There’s a slow train a’coming driving me around the bend.

It is 392 kilometres from Sofia to Belgrade and another 600 kilometres from Belgrade to Vienna. From Vienna you are on the fast rail networks of western Europe but these first two legs of my journey are about 200 years in the past in terms of train technology years.

The trip from Sofia to Belgrade in particular, is the railway equivalent of slow boat up the Nile. The Nile slow boats are a sailing boat called a Felucca, a boat, incidentally, that I know well (see Sailing Like an Egyptian – slowly down the Nile).

Felucca, Nile River

Faster by Felucca

These train services are so bad they make Australian trains look like the bullet train.

The “Avala”, the Vienna express, and the concrete something at Sofia station

This is serious regret country. Where you think “was this really a good idea to travel from Istanbul all the way to Malaga by train”. Even my fellow passengers look like refugees from some gulag in the east. Either exhausted, rough or disillusioned.


To get a sense of the rapidity of travel we leave at 7 am on a cold Sofia morning and we don’t arrive in Belgrade until about 8 pm. The average speed is 30.15 kilometres per hour. Consider this – the average male marathon runner covers the 42 kilometres of the marathon in about 2 hours or around 21 kilometres per hour.

The Laughter Express

In other words this inter-city express would win a Boston Marathon but only by around half an hour. Or alternatively the marathoner could theoretically reach Belgrade only a few hours after the train if s/he could keep going – and the trip would probably be more comfortable than the train trip, since it seems that these trains were probably once used to torture their occupants via sleep deprivation. If you do accidentally fall asleep the lurching, bumping and grinding will have you on the deck in a matter of minutes.

There are, by my count 46 stops between the two cities which, if you work it out is one stop every 8.52 kilometres. Most of these stops, apparently, require that the driver or guard, possibly both, get off the train have a short winter holiday and then re-board before leaving the station. On average 0.75% of a person boards or descends at each stop.

From Belgrade to Vienna things decline further, other than the speed which is a little faster. We board the Vienna Express at Belgrade Station. The Vienna Express is likely the East European version of the Marrakesh Express (which was actually, I assume, hash or some other drug) of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame, but absent hippies, drugs and things of interest.

It consists of a single locomotive and carriage and an assortment of co-passengers that look as if they stepped off the set of Midnight Express. The Avala only travels as far as Nis, where we change trains to a the more modern version of our Felucca. To ensure that we are not, however fooled by this impression of modernity, our express journey includes an unscheduled one hour stop in the Serbian countryside just after we have changed trains.

The Avala Mk2, looks good but is just as slow and broken down

Here we wait in a small town with several other trains while they repair the railway tracks. Apparently they started work on the track the night before and forgot that trains were supposed to run on it the following day. There could have been various alternative reasons but my Serbian was not really up to interpreting the announcement other than it was a track problem. The stop does have the advantage that we are all able to take a short tour of the village, have a smoke, get extra supplies, or whatever takes our fancy, etc.

The average passenger is also psychologically traumatised since the train, from Belgrade is called the Avala which sounds like it should be some slick modern train. In my brain it sounds a bit like Areva which is, of course, the French company which builds nuclear reactors. It’s the power of association. Even though most nuclear reactor are themselves outdated 60’s technology.

There is psychological dissonance suffered by the passengers who believe they will be boarding something, the name of which sounds like the TGV, but which operates like the train in the accompanying photo (below, at Nis station). This is a traumatic experience for which the railways would be sued were we in the US.


For the first world, western European/Australian, traveller the journey through the Serbian countryside is, in itself, also a blast from the past in various senses.

The “fast” train from Nis

Even the names of the towns such as Dimitrovgrad, where we stop on the Bulgarian/Serbian border, are reminiscent, to my ears, of the greyness of the planned cities of the Soviet Union. And, as it turns out Dimitrovgrad was exactly that. Here light grey concrete, blends nicely with dark grey concrete in an artistic panorama reminiscent of Peter Dutton’s mind. Devoid of anything pleasant.

Here, we have a Bulgarian/Serbian repetition of my experience of crossing the border from Turkey into Bulgaria which you can read about here. Multiple border guards mount the train and make off with our passports to perform some secret police ritual in the offices of the adjacent buildings. Satisfied that any potential Syrian refugees are not, in fact, on board the train but are back in Ghouta enjoying being murdered by the Assad regime, we are allowed to proceed.

Later we will have a similar border experience at Subotica on Hungarian border, a border which is replete with a 2.5 metre, razor-wire-topped anti-refugee fence. This stop involves not just the standard passport control but also involves the border police getting on their hands and knees and searching under each seat bench for errant refugees.

Despite its shortcomings the trip is scenically quite spectacular as we pass along the Danube River valley gorges near Gradite. The Danube swollen by full floodwaters from the recent storms surges through the gorges past the cliffside forming a spectacular backdrop to the rail trip.

We also pass a plethora of small towns each with its own unique railway building and railway staff who perform the railway rituals that seem to come with the territory in most of the Balkans and eastern Europe. These involve a variety of uniforms, strange hand signals, flag performances and assaults on the train using strange looking hammers.

Railway guards each with their own ritual and the railway stations – about 46 of them

Many of the cities are a different story to our pleasant scenic route through the countryside – especially along the train lines. Here, as in every country in the world, the rail line runs through parts of the cities that are impoverished and decrepit.

The archetypal station master

This is particularly so in many of the major cities of Eastern Europe where every passing kilometre is littered with dead trains, carriages and buildings but, worse, sometimes for tens of kilometres, they are ground zero for seemingly uncontrolled rubbish dumping as far as the eye can see.

