A Land Apart – The Vojvodina: Traveling To The Serbian Athens (A Balkan Affair #28)

The bus ride from Belgrade to Novi Sad took an hour and half. This gave me an opportunity to get a closer look at the Vojvodina countryside in January. It was exactly what I expected, frozen fields of upturned earth in every direction. This landscape stretched far off to the horizon. It was monotonous and trance inducing. The monotony was reflective of the region’s topography, but not its demography. The Vojvodina may be one of the flattest regions in Europe, but it is also one of the most ethnically diverse areas in Eastern Europe.

Conflict and conquerors have swept through the Vojvodina time and again. This has meant successive waves of depopulation and repopulation, migration and expulsion over the centuries. The result has been an unrivaled ethnic mix. Though Serbians at 66% make up by far the largest population group in the Vojvodina, there are no less than 24 other ethnic groups. They speak a variety of tongues, which account for the fact that there are 6 official languages. Due to its multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nature, Vojvodina was given a high degree of autonomy under Yugoslav rule. Today it still enjoys autonomous status as part of the Serbian nation.

Burning off the fog - Abandoned building in Vojvodina countryside

Burning off the fog – Abandoned building in Vojvodina countryside

The Ruling Class – Kingdom of Hungarians, Austrians & Serbs
What would Vojvodina be without ethnic diversity? The answer is a lesser place. The most prominent of Vojvodina’s ethnic minorities are the Hungarians. The more obscure include the Bunjevci (Roman Catholic Serbs) and Gorani (Slavic Muslims). It is the Hungarians who loom largest as the region’s most populous minority and whose history has had the greatest effect upon the region’s development. Hungarians have ruled over the area longer than anyone else. Their most crucial period of administration occurred from 1867 – 1918 when agricultural and industrial development of the region soared.

The Vojvodina was taken from Hungary under the postwar Treaty of Trianon and given to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (changed to Yugoslavia in 1929). As late as the mid-1950’s a quarter of the population were ethnic Hungarians. Since 1989 that proportion has continually dropped due to a series of factors including the fall of the Iron Curtain, collapse of Yugoslavia and Hungary joining the European Union. These factors sent many Hungarians scurrying northward in search of better job prospects. I have always been intrigued by Vojvodina’s Hungarian past. The Magyar influence was both historically prominent and well known. Across many villages and towns in the far north of the region, Hungarians are still in the majority.

Brilliant monotony - Vojvodina Landscape

Brilliant monotony – Vojvodina Landscape

A Vanishing Presence – Ottomans, Austrians & Oblivion
Ironically, two ethnic groups which hardly figure in the area anymore are just as responsible for Vojvodina’s present-day ethnic mix. The first of these was the Ottoman Turks. Their invasion of the area, starting in the mid-15th century, swept away the Hungarians who mainly lived in the northern portion of the Vojvodina. Two hundred and fifty years later, at the tail end of the 17th century, it was the Turk’s turn to be thrown out of the region. The Vojvodina was then incorporated into the Austrian dominated Habsburg Empire as part of the Military Frontier. This area was setup along the border to safeguard against another Ottoman incursion.

The Austrians brought stability and settlement, inviting in a host of different ethnic groups to resettle what was a despoiled wasteland. The German influence proved decisive, encouraging mass migration to the area. Along with migration came peace and prosperity. The ethnic Germans, like the Ottomans before them, were swept away by conflict, in their case the Second World War and its violent aftermath. Today there are very few traces of either Turks or Germans, their actions have been resigned to the dusty pages of history books. The Serbians, who have been in the region the longest, have managed to outlast all other rulers. All the peoples that have been woven into Vojvodina’s ethnic tapestry were nowhere to be found on the bus taking me to Novi Sad. From the words spoken by passengers, everyone seemed to be Serbian.

Of course, there was no way for me to tell otherwise. Thus, I contented myself by viewing the scenery which was non-scenery. That was until the highway crossed the Danube. Central and Eastern Europe’s most famous river looked just as gray as the sky. There was not much excitement to be had while looking at it on a day like this. The trees lining the riverbanks were bare. Nothing moved except for the dreamy flow of the river, sliding along at a barely discernible pace. In past decades, the river would have been frozen solid at the height of winter. Those days were a distant memory for this mighty river. It lay naked and exposed, a sheet of misty glass laid upon the landscape. This was the stuff mediocrity was made of, a scenic highlight that made me long for sleep.

Crystal Clear - Vojvodina in January

Crystal Clear – Vojvodina in January

Turning To Technicolor – An Applied Science
The bus trip seemed much longer than it actually took. When the bus arrived in Novi Sad, I was shocked by the liveliness around the station. There were university students laughing and socializing everywhere. This was like a shot of caffeine to my senses. The gray day had suddenly turned to technicolor. It was a welcome introduction to a city known as the “Serbian Athens.” Today, it is home to thousands of university students as well as the nation’s oldest theater. In the past, Novi Sad has been a center of learning and culture for Serbs since the 18th century. Most of the great Serb novelists and poets in the decades prior to the First World War spent time living and writing in the city.

During this period, the city was ironically under Austrian and then Hungarian rule. This resulted in Novi Sad and the Vojvodina coming under the influence of Central European culture rather than the rest of Serbia and the Balkans. Even today it is still somewhat a world apart, especially owing to the city’s emphasis on education which continues to provide Europe with highly intelligent professionals. This became apparent when I met one of Novi Sad’s native sons. A man of medium height, who looked to be in his early 30’s, with dark features and warm, intelligent eyes checked me into the apartment that I had booked a short walk from the bus station.

The man told me that his mother would usually be the one who checked people in, but she was unavailable. I was amazed how fluently he spoke English. I did not detect much of an accent. There was a good reason for that. Though he was from Novi Sad, the man was only back visiting for the holidays. He lived in London, working as an investment banker for a major financial institution. His education had begun right here in the “Serbian Athens”. Hundreds of years after Novi Sad was given that nickname, it still applied.

Closer To Chaos – Going Beyond Belgrade: Busting Loose (A Balkan Affair #27)

The morning after a long journey is always brutal. I have not taken a drink in over twenty years, but the way I felt after my Bar to Belgrade railway trip reminded me of some my worst hangovers. I woke up drained and confused. Where was I at? Where had I been? Where was I going? Those questions were the story of my life on the roads and rails of Eastern Europe. I had spent the past three nights in Kotor, Bar and Belgrade. The day before, I traveled through three countries. My mind and body had not yet caught up to where I was at. Now I needed to collect my wits about me as well as my belongings, catch a ride to the central bus station in Belgrade and buy a ticket for an hour and a half journey to Novi Sad. The thought of this did not seem nearly as appealing as when I first planned it.

