Part 1 – From London to Sofia

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Thursday, 14 April 2011

If I was a proper travel writer, I would have started my journey standing winsomely under Parliament’s Clock Tower, musing on how policies and decisions enacted in Westminster had resonated across every country through which I would travel, before striding purposely through Carriage Gates and hailing a black cab in Parliament Square, with a hearty shout of “St Pancras, please…yes, international departures.”

The reality was more mundane. The last thirty minutes in the Portcullis House office was spent recording and re-recording my answer phone message, a task which mainly consisted of listening back to recordings of myself swearing as I fumbled over what I wanted to say. At about the last possible moment, I scurried out of the palace through the not-so-secret exit straight into the Underground station, and reached St Pancras via the anodyne pairing of Jubilee and Victoria lines, checking in right on the deadline for the half past four non-stop to Paris.

Being more used to the half-empty luxury of Brussels-bound Eurostars, it was almost

Eurostar in the Rainham Marshes

Eurostar in the Rainham Marshes

surprising to be travelling in a full carriage, mostly populated with well-dressed Parisian exchange rate tourists, returning with bulging Oxford Street bags filling every luggage rack and half the aisle. In the late afternoon light, rural Kent looked appealing, the train racing past miles of stunted scots pines before the twenty minute darkness of the tunnel.

Under grey skies at Fréthun, flowering bushes of gorse provided splashes of bright colour, whilst grim faced commuters trudged off a TGV at the low level station. Out into the Pas de Calais, the train effortlessly breasted each rise in the landscape like a ship on a rolling sea; in the lush fields, white Charolais cattle stood out from miles away, with melancholy red brick Flemish campaniles pricking the horizon. We slowed through Lille and the bifurcation for Brussels, then accelerated again across the plains under low, stormy sunshine. Since my last trip this way, the flat landscape had been transformed by the addition of tall wind turbines towering above the rows of Picardy poplars. For the first time since the early days of the service, Nana, the chef de bord informed a disinterested train that we were travelling at maximum speed. Given we had been doing so since Dagenham, this struck me as a residual touch of high-speed nationalism on Nana’s part.

Slowing into the Paris suburbs, a Turkish Airlines 737 lumbered low overhead on its approach to Charles de Gaulle, having completed in a few hours a journey that would take me as many days. We trundled into the Gare de Nord, paralleling graffitied banlieue trains that look like they’re built out of nothing more substantial than corrugated iron. Down in the swirling crowds of the metro station, I pondered if President Sarkozy would consider that I should feel as threatened by the priest in full purple robes who swished past as I should of a woman in full burqa. Rows of illuminated poster boards for the Nouvel Observateur magazine advertised their dossier special angletterre, which revealingly appeared to have only two sub-sections: Le marriage and la crise social. A squashed journey through late-peak Paris subterranea, squeezed onto a double-deck RER train to Châtelet, then on the automated Metro line 14, through the underground gardens at the Gare de Lyon and out into a warm Paris sunset at Bercy. The square and streets around the indoor stadium swarmed with civil servants and énarques from the vast, grey Ministry of Finances across the way.

Paris Bercy

The ‘Stendhal’ to Venice awaits departure at Paris Bercy

Bercy station, little more than a distant annex of the Gare de Lyon, is an unassuming concrete lump whose obvious primary purpose as a motorail terminal makes it a rather unromantic departure point for the Venice sleeper, the long line of Italian coaches stretching away in the evening light. I was quartered with a taciturn Milanese student, who was made up for by the amusingly multilingual sleeping car attendant, who insisted that I understand that “Tonight, you-a closa the door”.  The elderly couple next door managed to spend half an hour arguing the toss as to whether they should hand over their passport to him for the two borders crossed overnight. I decided not to tell them that on my last journey on this train, it had taken the attendant 20 minutes to find my passport again (it was in the bin bag, covered in croissant crumbs).

We rolled out on time into the sunset, leaving behind the factories and apartment blocks, which merged slowly into the rolling Forest of Fontainebleau, scattered with belle époque villas. At 10pm, space finally became available in the dining car for dinner, by which time we were roaring through the darkness of Burgundy. Dinner service at 100mph on a very curvaceous line was impressive in its unruffledness, especially as it was conducted effectively by one waitress, whilst her two colleagues – a moody woman in what looked like a Young Pioneers cap, and the spitting image of the outgoing NUS president – ate breadsticks at a spare table. The food was passable, and the Tuscan wine good. Indeed, when we hit the pointwork at Montbard hard, sending half a glass of red wine into the ravioli, the sauce was probably improved.

Pleasantly hazy from the wine, I fell asleep in the little compartment, listening to the couple next door solemnly repeating the name of the station at which we were stopped: “Dôle?” “Dôle.” “Ah, Dôle.” “Oui, Dôle.”

Friday, 15 April

I woke at just after 7am to find the train stationary and silent under the vast overall roof of Milano Centrale. It slowly dawned on me in my slightly drowsy state that as we were timetabled to arrive in Padova – 250km away – where I would be changing for the south in 30 minutes time, the legendary unreliability of this train had struck. Some minutes of fumbling with a timetable and an alternative route from Milano was worked out and I hurriedly set off in search of the attendant to retrieve my passport. He urged me to be as swift as possible – pronto, pronto! – and inevitably, as soon as I had grabbed my bag and reached the door, the train had begun to crawl its way out of the station. Fortunately, there was time to double back from the next stop at Brescia.

