Southeastern & Central Europe round up 🇦🇱🇲🇪🇷🇸🇸🇮🇦🇹🇩🇪

The final leg of our journey saw us travel 3,270 km over land and sea from Corfu to London. After taking a ferry to the seaside resort of Sarandë, we made two further stops in Albania to climb Gjirokastër’s hilltop castle and explore a Cold War bunker in Tirana. We then crossed the border into Montenegro, where we swam in the Morača River in Podgorica and took a day trip to the old town of Budva. From Podgorica, we hopped aboard the Bar-Belgrade railway to enjoy one of Europe’s most spectacular railways on the way to the capital of Serbia. Next, we paused for only two nights in lovely Ljubljana en route to Austria, where we reenacted the Sound of Music in Salzburg and took a hike in the mountains above Innsbruck. We spent our last four nights in the beer gardens surrounding Munich and Cologne, before visiting Brussels for the day and taking an evening Eurostar back to London.

Carbon 🚌🚆

Our journeys from Corfu to London by ferry, bus and train emitted only 196 kgCO2e, while a direct fight for the same route would have emitted more than three times this amount of carbon. On the graph below, our carbon emissions are barely visible next to those from flights we’ve taken to cross seas and oceans, although this is partly because the total for this leg was spread across seven countries.

I’ve rounded up the total emissions from our whole trip to the nearest tonne of CO2 and purchased one last carbon offset from Gold Standard’s Climate+ Portfolio. In this case, we’ve helped fund a small scale Rural Methane Digesters Project in Guizhou Province, China. In total, we’ve now spent $210 (USD) offsetting the carbon from our travels.

Overall, our journey around the globe emitted 13.5 tCO2e. For comparison, a return flight for two people from London to Auckland via Doha would emit 11 tCO2e. Given that we were away for nearly 13 months, I think we got pretty good mileage out of a similar amount of carbon.

Although we travelled less than half our total distance in the air, our flights made up 83% of our carbon emissions. This statistic has further convinced us that the easiest way to reduce our carbon footprint from travel is by minimising flying. Almost any other form of transport is better for the climate, with the exception of cruise ships. The only way we could have further reduced our travel footprint would have been to alter our route in order to fly fewer kilometres, such as turning around before crossing the Pacific Ocean and heading back to London over land through Asia and the Middle East. Of course, this comes with its own geopolitical challenges and closed borders…

Cost 💰

The final leg of our journey added six new bars to our cost tracker and updated Greece’s total (which we also visited on the first leg of our trip). The Balkan countries (Albania, Montenegro and Serbia) were all relatively affordable despite our peak-summer timing, while Slovenia, Austria and Germany were predictably more expensive. On top of this, our visit to Cologne clashed with the annual Gamescom festival, which helped push prices up even further!

We were surprised to see France and Spain top the table of daily expenditure as they felt relatively affordable compared to New Zealand and the United States, for instance. However, a large chunk of our spending in these two countries was on transport, and indeed on closer inspection we travelled faster through France and Spain than nearly any other country. On average, we travelled about 600 km per day in both countries, making full use of their high-speed rail and long-distance coach networks. In contrast, we averaged only 285 km per day in New Zealand.

Cats 🐈

All three Balkan countries were great for cat spotting, with Montenegro swooping in to pinch the bronze medal from Malaysia right at the last minute. We had less success in Slovenia, Austria and Germany, which offered poor cat value for our Euro spend.

Time for some animal awards…

🏅Most polite breakfast companion

Just look at this chap. Wouldn’t you share your pancakes with him?

🏅Best reason for putting our entire travel day at risk

We were already a little late for our bus from Serbia to Slovenia, but these kittens still stopped us in our tracks. The more we looked, the more kittens we saw emerging from behind the fence. Cute! Thankfully, we just about caught the bus, but if we hadn’t, we could have just returned to hang out with the kittens, I suppose.

🏅Spikiest dinner guest

Sara was delighted when we found the hoggy source of all the rustling that had punctuated our dinner in Podgorica.

🏅Overall winner; worldwide cat category

After counting 1,839 cats across 27 countries, Thomas will always be our #1.

And that’s our last round up! Sara and I spent our final day of the trip in a sunny square in Brussels recounting each of our highlights of the whole trip – coming soon!

🎶 The hills are alive with the sound of…beer halls 🍻

From Slovenia, we crossed into Austria to spend a couple of days re-enacting The South Of Music in Salzburg, before taking the train to Innsbruck to go hiking in the Nordkette mountains.