I had already spent time in Belgrade eight years ago, thus a day sightseeing in the city did not really interest me. Especially when the Vojvodina lay just to the north. Ever since I first passed through that region of mind bending flatness, sublimely fertile fields and complex ethnic diversity, the idea of a return trip captivated me. The fact that a relatively forgotten stretch of the Danube flowed through the area and past Petrovaradin, one of the largest fortresses in Europe, made the region a must see. All this lay somewhere in the distant past or a future that scarcely seemed conceivable as I slowly raised myself out of the bed that morning. I had to keep going, the question was, as it always has been, why? A restless spirit demands to be constantly satisfied.

Bridging the Danube – Liberty Bridge into Novi Sad (Credit: danilography – Pixabay)

Joy Ride – The Stuff Of Feverish Dreams
It took me an hour to really get going, but I had little choice. The night before I had made the fateful decision to meet the proprietor at 8:00 a.m. for a ride to the bus station. I went to the front desk and was promptly ushered into a bar/dining room where I was offered some very powerful coffee. The proprietor was in fine form, gregarious and outgoing. He proceeded to show me photos on his phone of a trip he took to Greece every year. This, along with his family, were the highlights of his life. Running the hotel was a job, one that did not pay as well as he would have liked. Nonetheless, if attitude counts for anything, this Serbian gentleman was a very wealthy man. I could tell that he was someone who enjoyed life. Even though he was quite full of himself, his larger than life persona grew on me almost instantly.

As he drove me in his Volkswagen to the bus station, we passed down the road I had stumbled along just twelve hours before. The abandoned tram line was more beat up and busted than I had realized during my walk the previous night. The surrounding forest was covered in an icy frost that coated everything from treetops to undergrowth. It was a world all made up for the winter, dead trees and dead leaves beneath a leaden sky. The idea of summer seemed the stuff of feverish dreams in such a setting. The proprietor and I sped through the streets until rush hour traffic brought us to a halt. That’s when I asked my two favorite questions when traveling through the former Yugoslavia. What did you think of Tito? and Did you ever see Tito?

Taken for a ride – Belgrade Bus Station

Father Knows Best – The Cult of Tito
The proprietor surprised me. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he admired Tito. Though he had not ever seen or met Tito, his father had on many occasions. The proprietor’s father had been a famous doctor who was well known for his medical work. He traveled to the United States and Canada on occasion. Tito himself had honored his father. And in turn, the father had told the son that Tito was a very gracious man. This chimed with almost everything I had ever heard about Tito while traveling in the former Yugoslavia. Never once had I heard a disparaging remark made about Tito.

This was a considerable achievement that spoke volumes about the man especially considering what a disaster communism had been. Everyone I have spoken with regarding Tito does not blame him for the dissolution of Yugoslavia. On the contrary, he is still seen as a force for South Slavic unity. Only Tito could hold the country together. In hindsight, I believe this to largely be true. Tito was a remarkable man, delaying what now seems inevitable. Even if his time in power ushered in massive deficits and economic crisis after his death, Tito was the glue that bound Yugoslavia together. Slippage may have occurred during his tenure, but dissolution was still decades away. For that, Tito will always be remembered as a success.

On the road again – A1 motorway out of Belgrade (Credit: Orjen)

Crowd Control – Every Student For Themselves
There are moments in travel when I ask myself why I am doing this? Many of those moments have come at bus stations. The Belgrade Bus Station induced in me that same thought. It was cold, ugly, crowded and as close to chaos as anywhere I have been in Eastern Europe. With the central train station out of service, an overwhelming majority of those looking to get out of Belgrade had descended upon the place. Getting a ticket to Novi Sad turned out to be easier than getting on the bus. I only had a few minutes to spare which greatly increased my stress level, When I got to the designated spot for boarding, I joined a crowd rather than a line. It might best be described as every student for themselves, as the majority were college age Serbs.

Sharpened elbows and trickery were necessary here. I navigated near to the man who was collecting baggage storage fees. He would then load the suitcases into the underbelly of the bus. When it came my turn, he ignored the offer of payment in dinars and said something in Serbian. A wave of anger flashed through me. I was getting on that bus and my suitcase was going into storage one way or the other. I demanded the man’s attention once again. He looked surprised and grabbed my suitcase placing it in the baggage storage. He refused to take the dinars I held in front of him. Almost immediately I realized that he had wanted me to store the bag myself in return for no fee. It was a kindly gesture that suddenly made me feel as though I belonged. The sky was still leaden, but my day brightened considerably. The trip to Novi Sad just got shorter.

Click here for: A Land Apart – The Vojvodina: Traveling To The Serbian Athens (A Balkan Affair #28)


A Walk In The Dark – The End of the Line: Bedtime In Belgrade (A Balkan Affair #26)

In a fit of complete exasperation my mother once said that the problem with me was all I ever wanted to do was spend my life having fun. She followed that statement up by saying that life wasn’t always fun, neither was it meant to be. A failure to take life seriously seemed to be my main offense. Of course, I disagreed at the time and still do twenty-five years after she made that comment. Back then I disagreed because of my rebellious nature. Now I disagree for a very different reason.

Over the years I have come to realize that what I really wanted out of life was not to have fun, but to have an adventure. The search for adventure was how I found myself at the age of 48 wondering through the freezing cold of a Serbian mid-winter’s night. Marching down abandoned tram tracks in a remote part of Belgrade was not exactly a life goal. It was strangely fascinating. Doing this while lugging a huge suitcase for almost a mile in search of a hotel was an added benefit. Life at that moment was the opposite of fun, but it was an adventure! And like the best adventures it had elements of danger and mystery that I could never have imagined before I set off on a walk in the dark.

End of the Line - Destination Belgrade

End of the Line – Destination Belgrade

False Assumptions – From Darkness To Danger
In planning my arrival in Belgrade, I figured the best bet would be to find accommodation close to Topcider Station, which was being used as the terminus for the Bar to Belgrade railway since the latter’s main station had been closed while a newer, more modern central station was being built. My only other alternative would be to take a tram ride from the station into the city center, then get off and walk through busy streets to a hotel or apartment. I rightly assumed that after eleven hours in a train my only impulse would be to get where I needed to go as soon as possible. Prior to leaving on my journey, I made sure to have specific directions to the hotel I booked. The one I selected got good reviews and was said to be only a short walk away from the station.

A map I downloaded to my phone showed the hotel within reasonable distance of the station. I thought this would be a short, refreshing jaunt, allowing me to stretch my legs after a long journey. Because the former royal palace of Beli Dvor (White Palace) was not far away and Google Maps showed surrounding woodlands, I imagined little more than a walk in the park. All my assumptions would turn out to be wrong. When I walked past Topcider Station, I noticed that everyone else who had been on the train was going either to a taxi or walking towards the tram stop. I was the only one who made a turn to the right. After a hundred or so paces, I was walking on a narrow stretch of sidewalk beside an empty road in almost total darkness. The only thing I could see was my breath materializing before me in the frigid air.

