Trip to Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro and Serbia - May 2004

General Notes

Part of this trip (9 to 14 May) was organised by Schöllers Travel of Sempach in Switzerland. See the end of this report for my comments on this.

For other general notes, and the meanings of the abbreviations, go to the Reports index page. In general, place names within Kosovo are rendered in Albanian first, possibly followed by the Serbian version.

Operating Company Abbreviations:

Place Arrive Depart Train Traction details & notes

Saturday 8th May 2004

Timperley   08:46 - SM tram 1002
Piccadilly Gardens 09:03      
Manchester Piccadilly   09:47 - MML HST set
via Stockport, Dore south curve, Erewash valley
London St Pancras 13:06      
Kings Cross St Pancras 13:17 - LUL Victoria Line
Victoria 13:27
London Victoria 13:47 - SCT EMU 3489 + 1865
Gatwick Airport 14:20 arr 9 late
(south terminal peoplemover)        
Gatwick Airport (LGW)   17:25 OA274 Olympic Airlines Boeing 737-400 SX-BKC
Thessaloníki Airport (SKG) 22:35 23:07 '78' Bus
opposite hotel 23:49      
New passenger track today: London St Pancras "temporary station" (future CTRL Domestic platforms)
Overnight at Best Western Hotel Vergina, Monastirou 19, Thessaloníki (5 minutes walk from station and on bus route from airport)
Notes Plenty of time to get to the flight so went via the "scenic" Midland Mainline route, to go into the new platforms at St Pancras. Greece (Eastern European Time) is two hours ahead of UK time.

Sunday 9th May 2004

Thessaloníki   08:04 410 OSE DL 220 030
via Idomeni (09:05 (arr 21 late)/09:55, photo available) - change to Central European Time -
* Gevgelija 09:00 09:30 410 MŽ EL 441-755
Skopje 11:47 15:42 5903 MŽ DMU 712-101+716-101+712-102 photo available
Kočani 18:24 18:50 5902 MŽ DMU 712-102+716-101+712-101 photo available
Skopje 21:23      
New passenger track today: Thessaloníki - Idomeni - Gevgelija - Skopje, Veles - Kočani
Overnight at Hotel Continental, Bul. "Aleksandar Makedonski", 91000 Skopje (5 minute taxi ride from station) (2 nights)
Notes We were supposed to have a special train at Gevgelija to visit various non-passenger routes on the way to Skopje e.g. Gradsko to Šivec. At almost the last minute we were told by the tour organiser that "Macedonian Railways have refused permission for any special trains" so we would continue to Skopje on the service train. This was the first cock-up of many on this trip. Fortunately we were able to fit in the Kočani branch from Veles, which only has a service on Fridays, Sundays and bank holidays - so it was rather lucky we were travelling on a Sunday.

Monday 10th May 2004

Hotel Continental   11:55 - Chartered bus SK 789-HE
via Blace border crossing (Macedonia side 12:49/13:06, Kosovo side 13:08/13:16) - Prishtinë area -
Vushtrri 14:59 15:01 4303 UNMIK DL 3641 dep 8 late
Lešak 16:20 16:50 4302 UNMIK DL 3641 arr 14 late/dep 14 late photo available
Fushë-Kosovë/Kosovo Polje 18:37 18:42 4103 UNMIK DL 3641 arr/dep 44 late
Hani i Elezit/Đeneral Janković 20:55 21:05 - Chartered bus SK 789-HE arr 55 late
via Blace border crossing (Kosovo side 21:10/21:14, Macedonia side 21:16/21:26) -
Hotel Continental 21:49      
New passenger track today: Lešak - Fushë-Kosovë/Kosovo Polje - Hani i Elezit/Đeneral Janković
Overnight at Hotel Continental, Skopje
Notes The tour organiser spent several hours this morning failing to change the mind of Macedonian Railways regarding the proposed special trains (today we were supposed to visit the goods lines around the yards east of Skopje, and also Kumanovo to Beljakovce). After an open forum on what to do, a suggestion was made to visit Kosovo. A special bus was obtained that took us across the border to catch up with the afternoon northbound train to Lešak, then take the train back to the border at Hani i Elezit, then back by bus to Skopje. This turned out to be a very interesting day. The train fare in Kosovo is EUR0.50. Plenty of security staff on the trains. The coaches are all ex-SJ and are in far better condition than any other running on the nearby railway companies. Despite varying degrees of late running, the connections at Lešak always seem to work OK. Plenty of motive power seen at the depot at Fushë-Kosovë/Kosovo Polje but not much of it working order.
The branch route to Graçanicë/Gračanica, south and east of Fushë-Kosovë, has been reported as having a passenger service; however it was seen to be quite rusty and getting overgrown. Westwards towards Pejë/Peć has also been reported as having a passenger service but no information on this was found.
Incidentally one of our possible plans for later in the week was to try to get by road from Hani i Elezit to Skopje. From Hani i Elezit station to the border was only about 5 minutes walk, and we could almost certainly have hired a taxi from the Macedonian side of the border. In the end we did not need to try to do this.

