Točkovi i pruga
(Leb i Sol, “Putujemo“, 1989)
I love railways. There is simply no better way to travel than by train.
I love how the coaches smoothly slide on the rails; love wandering around, peeping into other compartments – try doing that on the bus! – and passing the scenery more rustic than what one would typically see from a dull highway. Trains are such a great way to discover a country.
There has been a lot of progress in Europe as far as rail travel is concerned. High-speed ICE trains criss-cross more developed countries in the West, and the sleek Eurostar has become the preferred connection between Great Britain and mainland Europe. Gone are the days of “Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off“. Europe is not cut off at all. What regards cross-border travel, we are possibly living in the greatest of times.
Or are we? As much as I welcome comfortable, speedy rail journeys, I cannot help missing the good old slow trains. The trains which are close to being written off and number their final days on the tracks. The trains where the doors are opened manually by the conductor. More importantly, the trains where passengers can still pull the windows open and take photos while the train is in motion. I am referring to myself here; what is the point of the named “rustic scenery” if one cannot capture it on a camera? Getting off at every station is not an option, and photos taken through window panes are often blurry and of little use.
Therefore it is the old-school retro trains that my heart firmly belongs to. Thankfully, older trains are still king in many parts of the world. Take Russia; the prime example there is the 9,259 km long Trans-Siberian line, the world’s longest existing railway. One day I am definitely getting around to taking it. So far though, I have focused on former Yugoslavia, where I have already explored the following two rail routes: (1) from Thessaloniki in Greece to Skopje in FYR Macedonia (part of the Thessaloniki-Belgrade route serviced by Serbian Railways) and (2) from Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Zagreb in Croatia. I loved both. One day I will write about each in a lot more detail.
The summer of 2010 came along, and I decided to fill in a major gap in my Balkan rail discovery and travel from Belgrade in Serbia to the Adriatic coast – Bar in Montenegro. Most locals will exchange a knowing smile here; indeed, the route is very well known in the region. It is admittedly not the world’s speediest rail connection. Back in the 1970s, when the 476 km track was completed, the entire journey took seven hours. Today, however, the infrastructure has become so outdated that the trains cannot move at the speed originally envisaged. As a result, it takes 10 hours. That’s 10 hours inside an old train where modern luxuries such as air-conditioning and decent toilets are absolutely unheard of.
Crazy, I hear you say. Why would anyone travel a whopping 10 hours by train over the distance of under 500 km? Surely there are quicker ways of getting from the Serbian capital to the coast. There certainly are – but the Belgrade-Bar link is special in many ways. For example, what other rail connection do you know of that boasts 254 tunnels of total length of 114,435 m? Or that comprises 435 bridges, jointly 14,593 m long? At all that being one of the most scenic railway routes in Europe? I doubt there are many out there; and the new ones are unlikely to be built due to their extensive construction cost and unjustifiable economic rationale. Yes, there certainly were things socialist governments knew how to do best.
And so the decision had been made. Most people would probably do the reverse: plan to stay on the Adriatic coast and use the Belgrade-Bar train as the means of getting there. I, however, saw the train as the goal in itself. Getting to the coast was a side effect – and, since I was getting to the coast anyway, I might as well have spent some time there.
I decided to stay in Budva, mostly to challenge myself. I had by then covered the Kotor Bay, arguably the nicest coastal part of Montenegro, and felt like a change. Besides, the crowded, heavily Russian-spoken Budva seemed to impersonate everything I disliked about a holiday destination. The isolated Faroe Islands, Norway and Iceland are more of my sort of thing; which only meant I had to stay in Budva – stay there and see how I would get on in a more commercial location. I saw it as a kind of a “survival” experience.
Said and done! Having safely set my work email to out-of-office auto reply, I fled to London Heathrow airport for the first leg of my journey: the flight to Belgrade.
Revisiting Belgrade, Serbia
It was not my first time in Belgrade, and I had written about the city before. Belgrade and I have a very special love-hate relationship. For a start, I always madly look forward to going there. When I get there, however, I immediately start complaining about all of Belgrade’s vices – the polluted air, the lack of aesthetically pleasing views and the intolerable summer heat. I loudly announce hardly being able to wait to leave the city. And, when I am finally halfway out, I get emotional and beg to be allowed to stay. Saddened, I begin missing Belgrade even before I go. Perhaps it is a girl thing – but that is a very special relationship Belgrade and I have indeed.
I had a full day and night in the Serbian capital and spent them well. After bumping into a colleague on the plane, I was given a complimentary lift to town and kicked off the many coffees I had planned for the day. Thanks to everyone who had the time to see me. My visits to Belgrade are so much more special because you are there!
