Christine’s Ode to Joy

Thursday – Saturday 30-1 Feb 2020

After the delights of Italy, Christine decided she would like to spend some time in her favourite place, the shores of Lake Constance. So, once again it was time to travel across the Alps. As the train sped north towards Milan there was a line of white topped mountains visible ahead. It was a beautifully clear and sunny day. 

The train headed into the mountains and there was a view of Lake Como and then a short stop at the border. No border guards or inspection of passports, but 3 Swiss financial guards got on and asked a middle-aged couple to open their bags and even their wallets to look inside. 

The train went alongside Lake Lugano and with the green valleys and snow capped mountains it was glorious. Switzerland at its picture postcard best.

Christine stayed in the city of Konstanz itself, which has many old buildings, but seems vibrant and lively with many students. On the Saturday she decided to circumnavigate the lake by train. Setting off on the first train she travelled to the little town of Radolfzell at the western end of the lake. 

From there it was along the northern side into the city of Friedrichshafen where she took a stroll along the waterfront looking across at beautiful Switzerland. Then time for a rail replacement bus through some very tiny village lanes to the beautiful old island city of Lindau where she wandered the cobbled streets lined with typical old German buildings. 

Once again, January was a perfect time to be there as the usually crammed streets were peaceful and quiet. It was then just a few minutes ride round the eastern edge of the lake to the Austrian town of Bregenz for lunch by the waterfront, before taking the half hourly shuttle into Switzerland. 

On our first visit to Lake Constance about 15 years ago, we got caught by a 48 hour deluge in Austria and checked the train times for a possible day trip out, only to find there were only 3 or 4 trains a day. How times have changed with all the cross border cooperation that now takes place. This felt particularly poignant as it was the UK’s final day in the EU.

The weather was so beautiful and the temperature so warm at about 14C that Christine took a 2 hour walk between Swiss towns along the lake shore amazed at how glorious a day it was, but also thinking it did not feel right for it to be so hot and so green there on the last day of January. Then the final train alongside the lake and cycle paths she had ridden so often and a walk across the border back to Germany. 

When Christine and Stephen set out on their big bike ride in 2015 they intended to cycle the length of the Danube from its source in Donaueschingen in the Black Forest to the Black Sea. The prettiest bit had been near the start through a beautiful valley for only bikes and trains, and Christine had always wanted to do this on the train, so today was the day. It was just as beautiful as she remembered and brought back many happy memories and made her think how lovely it would be to cycle it again. 

La Bella Vita

Tuesday & Wednesday 28&29 Jan 2020

On Tuesday Christine crossed from the east coast to the west as she had decided to visit the World Heritage Site of Cinque Terre, 5 old villages clinging to the coast south of Genoa. On Wednesday she took an early train, at 8.20, from the city of La Spezia to the northernmost village, Monterossa. This was the train the locals working in the villages took and seemed too early for most other tourists.

The sky was a cloudless blue and the day soon warmed up. It was the first time on this trip that her winter coat was too warm. Christine had intended to follow the coastal path all the way through the 5 villages, but much of it was closed as too dangerous. She had read in the guidebook that this was due to floods in 2011, and it still wasn’t repaired. It’s Italy! She also later saw a sign saying that this first section was open, but should only be walked in good weather, tick, with extreme caution, tick, (no-one does extreme caution better or slower than Christine over difficult terrain), and with suitable footwear, tick, and as an experienced hiker, well maybe some of Eleri’s prowess had rubbed off by osmosis. There was also a sign saying it was illegal to walk the path in flipflops or open-toed shoes! Obviously there have been many problems in the past as over the 3.5k route there were 25 marked points in case of emergency!

It was blissful. Christine saw only one other hiker and had wonderful views of the coast and villages. It took her nearly 3 hours to reach the next village. The villages cling to the hillsides, which are covered in terraces and the houses are painted in different pastel shades. Often up close they look a bit tatty and in need of a fresh coat of paint, but at a distance they are exquisite. 

With the paths closed the rest of the villages were accessed by train. Spring had already reached here, with flowers out, broadbeans in flower, and butterflies floating by. It was idyllic, but even so there were large numbers of tourists in each village, so Christine was glad to come in winter as the villages are probably unbearably crowded in summer. January is definitely a great month to enjoy the sights without the crowds.