I was able to sense that forests surrounded both sides of the road and could also hear traffic coming from further up the road. My suitcase would barely fit on the sidewalk, but there was not enough space to comfortably drag it behind me. With no traffic on the road, I decided to walk on the tram tracks with my suitcase in tow. Though it was much smoother than the sidewalk, I began to get worried the closer I got to the road’s intersection with Bulevar Patrijarha Pavla (Patriarch Paul Boulevard). I noticed an alarming number of cars roaring along the Bulevar. Trying to traverse it could prove more dangerous than I might have imagined.

A Walk on the Wild Side - Abandoned tram line in Belgrade

A Walk on the Wild Side – Abandoned tram line in Belgrade

Fear of Abandonment – Tracking An Old Tramway

When I arrived where the two roads intersected, I noticed there was hardly any sidewalk to speak of. I now had one of two choices, either walk on the road while dodging traffic or follow an abandoned tram line. I decided to do a little bit of both. The old tram line did have a suitable width of pavement, unfortunately it also had parts of the old rails and the tracks trams once followed. Weeds were growing between the rails and cracks in the pavement. This made dragging the suitcase alongside me quite difficult at times. Every few yards, the wheels would hit a patch of weeds or piece of rail which impeded progress.

When these obstructions became too irritating, I would wait for a break in traffic then move over to the road where I would walk until the next oncoming car approached. I did this for what seemed like an interminable amount of time. I began to wonder which would happen first, arrive at the hotel or be run over on this stretch of roadway. At one point while walking on the old tram tracks, I stopped long enough to snap a photo. This would make a great story, but only after I arrived at the accommodation. Later while studying this photo, I noticed that it looked like something out of a horror film rather than a personal adventure.

The walk to the hotel was both annoying and exhilarating. This was my idea of an adventure. At times I doubted whether I would make it to the hotel at all. This looked like just the place for a throng of Balkan tough guys to jump me for my wallet and a suitcase full of dirty clothes. The saving grace was that no self-respecting robber would bother waiting on an abandoned tram line for a foolish tourist who refused to take a taxi just to save a handful of dinars. I was perfectly safe, as well as freezing cold.

Night shift - Topcider Station

Night shift – Topcider Station

An Exhausting Adventure – Travel Is Like Life
I finally found my way to the hotel after navigating what seemed to be a major construction site. The proprietor was waiting on me when I arrived. A stocky, man with a warm grin and even warmer personality, he welcomed me by stating that it was Christmas and as such I should have a shot of schnapps. He was a bit crestfallen when I told him that I did not drink. All I wanted was my room for the night. He apologized for the mess along the roadway. Construction was in progress, but once finished his business would boom as the highway was being rerouted. He led me to my room, showed me around and then disappeared. This was the end of my Bar to Belgrade Railway adventure. I was exhausted and at the same time ready for more. Travel, much like life, is an adventure. It may not always be fun, but it is worth every bit of effort.

Off The Grid – A Balkan Back of Beyond: The Bar to Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #25)

The stretch of railway between Podgorica and Uzice on the Bar to Belgrade express might best be characterized as “Off the Grid”. That phrase is often used in the United States to define places not connected to the electrical grid that are inhabited by self-sufficient communities that seek freedom from any type of governmental control. Along the railway, I would define “Off the Grid” as passing through a Balkan back of beyond with wildly beautiful landscapes that include inhospitable karst plateaus, wild emerald rivers, trackless forests and remote mountainscapes. The towns in between are small and unknown to all but those who live in or around them. No one is ever going to take much of an interest in Priboj or Prijepolje, they are outliers, geographically, economically and politically. And that makes going “Off the Grid” in Serbia that much more special.

Off the Grid - A river in the mountains on the Bar to Belgrade Railway

Off the Grid – A river in the mountains on the Bar to Belgrade Railway

A New Generation – Basketball Before Bosnia
If someone really wanted to get a good idea of life in Serbia, they could do worse than visit the remote towns straddling the railway. This would be in direct contrast to visiting the capital city of Belgrade. Capitals in every country I have visited are filled with cosmopolitan sophisticates and an inordinate number of professionals. Conversely, a city or town in a remote region feels more authentic. Provincial places lack pretension. They know their standing and do not pretend to be anything other than themselves. I was lucky enough to spend half of the journey with two sons of provincial Priboj. Matija and Svetozar were the first Serbians I had ever met who had no memory of the Yugoslav Wars. They came a generation after the fire and fury of that tumultuous period had melted away.

Matija and Svetozar were more interested in basketball than Bosnia. They spent their youth following a bouncing ball rather than running from bombs. Both lamented the fact, that Serbia was still seen as a warlike nation. Their life experience had been otherwise. It was enlightening to see Serbia through their eyes. As such their worries had nothing to do with politics. They were focused on their university studies and getting a good job after finishing school. A sense of normalcy had returned to Serbia. This was progress.

Powering Up - Hydroelectric plant on the Detinje at Uzice

Powering Up – Hydroelectric plant on the Detinje at Uzice

Getting Lit – An Electrifying Presence
There was more progress when the train arrived in the city of Uzice. After eight hours traveling through wilderness, the lights of Uzice looked like an oasis of fantasy. Matija and I had been discussing Nikola Tesla when he reminded me that on this same day in 1943, Tesla died in the United States. The Serbian genius had also brought electric light to the world. Oddly enough, so had Uzice. Matija reminded me that Uzice had been home to one of the world’s first hydroelectric power plants. Built in 1899, according to Tesla’s principles, “Pod Gradom” (Surburban) was constructed on the Detinja River. The Bar to Belgrade railway followed the Detinja’s river valley through this area. I never would have known it though, since nightfall had long since descended. In a land where artificial light had made a world of difference, we were surrounded by darkness.

As the train slowly approached Belgrade our conversation became more tepid as weariness took hold. I began to focus on the immediate future, which would entail a walk to my accommodation after arrival. The train journey might as well have ended right there for me. My mind was somewhere else beside the present. One disappointing aspect of this journey was that it would not end at the fin de siècle Belgrade Train Station that I had so enjoyed upon arrival eight years earlier on my first visit to the city. Belgrade was getting a new train station that was still under construction. Thus, my journey would end at Topcider Station a fair distance from the city center. Topcider was comparatively tiny, but it had some very interesting history. The station stands at the spot where the first train in Serbia departed on its way along the Belgrade to Nis railway. The station was destroyed during World War I and was rebuilt in the early 1930’s with a waiting room for the royal family whose Beli Dvor (White Palace) stood nearby.