The full itinerary also meant that I had no time to take photos of Belgrade – but I can assure you that the city had barely changed since I last visited in March. Lovey-dovey couples were still making their way through Kalemegdan, locals and tourists were still strolling along the vast pedestrian Knez Mihailova Street, and the Sava River was still joining the Danube on its sleepy journey to the Black Sea. The only difference from my previous visits was a substantially larger number of tourists – possibly the result of many low-cost carriers’ expansion to Serbia, itself caused by the recently relaxed visa regime for Serbian passport holders in the Shengen area.
Belgrade’s classic Kalemegdan shot: The Victor statue
One train, 13 hours, 476 km, 3 countries and countless crazy people!
The morning after saw me heading to Belgrade’s Central Train Station for that epic 10-hour ride to Bar. My victory was near! Beaming, I showed my ticket to the train conductor and jumped onboard.
The starting point: Belgrade Central Train station
Waiting for the train to depart in Belgrade
Just a random train conductor
The adventure began as soon as I had entered my compartment. An old man already sitting there seemed to take a very keen interest in my persona. He greeted me by tearing the luggage out of my hands and piling it onto the overhead shelf. My attempts to reclaim my bag were unconditionally refuted; ladies and lifting bags did not seem to go nicely together for Uncle Miloš (as he introduced himself). After unsuccessfully presenting the case of having carried the same bag all the way from London, I gave up, sighed and tried to forget the breakfast snacks I had so thoughtfully saved in my bag. Uncle Miloš would not take no for an answer.
What followed after was an invaluable cultural discovery. Uncle Miloš told me everything about his family. His youngest daughter Marta apparently looked every bit like me and would love to meet me, albeit without having even heard about me yet. I was asked for a telephone number (for Marta, of course), and, more out of amusement than anything else, handed a business card to my neighbour. Uncle Miloš immediately grabbed it with both hands, kissed it (!) and pressed it to his heart. It looked a bit eccentric but the old man actually meant it well, and I was touched.
Uncle Miloš enters my life
Uncle Miloš proving a point. Not sure what the point was
In the meantime, a man and a woman joined us in our compartment and introduced themselves as Milica and Dejan. They, too, were heading to Budva. I was soon being shown the pictures of Milica’s youngest niece Lana (should anyone care) and, once again, within minutes of the first-time encounter, asked for my phone number. I gave Milica a fake one. For goodness sake, I cannot have the whole of Serbia calling me.
By then I was getting somewhat tired of the unsolicited “društvo” (Serbian for “a company of friends”), and exited the compartment. Against all the publicly displayed rules, I stuck myself out of the train window and started taking pictures. For everybody’s benefit, the pictures were actually the reason I was doing that darn, 10-hour train ride – my triumphant networking with the locals was more of a bonus. If one can call it a bonus, anyway.
Passing Serbia’s Valjevo…
Was the Belgrade-Bar train really my idea?
The journey went on. I will not blame anyone now. All my friends had warned me NOT to take the Belgrade-Bar train. I had been told that it regularly broke down and held in the middle of nowhere for hours. That it was old and noisy. That it was always late. And that it was full of very strange people. On top of it all, the memories of the Bioče train disaster of 2006 were still fresh. Back then, a train derailed near Podgorica, crashing into a 100 m deep ravine and killing over 40 people. Yes, I had been given plenty of warning.
But I resisted: authentic train rides were part of the adventure and local crowd was the best company to experience it in. Right? As for the lateness bit, wasn’t I already used to the regularly delayed English trains? I was fearless. Especially as far as some cute retro Serbian trains were concerned.
And I paid for my stubbornness.
I will preface this by saying that no trains went as far as derailing that day. But our train did break – and it did not break once. At some point we sat waiting, at the peak of a day’s heat, for over an hour – while the two train conductors kneeled down fixing the tracks ahead. I did not even realise that some train conductors also came qualified as engineers! When the train eventually carried on, the two continued watching every wheel get past the mended rail patch. Somehow we got away with it, but I am glad I was not sitting on the train right behind us.
Patience, plenty of patience before a red light
And the problem is…
Next, because of the repeated engine failures, we were running late. No, not as in the “your National Rail service is running with an eight minute delay” kind of thing. I mean seriously LATE. By the time we left Bijelo Polje (the first station in Montenegro after the border with Serbia), the train was already THREE HOURS behind schedule. It was getting dark, and I had better forgot the scenic mountain photos I had planned for Montenegro. Oh well.
The people aspect was also somewhat more irritating than expected. After getting near-adopted by my compartment neighbours, I could only avoid their regular invitations for a fag (what an honour) and the resulting smoke by avoiding the actual compartment. What a waste of a seat reservation for RSD 321 (about 3 euros)!
