TABLE 1500 : Sofia – Ruse, Burgas – Varna

(Part 3)

This complex table shows timings for three possible routes across the breadth of Bulgaria. These routes offer travellers a variety of pretty mountain scenery and some of the oldest history in Europe, before arrival into the beach resorts of the Black Sea coast.

Following the most scenic route, last week we reached the town of Sliven. We now arrive into the large port city of Burgas. The city is well-kept with a neat, pedestrianised centre, a long, uncrowded beach and some interesting museums and provides a good base for exploring the southern Bulgarian Black Sea resorts such as Sunny Beach. One of the prettiest parts of the city is the 600-acre Seaside park, one of the most beautiful parks in Bulgaria. The gardens display exotic plants from all over the world and a walk through the park provides lovely views of the sea, the pier and the port. Besides a nice walk, there are numerous little relaxation areas, restaurants and a theatre and cultural centre where the city hosts multiple literature, musical and folklore festivals. The city is surrounded by Burgas Lakes, protected wetland areas that are inhabited by many locally or globally endangered species of birds, fish and mammals which attract birdwatchers and nature lovers from all over the world.

The alternative endpoint on the routes from Sofia in Table 1500 is Varna, Bulgaria’s second largest city and maritime capital. There is a connecting train service between Burgas and Varna or a faster bus link. The impressive Art Nouveau style station is one of Bulgaria’s oldest and has previously been a stop for the Orient Express. Varna is an interesting combination of a port, naval base and seaside resort. It’s an exciting city, packed with history yet thoroughly modern and has a lengthy beach.  In the city center, you’ll find Bulgaria’s largest Roman baths complex, a naval museum, and an archaeological museum which exhibits the impressive Gold of Varna – some of the oldest gold treasure in the world.

(Part 2)

This complex table shows timings for three possible routes across the breadth of Bulgaria. These routes offer travellers a variety of pretty mountain scenery and some of the oldest history in Europe, before arrival into the beach resorts of the Black Sea coast.

Travelling on the most scenic of the three routes, we depart Sofia towards the picturesque and historic town of Karlovo. The town is famous as the birthplace of Vasil Levski, leader of the revolution against the Turks, an important time in the history of the country which is detailed in his museum here. The town has a traditional charm with narrow cobbled streets with local crafts on display. Karlovo and the next stop Kazanlak form part of the ‘Valley of the Roses’ as they are major producers of rose oil for the cosmetics industry. When the roses bloom each May and June, visitors flock to this area to see the huge fields and experience the aromas. Kazanlak is an attractive town and amongst its attractions boasts the world’s only museum dedicated to the production of rose oil and water. The region around Kazanlak is chequered with important ​archaeological monuments. A short walk from the centre stands a 4th-century-BC tomb of a Thracian ruler, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tomb is situated near the ancient Thracian capital of Seuthopolis and the Valley of the Thracian Kings where more than a thousand tombs of kings and members of the Thracian aristocracy can be found

The next major stop is the town of Sliven, situated at the foot of a unique rock formation that now forms Blue Rocks Nature Park. Despite the name, you’d have to look hard to see more than a bluish haze here (thought to originate from a concentration of quartz). The hills have an interesting history, they were once a place of refuge for the hajduks (foot soldiers) fighting against the Ottomans. Visitors can take the chairlift to the top for spectacular views of the valley and access to the many paths and caves. There are also opportunities to practice various sports such as mountain climbing, paragliding and skiing.

(Part 1)

This month we are looking at a complex table, offering timings for three possible routes across the breadth of Bulgaria. These routes offer travellers a variety of pretty mountain scenery, a view of stark industrial towns and some of the oldest history in Europe, before arrival into the beach resorts of the Black Sea coast. Bulgaria is one of the most budget-friendly countries to travel around and there is plenty to offer the more adventurous traveller. Exploring Bulgaria by train can be rewarding but don’t expect modern railway comforts like air conditioning or fully stocked restaurant cars; most passenger accommodation is generally very dated with a post-communist feel and services are often slower than buses, but this can add to the unique experience!

Trains are operated by Bulgarian State Railways (BDZ) and are classified as either ekspresen vlak (express trains), bârz vlak (fast trains), or pâtnicheski vlak (slow trains) with most long-distance services offering first and second class seating. Reservations are compulsory on the express services (marked with ‘R’ in our tables) and there are also a small number of overnight services offering couchette or sleeping cars.

From the capital Sofia, there are three options for travel shown in Table 1500, ending at the coastal resorts of Burgas in around 6 hours 30 minutes or Varna in around 7 hours 30 minutes.