During World War II, only the waiting room portion of the station survived another bombing. Following the war, Yugoslavia’s strongman Josip Tito used the former royal palace as a residence. His famed Blue Train was kept close by and would depart from Topcider when he set off on excursions. Not long ago, Topcider was refurbished and reopened to service rail traffic until the new station is finished. I would have preferred to arrive in the center of Belgrade because there would have been more accommodation options nearby. Instead, I would be disembarking at Topcider. I booked the nearest hotel thinking it would be an easy one kilometer walk.

Lighting The Way - Nikola Tesla

Lighting The Way – Nikola Tesla (Credit: Napoleon Sarony – Marc Seifer Archive)

Topcider Station – An Anticlimatic Arrival
When the train finally pulled up to Topcider Station our arrival time was 30 minutes later than planned. The entire train journey from Bar to Belgrade took eleven and a half hours. I had been on the train for so long that I half expected it to begin pulling away before anyone could depart. Topcider was the final stop and something of an anticlimax. The point of arrival was quaint rather than grand. I had just completed one of the great European rail journeys, but Topcider station was not a fitting end of the line. It looked more like what it was and had always been, an auxiliary station hidden away in an area that was frequented mostly by locals.

Matija and Svetozar took time to turn me in the supposed direction of my accommodation. I snapped a rushed photo of them together before we departed. Befitting our main topic of conversation, I promised to stay in touch by purchasing a couple of Luka Doncic basketball jerseys for them. Our shared passion for basketball might help us reconnect in the future. That was certainly my hope as I walked off into the night and disappeared into an all consuming darkness just beyond the station. Somewhere out there in this cold and foggy night a hotel awaited my arrival. I was going “Off The Grid” in Belgrade.

Click here for: A Walk In The Dark – The End of the Line: Bedtime In Belgrade (A Balkan Affair #26)

The People That You Meet – Inside Serbia: The Bar to Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #24)

I should have known by now. My most vivid memories of long train journeys rarely have anything to do with the scenery or sights along the way. Instead, it is always the strangers I meet who remain most familiar to me. There was the train attendant on the Lviv to Budapest express who asked for a bribe to give me my own compartment, only to later buy me bubble gum while we waited for a rail gauge change at the border crossing into Hungary. He had a pleasant smile that defeated his hopeless attempts at petty corruption, a paradox in human form.  Another favorite was the Croatian train attendant who told me not to put my leg up on the seat across from me. This bit of unsolicited advice was given to me despite the badly torn leather seat in terrible disrepair. This attendant taught me a sense of manners and etiquette no matter the conditions. Pride triumphed over poverty.

Then there was the Bulgarian berth mate on the night train from Belgrade to Sofia. The young man’s feet emitted a smell not unlike rotten eggs. He apologized to me for the profuse odor, then followed that up by asking if he could use my blanket for warmth, even though it was over 80 degrees in our compartment. All of this while his beautiful girlfriend looked on smiling. And how could I forget the Ukrainian man on the Budapest to Brasov night train who was so drunk that passport control was barely able to rouse him. When they did manage to awaken him, the man could hardly speak. Passport control officials yelled at him, “you don’t come into Romania drunk.” He was already in Romania and he was very drunk. All these people remain deeply embedded in my memory. As do the two Serbian men that sat across from me on the latter half of my Bar to Belgrade railway journey.

Young Serbs – A couple of new friends after arrival in Belgrade

Back To School – Student Life
One was very tall, the other just a little shorter but well built. Both young men were Serbian, university students studying in Belgrade. They were headed back to school, traveling from their hometown of Priboj to Belgrade. Our conversation started while the train made several futile attempts to move forward in the Goles Tunnel. It looked like we might be stuck here for at least an hour or two so all previous social inhibitions fell away. One of my initial questions was why they did not take a bus to Belgrade rather than this notoriously slow train. The taller of the two told me the bus took longer. I instantly understood why they chanced a journey on this train despite having experienced many delays in the past.

Almost anything was better than a bus, even a train that might or might not complete the journey. Being stuck in the tunnel was irritating, whereas being stuck on a bus would be exhausting. The two young men seemed to be old hands at sitting through delays. Neither looked particularly worried about our plight. I asked them what they thought would happen with the train. They did not know, but neither looked concerned. Their indifference was impressive and gave me confidence that everything would be fine. I asked the two why they were traveling on Christmas Day in the Orthodox world. The shorter of the two shrugged and said, “we have school tomorrow.”

Talking with them, I understood that Belgrade was integral to both their studies and future career prospects. Provincial Priboj would always be home, but Belgrade offered the best future career prospects. Meeting these two university students gave me a better appreciation of life for those Serbs who do not go abroad. Serbia is not in the European Union and will not be gaining entry anytime soon. Young and upwardly mobile Serbs have a stark choice, either apply for a visa to work abroad or try their luck at home, usually by relocating to Belgrade. Fortunately, sanctions on the Serbian economy have long since been lifted. Though the economic situation has improved dramatically, it could certainly be better.

Stuck in the middle – Map of the Bar to Belgrade Railway (Credit: Pechristener)


Future Prospects – Engineering Hope
My new acquaintances, Matija and Svetozar, were both engineering students. From what they told me, their job prospects after graduation would be good. Every nation needs more engineers, Serbia was no different in this regard. The train we were stuck on certainly could have used the talent of these two engineering students to extract us from the tunnel and get through the mountains. After a good half hour wait the train finally began to pick up speed. By the time we left the tunnel it was almost dark outside. The sightseeing was now over. I would spend the rest of the evening in conversation with Matija and Svetozar. When I asked if either of them liked sports, I unexpectedly discovered their real passion was not for engineering, but basketball. 

Somewhere deep in my past I faintly recalled Yugoslavia as a powerhouse in international basketball. My earliest awareness of this was from the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. The Yugoslav team upset the Soviet Union before losing in the final to the United States. In the 1980 Moscow Olympics, with the United States boycotting those games, Yugoslavia won the gold medal. Then in a sort of last hurrah, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) took home a silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The Balkans were still basketball mad after all these years. Yugoslavia may have disappeared from the map, but basketball was one of the most popular sports in the successor states. A tie that still binds all those countries together.

Hoopserbs – Serbias 2019 Basketball World Cup

A Transcendent Topic – Following The Bouncing Ball
Matija and Svetozar were fanatical in their love for the game. They began to talk in-depth about both the professional and college games in the United States. Svetozar mentioned the Slovenian Luka Doncic, who is now one of the top stars in the National Basketball Association. When I mentioned that my favorite college team was the University of North Carolina, Svetozar began to name players both past and present on the team. One of those players now starred for a Serbian professional team in the city of Nis. The two young Serb’s knowledge of American basketball players astonished me.