The train crawled slowly through the Milanese suburbs and then across the open Po floodplain. At Rovato, we were shoved into a loop for ten minutes to let high-speed services overtake. The Venice sleeper was running very late – and no-one seemed to have any interest in doing anything to make up that delay. Eventually we pulled into Brescia, the pristine marble station hall swarming with smart carabinari and soldiers wearing feathered caps, their general air contrasting notably with the badly grafittied regional trains which wandered to and fro. After much negotiation, the ticket machine finally agreed to sell me a ticket for the full train back to Milano, the ticket insisting that it was for ‘standing room only’. And so it proved – fortunately the train turned out to have spacious and airy vestibules. In the usual floodplain morning haze, we sped past the wooded Alpine foothills’ past the mix of semi-derelict heavy industry and huge farm houses, many the size of small hamlets; crossing broad rivers transitioning from fast, clear alpine waterways to slow, pebble-braided, muddy plain rivers.

Milano Centrale

Feccerosa high-speed trains wait at Milano Centrale

Back at the vast Milano Centrale, a genuine temple of travel on the scale that only the nineteenth century could create, the twenty-first century proved less congenial, huge queues forming at the platform head to use the sole semi-defective ticket validating machine. With both the 10:00 Roma and the 10:15 Salerno boarding on this platform pair, it was a slow process. Nevertheless, once aboard, the ‘Feccerosa’ (‘Red Arrow’) high-speed train was comfortable, smart – and despite the last minute booking I had been allocated a forward facing window seat. The carriage, on a dull day, contained more designer sunglasses than your average FBI away day.

Joining the high-speed line after Rogoredo, the train ran swiftly and smoothly across the lush, sunny Po plain, paralleling the motorway and overtaking the procession of Fiats and Alfa Romeos with ease.

We were treated to a constant stream of bi-lingual announcements, mainly about what ‘fine Italian snack’ first class passengers were being served at that moment. By-passing Piacenza and Fidenza, the storm cloud-covered northern edge of the Apennines crept closer. After an hour of the same cycle of endless fields and edge-of-town big box stores, including countless IKEAs, we slowed for Bologna, placing me back on track. Station signs and announcements warned of that fixture of Italian rail travel, the sciopero – strike – but this seemed a particularly ineffective example of its genre, with only one train cancelled, not that I envied anyone the bus replacement to Munich that was the result.

The connection was comfortably made at Bologna on to the coastal express – a so-called EurostarCity, which turned out to be a rather oversold rake of mildly refurbished old coaches sandwiched between some spare high-speed power cars. Confusion over double-bookings resolved, I settled into my cheap first class seat opposite an elderly chap who appeared, from his paperwork, to ply the very Italian trade of campanile restoration.
We pressed on towards the coast under lowering clouds, travelling through orchards spotted with bird scarers the size and style of small wind turbines. A river lined with fishing boats and a field of abandoned trolley buses heralded the approach of Rimini. For the following few miles, glimpses of the Adriatic were limited to split second views down endless streets of apartments built at right angles to railway. The continual built-up landscape persisted through Catolica, a melancholy out-of-season ghost town and on to next stop at Pesaro, which managed to be only slightly less melancholy.

Adriatic

300 miles of Adriatic coast through steamed up windows

After Pesaro the line finally pulled alongside the grey and aquamarine sea, following mile after mile of deserted golden beaches and shuttered bars, the train frightening large flocks of gulls into flight as we roared through the rain storm. On through a vast oil refinery at Falconara, with line of tankers waiting offshore to unload, and on to Ancona, where it was odd to see first-generation Pendolino trains, once the gleaming pride of Ferrovie dello Stato, faded and rotting in the yards.

A long tunnel out of Ancona bought us up into the rolling Marche hills, cutting off a large headland, returning to the coast at Civitanova Marche. The next section, with steeper hills pegging the railway to the seaboard rather closely resembled the Dawlish sea wall on the main line to Cornwall – right down to the palm trees lining the promenade. South of Pescara, in its latest colour change, the sea at last assumed a deep Mediterranean blue. The line ran in avalanche-protection galleries under cliffs, the passing arches like split-second glimpses of miniatures of varying blues. We were now clearly in the dry south. Flashing in and out of long tunnels, eyes were now taking several moments to adjust to the harsher light and the less forgiving colour pallette of the landscape.

Leaving Termoli we gained height above the sea and views briefly opened up over the gulf and misty blue Gargano peninsula. This was followed by a lengthy run along the back of low, scrubby dune before turning inland across a bleak, rolling landscape of vast unenclosed fields, with only the mountainous spine of the peninsula as a reference point. This felt eerily like a land that had been cleared of its inhabitants. Given the history of southern Italy, it probably had been. The towns, too, seemed low and stunted, including Foggia, almost afraid to break the vast horizon. For the first time on the journey I started seeing livestock – a few flocks of scraggly sheep, then we overtook a farmer and his dogs herding 50 handsome black and brown goats. In the boundaryless fields, migrant workers drove 50yr old tractors.

