Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina, has been cut off from the core European passenger rail network since its direct service to the Croatian capital, Zagreb, was axed in 2016. Similarly, the capital’s other international passenger service, the summer only direct train to Ploče in Croatia, has not run into Croatia since 2013 – due to track work and disagreements, with the Croatian Railways (Hrvatske željeznicePutnički prijevoz, HŽPP) citing the route was unprofitable.
Fast forward to 2022, and there is still no service to Zagreb yet. However, the full 194 km (121 mi) route from Sarajevo to Ploče route was restored for the summer from July until September on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays – in both directions. This enabled the new Talgo coaches purchased by the train operator, Railways of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Željeznice Federacije Bosne i Hercegovine, ŽFBH), to be put into international service to neighbouring Croatia.
Naturally with a planned visit to beautiful Sarajevo, I just had to experience this train route – with the first part of the train’s journey to Mostar being listed as a must-see tourist attraction for any visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina with its beautiful scenery. Below is the map of the places the train passes through.
Sarajevo main railway station (Glavna željeznička stanica u Sarajevu) is situated thirty minutes west by foot from the old town, with trams serving the main road nearby.
It was built originally in 1882 and rebuilt in 1949 following World War Two. Today the station showcases its brutalist architecture, with Coca Cola stepping in more recently to sponsor the walls at either side of the entrance hall. The booking office is situated at one end and notices are up asking you not to take pictures… I may have flouted that rule a few times.
A train trip from Sarajevo comes with a challenge: tickets aren’t available from anywhere other than the booking office at the station in Sarajevo. Not only that, but you also need to purchase them for this train at least one day in advance from the booking office – which is something to do with notifying the authorities with the international border crossing. This wasn’t a bad thing for us, as we wanted to spend some time visiting the beautiful city before departing.
The booking office was a unique experience that could give anyone flashbacks from the past, including hand-written tickets on carbon copy paper. It was like we were stepping back into the 1970s! Not only that but our names, date of birth, and passport details were written down on a scrap piece of paper – which didn’t convince us that data security was important here.
It was here that we asked about what accommodation was available on the train. The lady told us that there were only 2nd Class seats available to purchase and no seat reservations were possible.
Onboard the train
Bright and early on departure day, we arrived to the platform in enough time to board the train before its prompt departure at 07:15. There was a poster at the entrance door showcasing the timetable and the platform the train would depart from – Platform 2.
Boarding the sixteen-carriage train was entirely at one door on the train, in Coach number 7, despite the full train being destined for the same destination, Ploče. I don’t know if this was to show off the 2021 European Year of Rail branded door or if this was purely logistics. It did appear that the staff were having to manually open each door prior to arriving at each station.
Shortly after departure, our tickets were checked. Despite being asked to buy these prior to departure, there were people buying these on the train from the conductor onboard; however, this could have been permitted for domestic journeys – at Mostar half of the train emptied. These tickets were also hand-written, so it was taking some time to issue them.
The train was indeed formed of both Second Class and First Class seating, complete with power sockets, reading lights, and reclining at all seats.
First Class seating was fully occupied during the course of the trip, so this could well have been available to all. It was too late for us to benefit however and unfortunately I was only able to photographs of the Second Class seating.
There was a Café Car open for the course of the trip, situated in the front portion of the train. No food was available, but full sugar Coca Cola, Fanta, water, orange juice, and coffee was on offer for purchase.
There were in fact two Café Cars available on the train, and typically I visited the wrong one first. Thanks to a kind member of the public who enlightened me that I wouldn’t get served there and had to move forward to the open Café.
Soon after departure from Sarajevo the train window turns into a moving picture frame, gliding past some stunning green, mountainous scenery, and the Neretva river. The crew were kind enough to switch the lights off one hour and three quarters into the journey. The ultra-reflective windows of the Talgo coaches didn’t matter anymore at this point. Again I was asked not to taking pictures, when coming into a station by a passing crew member.
The border crossings to exit Bosnia & Herzegovina and enter Croatia take place at Capljina and Metkovic stations respectively, with a locomotive change from a ŽFBH to a HŹPP one – both Class 441 locomotives from the Yugoslav Railways (JŽ).
All the border checks took place at the comfort of our seats, with the Bosnian police taking passports off the train to check, while the Croatian police opted to check on the train. We were also asked by the Croatian police if we had any alcohol or cigarettes with us.
