Enthusiast

The Balkan Circular – by Special Train

29 September to 7 October
Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria

We return to south east Europe for an interesting circular tour encompassing four countries. Starting in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, with our private charter train comprising of three compartment coaches, we will make  a roughly anti-clockwise journey through some varied and impressive scenery including river valleys, deep gorges and mountain ranges and take in Serbia, Macedonia and Greece.

Motive power will be diesel traction throughout, with a selection of Bulgarian Railways (BDŽ) class 06 and 07, Serbian Railways (ŽS) class 661 and 666, Macedonian Railways (MŽ) class 661, and Greek Railways (TrainOSE) class A-451 and A-501 locomotives.

Highlights

  • Private charter train
  • Carriages with opening windows
  • Four different countries (Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia and Greece)
  • Various different locomotive types
  • Some rare non-passenger lines
  • Ancient city of Niš
  • Amazing scenery
Itinerary

Day 1 Saturday 29 September Morning flights to Sofia from Manchester and Gatwick (Easyjet) and from Heathrow (BA) and Luton (WizzAir). Also, indirect flights available from other UK airports. On arrival coach transfer to our city centre hotel. Group welcome dinner (option).

Day 2 Sunday 30 September (B) Joining our special locomotive hauled charter train (with carriages with opening windows) we leave Sofia behind a BDŽ class 06 or 07 locomotive, we first head north on the Mezdra line to Ilyantsi before reversing, and then taking the freight only line to Voluyak where we join the mainline to the Serbian border. Following border formalities at Kalotina Zapad (Bulgaria) and Dimitrovgrad (Serbia), and a change of motive power to a ŽS class 661 or 666 locomotive, we continue towards Niš through the Nišava river gorge. The passenger service on this once important route is currently reduced to just a single summer-only train in each direction, although it retains considerable freight traffic; perhaps the proximity of the E80 motorway provides the reason for its decline. Rather than take the direct route into Niš, we turn right just after Palilulska Rampa to Crveni Krst (Red Cross) and then travel via Niš Ranžirna yard into Niš, where we stay the night. Niš is one of the oldest towns in the Balkans tracing its roots from at least 279BC, and is now Serbia’s third largest city and an important centre for electronics and engineering. Its large student population ensures a lively night life, and an evening spent in town is a worthwhile experience.

Day 3 Monday 1 October (B) We start the day by completing further curves in the Niš area. First we head to Crveni Krst then on to Trupale, where a reversal sees us travel south through Niš Ranžirna and then directly onto the mainline towards the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRoM). Much of this journey is spent travelling through the Morava valley, a region that was once known for textiles but is now mostly devoid of industry. We cross the border at Preševo (Serbia) / Tabanovci (Macedonia) and after a locomotive change continue south passing through Macedonia’s capital Skopje, and then on to Veles. Here we diverge from the mainline to traverse the highly scenic branch to Bitola. The line meanders and climbs as we journey towards Prilep, the largest intermediate settlement, then enters the Pelagonia Valley before arrival at Bitola, which is overlooked by Baba Mountain located in Pelister National Park. At one time, the line continued beyond Bitola to Kremenica and over the Greek border to Néos Káfkasos; we visited this outpost in 2014 on our ‘Rail Wonders of Northern Greece’ tour. Aspirations to reopen this route for international traffic have so far proved unsuccessful.

Day 4 Tuesday 2 October (B) UPDATED: Following a night in Bitola we retrace our route back to the junction at Veles affording us a second opportunity to view the impressive scenery this line offers. After reversal at Veles we take the short DMU only line to Kočani and back and then set forth towards Greece, and after 27 kilometres we pass Gradsko where the branch to Šivec veers off to the right. Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to traverse this private line and permission was refused for us to visit the line. For much of the journey through Macedonia we have been travelling along the valley of the River Vardar, and at Demir Kapija both rail and road must squeeze through a narrow gorge known as the ‘Iron Gate’. We reach the border station of Gevgelija and its Greek equivalent, Idomeni. By now we will have a TrainOSE MLW diesel (either an A-451 or A-501 class) on the front as we power towards Thessaloniki. We stay the night in Greece’s vibrant second city which offers numerous bars and restaurants, many along its seafront promenade on the Thermaic Gulf overlooked by the ‘White Tower’, the most prominent surviving bastion of the Byzantine-Turkish city walls of this ancient settlement.

