|Not exactly the original Orient Express but one of my own personal versions of Europe by train!|
Istanbul, Turkey: Can't go wrong with one of my favorite cities. However, Istanbul has become increasingly commercialized recently and is losing some of its charm. Ottoman architecture and friendly (animated!) Turks compensate for the loss.
Istanbul to Sofia (Bulgaria) by train: Cheap. Normally a decent journey but messy this round due to rail system upgrades in both Turkey and Bulgaria. In normal circumstances, one can't go wrong with the Turkish Railways (TCDD) sleeper compartment on the nightly Balkans Express train from Istanbul to Sofia.
Sofia, Bulgaria: Day trips such as to Rila Monastery make a stay in an otherwise somewhat grey city more enjoyable. The upside? Until today Sofia remains one of the cheapest cities in Europe. Pamper yourself by enjoying local food at some of the city's most popular premium restaurants – it won't break your budget!
Sofia to Belgrade (Serbia) by train: Very comfortable journey in a sleeper compartment which arrives in Belgrade early morning. Immigration formalities are conducted on the train by both Bulgarian and Serbian officials.
Belgrade, Serbia: Don't be thrown by the 'War Criminals' label associated with Serbia – all nations have demons to exorcize. Belgrade was friendly and cheap with lots to see. On a sunny day, budget at least half a day walking around the fortress area; you will not be disappointed.
Belgrade to Sarajevo (Bosnia) by coach: There is no railway in operation between these two formerly warring Yugoslav republics. The coach takes you through some incredible mountainous scenery. (The whole trip reminds me of a road journey in Northern Pakistan, e.g. from Islamabad to the Swat Valley.) Note the mass graveyards which dot Bosnia's landscape – a grim reminder of recent hostilities. If you are prone to motion sickness be prepared to carry your tablets for parts of the winding journey.
Sarajevo, Bosnia: Wonderful - a little bit of the 'Orient' in the middle of Europe! Not a Muslim city by an means, one sees many churches (Orthodox and Catholic) and the odd (functional) synagogue. My first synagogue visit was here in Sarajevo (Singapore's synagogue doesn't permit non-Jewish visitors). Be prepared for exercise while walking up and down hills if you stay in the old city. Food is good, people friendly and the city oozes history (which I love). A must visit.
Sarajevo to Mostar (Bosnia) or by road: Beautiful journey, often adjacent to a river and through mountains. The short two and a half hour journey can also be done by train (on my next visit to Bosnia!). The train journey seems like it should be on some 'Top Ten Train Journeys of the World' list. If you are 3-4 persons hiring a car for a 'door to door' journey is cheaper than traveling by train.
Mostar, Bosnia: The natural scenery surrounding Mostar makes the city an ideal candidate for a 'retreat' from civilization! From our apartment by the river we could hear the soothing sounds of a waterfall and flowing water. The old Ottoman bridge and bazaar are nice. For me, hearing the Islamic call to prayer (Azan) at the same time as a nearby church was ringing its bells was a highlight of my visit. (No, they weren't trying to drown each other out either!) For Catholics, the nearby pilgrimage town of Medjugorje is a pleasant day trip.
Sarajevo to Zagreb, Croatia by train: Another long train journey on carriages being pulled by a 1970s style diesel electric locomotive – I love it! The journey cuts through some amazing scenery and is a comfortable way to travel between the two cities. Be prepared for delays as both the Bosnian nor the Croatian railways staff operate the service in a relaxed manner without obsessing about on time arrivals.
Zagreb, Croatia: 'New Europe' retains a degree of religiosity which has been lost in 'Old Europe.' Catholic Croatia is as good an example as any – visit the cathedrals and churches! Zagreb also has a surprising number of decent museums and art galleries, take the time to visit a few. Not many cities count cemeteries in their 'must see' lists but the Mirogoj Cemetery is on Zagreb's list. One can easily spend a few hours getting lost in the graveyard while admiring the diversely handcrafted tombstones in Mirogoj.
Zagreb to Budapest, Hungary by train: Surprisingly, the train had free (and functioning!) internet wifi as soon as we entered Hungary. Otherwise an uneventful train journey through European countryside.
Budapest, Hungary: A graceful historic city with much to see. Although most traces of over 150 years of Ottoman rule have been wiped clean, more recent influences from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and post war communist rule are widely visible. Keep your eyes open for the interesting architecture visible all across the city. If you like meat, the beef goulash is a must.
Budapest to Bratislava, Slovakia by train: A regular rail traveler once told me all trains to and from Budapest are late by about 30 minutes. My experience certainly bears this out! Nonetheless, the journey was comfortable and routine; no excitement.
Bratislava, Slovakia: I really did not know what to expect in Bratislava. While it was expensive – perhaps because Slovakia is in the Euro currency zone - the city was a welcome addition to the itinerary. Highlights included Devin Castle – a short bus ride from the city center and the amazingly cute St. Elizabeth's Church (Blue Little Church or Modry kostolik).
Bratislava to Prague, Czech Republic by train: Another uneventful rail journey. Perhaps 'railway fatigue' has set in after the several earlier train rides. Alternately, I believe as one heads farther into more 'developed' Europe and the trains become more advanced the beauty of nostalgic, traditional rail journeys is replaced by the sterility of (theoretically!) 'efficient and comfortable' modern railways – where every inch of leg space is fully utilized!
Prague, Czech Republic: Beware of the extortionate commissions (21-27%!!) charged by most money changers in central Prague! Other than the money changers (with taxi drivers a close second!), Prague is a wonderful city for travelers. Once you get the Old Town and Charles Bridge out of the way, make sure you visit St. Vitus Cathedral in the city's castle area.
Onwards from Prague: International flights from Prague are available to most parts of the world, through connecting flights in other European or Asian (Dubai) hubs. For those who wish to carry on with the journey, direct trains are available from Prague to several European cities, e.g. Munich. From Munich travelers can travel farther west and ultimately connect with the Eurostar from either Belgium or France and end their journey in London. Alternately, travelers can take a direct train from Prague to Warsaw and travel East or Northeast from Warsaw.
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.