A slow train through the Balkans

Belgrade to Bar (13)

Belgrade to Bar Railway

I wouldn’t call it a famous train journey. Train enthusiasts will know of it, but the 476km route between Serbia’s capital and a port city in Montenegro doesn’t share the same recognition as, say, the Trans Siberian or Rocky Mountaineer. But the train between Belgrade and Bar was the only activity I had in mind when I set my sights on the Balkans.

I had ripped out the relevant pages from my Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable before my trip and by the time I boarded my first train it was a well-worn scrap of paper. I’d studied it countless times, but the town names were meaningless. The trip was about 11 hours, but I planned to take days. In the end, it was two weeks before I climbed off the train for the last time.

The railway was built in stages through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, before the tracks were finally linked in 1975. According to Serbian news articles, that was also about the last time any serious investment was made on the line. Back then the trip took just seven hours, but now the track is in such poor condition that in some areas the trains can’t travel faster than 30kmh.

It all adds to the charm of this dilapidated journey through two countries that used to be one.

Belgrade Station, Belgrade to Bar Railway

Belgrade to Užice

The railway station at Belgrade seemed to be expecting more people. The intersection outside was busy with commuters waiting for the city trams or walking to the bus station next door and the grand train station with its high ceilings and unmanned counters was empty by comparison. Perhaps in a previous life it was a bustling hub, but not now. The trains from here are old, infrequent and snubbed by locals. “People catch trains because they have to or because they don’t know what they are like,” one Serb told me.

I took a seat on one of the large wooden benches and wrote in my notebook.  V a l j e v o. According to my timetable I would be there before lunch. After holding up my notebook and my index finger several times to confirm I was just one person travelling one way to Valjevo I had my first ticket for the Belgrade to Bar railway.

The trains were covered in graffiti and the platforms quiet. I chose an empty compartment and stuck my head out the window. Nobody was going to tell me to pull it back in. An old woman sat opposite me but once it was clear I didn’t speak Serbian and she didn’t speak English, we sat in silence. The cabin could seat six, our luggage stored on racks above the seats. Despite the obvious age of the train, it was neat and clean. Just old. The same couldn’t be said of the toilets, which I refused to visit.

There was no dining car or kiosk. Occasionally a man came through the carriage carrying a tray of little white plastic cups filled with coffee. Only once did I flag him down.  I spent two months drinking terrible espresso in the Balkans. The first time I ordered tea in Serbia it arrived served with milk, which I can’t drink. At least the espresso, however bad, wasn’t going to make me ill. The gritty black liquid I sipped from that plastic cup threatened to prove my theory wrong. I couldn’t throw it out the window of the train discretely, so in a last resort (I considered holding the half-full cup for the entire journey) I stepped inside the toilets, which looked as foul as they smelled, and tipped the liquid down the sink.

Valjevo - Belgrade to Bar Railway

Valjevo became my first stop for no reason in particular. I’d decided to spent the night in Užice, but felt four hours on the train was a lot of ground to cover without a stop, so I decided to get off in Valjevo and continue to Užice a later in the day. Despite the short distance the train had travelled since leaving Belgrade, we arrived late. I followed the road away from the station through a semi-industrial area and eventually found the town. Unintentionally I found myself in Valjevo’s old quarter, Tešnjar, supposedly a popular cultural area. But at lunch time on a Monday it was quiet except for the wheels on my bag bashing on the cobblestones. A more modern street was busy with people sitting outside cafes. On my walk back to the station I followed a man and a donkey pulling a wooden cart filled with rubbish. Sometimes the Balkans felt like two worlds.

Valjevo - Belgrade to Bar Railway

Valjevo Station - Belgrade to Bar Railway

I’d expected spectacular mountain and lake views. National Geographic once named the journey one of the most scenic rail routes in Europe. The views from Belgrade had been uninspiring , but improved on the way to Užice. The window seats were taken when I boarded at Valjevo, so instead I stood at the end of the train near a man who had opened the back door to smoke. In between cigarettes he stepped aside and gestured for me to take his place so I could take photos through the open door.