The station at Barletta was distinguished by flowering mimosas and graffitied swastikas. Beyond, there was the odd experience of running through cuttings whose banks were covered with cactus, which must at least be a good deterrent to cable theft. Slowly the sea re-appeared, a deep blue line on the horizon, before we pulled into Bari, on the stiletto heel of Italy.

Bari old town

Alleyway in Bari Old Town

Bari station fronted on to a square dotted with fountains and lined with a series of odd suburban termini. The new town was very much in the tradition of early twentieth century Italian town planning: grid patterned streets of marble pavements, lined by monumental fascist public buildings and apartment blocks.  Beyond was the superb maze-like old town, serpentine alleyways packed with random churches, food shops with huge vats of sun-dried tomatoes, remnants of historic wall and grand arches leading to tiny, humble courtyards; on every corner some form of shrine or offertory. With sea on two sides of the town, the occasional glimpses of it at the end of alleys were merely confusing in terms of orientation – in the end, I realised that the moon was a far more useful aid to navigation.

Bari procession

Evening procession of the Virgin, Bari

As evening drew on the town’s alleys and squares echoed with church bells and the solemn organs of a hundred masses. As these died away, the traditional pattern of the passeggiata commenced: first, at around 6, came the old men, sitting on the walls outside the citadel; followed by the young families; then the carabinieri keeping a careful eye on proceedings/showing off their pristine uniforms; then young people driving scooters at high speed along narrow passageways; and finally the very young kids riding precariously on bikes, closely followed by the inevitable bleeding noses. Once mopped up, their evening was rounded off by a spot of football using the wall

Bari night

Evening in Bari

of a twelfth century church as a goal. On the edge of old town I came across a procession of robed priests and lay persons slowly carrying a life sized effigy of the Virgin and latterns, apparently visiting every church in town for blessings. They were followed by the local police brass band, playing suitably solemn pieces. The solemnity of the procession and band was not entirely matched by the watching crowd, for whom it simply constituted an extra stop on the passeggiata.

I walked to the rather pedestrian-unfriendly ferry port to be told that the ticket office where my  internet-acquired reservation could be exchanged for a ticket was 2km away. Luckily, turning up at the wrong place is a common problem for foot passengers and the ferry companies run a dinky free shuttle bus between the wrong place and the right place. Dinky, it quickly emerged, was simply too small for the demand.

Bari port

Bari port – ferry capital of the southern Adriatic

It turned out that the ticket offices were a set of tents round the back of a lorry park. In the ‘queue’ for the ticket window, I had my first experience of Albanian chain-smoking, which is of an intensity and near-universality rarely experienced in contemporary western Europe. Boarding of the Riviera Adriatica was very informal for foot passengers via the car deck, dodging certain death under the tyres of lorries reversing aboard. A rather limited welcome was afforded by the surly ticket collector who seemed more interested in reading precisely what Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and Requires than  in the business end of my passport.

The Dubrovnik

The ‘Dubrovnik’, moored alongside the ‘Riviera Adriatica’, casts off

Allocated a pretty basic cabin far below deck, but after the night on the sleeper, I appreciated its privacy and even the cold, salt water shower. It was just best not to examine the carpet under the bunk too closely. The Riviera Adriatica had that out of season feel that all ferries seem to have, regardless of the time of year: every boat seems to have been built with a route that is either longer, hotter or better-off in mind, thus leaving it with an unfilled swimming pool, unused cinemas or a duty-free shop stocked with nothing but cheap plastic toys.

 

 

 

 

Saturday, 16 April

At 6:45am the Riviera was still churning slowly through the Adriatic, clearly late for its 7am timetabled docking. Gradually, the mountainous hinterland of Albania and Montenegro revealed itself above the horizon, followed by the apartment blocks and cranes of Durrës. Slowly we picked our way past a handful of fishing boats working the edge of the continental shelf – and was that flash of wet black in the water a dolphin?

Durres

Approaching Durrës

The pilot boat came alongside as we chugged into the harbour of rusty freighters and piles of coal. Slowly, the ferry manoeuvred into its berth, an hour late. From the harbour, Durrës rather has

the look of China – appropriately perhaps as the People’s Republic was pretty much Albania’s only ally during the decades of Hoxha’s rule: clusters of cheaply built apartment blocks, scattered over green, hazy hillsides.

Albanian railways

Albanian Railways: the image

With a double-headed eagle stamped in my passport, I took what turned out to be the main exit from the ferry port via a rubble strewn car park and some tatty streets, greeted by plenty of offers of ‘taksi?‘. Durrës’station was empty, echoing and crumbling, the sole timetable obscured by a man selling hard boiled eggs from a stall in front of it. The plaza in front was under renovation – the artist’s impressions showed a smart plaza but an untouched station. The place was adorned with rather odd state railway posters showing a woman in a flapper dress dancing dangerously close to a platform edge, whilst a stylised Intercity 125 sped past under semaphore signals. In the station hall, a bored security guard sat on his plastic chair, relieving the tedium by standing up each time the overdressed station master passed him. At the platform ends, the signals stood lampless and disused – all movements were now controlled by walkie-talkie.