Tuesday 11th May 2004

Skopje   06:00 4901 MŽ DL 661-241
- attach 4 wagons at Veles - water loco at Prilep
Bitola 09:35     arr 30 late photo available
Bitola station   14:12 - Chartered Greek coach PAB-4596
- via Kremenica - Sopotnica - Kičevo photos available -
Hotel Riviera, Ohrid 19:40      
New passenger track today: Veles - Bitola
Overnight at Hotel Riviera, Key "Maršal Tito" br. 4, 6000 Ohrid
Notes We had been promised the Bakarno Gumno - Sopotnica branch today but again this did not materialise. Very scenic to Bitola. After lunch at Bitola we picked up what would be our non-rail transport for the next several days - a chartered Greek coach. This was comfortable and well driven, and was used in parallel with some of the rail trips so that the photographers in the party could get some good shots. The trip to Ohrid was very interesting, visiting the line towards the Greek border at Kremenica before continuing via the branch (that we couldn't visit by train) to Sopotnica (which was full of stored wagons). We then went on to Kičevo (no trains have run to here since June 2001 due to the political situation so close to the border with Albania) and then on to the lakeside town of Ohrid.

Wednesday 12th May 2004

Ohrid Pier   09:13 - boat "Aleksandrija"
Sveti Naum Pier 10:30      
Sveti Naum   10:35   Chartered coach PAB-4596
via Sveti Naum/Tushemisht border crossing (Macedonia side 10:40/11:08, Albania side 11:12/11:57) -
Pogradec 12:21 13:08   HSH DL T669 1059 photo available
- Lin (13:31) - tunnel (13:35 - 13:40) - halt (13:43) - Perrenjas (13:58/14:07) - viaduct (photo available) - Zhyre (14:43) - Librazhd (15:08/21) - Mirakë (15:35) - Elbasan (16:00/07) - Papër (16:31) - halt (16:50) - Peqin (17:07) - Rrogozhinë (17:22/25) - Leka (17:37) - Kavaje (17:53) - Golem (18:11) - Shkozet (?) photo available - Durrës (18:32/45 loco run-round) - Sukih (19:11) - Vorë (19:28) -
Tiranë 19:45     arr 18 late
Tiranë station   20:08 - Chartered coach PAB-4596
Hotel 20:15      
New passenger track today: Pogradec - Rrogozhinë - Durrës - Tiranë
Overnight at Tirana International Hotel, Skanderbeg Square, Tiranë (two nights)
Notes We were persuaded to hire a boat to take us to Sveti Naum border crossing, which was interesting and very pleasant. Got to Pogradec in plenty of time for the service train to Tiranë. The line runs alongside Lake Ohrid for a while, then through a long tunnel then descends rapidly towards the coast. Very scenic and quite slow - no more than about 40km/h. We noted that the Durrës avoiding line (used by one pair of trains between June and August) was very overgrown; however we were later assured that it would be cleared ready for use - but too late for us!

