Long-time readers of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place will know how much we love rail travel. In the pages of the journal and here on the blog we have never been slow to admit that it is almost certainly our favourite mode of transport, challenged only by our joy of going for a walk. It is a love that we share with a couple of close friends of the journal, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. Nicky was a very early contributor to Elsewhere, with a short essay appearing in the very first edition of the journal, and together with Susanne, is the editor of the wonderful hidden europe magazine.
Last month, Nicky and Susanne’s latest project hit the shelves: the 15th edition of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. As both editors and now publishers of the guidebook, Nicky and Susanne have brought their trademark attention to detail to all aspects of the new publication, and as always it is an absolute pleasure to read. With routes from the Atlantic coast of Portugal in the west to the Carpathian Mountains in the east, there can be few more pleasurable ways to spend a cold and windy winter’s afternoon than to be curled up on the sofa with this book, reading about and imagining the different journeys contained within these pages, growing ever-more inspired for the next journey to elsewhere.
Nicky and Susanne have been kind enough to send us some sample texts from the book, to give you a sense of what you can discover between its elegantly designed covers, and we can highly recommend it either for yourself, to plan a trip, or as a Christmas present for that rail-loving friend or member of your family.
Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide
For the 15th edition of the guide there are a number of new routes. One of which takes us from Zagreb through Serbia and Bulgaria to Thessaloniki in Greece. As befitting a book written, edited and published by strong proponents of Slow Travel, the routes are not ones where anyone is in a rush. Here’s how things get started, around Zagreb station in Croatia:
Take a look around the vicinity of the station before leaving Zagreb. The north is the posh side of the railway tracks. The distinguished Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža wrote a damning essay on social (and spatial) divides in Zagreb in 1937. To the north of the station, he found “hot water, roulette, lifts, on parle français, Europe, good!” Over on the south side of the railway there were “open cesspits, malaria… Balkan, a sorry province.” To Krleža, those quarters of Zagreb beyond the railway were “the back of beyond, Asia.” That from a left-leaning writer who was keen to shock the Zagreb bourgeoisie – all by definition residing north of the railway – out of their complacency.
Nowadays, the cesspits south of the tracks are long gone and the district between the railway and the river, while not pretty, is an edgy part of town where activists protest against real estate speculators. Even Zagreb has its rebel zone. If you incline towards more sedate cityscapes, stick to the north side of the station where the Esplanade Hotel still has uniformed bellboys and the Paviljon restaurant attracts an affluent elite who like elaborate cakes and seem not to have noticed that the Habsburg Empire disappeared a while back. Both the Esplanade and the Paviljon are visible from the front of the station. It’s also impossible to miss the statue of good old King Tomislav and his horse which arrived here in 1947 and commemorates the tenth-century monarch who is credited with having created the first coherent Croatian state. Whatever you make of Tomislav, the statue was a good way of recycling old cannons which were melted down to secure the bronze needed.
As the journey from Croatia to Greece continues, the emphasis, as with all the routes in the book, goes beyond practical information to give the reader a sense of the appeal of the journey. Here are a couple of further snapshots of the route to Thessalonki:
From Slavonia to Srem
The train to Belgrade rolls on across the dark plain to reach Tovarnik, a village which would barely warrant a stop bar for the important fact that it’s the last community in Croatia. Just over the fields lies the border with Serbia. It’s not so many years since minefields in this border region continued to pose a major danger. Today, all is calm and the border formalities, conducted at Tovarnik and at Šid on the Serbian side are invariably civil and often even good-humoured.
Beyond Šid, our train doesn’t rush. This is pleasant, undemanding country: the Sava flatlands drifting away to the southern horizon on the right side of the train, while to the left there are the distant ripples of the forested hills known as Fruška Gora. The first stop is at Sremska Mitrovica, the biggest community in Serbia’s Srem region and a relaxed riverside town which traces its history back to the Roman settlement of Sirmium. The town’s claim to be ‘the glorious mother of cities’ may raise a few eyebrows, but it’s a nice enough spot for a first taste of Serbia.
Towards the Bulgarian border
Leaving the main line at Niš, there is immediately a sense of entering another world. We’ve swapped a double-track electrified railway for a humble single-track rural line where trains are hauled by an ancient blue diesel engine which was once reserved for use on the luxury plavi voz (Blue Train) which ferried Yugoslav leader President Tito around the country. But there is no hint of luxury on the slow train to Dimitrovgrad. The railway follows the Nišava Valley up into increasingly rugged hills, along the way passing through Bela Palanka and Pirot, the latter newly raised to city status and still noted for its fine traditional woven carpets. From Pirot it is just a short hop onto Dimitrovgrad, the last station before the Bulgarian border, and a community where ethnic Bulgarians outnumber Serbs by two to one. The language spoken in this border region is Torlak, a South Slavic transitional dialect which has elements of both Serbian and Bulgarian.
Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide is published by hidden europe publications. Alongside the guidebook, there is a dedicated website that includes regular updates and news on European rail travel. The book is available on Wordery, Amazon or via a number of different outlets, which are listed on the Europe by Rail website.