Albanian railways

Albanian railways: the reality

A couple of trains, hauled by industrial-looking locomotives, arrived slowly through the grass at around half past nine, stray dogs loping leisurely out of the way. One was formed of two practically derelict German regional coaches, the other of two completely derelict Italian coaches:  it transpired that the latter was the Tiranë train. Around two-thirds of the windows were either missing or smashed, the upholstory ripped and deeply ingrained with thick dust. On the plus side, there was an on-train banana seller.

The locomotive ran round smartly and we were off, more or less on time and occasionally topping 20mph. We loped out of town, passing shanties, half-built apartments, a derelict depot with derelict steam locomotives, fields of informally free-range hens and back garden vineyards. It was hard to tell where the town ends as shoddily-built new villas encroach outwards in some sort of planning officer’s nightmare, but slowly wild flower meadows began to dominate as we trundled across the plain. On the houses there was a notably high use of solar panels, pointing perhaps to the unreliability of the electricity supply from the grid. Railway sidings, it turned out are for the grazing of sheep.

The railway followed a motorway towards Tiranë. The road had created a narrow corridor of big box stores, apartment blocks which had been half-built and then abandoned, monumentally sized billbords advertising Vodafone and election candidates: all the detritus of shock therapy capitalism. Nevertheless, untouched wooded hills rose on either side of either side of this rather unappealing corridor.

This pattern broadly continued throughout the second half of journey to Tirana. Coming from a country where political affiliation is normally kept as a personal matter, it was a surprising just how many businesses – and in one case a railway station – were flying either the blue flags of the right-wing Democratic Party or the red flags of the socialists. The last few minutes into the capital were a real back-of-the-houses run, cutting through Saturday morning conversations outside the greengrocers and kid’s bicycle races, the locomotive’s horn constantly blasting to clear football games, cow herders and smartly dressed businesswomen out of our path.

Tiranë park

Draughts matches, Tiranë

The walk from the station down King Zog 1st Boulevard towards the city centre revealed a micro-economy laid out on pavements: hand-knitted clothes, cucumbers, second hand books. Tiranë, it turned out was a bustling, buzzy, friendly little city – though within five minutes of getting off the train, a local man had insisted on telling me that London is the most beautiful city in world. Tiranë reminded me somewhat of Sarajevo, a Balkan capital backed by misty hills on almost all sides. What it lacked for in architectural beauty – and much of it is very unfortunate architecturally – it made up for by well-laid out boulevards and pleasant parks, full of old men playing draughts. The central Skanderberg Square, centred on an equestrian statue of the eponymous national hero and flanked by a Soviet-style opera house, was an immense building site, part of a large programme of beautification and pedestrianisation. Beyond was a government quarter of pre-war Italianate buildings in peeling burnt sienna. Amongst the trees sat the low key Parliament building, though it was a mystery why  as a not-yet-admitted nation should be flying the EU flag from its legislature – in gratitude for the structural funds, perhaps?

Tanners' Bridge

Tanners’ Bridge, Tiranë

A woman walking past eating borek reminded me that I hadn’t had breakfast, and that central Europe does a particularly good line in cheesy all-day snacks, so I set off on a borek hunt – where had she got hers? Walking in the opposite direction, I soon found what was basically a hole in a slightly dingy wall, with steaming trays of filo pastries. Greasy and good – and the equivalent of 15p a go. Clogged arteries have rarely come so cheap.

Pyramid

Pyramid, Tiranë

Across the practically waterless Lana river stood the large glass and concrete Pyramid, built by Hoxha as a sort of glorified conference centre and now sitting in a state of almost picturesque semi-dereliction, apparently under threat of demolition. The small demonstration on the roof for its preservation was taking place every Saturday, and I could certainly sympathise. Beside the Pyramid was a large bell cast from bullet casings as a memorial to the 1997 Albanian uprising – it struck me that given the uprising occurred after the collapse of vast pyramid schemes then the bell’s location was an irony that probably doesn’t work in Albanian.

Socialist Party stall

Socialist Party street ‘stall’, Tiranë

Across the road was a huge Socialist Party street stall – and if your image of a party street stall is a couple of bored activists behind a fold up table, then this stall might have surprised you: the size of a house, with full audio-visual facilities. The young, red t-shirted activists were keen to sign me up to their list of promised voters for the municipal elections – unfortunately my grasp of Albanian didn’t run to offering particularly fulsome fraternal best wishes to a sister party.

Tirane woods

Tiranë woods

Beyond the large university, the hills rose as particularly lovely parkland – woodlands carpeted with buttercups and views back across the blocks of Tiranë. Near the summit were placid little cemeteries of German and British soldiers killed during barely-remembered operations in Albania during World War 2. The route back down the hill led past a large artificial lake and then through a pleasant neighbourhood of streets lined with mature horse chestnut trees and bars full of smart young Tiranëse. This area was formerly the home of the party elite, including Enver Hoxha, whose villa is now hemmed in by bars, restaurants and hotels.