Thursday 13th May 2004

Hotel   06:13 - Chartered coach PAB-4596
Tiranë station 06:17      
Tiranë   06:30   HSH DL T669 1047
- Vorë (06:58) - Sukih (07:10/17) - Shkozet (07:34) -
* Durrës (reverse) 07:39 07:47   HSH DL T669 1054
- Golem (08:10) - Kavaje (08:28) - Leka (08:42/7) - Rrogozhinë (08:57/09:02) - Dushki Modh (09:26) - Lushnje (09:39) - Gradisht (09:57) - Libofshe (10:13) - Fier (10:35) -
Vlorë 11:34 11:50   HSH DL T669 1054
- Fier (12:44/13:07) - Libofshe (13:27) - Gradisht - Lushnje (13:59) - Dushki Modh (14:11) - Rrogozhinë (14:27/33) - Leka - Kaveje (14:59) - Golem (15:15) - Shkozet - Durrës (15:45/16:00 loco run-round) - Vorë (16:30/41) -
Tiranë 17:00     arr 11 late
New passenger track today: Rrogozhinë - Vlorë
Overnight at Tirana International Hotel
Notes Today we did the service train from Tiranë to Vlorë and back. We had been expecting to be able to do the freight-only branch from Fier to Ballsh - guess what: it was refused!

Friday 14th May 2004

Hotel   08:03 - Chartered coach PAB-4596
Tiranë station 08:08      
Tiranë   08:20   HSH DL T669 1032
- Vorë (08:42/57 loco run-round) - Eudul (09:12/20) - Ishëm (09:30) - Mamuras (09:49) - halt (10:02) - Laç (10:07) - Milot (10:20) - Lezhe (10:37/50) - Baqel - Hajmel (11:27) - Mjedë (11:39)
Shkodër 11:58      
Shkodër station   12:55 - Chartered coach PAB-4596
Hani i Hoti border (Albania side) 14:08 14:57 - car/taxi (?)
- Hani i Hoti border (Montenegro side 14:58/15:35) -
Tuzi station 16:05      
Tuzi   16:15 special JŽ (=ŽCG) DL 744-011 + 1C photo available
Podgorica 17:01 17:00 6161 JŽ (=ŽCG) EMU 412/416-041/042 set
Bar 17:52     arr 10 late
Bar   21:15 9610 JŽ (=ŽCG) EL 461-126
* Bijelo Polje       ŽS EL 461-017
via Požega avoiding line -
* Čačak       ŽRS DL 661-314 dragging 461-017
via Kraljevo - Kragujevac -
Lapovo 06:27     arr 39 late photo available
New passenger track today: Vorë - Shkodër; (Kraljevo - Kragujevac - Lapovo)
Notes Final day in Albania. At Milot the freight line to the east appeared to be out of use. We were supposed to get a special train from Shkodër, across the border at Hani i Hoti then on to Podgorica. Once again this was not possible, but we did get a special from Tuzi to Podgorica. There was a big problem getting the coach across the border, in the end this proved impossible and we crossed in cars. Arrival in Podgorica was the end of the "organised" part of the trip.
With not much else to do before getting the overnight train towards Beograd, we travelled down to Bar where we had a few drinks and an evening meal. We knew that the overnight Autovoz would be diverted via Kraljevo to Lapovo due to engineering works between Požega and Beograd. We had to wake up at about 03:00 to ensure that we did, as expected, travel via the Požega avoiding line. It was interesting that the 461 was dragged all the way from Čačak to Lapovo by the 661, and when we got to Lapovo we realised it was a ŽRS (Željeznice Republike Srpske) loco - perhaps they have locos to spare in Bosnia! Despite the Lapovo call not being advertised, we were able to alight from the train there with no problems during the locomotive detach procedure. Four berths in a former SNCF couchette coach, took me back fifteen years to when I was travelling around France!