Sport flows across borders, a shared favorite team or player can spark an instant kinship. Basketball turned out to be a transcendent topic in our conversation. Matija and Svetozar were strangers to me when they boarded. I was a foreigner to them. Now we were speaking the same language, it may have sounded like English, but it was really basketball. Our separate national identities hardly mattered. Sport had a way of defeating all resistance and creating memories that would last a lifetime.

Click here for: Off The Grid – A Balkan Back of Beyond: The Bar to Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #25)

An Ascent Into Darkness – Bordering On Bosnia: The Bar to Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair: #23)

The Lim is not an especially long river, at 220 kilometers it ranks behind ten other Serbian rivers in length. Nevertheless, its dark flowing waters made quite an impression upon me.  I got an up close and personal view of the Lim from my window on the Bar to Belgrade train. The railway and the river ran alongside one another for what seemed like forever. That may have been because of the railway journey’s length, approaching six hours at this point, which made everything seem longer. I began to believe that the Lim would follow the railway all the way to Belgrade. Of course, that is an exaggeration, but not nearly as ridiculous as it sounds. For the Lim drains into the Drina, which drains into the Sava, which drains into the Danube at Belgrade. Thus, the Lim is part of a mighty river system and it is also a mighty river on its own. Famous rivers such as the Danube and Sava are the beneficiaries of their tributary’s liquidity. Without the Lim and many other rivers like it the Danube and Sava would be mere trickles.

The Lim’s waters are also part of a reservoir held back by the Potpec Dam. The railway followed along the reservoir for its entire length. After passing the dam, the railway continued to follow the Lim’s course. The railway and the river run side by side for 80 kilometers, finally departing from one another just beyond the small city of Priboj. It was at the latter that the train took on a much larger load of passengers. Most of these new arrivals would be heading onto Belgrade. That included two male university students who took their seats across from me. They spoke quietly to one another from time to time. Other than that, they played or read on their phones. I settled in for the second half of a very long journey.

A Pattern Of Brilliance - Woods Snow & Sun in Serbia

A Pattern Of Brilliance – Woods Snow & Sun in Serbia

The Ghosts Of War – The Legacy That Lives On
Darkness was slowly beginning to creep over the land as the train made its way along a short six kilometer jaunt into and out of Bosnia. I had been looking forward to this part of the journey ever since boarding. It is not often that one gets to enter and exit a Balkan country without having to clear passport control. There was only one stop through this geopolitical netherworld, Strpci, a village which was about as far in the southeastern corner of Bosnia as one can get. I was able to follow the route closely enough after Priboj to know when we entered Bosnian territory. This being the Balkans, some disputed whether this was really part of Bosnia at all. The area was part of a political entity known as the Republika Srpska (Serb Republic), which might be described as a state within a state. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s may have ended over two decades ago, but their political legacy lives on.

Nowhere more so than in the Republika Srpska, an autonomous political entity within the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 90% of the population consists of ethnic Serbs, just as 90% of the rest of Bosnia’s population consists of non-Serbs. The political leadership of the Republika Srpska has an uneasy relationship with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The nation’s federal structure allows for a high degree of autonomy for the Republika Srpska. That is likely the only way to keep Bosnia from breaking apart. I found all this fascinating, but from a train window the area did not reflect geopolitical considerations. All I saw was a snow covered, astonishingly beautiful alpine setting.

Strpci & Beyond - Looking Into Bosnia

Strpci & Beyond – Looking Into Bosnia

Beyond a series of houses were buried in a blanket of snow as a distant peak illuminated by the setting sun rose upward. It was a spectacular scene, one that I would not forget. This was the Bosnia no one ever talked about, where the natural world was much more memorable than its political tumult. Sadly, it was politics and the ghosts of war which still defined this fragile nation and its inhabitants to the rest of the world. Bosnia lasted no longer than ten minutes.

Tunneled Under – Running To Stand Still
With the train back in Serbia, it immediately began to pass through yet another tunnel, in this case a very long one. I would only later come to realize that this was the Goles Tunnel. At 4950 meters it was one of the longer tunnels along the route. What made it seem even longer was the fact that the train suddenly slowed to a halt. For several minutes, the train barely moved. It became apparent that something was wrong. Soon the passengers began to murmur amongst themselves. I asked the two young men sitting across from me if they had any idea what was causing the delay. The one with broad shoulders, black hair and a thin face remarked, “the train does not have enough power to get up the mountain. It will not go.”

The Lim - Bound & Unbroken in Serbia

The Lim – Bound & Unbroken in Serbia

I could tell by the slant of our railway car that we were trying to go uphill. Unfortunately, the train was going nowhere.  I asked, “what do you think they will do?” His sidekick, a shorter and stockier fellow shrugged and said, “This happens all the time.” His nonchalant tone comforted me, but not for long. The situation was an alarming one for me. The train was stuck in a tunnel, high up in the inhospitable mountains of southwestern Serbia with not a soul in sight. For that matter, nothing was in sight other than darkness outside the windows. My imagination began to run as wild as the surrounding landscape. I imagined that extricating the train and/or passengers from this stoppage could take hours. Questions began to formulate in my mind.

Who would dare leave this train in the middle of a pitch black, five kilometer long tunnel and start walking? Then an even larger problem would become apparent. The tunnel would eventually end one way or the other, but we would still be in the middle of nowhere. I began to have visions of being led to a Serbian home deep in the forest while surrounded by people speaking to me in an unintelligible tongue. Several dull days would pass while I dreamed of returning to civilization. This was a ridiculous thought, but no more so than being stuck in a tunnel with no way forwards or backwards. At least not for the moment.

Click here for: The People That You Meet – Inside Serbia: The Bar to Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #24)

The Good, The Dramatic & The Ugly – In The Mountains of Montenegro: The Bar To Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #22)

After over an hour of climbing, the train finally found its way to reasonably level ground. We were now deep in the mountains making our way through pine forests that looked much more alive than the spectacularly barren landscape we had just traversed. The forest was a world filled with shadows and intermittent showers of light. I found this landscape much more comforting. Perhaps it was the fact that we were no longer clinging to the edge of a cliff or breathlessly crossing rocky ravines while seemingly suspended on air. There were still hundreds of bridges to cross and tunnels to glide through, but the forests looked vaguely familiar. I had been in this landscape before, albeit on another continent. It looked and felt the mountains of western North Carolina.

Snow began to appear in patches, then covered the ground. The railway was bounded by several inches of snow on either side of the tracks. Nearby flowed the clear waters of an alpine river. The railway route through Montenegro might be termed a tale of three rivers, as the line follows the Moraca, Tara and Lim Rivers. While the terrain here was less spectacular than an hour earlier, it was still entrancingly beautiful. Not far from where the railway ran was the Biogradska Gora National Park, which protects one of the few stretches of primeval forest that still exist in Europe. This was a land that humans largely forgot to inhabit. The railway offered a window into the way much of the world was before the triumph of “civilization.”

