At Pristina station there are gasps. In the distance a cherry-red train is hurtling in our direction, trailing a line of smoke and hooting its horn. My fellow holidaymakers raise their camera. “Oh what a beauty,” says one. “Marvellous, marvellous,” whispers another. The train thunders past and shutters click. The driver blows the whistle twice and adds a few more hoots.
Not many people go on holiday in Kosovo, and even fewer take a holiday on the rails in the tiny, newly-established republic, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 (and is about the size of Devon). Yet here we are on a group tour by train, catching rides across the green rolling countryside of the recently battle-torn land and on into Macedonia.
Our mission? To see the city of Peja before heading south and passing through immigration control into another country altogether: Macedonia, where our train will take us to its capital, Skopje.
The highlight is the journey west from the capital Pristina to Peja, near the borders with Montenegro and Serbia, as well as the foothills of the Albanian Alps (known as the “Accursed Mountains” for being so rugged). It’s a ride that takes about two and a half hours, giving us a different perspective on the pretty countryside, though it’s not this that has attracted those around me. “This is what everyone was hoping for: a proper old loco pulling carriages,” says Steve, a retired financier from Shropshire, peering out of the window as the train snakes round a bend. “We’re delighted.”
He and some of the others have already identified that the loco is a 1961 Norwegian model and that the carriages are ex Austrian Federal Railways from the 1980s; Kosovo’s trains are made up of a ragbag of cast-offs. There are some serious rail buffs among us, including the author of several illustrated books about trains and a few rail bloggers. Almost all have cameras. Many have pads. There is the odd flask. We are trainspotters on tour, on an inaugural train holiday in Kosovo.
It all makes for a refreshingly unusual holiday. After the Tito-ero apartment blocks and tumbledown yards of the edge of Pristina, the scenery opens out into green rolling hills, fields with brown cows and meandering, glistening rivers. The cherry-red train rattles along, never picking up much speed, and stopping intermittently at the burnt-out ruins of small grey-stone stations. These were struck by bombs during the civil war that ended in 1999 and have yet to be repaired, though they are still used by passengers, who leap off on to the side of the track. Health and safety has clearly yet to find a foothold in post-independence Kosovo: kids run happily alongside the train as it pulls away and some on board waggle their legs out of an open carriage door. The burgundy-capped conductor doesn’t bat an eyelid.
As we chug onwards in our comfy old second-class Austrian carriage, the landscape becomes even more remote and the snow-peaked Accursed Mountains rise in the distance. Church spires poke up from isolated churches. Tractors plough muddy fields. A faint smell of diesel wafts in from the loco.
Peja is a sleepy city with streets named after Tony Blair, Madeleine Albright and Nato — the intervention during the civil war is far from forgotten in Kosovo, and Britain and the US are regarded favourably wherever we go. There’s even a statue of Bill Clinton in Pristina. We hop off at the station and cross a couple of tracks by foot. Ours is the only train.
For a while we switch from trainspotting to sight-spotting. After staying overnight at a hotel on Tony Blair street, we wander around a market selling fake Hugo Boss jackets, watermelons and vast arrays of wedding dresses, which are busily being perused by mothers and daughters. Peja is, according to the Bradt guide to Kosovo, “where you can find the most beautiful girls in Kosovo”, and weddings seem to be very much in the air. We take in the statue of Mother Teresa, who is from Macedonia but revered in Kosovo. It stands by the iridescent Lumi Bardhi river, and we sit in one of the many cafés drinking strong coffees in the sun; 50 cents a cup. Everything is dirt cheap in Kosovo. It’s difficult to spend ten euros on three-course meals at the best restaurants, including drinks.
At the stunning monastery of Pec Patriarchate, hidden behind high walls, we find barbed wire and protection from Kfor (Kosovo Force, the international peacekeeping force overseen by Nato). The protection is required due to the continuing tensions between the Albanian majority and Serbian minority in the country. Kosovans with Albanian roots are not allowed into the monastery, which is run by 25 nuns. One shows us the magnificent frescoes and gold chandeliers in the 14th-century church, which smells of incense and is illuminated by candles and streaks of sunlight filtering from windows high above.