San Marino

Monday 27 Jan 2020 The bus for San Marino left from almost outside the hotel and went straight inland and upwards. 

Christine had no idea what the town would be like, and was somewhat surprised to find it stunningly beautiful. The old town is perched high up on a bluff with 360 views down to the hills below and the Adriatic in the distance. All the buildings are in a Cotswold colour stone, with steep narrow roads and stairways. It was easy to see how impregnable it would have been and how it retained its independence since 301. It was definitely worth a visit, though I imagine it is totally overrun with tourists in the summer. Christine was somewhat disappointed not to add any San Marino coins to her euro collection as the sets on sale were very expensive.

The afternoon brought a pleasant walk around Rimini. One highlight was the Ponte Tiberico built in 21, a 5 arch Stone Bridge still standing and being used by traffic today. It is hard to imagine any of today’s bridges being used for 2000 years! This marks the start of the Via Emilia heading north west. From the bridge there was a straight road, naturally, through the centre of the city with some lovely old buildings to the Arch of Augustus dating from 27bc, marking the end of the Via Flaminia from Rome. I never cease to be impressed at how much history oozes from every Italian City.

Welcome to Italy

Sunday 26 Jan 2020 Stephen had half jokingly suggested visiting San Marino to chalk up another country and the idea took hold. A trip over the Alps to a warmer Italy seemed inviting. The train ride from Innsbruck up to the Brenner pass and down the other side was lovely, but the Pass itself was just a giant lorry park with multi-storey car park and shops as well. Great.

Christine had 40 minutes between trains in Bologna and went to see the memorial to the bomb blast there in 1980. Someone she knew from school was killed in the explosion whilst Interrailing with her boyfriend. (And Stephen went through the station the day before.)

She then experienced a typically Italian event as she waited for her train by platform 4, as per the departure board. Luckily, she happened to notice a train pulling in on a different platform with the same number and destination as her train. It transpired there are 2 platform 4’s, an east and a west, but no mention of this on the departure board! She got on the train somewhat apprehensively as the electronic display on the train itself said it was going in the opposite direction, but the platform information declared it to be the correct one. There was a big sigh of relief as the train headed to Rimini. It was one of those innumerable occasions when you just have to shrug your shoulders and accept these things happen in Italy!

The Hahnenkamm

Saturday 25 Jan 2020 On this trip we have realised that the flexibility of an Interrail ticket is a wonderful thing, if you are happy not booking hotels more than a day in advance and generally flying by the seat of your pants. Today was a perfect example of this. 

On her trip into Innsbruck yesterday Christine had seen the Hahnenkamm slope and read that the downhill race was today. Probably Austria’s biggest sporting event of the year! The trip over the Alps to Italy was put back a day and an early train taken to get to the slope. The train was soon jam-packed with ski supporters, with many of the young men carrying large packs of beer cans and the girls packs of cider or alcopops. 

By 9am there was much singing and dancing on the train, and then a huge cheer when the conductor announced there would be an unplanned stop at the station by the ski slope. The expected 2 hour journey with connections suddenly took under an hour.

Christine paid her €30 entrance and found a place on the mountain with good views of the finish, the big screen and the slope, which was so steep. In no way do photos or TV coverage give a true impression of just how steep it was. The event itself seemed like a cross between a sporting event and a beer festival. During the long wait for the first skier there was a spirited rendition of the Austrian national anthem and an interview with the main VIP, that son of Austria and former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The atmosphere was electric as the racing started. Christine was between the fan club for one of the Austrian skiers who went mental when he went into the lead, and a long line of well-built Swiss men carrying enormous cow bells which they rang whenever a Swiss was racing. Austria was celebrating at the end as they came first and joint second with big rivals Switzerland.

It was a wonderful, unrepeatable day.

Christine’s Tale – Part 1

Friday 24 Jan 2020 The big split came at a small station with a long name, Schwarzach St. Veit.  I waved goodbye to Stephen and waited for my connection and headed off into the Tyrol. The train went past Zell am See, bringing back memories of a summer holiday there more than 25 years ago.