1. Through Mezdra and Pleven to Varna, with an optional sidetrack connection to Ruse
2. Our recommended route via Karlovo and Tulovo to Burgas (the scenic area is shown in green on the map extract below)
3. An alternative route to Burgas via Plovdiv and Stara Zagora

TABLE 60: Hamburg – Praha – Budapest

(Part 4)

This month we are looking at Table 60 which crosses Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Table 60 provides a summary of the principal trains with more detailed services in the country sections. The entire route can be completed in one day by using the single direct EuroCity service, named Hungaria. But, with four capital cities and some beautiful scenery to explore, it is worth breaking the journey at one or more of the stops.

For the last part of this journey, we depart Bratislava hlavná stanica and head towards our final border crossing at Štúrovo. The section of the journey leaving Slovakia offers some lovely views across the Danube towards Hungary. The train passes through some pretty little villages and hillside vineyards as we make our way towards our final destination, Budapest.

The grand capital city of Budapest is a popular destination for millions of tourists every year keen to enjoy its indulgent spas, fairy tale architectural sites and cultural attractions. The Danube divides the city into its two parts; the photogenic old district of Buda on the west bank and the more modern and commercial Pest on the east bank. Exploring the city is easy on foot, but those with limited time should consider the Budapest Card (€22,00 for 24 hours) which grants unlimited travel on public transport and discounted or free admission to museums and baths. There are also plenty of sightseeing tours available by bus or, for some unique views of the city from the river, opt for a boat tour. Other highlights in the city include a trip on the Castle Hill funicular (dating back to 1870) which climbs slowly to the pedestrianised district of Old Buda for some spectacular views from Fishermen’s Bastion or why not simply relax in one of the many grand thermal spas? It’s also worthwhile taking a walk along the famous Chain Bridge, the first permanent link between Buda and Pest, for picture perfect views of the enormous, iconic parliament buildings.

(Part 3)

This month we are looking at a large Table from the International section of the timetable which crosses Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Table 60 provides a summary of the principal trains on this route but more detailed tables for each section can be found in Tables 840, 1100, 1150 and 1175. The 1291 kilometre route can be completed in one day by using the single direct EuroCity service, named Hungaria, which leaves Hamburg Altona at 06.36 and arrives at Budapest Nyugati at a reasonable 20.19. However, with four capital cities and some beautiful scenery to explore, it is worth breaking the journey at one or more of the stops.

Last week we were in Brno in the Czech Republic from where we now depart, travelling south-east towards Břeclav, located at the border with Lower Austria on the Dyje River. From Břeclav there is an easy connection over the border into Austria to Vienna (Wien) and Graz. Those that have travelled directly from Hamburg on the 06:36 EC service will have just under an hour to wait for the 17:55 RJ service into Austria meaning you can squeeze yet another capital city into your journey (on top of the four on the main route) and arrive in Vienna in time for an evening stroll and dinner.

Travellers choosing to continue on the Hungaria service, now head towards the Slovakian border at Kúty before arriving into capital city number three, Bratislava. Fans of the Slovakian capital will argue that this is a better stopping off point than Prague, having just as many highlights but without the crowds. The pretty historical city centre is very compact and cosy, and it is easy to walk from one side to another in a few minutes, so it is a perfect location for exploring in just a day or two. The cobbled streets are packed with lovely cafés and traditional restaurants, whilst in December be sure to indulge in the aromas and flavours of the traditional Christmas market in the hlavné námestie (main square). The market is much more traditional and less overtly commercialized than others in the region. There are many baroque palaces and notable churches to explore as well as the prominent Bratislava Castle on the hilltop where there are some great views over the city and the Danube river.

(Part 2)

This month we are looking at a large Table from the International section of the timetable which crosses Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Table 60 provides a summary of the principal trains on this route but more detailed tables for each section can be found in Tables 840, 1100, 1150 and 1175. The 1291 kilometre route can be completed in one day by using the single direct EuroCity service, named Hungaria, which leaves Hamburg Altona at 06.36 and arrives at Budapest Nyugati at a reasonable 20.19. However, with four capital cities and some beautiful scenery to explore, it is worth breaking the journey at one or more of the stops.

After a change to a Czech locomotive we leave Dresden and head towards the border. This part of the journey through the hills of the Elbe Valley to Děčín has some of the finest scenery on this route. Walkers and climbers keen to explore the area can stop at the frontier station of Bad Schandau to gain access to Saxon Switzerland national park which straddles the German/Czech border. The two countries work together to manage and protect the entire region of sandstone cliffs, steep canyons, and heavily forested slopes.

We now arrive in our second capital city, beautiful Praha. First stop is Praha Holešovice in the north of the city which is connected to the centre by the metro, however most passengers disembark at the art nouveau station of Praha hlavní nádraží which is just a short walk from the main attractions in Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. This city attracts thousands of visitors every year to its maze of cobbled lanes and hidden courtyards, keen to experience its famous beers, art and fairy-tale architecture. The city is served by an efficient, fast and clean public transport system including metro lines and trams to transport you easily around the main attractions.