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Užice to Prijepolje

I left Užice in bright sunlight. I shared my cabin with two girls, probably teenagers, and an old woman. The girl asked where I was from. “Ooooooooh,” came their response when I said Tasmania. Their English and my Serbian couldn’t extend the conversation much further. They seemed amused at my interest in taking photos for most of the journey.

Not far from where I’d explored Mokra Gora the day before we crossed into Bosnia and Herzegovina, just for a few kilometres. I’d been waiting for it, but before I knew it we were at the first station back inside inside Serbia. I hadn’t noticed the border crossings.

Uzice - Belgrade to Bar Railway

Uzice Belgrade to Bar Railway 2

Uzice Belgrade to Bar Railway

Belgrade to Bar (30)

Prijepolje to Kolašin

Since leaving Belgrade not one train had been on time. I’d arrived and left Valjevo and Užice up to two hours late. I had become accustomed to waiting at neglected stations. But I took the early bus back to Prijepolje from Nova Varoš, where I’d spent four days to visit Uvac Canyon, just in case.  I bought my ticket from a large woman clearly annoyed at having to leave her desk on the other side of her office to serve me at the counter. I pointed at my watch and the timetable in an effort to ask what time the train would be leaving. The train I’d arrived on four days earlier had been several hours late, but she kept pointing at the scheduled time. Even if the train was on time I still had hours to spare. I tried to indicate that I wanted to leave my luggage at the station until my train, but either the woman didn’t understand me or didn’t want to help me. Given her sour face, I’m sure it was the latter.

At the train’s scheduled departure time I sat on the platform and opened my book, read one page and then had to get on the train. I had been so confident in my knowledge of lazy Serbian trains that I’d walked back to the station from town with no sense of urgency. If I’d taken just a little bit longer….

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Beyond Prijepolje I got a glimpse of the mountains the route is known for. After accidentally hitting a woman on the head with my water bottle when it fell out of my bag in the luggage rack (she was incredibly polite about it), I escaped to the corridor and waited for the border crossing.

The Belgrade to Bar route was built when both cities were part of Yugoslavia. When the country broke up in 1991, Serbia and Montenegro remained united until Montenegro voted for independence in 2006. So the border checks about 300km after leaving Belgrade, are a relatively recent development.

The Serbian officials came through first. I handed over my ticket and passport and both were returned in the same condition. The train continued and stopped again, this time Montenegrin guards came on board, along with vendors selling snacks and souvenirs. A faint stamp was placed on page 13 of my passport. The train continued and I went back to standing in the aisle, with my camera out the window.

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Belgrade to Bar Railway

At Bijelo Polje I got company. He looked just like Bradley Cooper and was on his way to Podgorica, where he was attending university. His English was good, but I just couldn’t catch what he said he was studying. There’s a point where it becomes too rude to ask again. After reading this article I didn’t have a desire to go to Podgorica, although, without trying, my new friend was changing my mind. He was impressed that I was taking an interest in his country. Most visitors just go to the coast, he said, referring to the pretty, but popular towns of Kotor and Budva. He had a point. In my four separate trips along the route I hadn’t seen another person I could identify as a tourist.

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Kolašin to Bar

Kolašin is the highest part of the railway. It’s a mountain town that in the winter attracts skiers and in the summer hikers, like me, who want to explore Biogradska. Those mountains make the track in and out of the town some of the most scenic parts of the journey. I’d seen some of it in the afternoon light on my arrival into Kolašin and apparently the best was yet to come. Except on the day I left it was raining.

Between the windows fogging up and the rain and clouds I couldn’t see a thing. It was too windy to open the window and it wouldn’t have improved the view. My fellow passengers either slept or ate. They were always prepared for the (at least) 11-hour journey without a dining car, pulling out wrapped parcels of food. I snacked on Oreos, bread and nuts.