Tirane station

A long way from St Pancras (in every sense): Tiranë railway station

The train back to Durrës was formed of German coaches, in slightly better nick than the Italian ones, though the self-closing doors were no longer working, leaving the guard to slam each door shut individually at each station. Just before Vlore we came to a sudden stop causing everyone to lean out of the doors to see the cause, which turned out to be a large, albeit skinny cow being reluctantly removed from the line by its owner.

The train’s policeman – for some reason it had been decreed that every train should have one, possibly as a rather delayed reaction to the smashed windows – came to chat to his friends sitting opposite. For some reason, he expressed surprise I was not French – clearly I was looking particularly Gallic that day. Reverting to his limited English, he added “Once I would have been here to keep an eye on you. Not now. You’re safe.”

Durres main street

Durrës main street

Durrës turned out to be a much nicer town on second acquaintance – for a start, it had stopped raining. Roman remains were scattered about the town and it sported a civilised, palm tree-lined main street. On the walk to the hotel, I was accosted by two separate Albanians who, unlike the train policeman, had no difficulty in guessing my actual nationality: the first was keen to tell me how he lived for most of the year in Hammersmith. The second, more oddly, wanted to tell me that “Tony Blair, he good man”. It turned out he was a Kosovar Albanian, and viewed the former prime minister as very much the saviour of the western Balkans.

Extended opening hours meant I was able to check in to the rather nice Hotel Naïs (even if they did give me the ominous sounding room 101) before being the last person of the day to visit the remains of the Roman amphitheatre. Hemmed in by houses, this turned out to be a remarkably intact, understated site, pleasantly overgrown, with galleries, animal pens and a grafted-on Byzantine chapel clinging to the hillside.

Durres amphitheatre

Durrës Roman amphitheatre

As the sun set, the first muezzin of the trip – or more likely minaret speaker pumping out a recording – began to call out across the town, competing with jangly music from the fairground on the promenade. I opted in to the traditional Balkan end to the day of strong coffee and gooey cake in a café where the legally-required no smoking signs were ignored to the point of there being ashtrays on the tables. The TV news that night had a remarkable level of local election coverage, with much waving of blue and red flags. A Socialist complaint about the ballot paper design had apparently been upheld, which left me wondering what on earth the original design looked like – a big arrow pointing to the Democratic Party candidate labelled ‘Vote for this one’?

Sunday, 17 April

It was a bright early morning in Durrës, the town waking up with alacrity as I walked through it at 7am. Even the normally ghostly railway station was relatively bustling. I purchased most expensive ticket available on the menu posted above the cell-like ticket office, costing 250 lek, or £1.56 and boarded the one daily train to Pogradeci, on the Macedonian border.

We trundled south at the usual stately pace through the built-up strip along the coast, as roadside fruit and vegetable stalls were being opened and the first cups of coffee being drunk outside tumbledown bars. This was a land of sparkling new apartment blocks alongside fields where farmers still rode their donkeys to work them. I reflected that with 10km of almost continual development – and with still more blocks being built – in 20yrs this line would probably be carrying a congestion-busting electrified metro service, rather than three 2-coach trains per day trundling along without stopping. Indeed, the only station along the coast was in a relatively sparse area of development and served instead the end of a road leading 5km to a village in the hilly hinterland.

Rural Albania

Rural Albania

The only refreshments on the train for the 7hr journey it was making (it had started from Tiranë at 5am) was a solitary chap with an unexciting box of snacks who constantly walked up and down train. The only ‘sale’ he appeared to make was a pack of peanuts to a black-robed widow sitting opposite who ended up getting them  for free as he couldn’t change her 500 lek note. At Lekaj, female competition for him got on, leaving him looking very disgruntled and moaning vociferously to the guard. Predictably – as she had much the same merchandise – she didn’t sell anything either.

In both town and country, back gardens and the tops of low rises alike were adorned with the low concrete domes of the communist regime’s mushroom shaped bunkers, designed to protect against what they saw as an inevitable attack, most likely from the Soviets – which just about demonstrates the level of delusion that existed within Hoxha’s hierarchy. Most of them were now semi-derelict, but several had been converted into makeshift hen houses. As I had noticed the previous day, barely a home existed outside the towns without a small flock of hens scratching around it. It is unclear whether capitalism has yet transformed Albania into a land of homeowners or shareholders: it is, however, very clearly, a hen-owning democracy.

Shkumbinit valley

Shkumbinit valley

The line quit the coastal plain and began to curve eastward, climbing slowly into the foothills. The guard had forgotten to turn on the saloon lights (or just as likely, they were defunct) so we rattled through the tunnels in darkness, the interior illuminated only by the screens of numerous mobile phones. Rrogozhinë station was a hive of activity, with three trains meeting, numerous passengers piling on and a young woman herding a flock of turkeys and poults (yes, I did have to look up the name for young turkeys) in the overgrown sidings. Wheels were tapped, locomotives inexplicably swapped and we set off again, up side of broad valley of the Shkumbinit.