Saturday 15th May 2004

Lapovo   09:01 581 JŽ (=ŽS) DL 661-119 dragging ŽRS DL 661-314
* Kraljevo       JŽ (=ŽS) DL 661-119 alone
Raška 12:20 16:13 3833 JŽ (=ŽS) DL 661-129 arr 22 late/dep 20 late
Lešak 16:38 16:50 4302 UNMIK 3619 arr 20 late/dep 11 late
Fushë-Kosovë/Kosovo Polje 18:37     arr 28 late photo available
Fushë-Kosovë/Kosovo Polje station approach   19:19 '1' bus
Prishtinë main bus station 19:24 19:35 - taxi
Prishtinë Grand Hotel 19:40      
New passenger track today: Lapovo - Kragujevac - Kraljevo - Raška - Lešak
Overnight at Hotel Iluria, Prishtinë (in city centre)
Notes After failing to find any proper breakfast in Lapovo, we returned south. The ŽRS 661 came with us as far as Kraljevo, though not under power. Raška was an interesting town, we had time for a good walk around before finding a good restaurant for lunch. Crossing into Kosovo from Raška to Lešak meant that we had "cleared" Kosovo. No border checks entering Kosovo on the train. As before, timekeeping was not good so it was useful not having to go all the way to Hani i Elezit and back. We were trying to plan for tomorrow's move back into Serbia to we were looking for bus details towards Niš - but failed to find any. After a short walk around Prishtinë we opted for the slightly cheaper of the city centre hotels. Just the three of us now, only two of us wanting to go on towards Niš.

Sunday 16th May 2004

Hotel Iluria   07:41 - private car
Meskare border (Kosovo side) 08:23 08:27 - walk
- Meskare border (Serbia side 08:30/08:41) -
Mala Košanica 09:46 10:01 - bus NI-162-43
Rača main street 10:09 11:37 - hitch-hike
Kuršumlija station 11:57      
Kuršumlija   12:00 7830 JŽ (=ŽS) DL 641-331 + 1C + 4 wagons dep 2 early
Niš 14:28 15:05 6316 JŽ (=ŽS) EL 461-101 + 1C arr 29 late/dep 6 late photo available
Niš ranžirna 15:12 15:13 6317 JŽ (=ŽS) EL 461-101 + 1C arr 12 late/dep 12 late - via Crveni Krst
Niš 15:24 22:30 335 JŽ (=ŽS) EL 441-310 arr 13 late
* Preševo or Tabanovci       ?
* Gevgelija       OSE DL A480
- change to EET - Idomeni (dep 21 late) -
Thessaloníki 09:04     arr 26 late
New passenger track today: Kuršumlija - Doljevac - Niš; Niš - Niš ranžirna - Crveni Krst; Doljevac - Skopje (dark)
Notes The main aim of today was to cover the awkward Niš - Kuršumlija - Kosanička Rača branch, which only sees one daily train pair over the final section. This had been covered by a friend during the previous weekend. Having failed to find any sort of bus across the border (perhaps not surprisingly), we had asked the hotel receptionist for help. A friend of his was willing to take us to the border in his car, which he did for EUR40.
The line from Fushë-Kosovë to a few km east of Prishtinë was well used, apparently to an oil terminal. Beyond there to Rača was intact but rather overgrown.
Got through the border to Serbia fairly quickly, avoiding a large queue of Austrian coaches. We were willing to walk all the way to Rača - 2.5 hours for about 9km - but after about 5km we came across a group of people waiting by the roadside. One, an off-duty policeman, spoke a little English and he told us a bus was due, which we caught to the centre of Rača village. We could see the station on the opposite side of the valley, and knew there was a path to it, so we asked for directions in a little shop. They told us the train was cancelled, and we should get the bus (the one we had just got off, presumably)! I must say we did not believe them, and followed their directions to the station, by a longer route than we thought necessary. Arriving at the station at about 10:45 (20 minutes before train arrival time) we came across two railway staff (we never did find out what they were doing there). After a lot of discussions with minimal common language we worked out that the train had been cancelled as of three days previously due to condition of track, and the train was terminating at Kuršumlija! With only an hour to get there, we walked back to the main road, via a small path and dodgy bridge across the river, and started to try to thumb a lift. I think there was only about one car every five minutes going our way, not surprising so close to the border. My friend had almost given up when a car stopped for us - we might make it after all. About halfway to Kuršumlija he stopped for petrol (agh! why do these people always drive around with empty fuel tanks?). It was by now very tight for our train so we explained what we needed to do; fortunately the driver lived in Kuršumlija and knew where the station is. We now went very fast and pulled up right onto the station platform at 11:58, just as the "red hat" was walking out to wave away the train. We gave our car driver YUD400 as a thank-you and piled onto the train, which immediately departed. Phew!
Incidentally Kuršumlija is actually a terminal station, through trains (used to) reverse there, though there is an avoiding line forming a triangular junction. This arrangement is not shown correctly on any maps I have.
It soon became clear why the line had been closed beyond Kuršumlija. We ran slowly all the way to the main line junction at Doljevac, losing 30 minutes on a two hour journey. Clearly if the train continued beyond Kuršumlija it would run very late on its return journey, so the 110 minute wait at Kuršumlija acts as recovery time. Thus we missed the last part of the line by only a few days, rather annoying but at least we did the remaining part.
We used one of the yard shuttles to Niš ranžirna and back as they do several otherwise non-passenger curves. Beware platform alterations - the one we caught went from a goods line beyond the main platform tracks at Niš. No objection from the guard when he came to check tickets. A 461 and one coach - a little underloaded....
With nothing else to do for the next 7 hours we walked into Niš (about 20 minutes), had a couple of beers, ate at a real Serbian restaurant (no foreign language menus, which was a little daunting) then back to the station for the southbound overnight. Got two berths in a T3 on this with no problem. Entering Greece at Idomeni was a real pain as we had to get out of bed and go to the station building to retrieve our passports!