Abandoned buildings, trains and things. And abandoned hope.

Piles and piles of household, industrial and building waste, much of it plastic. Whether it is the absence of recycling facilities, an historical or current disdain for the environment, the absence of rubbish tips or the cost of disposing of waste it leaves an unpleasant vision of a form of industrialised hell.

Rubbish central. For miles. As far as the eye can see. Here near Belgrade.

As we near Belgrade our train comes to another halt. After half an hour we are informed that the train has broken down. Soon after another train pulls alongside us. The doors are opened and we all climb off, onto the tracks, with our luggage and board the relief train which takes us to Belgrade Center Station.

Now, one might imagine that Belgrade Center station might be in the centre of Belgrade but no such luck. It turns out that this is merely a suburban station some 5 kilometres from Belgrade, where some tricky apparatchik has decided to fool all the capitalist visitors by naming it Belgrade Center. Apparently, there is track work between Belgrade Center and Belgrade Central Station, so you can’t get between the two.

Moreover Belgrade Center station is devoid of any immediate public transport connections or even taxis and there is zero signage or information. So I and several fellow passengers mill around wondering how we get from here to Belgrade proper. Eventually we find an office and the staff, there, order a taxi for us. This signals the end of our journey, where I and another lost passenger share a taxi to downtown Belgrade.

As my AirBnB host says to me, sarcastically when I explain my delay “Welcome to Serbia”

Recent posts published on this blog:

The Iron Rule: thou shall not (easily) pass (at least not in Turkey or Bulgaria)

Making In-Rhodes: more than just a colossus

Images from this blog and others from this trip may be found here on Flickr

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 4, Travelling Crazy, Manspreading)

Explaining Man-spreading

An observation on train travel in Europe (and elsewhere)

Man spreading; it’s just not a thing you see. It’s a physical and physiological thing.

Note: for those who have (a) been on Mars for a while; or (b) Not read anything on Facebook, man-spreading is the practice of men sitting with their legs wide apart forcing their neighbour (esp. if female, since two males will have a man-spreading competition) to sit on the remaining 10 centimetres of seat.

Now, I have to admit, that generally I don’t give a lot of thought to testicles, scrotal sacks and penises. They’re just there – but not high on my list of things that I think about on a day to day or hour to hour basis.

Now that may be different for male 20 years olds; I just can’t remember back that far. But generally, if I’m thinking about bodies, or body parts, (and heaven forbid I’d be so shallow) they tend to be ones that are not that similar to mine.

However I did note, recently, that several female friends and acquaintances, of my knowledge, were having a fairly major whinge, on Facebook, about man-spreading, especially in the confined spaces of trains, buses, planes etc. Being protective of my life and limb, I said nothing. But now that I’m safely on the other side of the world…..

Generally these complaints fall in the same category as mansplaining, talking over the top of women, not putting the toilet seat down, hairs in bathroom sink, sexism, misogyny and a multitude of other well-known male sins, none of which I ascribe or subscribe to, although I know at least one person who would disagree with my claim on item 2, above.

I’ve just spent the equivalent of about three complete days travelling on trains and trams around Europe, which has given me plenty of time to note the practice of man-spreading, it’s prevalence and distribution. Not forgetting that I may have my own personal man-spreading practice (limited but no doubt extant).

It’s like this you see…..if you are a woman (and making no other general observations about the trials, tribulations or pleasures of female body parts), you have that nice neat vagina down there tucked neatly and quietly between your legs. No gross sausage like impediments to sitting down, no big, flappy hairy scrotums that get larger and floppier the hotter the weather and no delicate, sensitive balls flapping around inside that scrotum.

Now when it gets hot, several things happen. All of those protuberant, sweaty, bulging, jutting, swelling excrescences get hotter, sticker and flappier. Physiologically male humans are programmed to do several things (1) keep your testicles cool because this will produce better sperm; of course it’s a moot point if this is a good thing but you don’t argue with a few hundred thousand years of evolution (2) As with women, try and get comfortable (3) reduce the possibility of pain due to squashed testicles.

Clearly it’s common sense that if you had a large (or even a small) dildo tucked between your legs that you would feel inclined to keep your legs apart (though I guess I shouldn’t speak for women). Similarly if it’s a hot day and your scrotum has expanded into a sticky sheet of something that resembles a cross between fly paper, honey and super-glue and has a strong desire to spread itself across your entire upper leg in an attempt to keep itself, and it’s allegedly precious cargo, cool, then the average male will have a strong desire to part his legs. It’s physiological.

I have noted, in my travels, though haven’t actually kept a man-spreading incidence diary that the hotter the weather and the greater the lack of air conditioning on the train, the greater the prevalence of man-spreading. I assert, without controls, that there is a causal effect here. Part of the problem is that it is precisely on such days that the average woman doesn’t want some sweaty man jamming his leg up against said female leg (not that it was said earlier).

Now, of course, those complaining about man-spreading are the same people complaining about men manipulating the family jewels in public either by pulling at them with their hands (regardless of whether the hands are inside or outside of the trousers). But the reasons are the same. If you are walking along on a hot day and two square metres of scrotal sack has adhered to your upper legs, you have a strong desire to remove it from that area so that you can (a) walk and (b) feel normal.

So next time you see a man, man-spreading, don’t complain, take action to remedy the situation. If equipped with ice, offer him three ice cubes, one for each testicle and a spare one for the scrotal sack.

Failing this you could just dive in and with a single movement plunge your hands inside his trousers and liberate his legs from the enveloping octopus of the scrotal sack.shocked

Then leaning back say “Now will you put your legs together”. He will have no excuse. And probably no complaint.

This is Part 4 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

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