The train rattled through olive groves and past little villages marked by minarets, with occasional glimpses of the jagged mountains to our north and east. At Bishqem, the seat next to me became occupied by a sewing machine owned by a friend of the guard. It became apparent that the guard’s frantic phone conversations a few minutes previously were not a precursor of an operational problem, but arranging for the train to be held for her late running friend. The train policeman – this one was convinced I was Dutch – seemed very concerned that as a privileged international traveller I might in some way be inconvenienced by the sewing machine. The machine’s owner, on the other hand, was insistent that I realise how beautiful Albania was. I could but agree. The main valley was narrowing, and the railway clung to its north slope, crossing stunning little side valleys on viaducts, full of purple blossom and tall haystacks.

Possibly to distract from some monumentally slow running – around twenty minutes of trundling along at about 10mph, presumably due to track quality – the policeman decided I should be the on-train celebrity. 12-year old Estreban, who had a smattering of school English, was produced and prevailed upon to act as interpreter. I was quizzed on name, hometown, occupation, father’s occupation and marital status. Tony Blair was mentioned again, but “I’m a member of his party” was beyond poor Estreban.

We crawled onto Elbasan past vast derelict steelworks which once rejoiced in the name of ‘Steel of the Party’ (it works better in Albanian). It was unclear if Elbasan had in any way recovered from their closure. We were the only train of the day beyond Elbasan, which seemed to mean the Sunday market could take over the line with impunity. With the policeman yelling out of the front door of the carriage and making frantic arm gestures (the only bit of actual work I saw a railway policeman do), merchandise was cleared swiftly off the tracks and piled up alongside, giving an excellent opportunity for low-speed window shopping. Except unusually, we were inside the window and the goods outside.

We headed deeper into the scrubby mountains, with a remarkable number of military installations dotted along the valley, perhaps unsurprising given its strategic significance as one of the few east-west axes in Albania. For long periods the clear river in its huge, braided bed took up almost the entire valley floor, squeezing road and railway into a tiny corridor along the northern bank. Pressing on, residual patches of snow appeared on the heights to our south.

The locomotive toiled up the never-ending gradient, the ecosystem gradually shifting from Mediterranean scrubland to near-alpine meadows. At isolated Xhyre, high on the valley side, there was a five-minute stop to allow water bottles to be refilled at the station fountain – the water was cool and slightly sweet. Even out here, with just one train per day in either direction, every little station was equipped with a more-or-less smartly attired stationmaster, normally with an informally-attired booking clerk as well.

Eventually we left the main valley, crossed the river on a spectacularly high viaduct and wandered slowly up a smaller, lower tributary valley. This was a land of scattered farmhouses, celandine and outcrop-strewn fields grazed by hardy looking goats. You sensed that winter had only just loosened its grip on these highland plateaus – and there was plenty of manual work going on in the fields to suggest that up here it was still early in the annual agricultural cycle.

Climbing from Përrenjas

Climbing out of Përrenjas

Përrenjas was a bleak highland town centred around its derelict mine buildings. Having now climbed out of the sunshine into a grey day, it looked particularly unprepossessing, not helped by its sidings being Hekurudha Shqiptare‘s preferred location to dump surplus locomotives to decompose away. After Përrenjas, the final leg of the climb out of the Mediterranean basin began. We hauled ourselves out of the hanging valley via a pair of steep hairpin curves to ascend the hillside, then plunged into a long tunnel. Halfway through, the engine shut off – for the first time in 3 hours, we were descending. Leaving the tunnel (with a very visible armed guard at the entrance, presumably as we were just metres from the Macedonian border) we were met by a stunningly beautiful vista of Lake Ohrid, with reedbeds in front and the snow-capped Galicica mountains behind.

Lake Ohrid from the Pogradec train

Lake Ohrid from the Pogradec train

The railway headed south along the Albanian shore of the lake, cut off from rest of country by the high mountain range. All along the shoreline, fishermen were setting out or heading back in their rowing boats, or hawking bags of small fish at the roadside.

Neither maps nor guidebooks tell you that the train grinds to a halt 2km out of the town of Pogradeci  in the middle of a muddy lakeside industrial wasteland with no obvious means of onward travel.

Lake Ohrid

Galičica Mountains across Lake Ohrid

I shouldered my bag and walked into town – although the road was busy and narrow, the lake views made up for it. A pair of cops on a speed check indicated via internationally-understood sign language that I ought to get a bike. From where wasn’t quite clear.

Pogradeci is an uninspiring, dusty out-of-season lakeside resort which could offer no particular reason to linger, so I commandeered an ancient Mercedes taxi for the 5km trip to the border. Albania stamped me out happily enough, leaving about 500m of remarkably attractive no-mans’ land to walk through to the sleepy Macedonian customs post at Sveti Naum. The only sound here was the calling of peacocks in the adjacent monastry gardens. I imagine it was mainly boredom that was leading one guard to give two Swiss citizens leaving Macedonia a very hard time (although it probably serves them right for wearing jumpers with the Swiss flag knitted into them); my own passport was examined pretty hard, but eventually I was allowed in.