This is followed by Visoki Decani Monastery on the outskirts of town, which dates from the 13th century and is set around a courtyard behind more tall walls. In the main church, onyx walls and purple marble columns support a dome above colourful frescoes depicting the life of Christ.
After a stop at the gorgeous gorge in the Rugova Mountains beyond Decani, we are back on the tracks heading east to Pristina, where I talk to a wide-eyed local student in a neighbouring carriage who says: “I’ve never seen a train-lover before.” We spend a day taking in more sights: the Clinton statue, the excellent little Ethnographic Museum and yet another breathtaking monastery: the 14th-century Manastir Gracanica, recognised in the Unesco World Heritage list. It’s not so far from the hilltop where Slobodan Milosevic made his infamous speech on Serbian nation identity in 1989 that presaged the trouble to come in the civil war. This spot is also behind protective walls, with the monument commemorating those who died during Serbia’s 14th-century defeat in the Battle of Kosovo against the Ottomans still standing.
We fit in a happy hour taking in a steam locomotive and a small railway museum by a station that formerly offered services to Belgrade (which no longer run due to the continuing hostility between Kosovo and Serbia). It was from this station, we learn from our guide, that many tens of thousands of those with Albanian ancestry were transported out of Kosovo during the 1990s; a chilling reminder of the relatively recent troubles.
The steam locomotive is green and shiny and creates a bit of a stir. “1950s, operated until the early 1960s, I would say,” comments Nick, with a gleam in his eye. Nick describes himself as a train historian and has visited “all the axis of evil countries, I like to go out there on the edge”. On trains, of course.
During our journey south from Pristina to Skopje – pulled by an Italian-made engine dating from 1983 with a “diesel multiple unit” (I am reliably informed) — a couple from the group fills me in on trainspotter terms. There are, apparently, many nuances in the world of trainspotting. A “haulage basher” is a person who likes to travel to lots of different places, while a “track basher” makes a special effort to travel on as many lines as possible, and a “number cruncher” is more interested in making a note of different train numbers. There are also those who collect “footplate rides” – which count as when they are invited to the cab at the front of trains by drivers.
Finally, there are “gricers”. Nobody on the trip can explain from where this term originates but it refers to the especially geeky trainspotter. “Ghastly plasticky shoulder bag from the 1980s. Anorak. Scruffy trainers,” says Charlie, a retired librarian from Islington, attempting a definition.
Mike, a particularly snap-happy trainspotter, tells me: “We get a bad press. We’re fair game for it. But the thing is: on holidays like these, we go to the places that other people don’t see.”
And as we cross into Macedonia and head on between the magnificent snowcapped mountains into Skopje, I agree — we have taken in some amazing sights.
Need to know
Tom Chesshyre was a guest of Ffestiniog Travel (01766 772030, ffestiniogtravel.com) which offers a 12-night guided tour travelling through Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania from £1,650pp including flights from Gatwick via Istanbul to Pristina and back from Tirana.
Further information: Kosovo (Bradt, £15.99) includes information on independent train travel in Kosovo. Tom Chesshyre is author of Tales from the Fast Trains: Europe at 186mph (Summersdale, £8.99)
Great European train rides
Glacier Express in the Swiss Alps
Travelling on the Bernina Express and Glacier Express between the snowcapped peaks of the Swiss Alps has to be one of the most exhilarating train journeys anywhere. Ffestiniog Travel (01766 772030, ffestiniogtravel.com) has created a 15-day guided tour departing on September 8 that begins with a Eurostar train from St Pancras to Paris and a TGV onwards to Basle. In Switzerland travellers use the unlimited Swiss train pass, included in the price, to see Neuchâtel, the Jura region and the Bernese Oberland (with the Eiger and Jungfrau mountains and views of Lake Geneva), before taking the Glacier Express to Chur and the Bernina Express to Tirano in northern Italy and travelling back by train to London. The price is from £2,275pp including all train travel and B&B stays in hotels.