Arrival into Ploče
We arrived in to Ploče around one hour after the scheduled arrival time. The station isn’t the most obvious or photogenic-looking, but the building is connected to the coach station, with easy connections for onward travel to destinations such as Dubrovnik and Split.
Sarajevo to Ploče
25 BAM = £10.85 / 12,71€
Reservations are not available and thus no additional fees payable on top of the ticket price.
I tried to use my FIP card, issued to European rail staff for 50% off ŽFBH fares; however, the lady at the booking office shook her head – I wasn’t lucky enough to get a discount this time.
Hungary won’t be on your list when it comes to a seaside holiday, it is a landlocked country after all. The nearest to the seaside you’re going to get here is Lake Balaton that happens to be a popular destination for Hungarians wishing to escape the bustle of the capital and other cities.
For those wishing to go further afield, there is a convenient sleeper train that’s very popular with Hungarian families looking to get their seaside fix. The “Adria” InterCity runs direct from Budapest Keleti station to Split in Croatia on the Adriatic Coast during the summer time – operated by the Hungarian State Railway company MÁV-START. Taking 14 hours in total covering 789km, this train is one of MÁV’s most popular night train routes offering comfortable accommodation onboard and the delight that is a Dining Car.
Recently I experienced the joy of travelling on the, unfortunately named (for 2020 onwards anyway), Corona InterCity which had an excellent Dining Car with an array of menu options – so I knew I was in for a treat with this journey.
I booked onto the northbound Adria InterCity, departing Split at 18:27 and booked to arrive at 09:35 into Budapest Keleti the following morning. Below is the route map.
Conveniently located across the road from its harbour and Old Town is Split station, which on specific summer afternoons is a exciting hive of activity with three international trains bound for Budapest, Prague and Bratislava (via Vienna) and the occasional train bound for destinations in Croatia. The entrance to the station is somewhat hidden, with trees and shops aplenty lining the street in front. I wonder how many people visiting Split actually know that there is a station here?
Once I had found the booking hall, there was no need to look at the departure board for the specific platform. Clearly visible in the distance was the Adria InterCity in MÁV-START’s new eye-catching blue and white livery on most of the cars boasting three Sleeping Cars, three Couchette Cars and indeed the eagerly awaited Dining Car. The train would be hauled by this Croatian Railways (HŽPP) 2044 locomotive (pictured) as far as Ogulin, where another HŽPP locomotive would take over as far as the border with Hungary.
Onboard the Adria
For this trip I had booked a sleeping compartment in Car 421. Having located my car, I was greeted by my friendly Sleeping Car attendant on the platform who checked my ticket and I was then pointed in the direction of my booked compartment, Berth 51.
This is the most premium accommodation on the Adria InterCity. These air conditioned compartments include a made-up bed with clean linen, a towel and some complimentary refreshments. At the end of the car is two toilets shared with other passengers in the car. There are up to three bunk beds available in each compartment and at the point of booking you can choose whether to reserve a single, two-person or three-person compartment. Keep in mind if you would like private occupancy for one person you would need to book a single compartment, but this does give the option of sharing with others at a lower price.
MÁV-START has been in the process of refurbishing these cars with a stylish blue livery and striking blue and yellow interiors and installing power sockets. On this train specifically there were two refurbished Sleeping Cars with a third unrefurbished one sporting the original red and light pink walls, so it is a lottery which one you will get.
These compartments are roomy (as train compartments go) and I did have a very comfortable night. Pictured below are the newly refurbished cars.
A rarity in Europe these days on night trains, is a Dining Car. On the Adria InterCity, MÁV-START make a point of this train including an “elegant” one previously in service on government trains. It was certainly a delight to experience some former glamour, but the drawback was that it was very hot without air conditioning and a warm 26°C outside. Thankfully there was a window that opened wide, perfect for taking in the sea air while enjoying the views en route.
The heat was not helped by the menu offering mainly ‘warming’ dishes, more suited for a cold winter’s day. Still I went ‘all out’ and chose a delicious roast duck with cherry sauce served with mashed potatoes, washed down with some white wine and followed by honey cake for afters. Don’t be fooled by the cherry sauce served in a soup bowl, there’s no surprise soup on offer. This set me back 5990 Hungarian Forint (14,16 €).