Sveti Naum

Across the Macedonian border at Sveti Naum

Flocks of swallows swirled around the country lane as I walked down it from the boder. After about 10 minutes, a taxi screeched to a halt beside me and friendly Dmitri – like a lot of Macedonians fluent in English – convinced me to abandon my plan of hoping for a bus from Ljubanista by quoting me €5 for the 25km to Ohrid. As we drove along the stunning lakeside, near-black squirrels darting across the road in front of us, Dmitri alternately explained his theories on English football, shaking his head sadly at the mention of Charlton Athletic, and informed me that the snow on the mountains above us had fallen fresh last night and would

Ohrid Old Town

Ohrid Old Town

probably lie until early June. On first acquaintance, Macedonia (FYROM, to its enemies, i.e. Greece) seemed easy compared to Albania – there was plenty of bilingualism, cancelling out the complexity of the alphabet; smart, cared-for villages, where planning regulations were enforced, abounded. I checked into a hotel on the waterfront with a fantastic view from the spacious room looking south down the lake and to the mountains beyond. I can safely say it was the best room I’ve ever stayed in for €39.

Ohrid cats

Ohrid cats

It quickly became apparent that the rather dull lakeside town of apartment blocks that Ohrid had appeared to be from the taxi was hiding a stunning old town, with twisting, stone-paved, cat-haunted lanes up the hillside to the ramparts and fort overlooking the town. As you climbed, lake and mountain-filled vistas would suddenly open up over blossom-heavy gardens. The lower streets were lined with Ottoman-style houses, white painted with overhanging upper stories: these had been supplemented by some pretty passable pastiches. The route to the fort passed the

Ohrid

Ohrid

Roman amphitheatre – smaller than Durrës’ but clearly still used for outdoor performance and with superb views over the lake from the upper tiers. Arrival at the ramparts was rewarded with a fine display of alpenglow on the mountains to the northwest of the lake.

Descending via a woodland path, I came across a vast excavation site with a large basilica perched incongruously in the middle. According to signs, the incongruity was set to get far more pronounced – the excavated Roman remains and the basilica were to be incorporated into a modern university campus. No date was given for completion and there seemed to be little evidence of activity on the ground – I can only assume that UNESCO, who

Ohrid basilica

Ohrid basilica

police protection of this World Heritage Site, have given their blessing to this project. The other issue to my eye seemed to be that the only access to the site was either via a narrow old town lane or via a steep woodland path – neither of which seemed ideal for a university! Dinner was had very cheaply in deservedly popular Italian restaurant. If anything, even touristy areas of Macedonia made astonishingly cheap Albania look expensive.

Monday, 18 April

A reasonably leisurely start to make up for the past few days; breakfast and then a taxi to the inconveniently located bus station for the ten o’clock to Bitola, an ageing but well maintained coach which handled the smooth mountain roads admirably. From Kosel we twisted our way up a wooded valley, following a fast-flowing stream, my seat companion studiously crossing himself at each wayside shrine. Ears popped just as we reached the top of the pass and began the steep descent towards Resen. Our driver seemed to know every workman on the roads or in the fields and would hoot, eliciting cheery waves of recognition. At Izbista, where the valley broadened, we entered a land of neat apple orchards, just coming into bud, with front yards and roadside stalls still crammed with the red and yellow remnants of last year’s crop.

Resen was a workaday town which sprawled uninspiringly across the plain. Out of town, the coach climbed steadily to a second pass across the Pelister range, with views back the way we had come to Ohrid’s sister, Prespanske Lake, which manages to have shores in Macedonia, Albania and Greece. We crossed the pass barely 100 metres below the icing-sugar snow line.

Bitola high street

Bitola high street

Getting off at the wrong stop in Bitola gave me the chance to wander it’s pedestrianised main street, which merges seamlessly into a parkland promenade. Bitola gave the impression of a prosperous, if rather chilly, highland town, with some remarkable nineteenth century facades on its main street, which led up to a pair of twin mosques on Marshall Tito Square. The town centre was swarming with well-dressed schoolkids on their lunch break, most of them mobbing a stall selling cheap sunglasses.

The town’s railway (and bus) stations were stuck out on a depressing industrial limb, with a reasonable crowd collecting for the three scruffy coaches hauled by a industrial looking diesel that was the 12:45 to Skopje. Purchasing my ticket, the Balkan price differential between bus and train clear, with rail clearly being  seen as the basic, cheaper choice: 180km by train to Skopje was the same price as 70km from Ohrid on the bus. From Bitola station, the line once continued into Greece, and rumours had recently circulated about a re-opening, but given the sudden Greek allergy to international trains, I imagine Bitola will find itself at a rail dead end for some time to come.

The 12:45 to Skopje

The 12:45 to Skopje

For three-quarters of an hour, the train crossed an upland plateau with jagged mountains on every hand, calling at derelict, burnt-out halts. After Albanian railways, Macedonia provided unaccustomed levels of speed – at times we were travelling at almost 50mph! The station buildings had all had, at least originally, their names written in Roman script, pointing to the fact that this was a line built by Austro-Hungarians, not Macedonians. In some cases the carved signs had been clumsily converted into Crylllic. The line curved into industrial Prilep, where crowds threatened to overwhelm the capacity of the train. My compartment filled up and for the rest of the journey I ended up with half a neighbour’s guitar on my lap.