A Wintry Outpost - Kolosin

A Wintry Outpost – Kolosin

A Wintry Outpost – Waiting On A Train
Towns were few and far between along this stretch of the line. Kolosin was one of the two largest, a wintry outpost, slumbering beneath the snow. Houses were scattered around the lower reaches of a small mountain. Much larger mountains, growing more spectacular with each successive range, could be seen looming in the distance. Kolasin looked like one of the most peaceful places I had ever seen. This was the opposite of a past checkered with nasty conflicts, first to expunge the Turks, then a recruiting ground and base for World War II partisans. The wounds from previous wars were now hidden away. In the past, Kolosin had not been able to escape history. At present, it was an escape for outdoor enthusiasts and winter sports enthusiasts. Kolosin had excellent road and rail connections that bring tourists to experience its clear mountain air, mineral springs and the remarkable nature which besieges the town on all sides.

The only unsightly thing in Kolosin was its railway station which reminded me of an American truck stop at its most forlorn. Of interest, were three Montenegrin Railway workers, two of which stood bareheaded in the freezing cold. They were indifferently watching the train, probably because they had nothing else to do. One of those three was the sharply dressed stationmaster sporting a red cap. I never cease to be amazed by these stationmasters, looking proper and purposeful while standing in front of an architectural eyesore. Like clockwork, the stationmaster is there to meet the train, never showing anything other than a sense of duty.  It is a job that they are bound and determined to do. These stationmasters are the very definition of pride, both personal and professional.

Waiting On A Train - Railway Workers at Kolosin Station

Waiting On A Train – Railway Workers at Kolosin Station

Intermittent Nightmares – A Stationary Decline
Being on a train in the Balkans amidst a snowy landscape is fertile fodder for the imagination to conjure up a Murder On the Orient Express scenario. The region and a snowstorm both make notable appearances in Agatha Christie’s murderous tale which takes place on a snow trapped train. The elements of mystery, intrigue and danger were all missing from my journeys at this point.  The sun was burning brightly in a clear sky while the snow had fallen days before. There was no chance of being detained by anything other than border procedures. On the other hand, there was precedence for a train along the Bar to Belgrade route being stuck in a snowstorm. In 2011, an avalanche trapped a train close to Kolasin for three days before the passengers could be rescued. I was enjoying this trip, but I could not imagine spending three days trapped in a train car. Eleven hours would be good enough for me.

Beyond Kolosin the train made its way toward the border. Passport control was at Bijela Polje, a town that had another atrocious railway station of concrete and metal trimmed with a sky blue color scheme. It was yet another striking example of Yugoslavia’s old railway stations that left a lasting impression, none of which were good. There was an interesting dichotomy between the landscape and stations all along the route. On one hand there was spectacular nature, on the other contrived artifice. The railway stations did not stand, as much as they loomed. Appearing like an intermittent nightmare, the ghost of a failed economic and political system. They were representatives of a deformed ideology that eventually warped itself into irrelevance. A fortune’s worth of resources, both natural and fiscal had been expended on creating the Bar to Belgrade railway. The exact opposite of the determination and vigor that saw the railway to completion went into the design and construction of its stations.

Leaving Montenegro - The Station at Bijelo Pole

Leaving Montenegro – The Station at Bijelo Pole

A Worrisome Sublimity – Keys To The Kingdom
I always find border crossings to be both sublime and worrisome. Sublime because one side of the border hardly looks any different from the other. I would soon discover this was especially true between Montenegro and Serbia which in many ways – language, religion and culture – are indistinguishable from one another. Worrisome because crossing a border means entering a netherworld. The traveler is in the hands of officials that hold the keys to another kingdom. Whether or not one gets to cross a border depends on a passport issued by an anonymous official back home. This document is then handed to a foreign official the traveler meets for the first and likely last time.

Fortunately, leaving Montenegro was quick and easy. Border officers entered the train, one of them scanned my passport and handed it back to me without so much as stamping it. The officer gave a quick smile and thank you. I was a bit shocked, so much so that I asked if they could at least stamp it. The officer looked pleasantly surprised, took my passport again and had his partner give it a nice, firm stamp. Procedures for the entire train were over in a matter of minutes. That official bit of formality was the way my week long adventure in Montenegro came to an end. It was now time for the beginning of a new one in Serbia.

Beyond Nature’s Limits – Podgorica & Everything After: The Bar To Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #21)

The initial stretch of my Bar to Belgrade train journey was bound to be the dullest. The fantastic scenery would not occur until the train began winding its way up the Moraca River canyon beyond Podgorica. Prior to Podgorica, the one must see natural wonder came into view during the first hour, Lake Skadar. When the worst scenery on a journey is part of a National Park, you know the trip is going to be a great one. As the train rolled by Lake Skadar National Park, I stared out at its glassy waters. A winter stillness had fallen over southern Europe’s largest lake. The lake stretched out onto the horizon. There were no signs of the 270 species of birds that call the lake hom

Skadar looked peaceful and placid, a natural counterpoint to the dramatic mountains rising above in the far distance. The lake soon became an afterthought as the train wound its way along curving shoreline and onward to Montenegro’s capital city. I was interested to see what the station in Podgorica looked like. My hopes were not very high after seeing the stations in Bar and Sutomore. Also, the fact that Podgorica had been bombed into oblivion during World War II meant that the station would almost certainly be modern. Thus, it would likely be one of those post-World War II abominations that can be rightfully deemed Titotecture. I was in for a surprise and not a good one.

Not exactly welcoming – Podgorica Railway Station

Red, White & Rust  – One End Of The Line
Podgorica’s railway station looked like an abandoned budget motel that had been given a fresh coat of ugliness and covered in red, white and rust. The station’s most defining trait was the numerous air conditioning units attached to its exterior. The only other thing of note to be seen outside the station was the large group of people waiting to board the Bar to Belgrade express. The car I was in soon filled to three-quarters capacity. I got the distinct feeling that this was not the tourist train of my imagination, at least not during the winter. It was a way to get from one place to the next in a country that had more remote than known places. During the winter this train was likely the safest option. Traveling along a Montengerin mountain road covered in ice or snow was hazardous duty during the winter. The train was a safer and slower option.

Speed was not something I was concerned with on this journey, but plenty of Montenegrins looking to get around the country were. The Bar to Belgrade train was decidedly lacking in speed. It had slowed considerably since the railway first opened in 1976. The journey from one end of the line to the other only took seven hours back then. That was before Yugoslavia collapsed, as did maintenance of the railways. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s caused damage along the route. In addition, both Serbia and Montenegro suffered grievous blows to their economies during this time which took years to recover. All the while, maintenance of the railway was neglected. Now the journey is advertised as taking eleven hours. Eastern Europeans have told me for years that if you are looking to get somewhere fast avoid trains. Fortunately, I was on vacation so the slowness of the train was a luxury I could afford. Most Montenegrins and Serbians were not so lucky.