The Dining Car was very popular, with all the tables soon occupied. It’s worth mentioning that reservations are not possible, so tables are available at a first-come-first-served basis and it’s worth heading there as soon as you can on boarding.
Couchettes are the other type of accommodation on the Adria InterCity which have also been refurbished recently. Couchettes come with sheets and blankets to make up a bed yourself and come with a lighter breakfast in the morning. These are shared rooms with other passengers, up to four or six people in each and shared washrooms and toilets are at the end of the car. The train was fully booked, so I didn’t get a picture of a compartment in the couchette car. However below is pictured a similar one on the Corona InterCity.
On departure from Split there is a feast for the eyes out of the window as the train heads for the Dinári Mountains with the railway ascending to almost 900 metres above sea level. Be sure to take a look at the view at the back of the train too. In the morning the journey promises views of Lake Balaton as the train glides across its long eastern shore.
At the time of writing Croatia is not in the Schengen area, however, this is likely to change in the near future. This means that border formalities took place by both the Croatian police, for exit, and the Hungarian police, for entry to the EU.
The good news is that both of these checks take place at the same station in Hungary, at Gyékényes, where the train arrives at 05:09 in the morning. This is early, but it could have been far earlier if the Croatian police checked at a station in Croatia, so I didn’t mind this.
Then it didn’t go to plan…
Entering Hungary was a breeze, however, at the border crossing we stood for longer than scheduled. My friendly carriage attendant came to share the news, in perfect English, that there was a problem up ahead which meant that the train couldn’t continue its journey after Nagykanizsa. He explained that I’d have to pack my things and board a replacement bus to Balatonszentgyörgy where a replacement train would be waiting.
This is where MÁV-START and the onboard rail hospitality provider, Utasellátó, really came into their own I thought.
A ticket for the Sleeping Car includes a complimentary breakfast, usually served in the onboard Dining Car. Unfortunately there would now not be time to visit with a twenty-five minute running time to Nagykanizsa. However, my Sleeping Car attendant proactively came to tell me that I could still claim my breakfast in a takeaway box by taking my voucher to the Dining Car. He was not wrong. I was handed two croissants and an Earl Grey tea with a smile to provide some much needed sustenance for what the rest of the journey had in store.
I alighted from the train at Nagykanizsa and followed all the other passengers to the station exit. We were greeted by a staff pointing us in the direction of the replacement bus and then again at Balatonszentgyörgy to get on the replacement train. The whole process was calm and well organised. There was a seat available for virtually everyone on the replacement bus I took and more than enough seats for everyone on the replacement train to enjoy the views of Lake Balaton.
In the end we arrived into Budapest Keleti station only one hour after our scheduled arrival time. Impressive. The replacement train stopped at all the stations the Adria InterCity would have called at.
Later on by translating the MÁV-START mobile app, I found the reason for the disruption was that there was a lightning strike the night before leading to fallen trees on the line. The fact that MÁV-START set-up these contingency travel arrangements for the arrival of the early morning Adria InterCity is a wonder.
Included in the sleeper ticket is access to the Business Lounge at Budapest Keleti. This comfortable lounge has a number of complimentary items, including sandwiches as can be seen from the menu below, though I didn’t have time to sample anything – just as well I got my complimentary breakfast from the Dining Car.
Booking and Fares
In 2022 the summer only train ran from July to September, three nights a week. This train is so popular that when I looked to book online in early summer, there was very limited availability for the upcoming two months. I wasted no time in getting my ticket which can be purchased on the MÁV-START website that you can show on your device or print out at home. This allows for all sorts of discounts, including InterRail and even FIP for rail staff travel.
Adult using FIP Reduced Rate Card (50% ticket price)
I embarked on a voyage with my Mam to travel exclusively from York, England to Istanbul, Turkey by train – that’s right, over 2,100 miles without leaving the ground once!
In total this would mean 52 hours being spent on 12 different trains (albeit inclusive of a few days ‘off-piste’ to visit beautiful Split, Croatia.. who said there were rules?!). This would be nicely spread out across 2 weeks which meant for a journey of pure relaxation and excitement. Much more interesting than flying!