Gradually there was more snow, especially in one village which proudly proclaimed it was the snowiest village in the Tyrol. In general though I was surprised how little snow there was, with only snow at higher levels. It certainly didn’t match up to my expectations of a winter scene in the Alps. 

We went through some ski resorts and right past the famous Hahnenkamm slope at Kitzbühel where it was very busy with many TV lorries for the ski races there this weekend. The end of the downhill run was incredibly steep, and looked as though it would be impossible to ski down. 

I safely registered at the hotel and set off to explore Innsbruck a bit before the sun went down. The only other time I have been here was in 1979 on a previous Interrail trip. I had forgotten just how beautiful a city it is, with graceful old buildings and the snow capped mountains peeking out above them. Time for a delicious hot chocolate, made by melting a large ball of chocolate in hot milk, at a comfy cafe.

We Have Split Up!

Friday 24 Jan 2020 But not in THAT way!

When we were initially planning the holiday there was a difference of views on how long we should be away, Stephen thinking that three weeks away from his beloved bikes would be quite long enough and Christine wanting longer away from the cold and damp of the British winter.

We decided that we could both have what we wanted by a (temporary) parting of the ways and so bought different sorts of Interrail passes – Stephen’s allows him to travel on up to 15 days (in a two month period although he will actually only use it for three weeks) while Christine’s lasts a month and lets her travel every day if she wants.

As a result today was our last day together until Christine returns to Worcester in early February. We caught the 7 o’clock train from Zagreb together with Stephen heading to Aschaffenburg, near Frankfurt, tonight before running to Blighty tomorrow, while Christine is leaving the train in the middle of Austria to head for Innsbruck tonight. From there she will head down to Italy so that she can chalk up San Marino on her list of countries visited. She hasn’t decided where she is going after that but does intend visiting our daughter Eleri who is spending the winter working in the French Alps.

The train soon crossed into Slovenia where the border crossing was much quicker despite the American in the next compartment getting a 5 minute grilling from four police (nothing to do with the colour of his skin, surely?). Immediately the country looked much more prosperous with well maintained houses and more kempt fields. The trip up the valley of the River Sava to Ljubljana was very pretty and reminded us how much we enjoyed our cycling holiday in Slovenia in about 2007.

Soon after Ljubljana we started climbing again and the views improved still further as we entered the Alps and Austria. It was all very chocolate box pretty. However, there wasn’t as much snow as we were expecting – in many places it was little more than a dusting. Of course it was thicker elsewhere and we passed several ski resorts with views of people on the slopes and cable cars heading up higher.

As the time for the parting of the ways approached we both became quieter. This coming 10 days will be the longest we have spent apart for many years – will we manage? 

Bye Bye Balkans

Wednesday & Thursday 22 & 23 Jan 2020 The trip from Podgorica certainly lived up to its advance billing. It starts climbing almost immediately following a steep sided valley with views of the river and the road a long way below. There are also glimpses of a new motorway being constructed (when it isn’t passing through a tunnel). To start with there was only a little snow to be seen on the highest peaks but, as we moved further from the coast and as we climbed higher, the coverage increased to several inches.

We were surprised at the number of passengers boarding the train in Podgorica but almost all of them alighted at the last station in Montenegro, Bijelo Polje, leaving a few “hardy souls” to endure the boredom of the border crossing. (The hour+ long waiting for the border police to check everyone’s passports and identity cards in this part of the world certainly makes you appreciate the benefits of the Schengen area.)

Back in Serbia the train stopped more frequently than in Montenegro and, after a number of tiny stations, started to fill up again at the first major stop of Prijepolje. Soon after, darkness began to fall and the loss of a view from the window reduced the attractiveness of the journey. By the time we arrived in Belgrade (8.00 p.m.) we were looking forward to the hotel which was thankfully only a short taxi ride away. 

