Long live the sleeper.

After a quick shake up we were ready to get going, 6:30am and on to Leg number two!

Taking the Train to Turkey

One of this year’s goals is to tick something off from the bucket list, another of this year’s goals is to try and see as many new countries as possible. What better way to do so than by taking the train to Turkey?

This trip has been some months in the planning and after many different iterations of the route we’ve agreed on taking the more traditional route from London to Istanbul, via Belgrade and Sofia instead of Bucharest. This is the route that the 1920s Orient Express would have taken so should give us a real feel for the Balkans while also taking us through some counties neither of us have been to before. The exception to the traditional route is that we’re going to travel via Brussels and Cologne instead of Paris, because, well, the beer is much better in Cologne.

In addition to the Cologne detour we’re going to start the trip in Penzance, Cornwall because Cornwall is Owen’s home and starting in London sounds really rather dull. We’re also going to end the rail trip in Ankara, Turkey, that way there’s no disputing that we made it to Asia (the other side of the Bosphorus may be considered Asia, but only just), it should give us a chance to really experience Turkish railways too. To top the trip off we plan to fly home via Kiev, Ukraine with time to briefly visit the city and have a celebratory lunch (it was also the cheapest flight home).

Since we’re going to be trapped on a train for many, many hours during our trip I hope to photograph and blog as much as possible, so do stay tuned and expect updates. We’re both very excited and can’t wait to get going.

Update from after the trip Here’s links to posts for each of leg of the journey:

* Leg 1 - Penzance to London

* Leg 2 - London to Brussels

* Leg 3 - Brussels to Cologne

* Leg 4 - Cologne to Munich

* Leg 5 - Munich to Zagreb

* Leg 6 - Zagreb to Belgrade

* Belgrade, Serbia - Special Post

* Leg 7 - Belgrade to Sofia

* Leg 8 - Sofia to Istanbul (Not yet written)

* Leg 9 - Istanbul to Ankara (Not yet written)

* Kyiv, Ukraine - Special Post