Here is the itinerary and that all important route map…
York 🇬🇧 to London 🇬🇧
London 🇬🇧 to Paris 🇫🇷
Paris 🇫🇷 to Munich 🇩🇪
Munich 🇩🇪 to Villach 🇦🇹
Villach 🇦🇹 to Zagreb 🇭🇷
Zagreb 🇭🇷 to Split 🇭🇷
Split 🇭🇷 to Zagreb 🇭🇷
Zagreb 🇭🇷 to Belgrade 🇷🇸
Belgrade 🇷🇸 to Nis 🇷🇸
Nis 🇷🇸 to Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸
Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 to Sofia 🇧🇬
Sofia 🇧🇬 to Istanbul 🇹🇷
The grand plan was to spend 2 or 3 days in any one city and then spend a day travelling. We did however take two time-effective and very comfortable sleeper trains.
Leg 1 – York 🇬🇧 to London King’s Cross 🇬🇧(1 hour, 59 mins)
We kicked things off with travelling by the new LNER Azuma train from York to the heart of the capital London King’s Cross in just under 2 hours.
Leg 2 – 11:31 London St Pancras 🇬🇧 to Paris Nord 🇫🇷 (2 hours, 16 mins)
After a day exploring London we really kicked our European adventure off by travelling ‘sous la manche’ from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord on the high-speed Eurostar service.
We then had one hour in Paris before leaving on our next train to Munich. We allowed an hour between trains in Paris to give time to the 10 minute walk from Paris Gare du Nord to Paris Gare de L’Est and any minimal delay on Eurostar. Thankfully we were running to time. However we had the knowledge that if we missed the connection we would be covered by the self explanatory Hop On The Next Available Train (HOTNAT) agreement between Railteam members.
Leg 3 – 15:55 Paris Est 🇫🇷 to Munich Hbf 🇩🇪 (5 hours, 41 mins)
Our next train was the double-decker TGV for 770 km direct from Paris Est to Muenchen Hauptbahnhof (translated as Munich Main station). Upon entering Germany it was apparent that the train didn’t require customers to have a seat reservation as in France, so we timed our visit to the bar badly having to navigate our way around standing customers through four carriages as the train travelled between Strasbourg and Stuttgart.
When we arrived at the bar we treated ourselves to the in-house TGV chef menu by Michel Sarran. I had the ’Poulet Grillé’ and ’Comme une Charlotte aux Fraises‘ for dessert, both of which were very tasty however I was disspointed at the lack of chicken with the main course. The bar had also run out of white wine so I had to opt for rose and bought an extra one… why not!
We arrived into Munich Hauphtbahnhof on time ready for a full day of sightseeing the next day. Although the weather was wet, we did a walking tour to learn about Munich’s fascinating history and take in the sights of the glockenspeil in the main square, the Residenz and visit the Hofbraeuhaus.
After a day exploring Munich, and what beautiful city it was, we were eagerly awaiting the next leg of the journey. Today would see us travel some 850 km through four different countries and on three different trains with our final destination being Split in Croatia.
Leg 4 – 07:47 Munich Hbf 🇩🇪 to Villach Hbf 🇦🇹(4 hours, 56 mins)
First up, we had planned for an afternoon in Austria’s seventh-largest city, Villach.
The train was due to depart at 08:17 originally as marked on our reservations, however it’s just as well we checked the Deustche Bahn app the night before. Due to engineering work, our train was scheduled to depart half an hour earlier than scheduled! A lesson learned here is definitely to check your train before you travel.
Luckily we were in for a absolute treat with this journey so it was well worth the extra early start.
The smart Austrian RailJet train was our chariot for this leg. It boasts 3 classes of travel from Economy to First Class and even Business Class. It also has a sit-in restaurant called DoN’s Bistro which is available for all customers to use!
Mid journey we were peckish, so consequently headed to said restaurant for a spot of lunch. We were transiting through Austria and so chicken schnitzel and potatoes felt an appropriate choice. We also shared a bottle of very nice white wine while enjoying the spectacular scenery.
My Mam tried to flog Alex, who was looking after us in the bar, a £1 coin instead of a €1. He commented how much he liked Elizabeth, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to accept GBP so we did more digging for Euros.
As marked in the menu the Viennese-style chicken breast with parsley potatoes (Wiener Schnitzel von der Hendlbrust) main course cost €11.20 each while the large, high quality ‘Riesling’ bottle of wine cost €10.20. There was wine on the menu for €3.80 for a small bottle as well however this was the only one Alex had left on this trip.
While eating, we enjoyed the most scenic leg of the trip with lush green fields and steep mountain sides, especially in the run up to Bad Hofgastein during and after. Simply stunning.
