Croatia, Italy, Germany, Holland & Iran

We returned to Croatia this summer (2015) after seven years’ away. A few points to note along the route.

I usually travel to Germany from Glasgow to meet my wife in Augsburg, Germany and then take off from there. With the demise of the overnight sleeper trains from Paris to Munich this leg has became harder though I managed this year to do Glasgow to Augsburg in one day. With a single Eurostar ticket Glasgow to Paris (I like doing this as it gives me protection if the London train is late) I left Glasgow at 6:50 on the North East (Virgin) train which arrived on time so I could easily make the 45 minute connection time from Kings Cross to St Pancras (better then arriving at Euston). The Eurostar was on time too and so I made the 20 minute connection ( a bit tight if one does not know the quick walking route) from Paris Nord to Paris Est. There I had a separate DB ticket from Paris Est to Augsburg to catch the last fast connection via Stuttgart (change there but trains tend to wait if a connecting one is delayed). I plan a couple of things in advance – for example changing my Eurostar seat on line so I’m in the first carriage for easy exit from Paris Nord (the platform can get very busy). Cost was around £120 in total. Note that if the Eurostar is late the French railways, SNCF, will provide overnight accommodation at the SCNF’s drivers hostel on the west side of the Gare du Nord – very nice too with breakfast included – and will honour the DB ticket for the next day even though it is not a through ticket. This sort of hospitality and pride in one’s service is unheard of in Britain. I’m amazed I made this journey in one day as the one hour time loss eats into the day. The return, as you can imagine, is a little easier with the hour saved though I haven’t attempted that yet; we usually return to the UK via the Amsterdam to Newcastle ferry

There is an alternative: Glasgow – London then a Eurostar ticket (or DB through ticket) from London to Munich – however this has to be routed through Brussels and the connections are very tight indeed (though slightly better if I were still living in Edinburgh!). One is also risking the hassle involved in explaining a lost connection, without through ticket, to the Eurostar staff at St Pancreas – though I have usually been successful in the past and been placed in a tip-up seat – the secret – don’t shout at anyone! Once, I think during the bad winter of 2009, I was placed in first class when late!

Croatia: A number of years’ back we traveled on the Marko Polo Jadrolinija ferry that travels down the coast between Rijeka and Dubrovnik, Alas this year it was taken from service and no coastal route is now offered by Jadrolinija. We heard a rumour of a private catamaran service offering this route but could not find one. The alternative mode of travel would either be an island hop adventure – Rijeka – Zadar-Split-Dubrovink via a whole series of islands; via car; or via bus – there are now faster bus links, in particular Zadar to Split that use the fast toll roads away from the coast – cost for that journey around £12 single. The Marko Polo and its two sister ships (the Zadar and the Dubrovnik) now ply the routes to and from Italy – Ancona-Split; Ancona-Split/Stari Grad (for Hvar peak season only); Ancona-Zadar and Bari-Dubrovnik. The Marko Polo is still surviving – built in 1982 it is looking its age but the crew are excellent and a marvellous bar and restaurant can be used (e.g.. silver service lunch of Croatian specialities with Istria bitter aperitifs for around £12 pp). I spoke with one member of the crew regarding the ferry and was told they expect it to remain in service for another 5 years though “she has a magnificent engine”! Jadrolinija have competition on these routes from the Italian Blueline and SNAV companies and I have to say the ferry was looking pretty empty. I’ve attached a few photos to illustrate these points.

We arrived in Croatia in Zadar by one of these ferries from Ancona and returned there by the Marko Polo from Split (journey times around 8 hours – one leg was overnight). Ancona is an easy couple of hours train ride from Bologna. Arriving and departing from Split is so easy as the ferry terminal is right by the bus and rail stations and a short walk from the city centre. Ancona is another story! Arriving at Ancona station one can take the free bus (number 12) to the ferry terminal which is adjacent to the town centre (worth a visit). We chose to walk (about 20 minutes). However tickets cannot be picked up at the ferry terminal! One has to catch the free bus 20 at the terminal to another office in between Ancona main rail station and the maritime station and way off the road we walked! Then one has to catch the free bus back (and hope the driver who dropped you off waits for you!). All foot passengers were caught out by this one and some Blueline passengers had to sprint for their earlier departure – it could only happen in Italy! In conclusion – if departing from Ancona try to have your tickets issued in advance or leave enough time to do all the above. Anytime left in hand could be used to explore the lovely city of Ancona.

An excellent tourist agency based in Split and run by the excellent Vilma Butorac-Štimac is maestral. Vilma is Bosnian born and specialises in trips to Bosnia, Croatia and Macedonia using her expansive local knowledge and contacts. She also runs steam train trips in these countries.

I hope somebody with railway experience can tell me what these rail signs I found at Bologna and Ancona mean. I can’t fathom them out. A game of bingo or some kind of Latin square for the amusement of waiting passengers?

Our return train trip from Bologna to Munich took us through the amazing Brenner pass. Unfortunately we observed the plight of the refugees that are attempting to move on from Italy to countries further North. At no point did we feel threatened by the events, more saddened at the plight and treatment given to these unfortunates. From Trento onwards various officials from Italy and possibly Austria identified refugees – took any passports then moved them all to the final carriage of the train. We were never asked for our passports or where we were going. The train arrived at Brenner and I was informed that the rear carriage would be “cleared” for us to sit in (our carriage’s AC had failed in high heat). The Austrian officials then led these people away from the platform. Not a nice thing to see but again we did not witness any violence or feel threatened, though on another day…

One of my wishes is to travel to Iran. Here is an interesting article in the Times on Saturday 25th July. The route through Turkey by private train is opening up again – Lernidee are a German company and regent-holidays – a British firm offering this service. However the recent events in Turkey with ISIS and the Kurds need to be kept in mind.