On Thursday morning we were up for the start of breakfast at 6 o’clock because the train for Zagreb left (so we thought) at 7.00. After a 5 minute walk to a different, closer station we were perturbed to see no trace of it on the departures board. Enquiring at the international ticket office we discovered that someone (no names, no packdrill) had misread the website – the train actually left at 10 o’clock, the earlier time being applicable from October 2020! Still, it was better to be three hours early rather than three hours late. Rather than sit on hard chairs in the station waiting room we decided to return to the hotel so that Christine could catch another couple of hours sleep and Stephen could sit on a comfy sofa with another coffee or two.

Returning to the station at the right time we were a little surprised to find an international train with only two carriages but, on reflection, these two countries (Serbia and Croatia) were fighting each other in the recent past so any contact most be positive.

The countryside was a complete contrast to yesterday – absolutely pan flat and unremarkable all the way! The train trundled its way out of Belgrade which we assumed was due to the extensive works on adjacent tracks for the high speed link to Budapest. However, this may not have been the case because after we turned away from this we started to go even slower – between 15 and 20 mph. It was painfully slow! On our phones we watched the border and the inevitable passport check creep slowly closer. We were stopped on the Serbian side for ¾ hour even though there were only about 30 people to inspect. Presumably the timetable has to allow for the extra time required when passenger numbers are higher in the high season and it did allow the Serbian locomotive to make way for a Croatian one which was either much more powerful or had a driver who was in a rush to get home! Either way the speed increased to around 80 mph which was much more satisfying. (And the Croatian passport check was much quicker/less rigorous!)

The later train meant that we arrived in Zagreb at just after 6 o’clock and so missed out on any chance of a quick look round. However, with another early start (definite this time – Christine has checked on the Deutsche Bahn website!) we were glad that the hotel was just across the road from the station.

Moochin’ in Montenegro

Sunday – Tuesday 19 – 21 Jan 2020 A train ride to Montenegro and the Adriatic coast was one of the diversions that we had been considering when in Istanbul. (The other was a road trip to Skopje in North Macedonia from Sofia which was eventually ruled out because the 3 hour drive each way meant that you only get a couple of hours in Skopje – a bit disappointing considering the c.£150 cost. We’ll just have to come back this way in the summer when there are trains running!)

Christine’s guru, The Man in Seat 61, reckons that the ride from Belgrade to Bar is one of the great train journeys of the world. The first two hours definitely are not but after that we hit the mountains of southern Serbia and it became extremely pretty, particularly with the snow covering as the altitude increased. We didn’t actually get to see what is supposed to be the most spectacular (the section in Montenegro) because the slow speed of the train and the faffing around at the border meant that darkness had fallen – that will have to wait for the return journey to Belgrade on Wednesday.

The route was only completed in the 1970s and has 250 tunnels and more than 400 bridges in its 300 miles length. It even crosses into Bosnia Herzegovina briefly but doesn’t stop there and at least half of that 9 km stretch is in a tunnel.

We had decided to stay in Podgorica, the capital, because it seemed a better place to base ourselves rather than Bar which we had read was rather shabby without much going for it other than the port (not exactly true as we were to find out the next day!) The hotel was right by the station and we were soon tucking into a very welcome meal (there had been no food on the train other than the few snacks we had with us).

On Monday we jumped on the train to Bar and enjoyed crossing the bridge over Lake Skadar (which is shared with Albania). After what we had read about Bar we were pleasantly surprised – the area around the station was rather shabby but things improved as we headed towards the sea and the area around the terminal for the ferry to Italy had some nice buildings including a small former royal palace and blocks of flats. The Montenegrin navy was also in port with half a dozen very small ships tied up. With the sun shining the Adriatic was a beautiful colour and the temperature was, in marked contrast to the previous few days, a comfortable 10° – at least when the icy wind from the mountains to the north stopped blowing.

Having exhausted the sights of Bar and with the delights of Podgorica calling we headed back to the capital. Compared to the other cities we have been visiting on this holiday it has a distinctly “small town” feel although we were surprised to learn that it’s population is approximately 200,000. It was not a place we had heard of before we came – except that we discovered that we had! Before the break up of Yugoslavia it was known as Titograd after the despot who lead the country for more than 40 years.