Leg 5 – 16:53 Villach Hbf 🇦🇹 to Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 (4 hours)
After a relaxing 4 hours in Villach, where we explored 3 churches, had a long walk by the river and found a café serving Sachertorte (hurrah indeed!) we headed to the main station to board our next train. This was the cross-border EuroCity service to direct to Zagreb.
The train had come from Frankfurt and the it divided into two parts at Villach with one portion for Klagenfurt and the rear three coaches for Zagreb, the latter of which we joined.
This train was immensely popular, especially with interrailers. All three carriages were full upon departure from Villach, however 1.5 hours into the journey the vast majority of customers disembarked. The train was then only around half full for the rest of the journey to Zagreb.
We watched the sunset as we travelled towards the Slovenian-Croatian border. The mountains were dominating the landscape more and more as we travelled south so less of a view to enjoy from the train.
As the train was approaching the Slovenian-Croatian border, it stopped at a place called Dobova where our Slovenian conductor left the train for the authorities to conduct passport checks. It was now pitch black outside.
The station had an eerie feel to it as if this small village had history. The border police were searching the train on the adjacent platform, the Serbian carriages departing for Ljubljana, before moving onto our train so we sat waiting.
We watched as the torch was shone in a search for something in the toilet as you can see in the photo below. They then evicted a gentleman from the train.
We stood for around 40 minutes then our Croatian Railways’ conductor joined the train and we departed for Zagreb.
Upon arrival into Zagreb we had a couple of hours to find a hot drink and stock up on supplies before our next departure, the domestic Croatian Railways’ night train from Zagreb to Split.
22:56 Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 to Split 🇭🇷 (7 hours, 49 mins)
Our train was ready to board approximately 20 minutes before departure. In the meantime we sat at the station watching the train being prepared. There were staff walking on the tracks to access carriages with various manoeuvres and uncoupling of cars taking place, others were sat in the station platform bar drinking and enjoying a cigarette.
The train consisted of a motorail coach at the front followed by one sleeping car (1, 2, 3-berth cabins), two couchette cars (6-berth cabins) and four 2nd Class seated compartment cars. There are no catering facilities so luckily we brought our own drinks and snacks.
We had reservations in the sleeping car which was very comfortable, although the beds were quite short. On this train, in the sleeping car, despite three beds being made up the cabin is reserved exclusively for your booking. There are two toilets at the end of the carriage.
We arrived into Split station on time, refreshed and ready to sightsee whilst looking for coffee due to the 06:42 arrival!
We had a good couple of days exploring and relaxing in Split, especially enjoying its Roman old town. This was beautiful and a great place to get lost in the winding streets, not knowing which monument you’re going to bump into next from Diocletian’s Palace to the Cathedral of Saint Domnius and a number of restaurants serving high quality cuisine. Just outside the old town was a enticing fruit and vegetable market.
We also had time for an afternoon visit to Hvar with frequent ferries direct from Split with Jadrolinija and Kapetan Luka ferry companies. Fares were priced as one-way journeys around 40 kn / £4.63 each way depending on the departure time.
Hvar was quite similar to Split in size and feel and was easily walkable from the port. Hvar also had an impressive Spanish fortress dominating the skyline. To walk to the fortress, this involved a large number of steps.
After three days enjoying Split and Hvar we were due to travel to Zagreb on the one direct train per day leaving at 08:33 the next morning. Well, we weren’t officially due to travel since our compulsory reservation bought in the UK in advance was actually dated for April…
This meant an impromptu trip to the station was in order at 21:45 to be issued with a new reservation. The booking office clerk laughed at the error and issued us with a new reservation and actually at a fraction of the cost of the original.
While we were at the station I couldn’t help but notice the sleeper train about to leave for Zagreb and a shunting type of locomotive on the front. Apparently this is normal for the front of the sleeper for the first part of the journey out of Split to Ogulin. It has a sole purpose of climbing the steep mountain from the port town up to Ogulin then the locomotive is changed.
08:33 Split 🇭🇷 to Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 (6 hours, 13 mins)
We arrived at Split station on time to catch our one daytime train option to the capital. Much to our surprise the train waiting to take us had only two carriages! As expected the train was relatively busy upon leaving, but we found that roughly 90% of customers travelled the entire route to Zagreb!