Our coach from Ljubljana to Salzburg hit a few delays en route, but this did at least give us a good amount of time to savour the views as we crossed the Austrian Alps. We finally arrived at the bus station (5 km south of Salzburg city centre) with only half an hour until reception closed at our guest house (5 km north of Salzburg city centre). With no other option, we hopped in a taxi to make the journey. It quickly became clear that our taxi driver wasn’t going to let us down, and what followed was a mildly terrifying but ruthlessly efficient journey on two wheels through the city centre. We finally screeched into the drive ready to check in with 5 minutes to spare.

Our guesthouse was a quintessentially-Austrian chalet in a quiet and sunny suburban neighbourhood. It seemed to have all the essential features – the guesthouse name written in huge letters, a large sloping roof, window shutters and a borderline-excessive number of window boxes.

We were excited to be visiting Salzburg, not just for its beautiful old town centre, but also because Salzburg is where much of The Sound Of Music was filmed (if you’re not a fan of the movie, you’ll have a lot in common with me! You might want to skip down to the first roast pork photo below). Anyway, Sara is a fan so we’d booked onto a cycle tour that would take us around many of the key locations, starting in the gardens behind Mirabell Palace, through which Maria dances in the crescendo of Do-Re-Mi.

Next up was Residenzplatz, where Maria playfully splashes the horse statues in the fountain while singing I Have Confidence.

Later in the movie, Nazis are also shown marching through this square, and although the production company had permission to film this scene, the local authorities changed their minds right at the last minute. Apparently, when the producers suggested they could instead use real footage of Salzburg citizens cheering the arrival of the Nazis, the authorities had a sudden change of heart and allowed them to film after all.

Our tour then took a short break in Kapitelplatz, where we indulged in two quintessentially Austrian refreshments – an Apfelstrudel (apple pie) and a bottle of Radler (shandy), which literally means “cyclist”. It was the perfect pick-me-up and refreshment on an already seriously hot day!

We then climbed the hill to Nonnberg Abbey (where Maria studies to become a nun), with a beautiful view over Innsbruck’s rooftops. Legend has it that the filming crew cut out one of the bars of the metal gate (to Sara’s right) without permission to make space for a camera. At least they had the good manners to weld it back again, and the welding scars are still visible to this day as proof!

Our tour continued through the beautifully sun-drenched meadows surrounding Salzburg to our final stop – the two von Trapp houses. These buildings were used as the front and back of the von Trapp house in the film, and although they look very different in real life, no one seems to notice in the movie.

To recharge after our cycling adventure we headed to Augustiner Braustübl, a monastery-brewery founded in 1621 with a 1,400-seater (!) beer garden. Inside is huge vaulted beer hall, surrounded by a food court selling traditional beer snacks. Our favourite was definitely the kümmelbraten – slow roasted pork belly with caraway seeds, a staple across Austria. This came with a side of grated horseradish, which wasn’t quite up my street but Sara made short work of it!

We returned to our guesthouse to find a local festival in full swing just down the road. Having been cancelled for the past five years through a combination of global pandemic and poor weather, these Salzburgers had donned their lederhosen and dirndl and were in the mood to celebrate. The following morning, a tractor pulling a brass band trailer arrived outside our guesthouse at breakfast and we were treated to private performance of a few numbers. We just couldn’t work out whether this was all part of the festival, or if it was a way to apologise for all the noise last night!

The next stop on our Austrian detour was Innsbruck, a city with a medieval old town nestled in a valley between the Karwendel Alps, and the Patscherkofel and Serles mountains, which were the fictional location of the Chalet School books, one of Sara’s favourite childhood series. Actually, walking the narrow pedestrianised streets reminded me more of Diagon Alley in Harry Potter, with every building’s bay window protruding into the street, and every business’ sign hanging further across the thoroughfare. Talk about atmospheric!

Innsbruck’s proximity to the mountains is no exaggeration, with a funicular and cable car combo whisking hikers from the city centre to 2,000 m elevation in less than 20 minutes. However, this route came with a hefty price tag, so instead we opted to take a bus to Hungerburg and set off on a short hike through the forest. Even as we got off the bus, the view across Innsbruck and to the mountains beyond was already spectacular.

The first half of our route climbed steeply through the trees, which provided some much-needed shade from the summer sun. Every so often, the trees would give way to a clearing under the path of the cable car, leaving a wild meadow to take hold, framing more stunning views down to the city.

Just beyond our highest point we arrived at Umbrüggler Alm – an immaculately kept mountain restaurant with an incredible sun terrace. It seemed like such an unlikely place for a modern restaurant, given that it was nowhere near a cable car station and there were no paved roads leading to or from it. Sadly, the restaurant wasn’t open on the day of our visit, so I hope they didn’t mind us resting in their deckchairs while we enjoyed the view from the terrace.