The train gained height, many of the stops now being simply isolated level crossings where ageing men in ageing Yugos waited to meet wives off the train with their shopping. We cut through the mountain range in a long tunnel, then curved and burrowed our way around the head of the Babuna valley.

For an hour we meandered gently down the lovely valley, calling at neat little villages, some with orthodox churches, some mosques, some both. The railway was clearly a key link for these communities and the arrival of the branch line train was a minor social occasion. The lower reaches of the valley were shared between almost industrial levels of beekeeping and somewhat less picturesque industrial levels of limestone quarrying.

At the junction station of Veles the train emptied out somewhat and we had a lengthy wait for the Bitola-bound train to clear the line so we could proceed up the Vardar gorges, heading upstream past rapids and limestone outcrops. Eventually, we were out of the gorge and heading on towards Skopje, seemingly stopping at every level crossing and hedgerow. By now, the question everyone in the compartment was asking was: will the two young ladies get each other’s hair done to their satisfaction before arrival at the capital? As it turned out, the answer was no.

Deciding I didn’t hugely fancy the overnight detour via Belgrade and noticing that the bus station (a concrete dump about as welcoming as the concrete dump that is the railway station) was next door, I went to investigate if there were any useful departures. The Niš bus, one possibility, was just leaving, but there was a Sofia service in three-quarters of an hour, which made geographical and logistical sense. The fare, quoted to me in the slick, computerised booking office, was 1,040 denars – which was remarkably annoying when I had 1,035 denars in cash that I had hoped to get rid of (as it turned out this was lucky, as I needed 30d to put my bag in bus boot). However slick the office, however, it didn’t make the process of  painstakingly converting my name into Cyrillic characters for the ticket any quicker. With departure time fast approaching, exploration of Skopje would have to wait until next time. I was quite surprised when a luxury minibus pulled up at the stand, but when this provides you with an individual, reclining seat, who’s complaining? I suppose I had simply expected that  more than 15 people might want to make this inter-capital journey.

Motorway trips are rarely exciting, but the short hop up the M1 to Kumanovo was at least pleasant, (barring the horrific, juddering surface) through open grassland and vineyards. Having picked our way through chaotic Kumanovo, we headed east on a beautiful main road sweeping between low tabular hills and reaching vantage points on the plateau that felt like they had every mountain range in Montenegro (plus a few in Serbia) visible from them. Barring a handful of distant hamlets and the occasional shepherd and flock, the north-western corner of Macedonia was an empty place. Mile upon mile of high-level undulating grasslands with shallow, poor quality soils and frequent limestone outcrops, not at all unlike the causse landscape that dominates so much of southern France.

We drove through the major regional centre of Kjustendil, which turned out to be simply some dreary apartments and run-down tenements strung along a deep valley. As it grew dark, the driver turned on blue LED interior lights, leading to the two Dutch passengers making jokes about strip clubs. Talk about playing to the national stereotype, guys. For a solid thirty minutes we climbed, overtaking on curves at sometimes breakneck speeds until at the top of a pass, topped with what must be the world’s largest EU flag (and a Bulgarian tricolour of similar size), we arrived at the border, waiting in a long line of trucks to file through the controls.

We passed reasonably quickly through Montenegrin exit controls, then crawled through Bulgarian entry. For some reason, of all the passports, mine was held back for 15mins after everyone else, which for an EU passport entering the EU seemed very strange – and no explanation was given. At least the delay afforded all the other passengers a toilet break, but I could have done without the wait in the sub-freezing temperature at the top of the pass. In my head, parliamentary written questions to the Foreign Secretary were being drafted. Still sticking with the national stereotypes, the Dutch passengers started calling me ‘Drug Dealer Man’.

Skopje from the 14th floor

Skopje from the 14th floor

There followed a long descent through the pitch black to Sofia, along twisting, poorly paved roads. At last, at around 11am, we started bumping over tram tracks and down what appeared to be cobbled dual carriageways to eventually arrive at a completely deserted Sofia bus station. A smart looking hotel across the road offered me a sizeable discount (I didn’t take too much offence from the porter’s offer, on entering the lobby, to ‘show you somewhere cheaper if you like’) and wandering around further seemed unappealing right now. I was surprised to find, on getting to my fourteenth floor room, that it had a fully opening window. I resisted the temptation to throw either myself, or the contents of the minibar, out of it.

< To Introduction | To Part 2 >

2 Comments

2 thoughts on “Part 1 – From London to Sofia

  1. Excellent stuff. I miss European rail-ery…! Love that the Albanian poster doesn’t just feature an HST, it features one in Network South East livery.

  2. Mike Selo

    A fascinating insight! Could I kindly point out that Kyustendil is in Bulgaria. Bulgaria doesnt border Montenegro. The German carriages you mention are Austrian. All Yugoslav stations had names in Roman script, nothing to do with whoever built the railway, which of course wasnt Macedonians as those “Macedonians” didnt exist at the time.

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