With two of us sitting at a table of four, we were convinced we were going to have to share with some other travellers at some point in the journey. Another surprise… At the 15 stations en route no more than 4 people joined at any one station! Most stations had no customers, so we never had to share our table with anyone.
There wasn’t much demand for travel at intermediate stations and there was nobody sitting in the 1st Class at any time in the journey. Not even the train conductor sat in there. She set up camp in 2nd Class placed her HŽPP branded antimacassar onto a seat of her choosing after departure. She mustn’t have wanted any customers to sit in her seat!
The train didn’t have any catering facilities, though there was what looked like a shop in the centre of the train albeit closed for us. I was informed on Twitter that this is supposed to be used as a ‘coffee point’ where the conductor can give you free coffee, but we were not offered this unfortunately.
The ICN train travelled through some beautiful mountainous terrain. The trains tilt around the corners to allow for a faster journey time which is a strange sensation.
Upon arriving at every station, even stations where the train didn’t stop, we found there was a Station Master awaiting the train’s arrival ensuring it safely departs. This railway pride was lovely to see, especially as we were travelling through many remote areas in the Croatian countryside. I don’t expect their jobs to be stressful in the slightest.
We arrived in Zagreb’s Glavni kolodvor station on time. The afternoon arrival enabled us to make the most of sightseeing and we particularly enjoyed exploring the Old Town up the mountain accessible by foot or by the funicular railway.
There was a wedding taking place in the Old Town, and what an amazing place and weather for it! We were in time to see the official photographs being taken with the bride and groom and their guests.
Leg 6 – 11:03 Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 to Belgrade Centar 🇷🇸 (6 hours, 39 mins)
Next up was our train direct to the Serbian capital. There is one day train per day from Zagreb to Belgrade and the train consisted of just three carriages, two 2nd Class Serbian carriages and one 1st Class Croatian car. The latter car was detached within Croatia at Vinkovci however, so only 2nd Class was available for customers travelling to Serbia.
The Serbian carriages weren’t too inviting especially from the outside. They were drowned in grafitti. Inside the colour scheme is bland however the seats are very comfortable with decent legroom on offer.
The train actually starts in Zurich and runs direct to Belgrade as a EuroNight service. However, to travel from Zurich to Belgrade you must change cars since there is no through coach travelling the entire way. The Serbian day carriages are attached to the train at Villach and the night train carriages from Zurich are detached in Zagreb.
Mid-journey, I noticed that there was a steady stream of passengers moving themselves and their luggage into the next coach. Interested to find out what was happening, I went for a walk and discovered that one of the 2nd Class carriages was a declassified 1st Class coach and there was plenty of room for us to sit and enjoy it.. what a winner I said! In the carriage, there were more comfortable, larger seats and more leg and arm space than 2nd Class. Plus there was carpet instead of lino floor.
Without hesitation we moved our bags and enjoyed the second half of our journey even more. The scenery was mainly countryside and flat landscape, but pleasant enough.
There is no catering car so bringing your own picnic is recommended. Zagreb Glavni kolodvor station has an underpass beneath the station accessible by escalator in the square, at the front of the station. This features a supermarket and a number of bakeries with delicious pre-made sandwiches. Upon entering Serbia however, at Šid station, there was a very welcome arrival onto the train… a vendor with his cool box of drinks!
Six hours is a long time for no drinks to be available so unsurprisingly many people took advantage of his good selection of Serbian beer, canned soft drinks and strong coffee to keep them going for the remaining 2 hours while transiting through Serbia.
I saw him get off the train at the following station which concerned me as I hadn’t been able to ask him for a drink yet. Behold, he got off the train to hand strong coffee to the train drivers up front as I captured in the photo below. I’m sure they were in awe of his arrival as well!
He soon got back on the train and I was able to put in my order for a can of lovely Serbian Lav beer. Much nicer than the name suggests in English!
For payment he accepted both Serbian Dinars and Euros, which was a great way to use up our change from Germany and Austria.
The arrival into Belgrade was quite something with a view of the Ada Bridge whilst crossing Railway Bridge across the Sava river.
Our arrival into Belgrade was into the new Beograd Centar station, 2.7km from the centre of Belgrade. That evening following a visit to the excellent Zavicaj restaurant we went to see the sad state of affairs at the old Belgrade Main Station which has been closed to trains since June 2018. Following from my visit 4 months ago in June 2019 (see my blog post here from then) the old platforms have now been completed dug out.