Across the roof of Norway
The Bergen line, which opened in 1909, touches 1,301 metres above sea level at Finse as it crosses the Hardangervidda, Europe’s largest mountain plateau. Taber Holidays (01274 875199, taberhols.co.uk) offers self-guided six-night “Across the Roof of Norway” tours that begin in Oslo and end in Bergen, a distance of 308 miles. Along the way there’s dramatic mountain scenery, with the route passing through deep pine forests and alongside stunning fjords. The trips are offered through the summer until the end of September with the price starting at £1,063 including flights, rail tickets and B&B.
Rome and southern Italy
Great Rail Journeys (01904 521936, greatrail.com) has many rail trips in Europe, but among its newest offerings is a trip around Calabria in southern Italy covering 14 days. It begins in St Pancras and continues onwards, via Eurostar to Paris and a TGV to Turin. From there, a first-class ticket takes guests to Rome, where two nights are spent, before continuing south to Calabria, taking a track alongside rugged coastline to Lamezia Terme. Guided tours are arranged in the south from the hotel in Tropea, taking in the medieval town of Gerace and the Carthusian monastery near Serra San Bruno. On the return to Britain by train there is also a stop-off in Bologna in northern Italy and Mulhouse in France; the price is from £2,195pp including all trains, B&B hotels and some meals.
Budapest to Istanbul
For a European rail journey of a lifetime, in style, the Danube Express departing from Budapest’s Nyugati station to Istanbul is hard to beat, though the price is steep: £3,680pp (01462 441400, danube-express.com). The train takes in four countries in four days – Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. There are stop-offs along the way including a “Puszta” horse show in Lajosmizse in Hungary, and a visit to the ancient capital of Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria. The price covers two nights’ B&B at the Astoria Budapest and two nights’ B&B at the Yasmuk Sultan Hotel in Istanbul, with three nights in a private en suite compartment on the train with all meals and wine and beer on board, and international flights.
Harz Mountains, Germany
Travel on steam trains and narrow gauge railways through Germany’s Harz Mountains on a five-day train lovers’ break put together by Diamond Rail Holidays (0844 5443808, diamondrailholidays.co.uk). The guided trip includes a Eurostar journey via Brussels to Hanover on Deutsche Bahn and costs from £699pp with four nights’ half-board in hotels. The highlight is a high-gradient ride on the Brocken steam railway to the summit of the mountains, and there’s also a trip on the Selketal railway through the picturesque Selke Valley. At the end participants return to the UK by train.
Classical cities of Spain
See four cities in central Spain on a “Classical Cities of Old Castile” self-guided rail tour organised by Inn Travel (01653 617000, inntravel.co.uk). Spend two nights in each of Segovia, Salamanca, Madrid and Toledo, with a suggested itinerary covering cultural sites such as the museum of Art Nouveau and Art Deco in Segovia, the Thyssen-Bornemisza gallery in Madrid and the El Greco museum in Toledo. The price is from £700pp with eight nights’ staying in B&Bs and rail tickets included, but not flights.
Lochs and Highlands of Scotland
Responsible Travel (01273 823700, responsibletravel.com) offers an eight-day break by train travelling around Scotland. You start in Glagow and chug along past Loch Lomond on the West Highland Line to Spean Bridge in the Highlands. After an overnight stay at a hotel, it’s onwards by steam train from Fort Willam to Mallaig, after which there is a ferry to the Isle of Skye. A night is spent on the island and then the trip continues, after a ferry back to the mainland, to Inverness, Perthshire, Killiecrankie and Edinburgh. The price is from £985 with B&B accommodation along the way.
Also try Planet Rail (planetrail.co.uk), Treyn Rail Holidays (railholidays.com), Voyages SNCF (uk.voyages-sncf.com), Railbookers (railbookers.com), Expressions Holidays (expressionsholidays.co.uk), Discover the World (discover-the-world.co.uk) and Explore (explore.co.uk).
First published in The Times, July 19 2014