The next stop is the second largest city of Czech Republic, Brno. Home to experimental architecture, such as the Unesco-protected Vila Tugendhat, the city also has several more ghoulish attractions such as the fascinating crypt in the Capuchin Monastery or the notorious prison inside the spooky hilltop Špilberk Castle. Brno also has its fair share of vibrant cafes and bars, many picturesque buildings, churches, squares, sculptures and fountains making it a worthwhile alternative to avoid the tourist hordes in Praha.

(Part 1)

This month we are looking at a large Table from the International section of the timetable which crosses Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Table 60 provides a summary of the principal trains on this route but more detailed tables for each section can be found in Tables 840, 1100, 1150 and 1175. The 1291 kilometre route can be completed in one day by using the single direct EuroCity service, named Hungaria, which leaves Hamburg Altona at 0636 and arrives at Budapest Nyugati at a reasonable 2019. However, with four capital cities and some beautiful scenery to explore, it is worth breaking the journey at one or more of the stops.

The Hungaria is one of the oldest express trains still in operation, but today uses Hungarian Railways’ latest air-conditioned coaches, including a restaurant car and seats with power sockets and free Wi-Fi. The train departs from Altona, a smaller terminus station, 10 minutes west of Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. The short hop affords some interesting views of this fine city before the train heads out into pretty countryside and forests of eastern Germany. The train arrives in Berlin Hauptbahnhof in under 3 hours, leaving plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast and sightseeing in this bustling capital city where there is always something going on. It’s possible to walk between the main sights, or if you have a Eurail Pass valid in Germany, you can use the S-Bahn metro lines around Berlin for free.

You can re-join the train at either Berlin Hauptbahnhof or the smaller Südkreuz station where we depart for Dresden. The historic Dresden Hauptbahnhof was built in 1898 but like much of the city, it has been extensively redeveloped in recent years to rectify wartime damage and neglect. The station has a unique layout on two levels. The main station building and terminal platforms are located centrally on the lower level, flanked by through tracks on either side raised on viaducts. The classic view of the city’s baroque spires, towers and domes, is from the banks of the river Elbe but there are equally stunning vistas from the spire of the cathedral or the Residenzchloss (Royal Palace) which now houses five museums.

TABLE 1200: Budapest – Zagreb

(Part 5/5)

We now reach the final leg of the journey. Departing from Keszthely we first pass through the border town of Nagykanizsa. For centuries the town has been an important trade and transport link between Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary and the Adriatic and Italian harbours. There is a pretty town square in the recently renovated city centre and a thermal baths with indoor and outdoor pools to relax in.

Next, we cross over the border towards the capital of Croatia, you can expect to have your travel documents checked which can take a while if the train is busy. The train arrives in the glorious Glavni Kolodvor station of Zagreb, a beautiful neoclassical building which was once used as a stop for the Orient Express service. The station offers plenty of international trains for extending your holiday, with daily departures for Belgrade, Frankfurt, Ljubljana, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna and Zürich as well direct services to Croatia’s beautiful coastal cities.

The city’s oldest and most beautiful quarter is the upper town which can be reached via the very short and steep funicular railway. At just 66 metres it’s the shortest in the world and affords some lovely views of the lower town. If you can, time your arrival for midday when the cannon from Lotrscak Tower is fired. The busy Ban Jelacic Square is the central square of the city and from where most of Zagreb’s key sights such as the cathedral can easily be reached on foot or you can hop on the blue trams which will transport you to the more distant parts of the city. The city has around 30 museums to choose from, including the quirky ‘museum of broken relationships’ and some delightful parks, or you could just relax in one of the many cafes and restaurants to sample the local specialities of štrukli (a rolled dough with various fillings) and sip on one of the many varieties of Rakija.

(Part 4)

This month we have been looking at Table 1200 Budapest – Zagreb. Continuing along the southern shore of Lake Balaton from Balatonfenyves, the next stop along our route is the town of Fonyód, famous for its bottled mineral water. The town’s railway station is one of the most beautiful and best preserved along the lake. Fonyód commemorates Hungarian history with a medieval drama festival in early August.

The next stop is Balatonfenyves which has one of the last remaining narrow gauge railways in Hungary, transporting tourists to and from Somogyszentpál over a distance of 13 km. It is a pretty trip through a nature reserve along marshy land which was originally part of the lake.

