Europe by Rail

I was recently sent a copy of the latest (15th) edition of the book Europe by Rail – The Definitive Guide, by its Berlin-based authors Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries (who are also the lovely people behind hidden europe magazine, to which I have been a regular contributor since 2007).

european rail travel ebr-15-cover-web It’s a wonderful book – I love the idea of arranging a travel guide around rail journeys, rather than rail journeys merely being included as a means of getting from A to B (or as the authors put it, it’s a guidebook with an emphasis on journeys rather than destinations). Over its 512 pages, it includes some 50 rail routes, which between them do an impressive job of covering the wealth of landscapes, cities, cultures and languages this continent has to offer, from the Bay of Biscay to the Baltic, and from the Balkans to the Arctic Circle. The routes are preceded by a 48 page introduction which carries sections on night trains, rail passes, how to get the best deals on tickets and other useful information, along with plenty of inspiring colour photos. As you’d expect from the people behind hidden europe, it’s very readable, with a more literary style than you’d generally expect from most guidebooks, and an emphasis on slow travel. And it’s not too large, fitting easily within my camera bag (a fairly standard indication of whether something is likely to accompany me on my travels). That’s not to say the routes are short on facts either – along with tips on what to see along the route, each is accompanied by journey times, distances, train frequencies (cross-referenced to the relevant sections of the European Rail Timetable), suggested stop-overs, connections and other details (including some suggestions for hotels, and the locations of tourist offices), together with a handy sketch map.

Europe by Rail began life around 20 years (and more than 100,000 copies) ago, and over successive editions has been transformed from a book about 60 European cities (presented with a healthy serving of information on rail travel), into a book about the rail journeys themselves, a form it first took with the 14th edition. This new, 15th edition builds further on this, with more routes added, improved sketch maps, and thoroughly updated timetable information.

Within the card covers are maps of Europe showing the location of the routes. With one of these open, I closed my eyes and took a blind prod at the map with my right index finger. It landed somewhere near Prague, on Route 22 – a rail journey stretching from Hamburg to Budapest. Having been on at least one leg of that journey earlier this year – taking the S-Bahn east from Dresden along the Elbe to Kurort Rathen, followed by a short ferry crossing and a hike up into the other-worldly rock formations of Saxon Switzerland National Park – this brought a smile to my face. Turning to the corresponding page of Route 22, I found the sensible advice to 1) sit on the left when travelling south (the views of the sandstone formations are on that side) and 2) take the slow train, allowing for a stop-off to visit the national park, and mentioning the ferry.

The information given on a suggested stop-over is always interesting and goes well beyond the standard blurb of tourist brochures. Looking up another journey (45, from Zagreb to Thessaloniki) for example, I turned to the pages on Zagreb, a city I know rather well having lived there. Sure enough, what greeted me was not a paragraph with its number of inhabitants or a dose of hyperbole, but a paragraph about Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža and one of his essays on Zagreb. More familiar and practical information on the city is cross-referenced to another journey (44).

As the authors state in the introduction (I paraphrase a little), it is the job of a decent guidebook to inform and inspire. Europe by Rail does both in spades.

You can find information about where you can order a copy of Europe by Rail – The Definitive Guide here.


OWPG Awards 2012

In a shameless piece of self-promotion, I can announce that I won two awards from the OWPG (Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild) last weekend, at an Awards dinner and AGM held on Jersey, in the Channel Islands.

My feature on the 16th century Adriatic pirates, the Uskoks, and their descendents in Croatia’s Žumberak region (published in issue 34 of hidden europe magazine), won the award for Best Travel Feature. You can read the article here (opens as a PDF):
Once were pirates. In search of the Uskoks of Senj
Judges’ comments: ‘Fascinating historical background brought slap up to date with compelling characters, local colour and useful info. A true hidden gem of Europe revealed. Travel writing at its best.’

I also won the photography award for a portfolio of images from the Lofoten Islands in Arctic Norway, sponsored by Páramo.
You can view a portfolio of images from Lofoten here (opens in new window):

Lonjsko polje’s storks / Nehaj fortress, Senj

A few shots from Croatia last week.

I was back in the village of Cigoc in Lonjsko polje, again – minus the floods on this occasion – to photograph some of the storks which nest there at this time of year….