The beauty of all this exercise was that we could we could visit yet another beer garden with little-to-no guilt. This time we tried out Siftskeller, a traditional Tyrolean restaurant with a large courtyard on the edge of Innsbruck’s old town. Once again the roast pork was our favourite, although this time it was served with a generous ladle of onion and carrot gravy, sauerkraut (natürlich!), and a pretzel dumpling that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in an English stew. Not exactly heatwave-appropriate food, but it was just what we needed after a tiring hike!

With our visit to Austria already coming to an end, we set our sights on our final country – Germany – before our return to the UK.

From Montenegro to Serbia on one of Europe’s most spectacular railways

Half of the reason we’d bent our route via Podgorica was to link up with the Bar-Belgrade Railway. Slated as “one of Europe’s most spectacular train rides” by the definitive authority on trains anywhere in the world, the Man in Seat 61, we were very glad to have secured tickets when we arrived in Podgorica for the bargain price of €21.25 per person – not bad for 11 hours of scenery! We’d never heard of this route before, so we were pretty excited to find ourselves in this lesser-travelled corner of Europe and able to weave our route around it.

We’ve noticed that some subscribers didn’t receive an email yesterday when we posted about our visit to Montenegro. You might want to check it out before reading this post if you missed it!

We arrived at Podgorica’s colourful yet crumbling train station bright and early in anticipation of the journey to come. Our train arrived only 30 minutes late (which is basically on time based on everything I’d read), so we boarded and found our compartment, and joined a Serbian family who were on their way home from a seaside holiday (their fishing net and volleyball were a bit of a giveaway). The views were breathtaking almost immediately as the train climbed through the mountains and we crossed the Mala Rijeka Viaduct, which was the highest railway bridge in the world when it was finished in 1973. By the way – our photos almost certainly don’t do the scenery justice (there were one or two children and fishing nets between us and the window!) but The Man in Seat 61 has a video that does capture just how stunning it was, if you’re interested.

The spectacular views continued as we crossed the border into Serbia, but then the train began to slow. Eventually we ground to halt, confusingly just over the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. The train shuffled back and forward before continuing along a 9 km loop of track and thankfully returning to Serbia without any explanation or border formalities.

The mountains eventually ran out and the train sped up on its final approach to Belgrade. We arrived roughly two hours late into Belgrade’s central station just as the sun was setting. Construction of this infamous station began in the 1970s, but to this day the building remains unfinished, with no commercial units or ticketing hall, and only a single bus connection to the city centre. But we didn’t mind, because we’d finally arrived in the 23rd country of our trip.

We were staying in a very comfortable apartment on the second floor of a quintessential Belgrade apartment block. The building’s main entrance was an atmospheric combination of crumbling plaster, wrought iron, graffiti and stylish pot plants. But best of all, we got to meet the mob of six cats who lived in a ground floor apartment and liked to wreak havoc upon the courtyard beneath our apartment’s balcony twice a day.

Previously the capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade was bombed heavily by both Nazi Germany and the Allies during the Second World War, and later by NATO during the Kosovo War in 1999. As a result, Belgrade’s architecture is a mishmash of grand boulevards flanked by beautiful Neoclassical buildings, mixed with brutalist apartment blocks. There seemed to be a surprise around almost every corner.

For lunch we dropped into Mikan Restaurant, a Serbian kitchen right opposite our apartment that has been serving traditional dishes for three decades. We tried pljeskavica (a spiced meat patty), prepranac (baked beans) and breaded kackavalj (hard cheese). We made short work of everything on the table, but it was the prepranac that surprised us the most – the sauce was thick and rich, and more akin to a meaty stew. It was certainly a step up from the baked beans we know so well!

That afternoon, we took a walk around Kalemegdan – a public park enclosing Belgrade’s hilltop fortress that our guidebook assured us has been destroyed no fewer than 40 times in its 2300 year history. As if to prove its age, the fortress now contains a dinosaur ‘zoo’, a Roman well, an 18th century clocktower, an exhibition of modern military artillery and a handful of tennis and basketball courts. As incongruous as the collection might have appeared, it really did seem like there was something here for everyone.

Now, we couldn’t visit Serbia without trying kajmac again – a type of cottage cheese that we first ate in a Serbian restaurant on our visit to Slovenia 13 years ago. I remember we spent all evening arguing whether it was really cheese or butter, and to be honest, I’m not sure we’ve ever reached a firm conclusion. Further discussions weren’t possible this evening either, as the table a few down from ours seemed to have hired the restaurant’s raucous live band for the evening, and were belting out heartfelt renditions of (presumably) Serbian classics for quite some time. I guess we’ll never never get to the bottom of the mysterious butter-cheese!

As we prepared to leave Serbia after spending just two nights in a single city, we really felt like we didn’t do the country justice, but at least we saw a good amount of its natural beauty from the train window. And as we said goodbye to Serbia, it was time to say hello Slovenia, the first country of this trip to overlap with our inter-rail trip in 2010.