The next stop is Keszthely which is the most westerly and oldest of the towns along the lake. Central Keszthely is the site of the stunning Festetics Palace, built by the wealthy Festetics family in 1745 who also built the first agricultural college in Europe here in 1797. The white 101 roomed mansion is now a museum and conference centre with exhibits on the formation and history of Lake Balaton as well as rare paintings from the area. Its pride and joy is its library with over 100,000 volumes including some very rare books. During summer concerts are held weekly in the pretty grounds of the castle. The town itself is compact and easily explored on foot or via the small tourist train which circulates the town. Another popular attraction is the model railway museum, housed in a former military building, it has a 40 metre layout including reproductions of the railway stations around Lake Balaton.

(Part 3)

Continuing our exploration along Table 1200 Budapest – Zagreb, we now arrive in the first of several towns along the southern shores of Lake Balaton. For the best views of the lake make sure to sit on the right side of the train.

The lake itself is 48 miles long and around 8 miles wide and is a major holiday resort in landlocked Hungary. The water is warm in summer and becomes Europe’s biggest ice rink in winter. The lake is surrounded by rolling hills with rich soil which produce some great wines.

Balaton’s southern shore is almost entirely built up with a continuous chain of resort towns, the lake is shallower on the southern side which makes these shores popular with families. The largest and most popular destination is Siófok, which is the first stop on our route. The Water Tower, which stands in the centre of the town, is the most well-known symbol of Siófok and the café at the top offers some nice views of the area. Boats leave from the harbour frequently so you can easily hop on a boat for a day trip to the lovely towns on the northern shore.

The next few stations are all resort towns along the lake. First is Zamardi, which has been the site of Balaton Sound, an electronic music festival since 2007. Next is Balatonföldvár, one of the prettier towns. It’s popular because of its natural beauty, impressive promenade and flowery parks. The views of the north shore from here are breath-taking, you can see the flat, table-like mountain of Badacsony, a famous wine producing area and the hills covered with the purple haze of flowering lavender fields during the summer season.

The next 3 stops have almost merged together into one resort. The towns of Balatonszemes, Balatonelle and Balatonboglár all provide the usual mix of tourist accommodation and entertainments. The towns are trying to undergo some renovations with many of the ugly dull buildings being repainted, but a lot of work is left to be done.

(Part 2)

Budapest is the amalgamation of two historic cities lying opposite each other on the river Danube (Buda on the western bank and Pest on the eastern). With its interesting mix of heritage and architecture it is one of Europe’s most delightful and enjoyable capitals to visit. The central area of the city is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has many notable monuments, including the Hungarian Parliament, Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion, Gresham Palace, Széchenyi Chain Bridge and the Liberty Statue. The urban area is well covered by metro lines which are an excellent way to get around, the Millennium Underground Railway is actually one of the oldest electrified underground railways system in the world, opening just a few years after the London Underground. For the best views of the city take the Budavari Siklo (Buda Castle Funicular) to the top of castle hill, this historic cable car has been in service since 1870 and runs every 10 minutes, saving the legs of many passengers. Rail enthusiasts may also enjoy the Hungarian Railway History Park which has a fleet of steam and electric engines as well as other interesting exhibits

The early morning train to Zagreb is called the Agram, leaving Budapest Deli it passes through Kelenfold on the outskirts of the city then onto the former royal seat of Székesfehérvár. Today the city is an important rail and road junction between Lake Balaton and Lake Velence but this historic city has had a turbulent past, at one time it served as the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary and several Kings were crowned and buried here. There are good walking tours of the city where you can see the remains of the coronation basilica and medieval castle walls or the baroque architecture of the city centre. A site worth exploring is Bory Castle, built as a piece of art by a sculptor and architect following his own imagination and plans. It has seven towers, thirty rooms in different sizes including three studios, and there are statues, paintings, antiquities and works of art all over the quirky castle.

(Part 1)

For June we will be focusing on Table 1220 from our timetable which covers an interesting and very scenic route between two capital cities in central Europe.

The route starts at Budapest in Hungary and travels 352km to Zagreb in Croatia. The entire journey could be completed in around 6 and a half hours on one of the two daily direct trains which leave from Budapest Deli (Southern railway station) and Budapest Keleti (Eastern railway station).  However, there are lots of interesting places to stop and explore along this route so we recommend breaking up the journey with a few stops.

It’s relatively easy to travel from Hungary to Croatia, especially if you’re travelling to or from Budapest which is a great starting point for many rail journeys with connections all over central and eastern Europe. One of the most popular options is the overnight train from Budapest to Split via Zagreb (Table 89) but this train only runs between June and August.

Apart from the very interesting cities and towns along this route there is some wonderful scenery. Of particular interest is Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater lake in central Europe and one of the region’s foremost tourist destinations. This route passes through several pretty lakeside towns and resorts including Siofok and Fonyod on the southern shore and Keszthely on the western shore with its grand town houses and shallow beaches. Then onto the Roman city of Nagykanizsa, a connecting point for several routes due to its location between the western corner of the Lake Balaton and the Croatian and Slovenian border.