Oh well, let’s just stand here, then
Eventually I had had enough and moved to a different compartment, where two Montenegrin women were already sitting. One was snoring louder than my dad after a friend’s 50th birthday party. The other was quietly smoking in the corner. I appreciated the relative peace, but that unfortunately soon ended as the first woman woke up and burst into tearfully emotional discussions about religion. Needless to say that she, too, was a smoker.
Chain smokers and unexpected exhibitionists
The smoking was an interesting frivolity in what was meant to be a “non-smoking coach”. I was nearly fooled into believing the passengers were actually planning to refrain from the killing habit. Little did I know! First the conductors’ compartment became an unofficial “smoking corner”, where passengers would sneak quietly in and out. Some heavy smokers even moved their luggage permanently there. Then everybody relaxed to the point of ignoring the ban altogether, and piped away. Heavily overdosed on smoke and +30C temperatures, my head had by then turned into a kind of a single exposed nerve. I grabbed my bag, tripped on the stretched legs of one of the Montenegrin women and ran. Ran for my life towards the other end of the train.
“Russian! Russian!” was showering from the open doors during my amok run. How come everyone seemed to think I was Russian? I remembered revealing the fact to one of the train conductors earlier. He let me take photos of the Kumanica Monastery in the Vrbnica village through the windows of that famous “smoking corner” of the train, the conductors’ compartment. Apparently, border crossing points were otherwise a non-photo material. While I was snapping away, he asked me if I was Orthodox. I had been baptised Orthodox some 21 years ago, so I played my Russian card and confirmed. He shook his hands in the air in a moment of speechless appreciation, clutched me a bear hug and kissed me on the cheek. “Sestro!” he exclaimed, wiping the tears of joy from his face. Oh those emotional brothers Serbs.
Kumanica Monastery in Vrbnica, near Serbia’s border with Montenegro
Anyway, the whole train seemed to have been informed that I was Russian. “Русская?” I heard for the “nth” time at the very end of the train. “Сам русский!” I elegantly returned, finally giving my heritage away. One day I will even learn to embrace it properly.
My eyes accidentally wandered outside the window. There, a middle-aged man was standing by the tracks with his little son. Everything seemed normal up to – literally – the man’s waist. Below, he was exposing, to the entire train, the part of his body which chose to remain unnamed. What was the poor child only thinking watching the daddy smile as he shook the symbol of his manhood to the many pairs of eyes inside the passing train? I felt sick and considered jumping off the train right now – but the risk of running into that trainspotting maniac somehow stopped me.
Finally some peace
My final compartment was more or less civilised. I shared it with a very pleasant woman, who turned out to be Montenegro’s First Secretary of Mission in Serbia, Ms. Stanica Popović-Lola. Our ladies’ talk about life was soon joined by one of the conductors, visibly bored by the prolonged journey. Having offered us both a sip from his mini bottle of “Vinjak” brandy (which we politely declined), he drank it up in one shot himself. He then got into a long nostalgic recollection of what it was like “back in one strong country” (Yugoslavia, what else) and how his “red [Yugoslavian] passport” would open many more doors than his Montenegrin one ever will. Definitely a fair point there.
The “Vinjak” says it all
Slowly but surely, the train was progressing on its way. As expected, numerous tunnels awaited us. I soon learnt to predict the approximate length of a given tunnel by the temperature inside – in the over-30 temperatures in the sun, longer tunnels were true oases of coolness. Some were also quite damp, with water condensing on the walls and sprinkling into the curious faces of the passengers. Several tunnels were so close together that the train would enter the second one without even pulling its other end out of the first. In-between, there was some truly spectacular mountain scenery. And so we went on: dived out briefly into the light, barely had the time for an uncontrolled “wow”, and emerged into the depths of the earth again.
Holding our breath for yet another of those 254 tunnels
The breath-taking Lim River near the Montenegrin border
Passing Prijepolje, Serbia
Just before the Serbian/Montenegrin border at Vrbnica
It was getting dark when I started feeling that familiar sea breeze on my face: the Adriatic was near. We had passed Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, and continued along the final leg of the route, to Bar – when at last the Adriatic blinked at us with its moonlit face. The moon was full that night, and the feeling most surreal.
Sunset over Montenegrin mountains
Finally my feet touched the platform in Bar. The 13-hour trip was over! I had safely completed another Balkan railway experience. Somehow all the less positive episodes of the journey evaporated from my memory, leaving only the best ones: the dramatic mountains, the cosy old stations, the cooling, monotonously echoing, tunnels and the charming fellow passengers.
I called it a day at one of Bar’s B&Bs. The mirror in my simple room reflected the thick layer of soot-like substance on my face. After 13 hours of staring out of a moving train, this was hardly a surprise.
Continued in Part II: Budva to Dubrovnik