Belgrade is a friendly city full of history. Its position on the confluence of the Sava and the Danube rivers has made it an important location for trading historically and today makes a lovely view from the old fortress.
Leg 7 – Belgrade Centar 🇷🇸 to Nis 🇷🇸 (4 hours, 43 mins)
In the summer one direct train departs Belgrade Topcider station at 09:12 for Sofia arriving at 20:30, however we were travelling a day after the summer schedule had finished. This meant we had to be up for a planning challenge!
In order to get to Sofia the next day we would have had to either travel from Belgrade to Niš at 06:10 in the morning, with a risky 21 minute connection at Niš or travel the night before and stay over in Niš so we opted for the latter.
We decided to walk to Beograd Centar station from the centre of Belgrade. At first this was a nice walk through some leafy suburbs but we were soon faced with a series of motorways and we got confused.
We asked a series of very pleasant locals “where is Beograd Centar station please?” and not one of them knew where it was. The most common response was “I never use the train”. As a last resort we managed to find our location on Google Maps and which way we had to go. We had minutes to spare before our train was due to leave.
We soon realised that if we didn’t find a taxi we would miss the train. Luckily by the roundabout for the motorway there was a series of five taxis. We asked them one by one and four of them weren’t able to take us nor knew where the station was. Luckily our last driver did know and we made the train with 3 minutes to spare. Unbelievable.
We found the train and behold there were only 3 customers travelling on the smart, modern Serbian train. This departed at 17:30 on a Monday but wasn’t anything like a ‘peak’ time service in the vast majority of cities with a railway!
“Why oh why did Serbian Railways decide to build a centre station 2.7km from the centre of Belgrade?” was going through our lips several times as we caught our breath. We calmed down and we were then able to enjoy the journey to Niš.
Unusually as darkness fell we were faced with police conducting an ID check. This was very unusual for a domestic service not leaving Serbia, but nevertheless we showed our passports.
We arrived into Niš on time and we were faced with its brutalist check-in hall built just after World War II.
We had an early start in Niš so we made the most of being somewhere new and fitted in a walk before the next leg of our journey. Niš was delightful and has its own fortress which is worth a look.
Leg 8 – 11:10 Nis 🇷🇸 to Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 (3 hours, 35 mins)
We arrived back to Niš railway station for our next leg. There were no departure boards so we had to look at a printed timetable on the wall to find which platform we needed for the departure to Dimitrovgrad.
The train was a regional type and stopped 25 times during its journey. The scenery was breathtaking, especially the mountains following Ostrovica station. As at each station en route from Split to Zagreb in Croatia, on this route every station had a Station Master seeing the train through.
The train passengers were a mix of locals and tourists. On the train I had met a fellow traveller, Peter from Cambridge, who had travelled a similar route as us but a day later! He was talking at the European Association of Japanese Resource Specialists conference in Sofia so it was lovely to share the last leg of his journey from Dimitrovgrad to Sofia with him.
Leg 9 – 15:35 Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 to Sofia 🇧🇬 (2 hours, 25 mins)
At the border at Dimitrovgrad in Serbia (not to be confused with Dimitrovgrad in Bulgaria) our train pulled into the one platform at the station. We disembarked the train and then 15 minutes later, the same train departed on a service back to Niš.
A few moments later a train arrived from the sidings – this was our international train to Sofia. It had only one carriage!
The train was very hot upon boarding as it had clearly been sat in the sun for hours and the windows were closed. Naturally myself, my Mam, Peter and our new train friend Alejandro from Spain soon opened every single window to help cool the carriage down.
This was our first train without air conditioning and thankfully the last, but luckily when the train set off it cooled down inside the carriage. There were curtains on the windows which helped to shield the sun, but once the train got up some speed they started to blow around uncontrollably so I had to open them again!
The train departed Dimitrovgrad, set off promptly but then stopped in some sidings. Bulgarian passport control was about to take place which was the method of taking them away, holding them for 30 minutes and handing them back out again before setting off. The train jumped one hour forward in time.
The train guard had a unusual dispatching device which was nothing more than a cardboard pole.
We arrived on time into Sofia which was a huge station with extremely long platforms. As we disembarked we noticed that this carriage had been used for the direct summer only service from Belgrade Topčider to/from Sofia as displayed on the carriage door. Even though we had 3 train changes, we concluded that we would have preferred to travel in the modern, air conditioned Serbian carriages for the trip from Belgrade to Dimitrovgrad at least.