Looking into the abyss – The Moraca River Canyon

The River Ride – Edging Along An Abyss
Beyond Podgorica the scenery took a sudden and dramatic turn. The train began to follow the serpentine course of the Moraca River. We were now entering one of the most spectacular stretches of railway in Europe. The half-frozen river grew smaller as the train slowly climbed higher. The surrounding landscape looked like the top of the earth had been scraped bare. It became increasingly rugged and barren. Villages were fewer and fewer. We were entering a no man’s land, the karst landscape where few had dared to venture before the railway was constructed. When the route was being planned, mapping teams were forced to go into this area on horseback. There was no other way to access the terrain. Not surprisingly, this area proved to be the most technically challenging to engineer. It is also one of the most spectacular.

The semi-lunar landscape was austere in the extreme, with scrubby vegetation in the foreground and rugged mountains in the distance. Far below flowed the emerald ribbon of the Moraca River. The train slowly twisted and turned its way deeper into the landscape. A confrontation with the mountains looked imminent. It was about then that I caught a glimpse of the Mala Rijeka viaduct. The name means little river, but it took the highest railway bridge in Europe to get the Belgrade to Bar railway across an abyss that it had carved. I was able to snap a couple of photos of the viaduct from a distance by pressing my phone against the window. The 100,000 ton, four pillared viaduct stands almost 500 meters above the valley floor, a work of art as much as one of engineering.  Below the viaduct was a great chasm filled with rocky protrusions, geologic epochs that had sprouted eons ago. A natural cataclysm had been crossed.

The Great Depression – Reality Of A Railway
Now the train was headed into a wilderness that few had seen before the railway was built. Though astonishingly beautiful, this was a thoroughly inhospitable landscape. One that had been gashed by continuous geological upheavals for millions of years. This all occurred prior to humans ever setting eyes on this natural tumult. Man could never conquer these mountains, only pass through them in the protection of a train car. Sidling along a river, weaving around and over canyons, scaling mountains, all at a leisurely pace seemed so easy.

The reality of this railway was quite different. It took hundreds of thousands of man hours, not a few lives and an indefatigable spirit to allow relatively few people the opportunity to see how beautiful and treacherous Montenegro could be. I was impressed by what I saw. At the same time, I was depressed by the knowledge that the train would soon be leaving Montenegro behind. The border could not be far away, but what were borders in a world like this. Nature has a way of setting limits, the Belgrade to Bar railway went beyond them.

Click here for: The Good, The Dramatic & The Ugly – In The Mountains of Montenegro: The Bar To Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #22)





Titotecture – The Bar To Belgrade Railway: Mountains & Monstrosities (A Balkan Affair #20)

I awoke before sunrise on the day of my departure from Bar. I was filled with nervous excitement. This was the day when I would take one of Europe’s most famed railway routes all the way through to Belgrade. Since I would be sitting on the train for eleven consecutive hours, I decided to go for an early morning walk before sunrise. This took me around the train station perimeter which was calm and eerily quiet. It did not seem like a train station or a railyard at all. The silence may have had something to do with the fact that it was Christmas morning in Montenegro. I had decided to ride the rails on the Orthodox world’s most important holiday. I was somewhat surprised that the train was going to travel. I wondered if any other foreigners would be taking the same journey.

When I turned up at the station twenty minutes before departure, there were a handful of people beginning to board the train. This was a far cry from May 29, 1976 when Yugoslavia’s leader, Josip Tito completed the first journey along the entire route. When he arrived at Bar there were 20,000 Yugoslav citizens who euphorically cheered his presence. The same scene had been repeated all along the railway, beginning in Belgrade where Tito had departed the day before. A crowd estimated somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people lined the railway to catch a glimpse of Tito’s train taking the inaugural journey. All the train stations along the route were covered in decorative bunting.

The occasion was cause for celebration. A project twenty-five years in the making was finally complete. The capital of Yugoslavia was now connected to the Adriatic coast. In his speech at Bar, Tito, the consummate dictator, referred to the railway’s importance for the Yugoslav military. Tito also promoted the project as the fruits of a successful cooperation among the Yugoslav people. What he did not say was that the state governments of Serbia and Montenegro’s had financed two-thirds of the railway and almost all the construction from 1970 until its completion. A people’s bond raised a great deal of the capital necessary to see the project finished.

The ultimate Balkan railway journey – Bar to Belgrade timetable

A Monumental Undertaking – From The Mountains To The Sea
I found the train car which corresponded to the number on my ticket. It had a gray and white exterior with random acts of graffiti sprayed along the side of it. The car looked suitably modern, but otherwise nondescript. I soon found my seat though it hardly mattered. The car was only about a quarter full. There did not seem to be any foreigners other than myself aboard at this point. My research had given me the impression that the train was so slow and antiquated that only foreigners looked forward to taking it. On this day, it was as much a local train as an international one going to Belgrade. The train’s first major stop would be in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica. Later I would see that several of the people aboard had availed themselves of this option.

I would later discover that the railway line is much more than a glorified passenger and tourist route. Over 60 trains a day travel along the line, carrying imports and exports between Serbia and Montenegro. The port at Bar is a link not only to the Adriatic, but the wider Mediterranean world. The railway’s economic ties reach far beyond tourism. Transporting goods and commodities across 476 kilometers of some of the most diverse terrain in Europe is a monumental logistical undertaking that thanks to the railway occurs thousands of times each year. Within minutes after leaving the station, the train began its ascent on the outskirts of Bar. We passed through woodland, followed by brief glimpses of the Adriatic.

Titotecture – Sutomore Train Station

I watched with my face close to the window, trying to take in the beautiful seascape, shimmering silver and blue beneath the radiant sunlight. The train’s leisurely pace made the seascape glide by the window in super slow motion. It was a tantalizing image, one that passengers traveling the opposite way along the line must see as their ultimate reward for such a long journey. I snapped a photo during one of my last glimpses of the Adriatic. On the placid sea, a single ship floated effortlessly. The image was the first of many remarkable ones to come on this journey. Another image along this stretch of the railway was less inviting. It seemed like we were just getting started when the train slowed for the railway station at Sutomore. This station made the one at Bar look like something designed by Michelangelo.