Monday 17th May 2004

outside Thessaloníki station   12:12 '78' bus
Thessaloníki airport 12:55
Thessaloníki Airport (SKG)   15:05 OA273 Olympic Airlines Boeing 737-400 SX-BKC
Gatwick Airport (LGW) 16:25      
Gatwick Airport   16:57 - SCT EMU 3483 + 1714 + 3907 dep 7 late
London Victoria 17:36 17:44 - LUL Victoria Line
London Euston 17:53 18:25 - VT HST set
via Hixon - Stoke-on-Trent (non-stop) -
Manchester Piccadilly 20:55 21:00 - SM tram 1010
Piccadilly Gardens 21:03 21:19 - SM tram 1011
Timperley 21:36      
New passenger track today: none.
Notes A leisurely morning: breakfast at a cafe opposite the station, a bit of train watching then the bus to the airport. The journey home was uneventful, though the HST set on the Manchester train was a nice surprise!

Summary

The Schöllers Travel part of this trip promised much but produced comparatively little. On the one hand, we covered all the available service train routes in Macedonia and Albania, but we could have done that independently. However, only one of the promised special trains materialised (Tuzi to Podgorica). We missed out on Durrës curve, which rather annoyingly would be available in only a few weeks time. It is still hoped that we will get some form of refund. Overall I recommend that potential travellers check very carefully before booking any trip with this operator.

Other than this, the overall trip was very good. Kosovo was extremely interesting and a little daring. Albania was rather as expected but has to be seen to be believed. Three-and-a-bit new countries (Greece, Macedonia, Albania, plus Kosovo); lots of border crossings, loads of excellent scenery.

Tickets used: 5-day Balkan Flexipass (bought at Thessaloníki station), plus single tickets as required.

Copyright © 2004, 2007, 2011 Paul Steane.

This page last updated on 23 October 2011 at 16:54.