Eastern Europe Rail Odyssey: Zagreb to Veliko Tărnovo

 

2012 saw Hamish & I take in the capitals of three of the former Yugoslav countries, finally get a proper look at Sofia and visit perhaps Bulgaria’s nicest small city.

First up the capital of Croatia. We resisted the temptation to visit Zagreb Zoo Zebra Enclosure and instead spent a couple of pleasant days walking around the laid back city, riding trams and eating & drinking in Tkalciceva pedestrian zone.

There is nothing startling about Zagreb, yet it is a good place to visit with plenty of eye-catching architecture, statues and squares making it ideal for a weekend break when added to the great choice of cafes & restaurants and the opportunity to zip around on modern trams.

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Thirty-six hours did us fine though, just the right amount of time to see all we wanted and to purchase our overnight tickets to the Adriatic coast city of Split. Our journey south went very smoothly and we arrived into bright early morning sunshine feeling energised after a good night’s sleep.

Split train station was right on the waterfront, so we lingered for coffee and croissants, whilst trying to work out how to find our old town hotel. It was waiting for us somewhere amongst the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, but surely the map we looked at would have baffled the most experienced of orienteerers, let alone two cartography numbskulls as Hamish & I.

Hamish disappeared into a tat seller’s shop to ask for direction, but came out again thirty seconds later red & bristling with indignation. The keeper of the tat, no doubt fed up with being constantly asked where to find this hotel or that restaurant, had impolitely informed my buddy that she was not tourist information and the farewell eschewed contained not even a hint of fondness.

It was very funny to see my usually calm travel mate irate at her rudeness, but thankfully order was restored by a friendlier lady at the adjacent bureau de change.

Split was lovely, especially the honey coloured old town and the waterfront area, home to Split’s famous blue-faced clock tower.

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Hamish had read about a nice walk around the headland, so we agreed that this would be our afternoon activity. What he failed to mention however was that the ‘stroll’ was in fact 14km!  The daft pair of us set off shortly after midday armed with just a small bottle of water each and two packets of raisins. Over three hours later we arrived back at the waterfront footsore and with a raging thirst.

The thirst was assuaged with a splendid dark beer sat in the late afternoon sunshine overlooking the azure blue waters and watching ferries to the Dalmatian islands coming & going.

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The beer was a wonderful reward for our efforts, a walk that we agreed had been picturesque and edifying. I admit I may have grumbled a bit at times, but the views out over the cliffs to the sea were extremely lovely and well worth the sore feet we both now sported.

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Split is home to the wonderful Roman Diocletian Palace, a giant stone structure slap bang in the middle of the old town. The impressive building was atmospherically lit at night and we lingered for a beer in its shadow, whilst listening to a very fine classical guitarist who played for the benefit of the diners in the expensive restaurant opposite our cafe bar. It was a fitting finale to our day and a bit in Split.

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Our next destination was to be Sarajevo. We first had to take a bus for a couple of hours to Ploce to catch a train. The journey hugged the coast for most of the route, making for very gratifying scenery.  Ploce, or more specifically the environs of its train station, was a dump.

We had ninety minutes to kill, a good portion of which was spent trying to obtain local cash to buy our train tickets. We had pared our Croatian currency down to a few beans as we were exiting for Bosnia, but unfortunately the tickets could not be bought with Euros or card.

When I discovered that the ATM was out of order, I started to fear a longer stay in Ploce. I went to the station cafe to ask if they could change €30. They declined to help, but a businessman heard my predicament and agreed to help, albeit at an awful exchange rate. Thankfully however we had our ticket out and gratefully slumped into our train seats that were more akin to armchairs than your standard variety.

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(Ploce train, outside and in)

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We were in darkness by the time we stopped in Mostar, a fab destination that we had already ticked off in 2007. We ploughed on to Sarajevo where spent two fabulous nights.

Many people will forever associate Sarajevo and Mostar with conflict. There is no doubt that both cities suffered greatly in the 1990’s Yugoslav war.

Less than 20 years on from those brutal ethnic purges, permanent mental scars remain with the surviving inhabitants, as do a number of physical blemishes on pavements, roads and buildings, left in disrepair as a reminder of what must never be allowed to happen again.

These include the ugly potholes created by gun and mortar fire that have been painted blood red, transformed to the ‘Roses of Sarajevo’.

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Today the Bosnian capital and it’s smaller neighbour further south, are fighting back and engaged in a more friendly type of Slavic contest with their Croatian neighbours – how to woo the tourist dollar.

Sarajevo is rising up once more to reclaim its former title of Europe’s Jerusalem, in account of the Jewish, Islamic and Christian faiths that are all practiced in close proximity to each other in the fabulous Old Town.

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Here the Star of David, stately minarets and golden crosses all compete for prominence in modern day peace, or so it seems.

The area is akin to any Arabic medina in the world, with small ramshackle shops selling brightly coloured fabrics and gorgeous intricately designed lamps at bargain prices. Artisans beat copper and shape ceramics in tiny workshops, a white walled retail premises sells nothing but the fez, alongside another selling a myriad of tobacco and devices designed for inhaling it.