Sofia was a great place to spend a day. There were many beautiful churches, gardens and palaces to explore.
Leg 10 – 21:45Sofia 🇧🇬 to Istanbul Halkali (for Sirecki) 🇹🇷 (8 hours)
Time for the final train of our trip with 400 miles to go on the cross-border sleeper train from Sofia to Istanbul.
We arrived at our train to find five carriages going to Türkiye, four of which were modern Turkish Railways’ sleeper cars and there was one Bulgarian Railways’ couchette car which didn’t nearly look so new and inviting. We were glad we had booked a sleeper.
Once onboard the sleeper we were impressed with the size of the rooms onboard. It was left up to us to put the beds out but these were easy enough to set up. There were two members of staff in the sleeping cars but they were looking after four coaches of people.
The sleeper cars came with their luxuries. The large cabins came complete with their own fridge which was stocked with free bottled water, orange juice and cheese crackers! There was a choice between a western-style and squat toilet onboard in each carriage. The western-style toilet, which also had toilet paper available, even had a bidet fitted to the toilet bowl. I can’t vouch for its success though as I didn’t use it!
As the train crossed out of the EU and into Turkey, we were in for a night of disturbances. This was the negative associated with the sleeper train. The train reaches the first border point in Bulgaria at Svilengrad at approximately 01:30, however on this occasion it was running two hours late. The EU Bulgarian police check passports on the train, taking them away and then returning them upon leaving Svilengrad.
The train then continues across the border to Kapikule where you must disembark the train with your luggage, walk under the tracks and queue up at passport control. After the passports are checked you then queue up to have your bags scanned.
The authorities don’t start the bag check until after the last person has had their passport checked. This resulted in being outside for a while, in fact one hour which was quite surreal at that time of the night. There were wild cats roaming around the platforms which did provide some entertainment until one cat started bullying another one. This caused some upset among passengers.
Due to engineering work the sleeper train terminated in Halkali instead of Sirkeci which is 23km from the centre of Istanbul. We were still able to finish our journey by rail however by using the Marmaray Metro direct from Halkali to Istanbul Sirkeci.
It was lovely to finish our trip at this beautiful station which is where the Orient Express finished its journey from Paris from 1883-1977. The station has its own museum which is full of old Turkish Railways’ merchandise and machinery and free to enter.
Whilst in Istanbul we visited the Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Grand Bazaar. All of these attractions are in walking distance to each other. We also had a boat ride along the Bosporus crossing between Europe and Asia.
I used Rail Staff FIP facilities to make this journey. Most of the trains accepted FIP Free Coupons and only required a nominal fee for a reservation. My Mam used an Interrail pass and we travelled in 2nd/Standard Class for every train.
For both of us, with our passes, the following services required supplements to be paid:
flat fares for Eurostar between London and Paris
the cross-border TGV between Paris and Munich
the overnight sleeper from Zagreb to Split for private 2-berth sleeper cabin
the overnight sleeper from Sofia to Istanbul for private 2-berth sleeper cabin
FIP Reservation Fees (inc. supplement where required)
Global Interrail PassReservation Fees (inc. supplement where required)
London to Paris
Reduced Rate Card / Staff Travel Card
Paris to Munich
Reduced Rate Card – no free coupons accepted on cross border TGV
Munich to Villach – reservation
FIP Free Coupons (DB, ÖBB)
Villach to Zagreb
FIP Free Coupons (ÖBB, HŽ)
Zagreb to Split sleeper
FIP Free Coupon (HŽ)
Split to Zagreb
FIP Free Coupon (HŽ)
Zagreb to Belgrade
FIP Free Coupons (HŽ, ŽS)
Belgrade to Nis
FIP Free Coupon (HŽ)
Free – reservations not possible
Free – reservations not possible
Nis to Dimitrovgrad
FIP Free Coupon (ŽS)
Free – reservations not possible
Free – reservations not possible
Dimitrovgrad to Sofia
FIP Free Coupon (ŽS, BDŽ)
Free – reservations not possible
Free – reservations not possible
Sofia to Istanbul sleeper
FIP Free Coupon (BDŽ) & full fare for leg in Turkey (TCDD)
This article was first published in November 2019 and updated in December 2019.