Tunneling Under – Confronting Obstacles
The station at Sutomore was one of those socialist realist inspired concoctions that doubled as a bad ideological statement. The structure helped me coin a new portmanteau word, Titotecture in honor the Yugoslav dictator Josip Tito. Loosely defined, this was an architectural style aesthetically unpleasing, constructed mainly of concrete and made to look like the set of a horror film. Titotecture was the realization of a mind numbing, bunker mentality that manifested itself in unsightly architectural monstrosities. It is hard to imagine how Yugoslavia could build both the Bar to Belgrade railway line and the Sutomore station. The former an astonishing accomplishment, while the latter was an exercise in stylistic atrocity. The railway looked like a case where opposites attracted. A fantastical work of engineering passing by a vacuous hulk of functional nothingness. The paradox that was Yugoslavia could still be found on the cold steel rails of this line.  

Last look at the Adriatic – On the Bar to Belgrade Railway

Before long the train began to pass through a tunnel. This was not just any tunnel, but by far the longest train tunnel I had ever been through. The Sozina Tunnel stretches for a length of 6,172 meters, the longest tunnel on the entire length of the railway. It is by no means an aberration. The easiest way to confront the mountainous terrain along the route was to bore tunnels through them. For example, the Sozina Tunnel traversed the coastal range by going partly beneath them. The railway line’s 254 tunnels stretch a combined 114 kilometers (71 miles) or 24% of the railway’s total length. Passing through the tunnel was exhilarating. It was a feeling that I was about to become uniquely familiar.

Click here for: Beyond Nature’s Limits – Podgorica & Everything After: The Bar To Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #21)

Tunnel Vision – The Bar to Belgrade Railway: Yugoslavia’s Greatest Achievement (A Balkan Affair #19)

I selected my accommodation in Bar based on only one thing, its proximity to the train station. The apartment was within a one-minute walk of the station entrance. The proprietress informed me during check-in that I had plenty of time to purchase my ticket for the Bar to Belgrade journey the next day since this was the off season. I nodded in understanding, finished our conversation quickly and proceeded to immediately walk to the station. Bar’s railway station was an elongated, two story functionalist structure that could have been found almost anywhere and used for anything. The style was architecturally anonymous. It just so happened that this structure was the point of departure/terminus for one of the world’s great railway journeys.

Climatic Conditions - Palm trees in front of Bar Railway Station

Climatic Conditions – Palm trees in front of Bar Railway Station

Lending an air of exoticism was a circular island in front of the station with two squat palm trees. I was suddenly reminded of the palms that framed Split’s station further up the coast in Croatia. The palms were likely a nod to the coastal climate, but they endeared me to these otherwise forgettable ex-Yugoslav stations. Another exotic twist was the station name in both Latin and Cyrillic characters posted above the entrance. I stepped inside wondering what I would find. The answer was a place that looked more like a driver’s license examiner’s office than an end of the line for Montenegrin Railways. A beefy woman behind a glass window said something to me in Serbo-Croatian, which I assumed was, “Can I help you?” I handed her a paper with tomorrow’s date and Belgrade written on it. She proceeded to begin creating a ticket for me.

When I asked for a seat reservation on the left side of the train, she stated in broken English, “left, right I don’t know which on the train”. Her voice was a combination of indifference and annoyance. She had that good old Communist era customer service ethic which refuses to die in state run railway stations. The lady handed me the ticket after I paid a grand total of 24 Euros for what amounted to a Montenegrin version of the great train robbery for tourists. I now had my long-awaited ticket for the next day’s journey. At 9:10 a.m. the train would depart for Belgrade.

Barring the Way - Entrance to Bar Railway Station

Barring the Way – Entrance to Bar Railway Station

Rolling Stock – From The Mountains To The Sea
The Belgrade to Bar railway has possessed the imagination of railway enthusiasts ever since it was completed in 1976. To bring the idea to fruition took a quarter of a century. A great deal of blood, sweat and toil were expended in constructing what turned out to be a magnificent feat of engineering. It would not be an exaggeration to state that this was one of the greatest achievements in the history of Yugoslavia. The terrain it crossed, especially through Montenegro, was formidable in the extreme. While the distance to be covered was daunting. By the time of its completion, the railway threaded its way through 455 kilometers (296 miles) of canyons, alpine terrain, mountain passes, farm fields, villages and cities. On one end was Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. On the other was Bar, a jumping off point for the sublime seafront along the country’s Adriatic coast.

To construct the Belgrade to Bar railway, it only took the most expensive public works project in the history of Yugoslavia. It is not hard to understand why? To make the route viable, 254 tunnels and 435 bridges were built through some of the most rugged terrain a railway line has ever crossed. It is little wonder that the railway was built in sections, starting out with easier terrain in Serbia and getting progressively more difficult as construction proceeded. And difficult was the operative word when it came to the railway’s construction. Beginning in Bar, just a few meters above sea level, the route slowly climbs up to 1,032 meters. Along the way it crosses three different mountain ranges. Even though the route winds it way through mountain valleys, the gradient reaches up to 25% in places. Though the railway length is much shorter through Montenegro (175 kilometers) versus Serbia (301 kilometers) it is also where the most difficult construction work took place. Specifically, along the karst terrain in the Moraca River canyon.

Waiting on a Train - Tracks at Bar Railway Station

Waiting on a Train – Tracks at Bar Railway Station

An Ironic Achievement – A Communist Era Vanity Project
I was looking forward to seeing the Montenegrin portion of the route more than any other. Since it was winter, there would be a lack of daylight during the final third of the journey for me. By starting in Bar, I would see the most impressive sections before sunset. I could hardly contain my excitement. After purchasing my ticket, I went out to see the lines of track and platforms adjacent to the station. For a major railway terminus, the Bar station was eerily quiet. I knew Montenegro’s railways network was quite small when compared to other European countries. I had noticed a poster in the station listing all the different routes and their timetables. It was the shortest list I had seen in any country. Nonetheless, what Montenegro lacked in rolling stock, it more than made up for with the attention bestowed upon its stretch of the Bar to Belgrade railway. It was the lucky recipient of a communist era vanity project. No private enterprise would have undertaken such a financial albatross, only a totalitarian state with the ability to harness massive resources could make this work. The little country of Montenegro would certainly not have attempted such an infrastructure project.

The railway line was also an ironic achievement. These days not many kind words are spoken about Yugoslavia. The violent breakup of that ill-fated polity in the 1990’s led to the loss of thousands of lives, millions of refugees and the splintering of Yugoslavia into seven different nations. In retrospect, it looks like an ill-conceived idea bound to fail. That is just what happened without Josip Tito to keep everyone in line. Many people living in its successor states, such as Montenegro, are uneasy with the idea of Yugoslavia. That does not mean everything the country did was bad, but its violent dissolution casts a shadow over some of its more notable achievements. From everything I read the Belgrade to Bar Railway was one of Yugoslavia’s greatest triumphs. Just how great, was something I planned to find out on my journey.

Click here for: Titotecture – The Bar To Belgrade Railway: Mountains & Monstrosities (A Balkan Affair #20)