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Not far away from the ancient area, you can stand in the exact spot where Gavrilo Princip fired off the chain of events that started WWI through the act of assassinating Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, or you are able to dart about the centre on rattly old trams, not quite the horse drawn versions that were said to form Europe’s first commercial tram service in the late 1800’s, but pretty ancient all the same.

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War tourists are also well served. Sarajevo was best known in recent times for the infamous 1,425-day siege, as the Bosnian Muslims refused to surrender to the Serbian forces. Graveyards full of identical white crosses scattered about the city testify to the atrocities that occurred.

These are a must see today to enable visitors to get a grasp at just how awful the tragedy was and to contemplate the futility of war, as millions do annually in the likes of the battlefields and memorials of the Somme – “lest we forget”.

Follow a trail of ‘roses’ along ‘sniper alley’ towards the main train station and see the cube shaped yellow Holiday Inn, home to the world’s media during the years of turmoil.

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Here the likes of Martin Bell and Kate Adie bravely typed, narrated or filmed their harrowing war reports as bullets whistled around them, fired from the hills that surround the deathly road.

Today Sarajevo is also a modern, increasingly fashionable city, with plenty of opportunities to hang out with young & trendy locals in bars and clubs. Boutique hotels are springing up all over the place, whilst you will find every type of cuisine that you can imagine – a late night gelato is also a delicious must.

For a particular treat for beer lovers, visit the impressive wood panelled city brewery for a mouth-watering calorific snack and a litre or two of mighty fine dark ale brewed right next door. The brewery itself was something of a safe haven during the siege and also the city’s most reliable source of fresh water at that time, courtesy of its natural spring.

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I rate Sarajevo as a perfect city break – historic, diverse, unhurried and great value for money.

Capital number three was reached by morning train, which took a little under nine hours. The capital of ex-Yugoslavia is easily the biggest city in the region. We were just spending a night and day in Belgrade, before our overnight train to Sofia the following evening.

We had a lot to pack into our day, which started with breakfast at the train station where we had headed first to leave our rucksacks at left luggage. We headed first to Belgrade castle, high up on a hill with great views of the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.

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The castle area was great to wander around and as we exited after an hour or so, we passed the military museum with its display of captured US tanks, mortar launchers and armoured vehicles from the ’90s conflict that were arranged outside.

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The rest of our time was spent wandering the city centre, lunching leisurely and searching for dark beer for our train ride to Bulgaria’s number one city. We had not been able to reserve our berth for the night, being told earlier to turn up and see the guard before departure. This made us slightly nervous – what if a tour group booked up all the beds, we would be upright all the way to Sofia!

Our fears were gladly unfounded as we were allotted a four berth compartment to ourselves. I however slept fitfully as we had a loco change at the border and seemed to stop for ages at some station en route.

It was 5.30 and I was wide awake. It was with a fair amount of jealousy that I spied the train crew returning with a pile of breakfast burgers and coffees for their own consumption.

We pulled in around two hours later and made for our hotel by taxi. Our journey to Sofia had been a damned sight better than it had been six years previous – see Jinxed Journey. We however soon decided that we didn’t like Sofia. The cathedral was very impressive from the outside and there are a few nice churches, but that was just about it.

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We couldn’t wait to get going again next morning – a four hour train journey to Gorna Oryahovitsa, followed by a thirty minute bus leg to Veliko Tărnovo and its UNESCO listed ancient fortress of Tsarevets. After a leisurely orientation afternoon and an early night, we awoke refreshed and decided we would walk uphill to a monastery overlooking VT.

The climb was long and steep in places, but we were rewarded with a very fine monastery and afterwards plates of delicious hummus, plus a fantastic view from the veranda of a hotel situated high above the monastery.

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We decided to taxi back down and leave Tsarevets for the following morning when the light would hopefully be better. We walked back into town through a street lined with souvenir shops and artisan workshops. As we were near the end of our trip, we both splurged, Hamish buying two hand carved cranes (predictably named Veliko & Tarnovo) and I bought various items of hand-painted pottery.

We both also availed ourselves of massages in the hotel, before resting up for a night of pasta, dark beer and Blues music.

The visit to Tsarevets was very pleasant. The fortress was pretty empty and we spent a good couple of hours roaming the ramparts and imagining Ottoman invaders laying siege. There was also a rock platform sticking out from the edge of the highest point of the castle. Our guidebook informed us that this was a ledge where condemned prisoners were encouraged to walk along before plunging to their deaths. A drier version of the pirate’s walking the plank.

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We were somewhat reluctant to return to Sofia that afternoon, wishing we could fly from VT or Varna on the Black Sea in the opposite direction. Sofia it was to be though. We were extremely lucky to get a seat on the train. It was Friday afternoon and a large number of Bulgarians clearly wanted to enjoy the charms(?) of the capital. We bunked in first class and gladly paid a small supplement. The aisles were completely full and standing room only.

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Sofia was just a bed and a restaurant for us, before we got an early morning taxi to the airport. Once more we had a brilliant time and vowed to plan another trip as soon as possible (2013 starting in Gdansk and ending in Vilnius as it happened).

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