We found more to see than in Bar – an old town with a clock tower, a mosque and a cute little bridge all from the 17th century when it was part of the Ottoman Empire as well as some nicely laid out parks and squares in the newer part. We also visited the new cathedral which was completed in 2013 and were impressed. As typical in Orthodox churches the walls and ceilings were covered in religious paintings (one of which features Marx, Engels and Tito burning in Hell!) but we were particularly taken by the floor which was laid out in a tasteful pattern of marble and incorporated a mosaic of Noah’s Ark. 

It was Kotor’s turn for a visit on Tuesday. Neither of us had heard of this town or the bay on which it is situated but it sounded appealing when we read the guidebook – a mini Dubrovnik seemed to be the gist. The railway network in Montenegro is very limited but Kotor has a frequent bus service from Podgorica so we were on a different mode of transport.

The ride there was spectacular – in simple terms it was up a big hill, down the other (steeper) side to the sea and follow the coast for 20 km. The mountains all around are lovely to look at but would not sustain much agriculture – and they are incredibly steep!

To start off with we walked past the old walled town along the sea front. The Bay of Kotor has a very narrow mouth from the Adriatic but then opens out to a large sheltered expanse of water surrounded by sheer cliffs with a narrow step of habitable land around the water’s edge. In the warm (it was low to mid teens °C!) January sunshine it looked absolutely stunning. The water was clear, had hardly a ripple and reflected the blue sky above. We can imagine that in the height of summer it is rammed with tourists but today it was calm and peaceful. We can certainly imagine spending a week here in, say, March or October.

We stopped for lunch at one of the many (mostly open, even in January) cafes beside the sea and had a glorious time taking in the views.

After that it was time to explore the town itself and that too was very impressive. The narrow cobbled streets and old buildings were very atmospheric and not spoiled by hordes of tourists sweating in the heat of the summer or pushy shopkeepers intent on extracting every last Euro out of them. (Did we tell you that they use the Euro here unofficially? Who knew?)

Tomorrow we are heading back to Belgrade to continue our journey westwards and going that the weather is clear enough for us to enjoy the views from the train promised by The Man in Seat 61.

Slow Train to Serbia

Friday & Saturday 17 & 18 Jan 2020 It was always going to be a long day on the rails – 13 hours and 3 trains. But we didn’t quite appreciate how slow we would be going!

The first train stopped for an hour at the last station in Bulgaria to allow for passport checking. It then trundled across the border to the first station in Serbia where we were kept on board for half an hour for the Serbian border force to take its turn. We were then released to board the next train which was waiting at the next platform but then sat around for another 30 minutes whilst we waited for the departure time.

At least the second train kept moving – just! It took 3 hours to cover the 100 km to Nis stopping (thankfully briefly) at every station in the way even if some of them were no more than a delapidated shed in the middle of nowhere. The upside was that there was a long stretch climbing up through a stunning rocky gorge with high cliffs on both sides and a river down below. It was rather gorgeous (no pun intended!).

The final train from Nis to Belgrade moved a bit quicker thank goodness but had further to go and it also stopped at every station so it took 5 hours. We arrived at just after 9 o’clock and then made our way to the hotel where we collapsed exhausted despite having been sat down all day. It’s funny how tiring travelling is.

Waking refreshed and ready for the fray, we enjoyed a very pleasant breakfast at the hotel and headed off on a walking tour of the city that Stephen had plotted the night before. When we reached Belgrade in 2015 Christine remained in the hotel nursing her broken arm for the whole 4 days that we were here and Stephen only spent half a day sightseeing in between nursing the invalid and getting the bikes cleaned and boxed for the flight home.

Although not as appealing as Bucharest, we found more to see than in Sofia. There were two main highlights. Firstly there was the church of St Sava, construction of which started in 1935 but was halted because of the lack of finance during WW2 and much of the Communist era. The interior is not yet complete and not accessible. However, the crypt is open and we were absolutely stunned by the sight. It is so unlike any other crypt we have seen. With a lot of cream and gold, it is light and airy despite the relatively low ceiling and just full of colour and beautiful murals.

We were also impressed by the fortress which dominates the confluence of the Danube and one of its tributaries. It is simply huge! Sadly we have no photos as Christine discovered this evening that her camera had gone missing!