Day 5 Wednesday 3 October (B) Our travel today consists of a straightforward journey along the Thrace main line to Alexandroupoulis, a 444-kilometre jaunt during which our MLW locomotive should provide plenty of entertainment! Owing to the limited number of passing loops we expect there to be a few breaks during the day allowing time for photographs and refreshment. The single line first heads north through Kilkis and Doirani, where we skirt the FYRoM border, then turn eastwards after Mouries through Rodopoli to Strimon, junction for the line to Kulata and Bulgaria. Onwards through Serres and Drama, we eventually enter the beautiful narrow Nestos Valley as we continue towards our destination. The final act of the day is reversal from Alexandroupoulis station down to the more conveniently situated Port station in the town centre.

Day 6 Thursday 4 October (B) Today’s itinerary marks the start of our return to Bulgaria. After ascending the incline between Alexandroupoulis Port and Alexandroupoulis stations we enter the Evros Valley and eventually reach Pythio. Sadly, this junction station no longer witnesses passenger services to Turkey, visible on the opposite bank of the river Evros. Originally the line from here to Svilengrad actually passed through Edirne in Turkey before turning back into Greece and onto Bulgaria, but in 1975 a new nine-kilometre direct line was opened between Nea Vissa and Marassia which removed the need for these additional frontier crossings. (Similarly, four years earlier Turkish Railways had opened a direct line from Pehlivanköy to Svilengrad thus avoiding Greek territory.)

At Svilengrad our locomotive is exchanged for a BDZ class 06 or 07 diesel. Firstly, we travel to Simeonovgrad over this recently electrified line, before branching right and traversing the long freight only route to Nova Zagora. There are several further minor spurs off this line which primarily exist to serve three power stations. At Nova Zagora we rejoin the electrified network, and after reversal end the day at Stara Zagora. In 1877 the population here was massacred and all public buildings (except the Eski Dzhamiya mosque) destroyed by the invading Turkish army. Happily, liberated two years later on 5th October, the date is now celebrated with multiple events.

Day 7 Friday 5 October (B) The penultimate day starts by heading to Mihaylovo and then taking the secondary line to Dimitrovgrad. We now traverse the long non-electrified DMU only operated line to Momchilgrad, home to Bulgaria’s largest Turkish population, and the terminus of Podkova, a village nestling in the eastern Rhodope Mountains. After a break, we return to Dimitrovgrad where we stay for the night. This modern city founded as recently as 1947 and named after communist leader Georgi Dimitrov, is regarded as one of the greenest cities in Bulgaria with its spacious streets and large parks.

Day 8 Saturday 6 October (B) Our final day sees us follow a gentle itinerary traversing the mainline diesel-hauled under the wires all the way to Sofia. We continue across the upper Thracian plain where the first section to Plovdiv has recently been rebuilt and is now authorised for 160 km/h running. Leaving Bulgaria’s second city, due to become ‘European City of Culture’ in 2019, we continue to Stambolijski where the line to Peshtera branches off to the left and then reach Septemvri, changing point for the wonderful narrow-gauge line to Bansko and Dobrinishte. Our tour is now almost over as all that remains is the final 103 kilometres of (hopefully) fast running back to the capital which will provide us with the chance to reflect on what we hope will prove to be an enjoyable week travelling around this fascinating region of Europe. Optional farewell group dinner.

Day 9 Sunday 7 October (B) Coach transfer to the airport for our return flights.

 

Place(s) available

Holiday prices per person

  • Full 9 day holiday including flight from UK: from £1,670 (twin/double), £1,870 (single)

Build Your Own Trip (per person) 

  • 8 nights in group hotels: £360 in twin/double, £560 in a single
  • Special trains only: £175 a day or £1,150 for all seven days

Options

  • Fly from Heathrow, Birmingham or Manchester: POA
  • Welcome dinner: £22

Deposit

  • Travelling by air: £500
  • Own travel: £200

Price includes

  • All travel and excursions as outlined in the itinerary
  • En-suite hotel accommodation with breakfast
  • Services of our tour manager. Holiday is fully escorted.

Flights

  • Direct flights with BA from Heathrow, Easyjet from Gatwick and Easyjet from Manchester
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