Belgrade to Bar Railway

I’d bought a ticket to Podogrica thinking I would have a look around and perhaps prove Michael’s article wrong, but the view from the train as we neared the city, and my disappointment at missing the mountain views, gave me all the motivation I needed to leave the railway station, walk next door to the bus station, and buy a ticket to Žabljak. The trip to Žabljak took me back up into the mountains, this time near the Durmitor National Park. Between the train and the bus I travelled in an awkward “V” shape and landed about 90km across from Kolašin. In a decision that saved me the windy return bus trip and give me another chance at seeing those damn mountains, I made my way back to Kolašin by bus and taxi, to catch the train to Bar.

The driver dropped me at the entrance to the town and I walked to the train station. It had been nearly two weeks since I left Belgrade aboard my first 9.10am train. My experiences off the train as I explored dots along the route had included visiting a wooden town built by a film director, four days at a Serbian guesthouse where the owners didn’t speak English and racing the sun after a long hike in Biogradska National Park. Each day brought something new and while the unexpected nature of this kind of travel is exciting, it can also be tiring and challenging. The train, however, was my constant. It was comfortable and I enjoyed the familiarity. I knew that despite what the website said, there was just the one class and we were all in it. I knew it didn’t matter if I bought my ticket at the station or on the train. I knew to make sure I went to the toilet before I got on. And I knew the train, with apparently only one exception, would be late.

I waited at the station at Kolašin for two hours. It was dark before I boarded.

Bar to Kolašin

And that was how I found myself, for the first time, taking the train in the opposite direction. I’d reached my destination, but not the end of my journey. That mountain scenery I’d read so much about was worth riding that haggard train again.

Bar, Belgrade to Bar Railway

Bar, Belgrade to Bar Railway

The forecast said it would be sunny. The train was due to leave at 9am so even on Balkan time that meant I would travel through the mountains in daylight. I arrived at the station in Bar, Montenegro just a few minutes before the train was scheduled to leave and jumped straight on without stopping at the kiosk for snacks, sentencing myself to a breakfast of bad coffee, because I had not learnt my lesson. I found an empty cabin and claimed a forward-facing window seat, securing my view of Lake Skadar down the track.

Bar, Belgrade to Bar Railway

We were 30 minutes behind schedule when the train finally came to life. We travelled about 400m up the line, stopped and reversed onto a different track, leaving us sitting in front of the train we had been next to just a few minutes earlier.

A smartly dressed woman looking a very out of place on this run-down Balkans train vented her frustration over the phone. I didn’t need to speak her language to understand she was pissed off. She waved down every passing railway employee, but apparently didn’t hear what she wanted to. Even the workers looked bored.

Finally there was a whistle and the train pulled off, the carriages rattling severely.

Five minutes later we stopped again. We came to rest between two square cream houses with an old two-tone Mercedes in the yard. Olive trees provided a nice view on the other side. The woman, unable to rouse any sympathy from the guards, read her magazine. We took an hour to travel 10km.

I was eventually joining in my cabin by two women in patterned dresses with their swimmers underneath and a man who twirled a toothpick in his ear. Risky behaviour given the condition of the tracks.

My CouchSurfing host in Bar, Dino, thought it was hilarious that I was boarding the train to travel a stretch of Montenegro I had already passed through twice. When he translated my plans to his family they just looked confused.

In the end, it was worth it. Absolutely. This is what I would have missed:

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Belgrade to Bar (25)

Belgrade to Bar (26)

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Belgrade to Bar Railway

Belgrade to Bar Railway

4 comments

  1. I’m embarrassed to admit i was in the camp that didn’t even know about this journey but it looks like a great one to do! Thanks for sharing. I hope to do it one day (but perhaps with a few less hiccups, fun as they may have been in the end!)

    • Megan
      Author

      I don’t know how I even heard about it, but it was actually the only thing I knew about either country when I decided to spend time in the Balkans. It’s a beautiful trip. Definitely pays not to be in a hurry though 🙂

  2. Love train trips so much and this make me realize that I really need to explore the Balkans more and return to Belgrade which I loved a lot! I’ve never heard of this particularly journey but it surely interests me, thanks 🙂

    • Megan
      Author

      It’s good fun Franca. There’s a few trains that operate in the Balkans (I did a trip through Macedonia as well) but Belgrade to Bar is a standout.

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