White stork (Ciconia ciconia) nesting on a roof in the village of Cigoc, Lonjsko polje nature park, Croatia

White stork (Ciconia ciconia) on a roof in the village of Cigoc, Lonjsko polje nature park, Croatia

…and also in Senj and Zumberak, while working on a feature on the Uskoks for hidden europe.

The 16th century Nehaj fortress, stronhold of the Uskoks until 1617, Senj, Croatia

Sculpture of an Uskok's head above a door, Senj, Croatia

All images copyright Rudolf Abraham. No unauthorized reuse.

Hidden Europe article on Croatia’s Lonjsko polje and Turopolje

Posavina. Croatia’s Lonjsko polje and Turopolje

Rudolf Abraham is the perfect guide to the wetlands of north-east Croatia, as we join him on a tour of the Lonjsko polje region with its distinctive wooden architecture and storks’ nests.

The villages of Lonjsko polje — Cigoc, Krapje, Lonja and others — stretch along the left bank of the Sava as it sweeps east towards its distant rendezvous with the Danube below the fortress of Kalemegdan in Belgrade. A narrow winding road separates the river from the neat rows of wooden houses, some of them over two hundred years old and representative of a style of architecture now lost in much of Croatia.

Occasionally an oxbow lake, long severed from the river’s course and now a place of motionless reed beds and chirping frogs, makes the road swing away from the river briefly, before inevitably drifting back to follow its course again. Livestock can be glimpsed in fields and among the wooden barns and other outbuildings, including the narrow, open-air feed stores, filled with multicoloured cobs of corn. Tall crops of corn stand yellowing in the alluvial rich soil of the surrounding fields, and sunflowers, blackened at the end of the season, hang their charred heads. Passing through Kratecko, a slash in the riverbank leads down to a traditional ferry, which drifts over to the opposite shore, providing the only crossing point along this stretch of the Sava between Sisak, to the northwest, and Jasenovac, far away to the south-east on Croatia’s border with Bosnia.

Lonjsko polje

Lonjsko polje constitutes the largest wetland area in Croatia, and is protected as a nature park (park prirode) as well as being inscribed on the Ramsar list of wetlands of international importance. Covering an area of more than fifty thousand hectares, this vast flood plain is home to numerous species of plants, birds and animals, and is the site of Croatia’s first ornithological reserve, created at Krapje Dol in 1963.

The wooden houses in the villages along this stretch of the Sava are built at right angles to the river, stretching back much further than their narrow facades would initially suggest. The corners clearly show the distinctive traditional joinery, the horizontal planks meeting in something which looks rather like a large dove-tail — or a vuglec, to give it its proper name. The earlier houses actually originally had square joints — and if the houses’ regular plank construction looks rather like they could all just be packed down and reassembled, that’s because they actually were. Families would simply disassemble their home and move it according to the whims of the river Sava, which like all rivers had a habit of flooding dramatically or gradually changing its course.

The houses were made by locals rather than trained builders or craftsmen (though they are nevertheless beautifully made), and the more simple joinery also reflects this. The roofs were originally thatched, but this was later replaced by tiles, and the more simple joins (Hrvatski vuglec) superseded by the more complex (and more permanent) dovetail variety (Njemški vuglec) — the latter through the influence of more highly skilled German craftsmen.

Excerpt from full text published in hidden europe 32. Click here to read the full article as a PDF.

Lonjsko polje floods

Just before my most recent visit to Lonjsko polje, Croatia’s greatest wetland landscape, in early October 2010 (for a Hidden Europe article), the area around Zagreb and Sisak and along the river Sava had recently been subjected to some of the worst floods in more than a quarter of a century. The floodplains of Lonjsko polje – into which part of the Sava’s flow is diverted as a flood defense measure – were at this time a quite spectacular, drowned world. Under such circumstances any walking route/exploration beyond the flood bank which lies north of the villages of Cigoc etc is impossible (at least, unless you happen to have a boat). The flood waters also swept away the wooden bridges on the short walking route south of Cigoc – and the remaining ones, I almost found to my camera gear’s cost, are far from stable. Check at the Lonjsko polje park information offices if you’re planning a walk in the area – worth visiting even for the view from the flood barrier alone.

Lonjsko polje nature park in early October, after the floods of September 2010