Comfort In The Unknown – Riding the Balkan Backwater: Sarajevo to Pecs on the Drava Intercity (Part One)

For most American travelers thoughts of a first long European train trip bring to mind Paris to Rome or Vienna to Venice, riding the rails between the continent’s most glamorous cities. Few would chance a train ride from Sarajevo to Pecs through the provincial backwaters of the Balkans. Sarajevo has a reputation for being ripped apart by war, a city synonymous with the deadly siege that engulfed it for years. In the popular imagination, Sarajevo will be forever at war.   Conversely, Pecs is an almost unknown city in southern Hungary, a place only Hungarians are supposed to visit. A trip between these two cities would be done by most out of necessity rather than wonderment. I found myself with a rare and once in a lifetime opportunity to travel this route a few years ago. It turned out to be just in time, as not long afterward the line stopped running, most likely due to a lack of passengers. The trip was a surreal ride from a war scarred Bosnian countryside, through a part of Croatia rarely seen by tourists that arrived at the surprising splendor of southern Hungary’s most beautiful city. Along the way I was witness to varying degrees of development in each nation, providing a look at an area of Europe that is missing from the mental map of most travelers.

The Drava Intercity

The Drava Intercity – Sarajevo’s lost connection to Hungary (Credit: Attila Voros)

The Places In Between – Unseen Europe
There is always anticipation and dread when I view the timetable for a train trip. Anticipation for all the places I will probably pass through for the first and last time ever. Dread at the possibility of an entire day covering a relatively meager distance. Trains in the Balkans are not known for their speed or efficiency. The Drava Intercity Train actually went from Sarajevo all the way to Budapest, but I decided to get off in Pecs. This cut the trip from eleven to just under eight hours. There were two border crossings and eight stops. The stops along the way sounded less than promising. There was Zenica, the fourth largest city in Bosnia, whatever that was supposed to mean. Doboj, site of the largest railway junction in Bosnia and once home to the largest Austro-Hungarian concentration camp of World War I, a place where over 45,000 mostly ethnic Serbian soldiers, women and children were once held.

Samac would be the last stop in Bosnia, soon followed by Slavonski Samac in Croatia. These towns had once been on the front line of the Bosnian War, now they were a couple of remote border crossings. Osijek offered the most hope for sights that might be seen from the train window. It was the economic hub of Slavonia, not to be confused with Slovenia. The closeness of the names was confusing. Slavonia was a pancake flat, exceedingly remote region of Croatia that had nothing in common with Slovenia other than an eight letter name. Beli Manastir was the last stop in eastern Croatia, it meant white monastery. From what I read, it did not seem to have one. Another border crossing would come at Magyarboly, the first part of the name a reminder of what the Hungarians call themselves, Magyars. Finally I would arrive in Pecs by the mid-afternoon. This arrival time was predicated on an early start as the train would be leaving Sarajevo at 6:55 a.m.

Tragic reminder - one of Sarajevo's many cemeteries

Tragic reminder – one of Sarajevo’s many cemeteries (Credit: Michael Büker)

The Stray Dogs of Sarajevo
I dread an early departure time for intensely personal reasons. My main goal every morning is to get up and go for a run. This meant that I would have to wake up around 4:00 a.m. for a run through the dark streets of Sarajevo. While this sounded dangerous, Sarajevo turned out to be one of the safest cities visited or at least it looked that way. There seemed to be police everywhere, of course that was for a reason. My main worry on the morning run was the threat of unexploded landmines. The day before, I had been walking in a park near my hotel when an elderly man motioned me over. He pointed out the remnants of a landmine that had now been disarmed. This was startling. An urban green space still stalked by death.  A reminder of that the war was never far away in Sarajevo. My early morning run went according to plan except for one memorable incident.

During my visit to the city I had been surprised by the noticeable lack of stray dogs. At two of my previous stops on this trip, Sofia and Bucharest, there were stray dogs everywhere. In one of Sofia’s city parks I was followed by a herd of stray dogs that grew with every lap. I expected that Sarajevo, having suffered through years of war would be much the same. Until the morning of my departure I had not seen a single stray dog. Then while running down a well-lit street I noticed lots of movement on the other side of a fence in an abandoned lot. Running around aimlessly were several herds of dogs. There must have been twenty of them, all strangely silent. The stray dogs of Sarajevo obviously were alive and well, keeping to themselves.

Titoesque architecture - Sarajevo's Train Station

Titoesque architecture – Sarajevo’s Train Station

Leaving Sarajevo – Scars of War
After returning to the hotel and showering I took a taxi to the train station. Leaving Sarajevo gave me mixed feelings. The sunrise showed a city not much different from so many others in Eastern Europe. Bungalows, single family homes and communist-era apartment blocks covered the hillsides and valley. It all looked strangely normal for a place that had, not so long ago, been the scene of horrific carnage. The only overt sign of the war were the glowing white hilltops. These were covered with tombstones of Bosniaks, a sobering reminder of the conflict’s human toll.

I had spent three days walking around Sarajevo, admiring the rebuilt city. It all looked so well put together, not what I had imagined. Imagination finally met reality for me on one of the backstreets, where the walls were pockmarked with hundreds of bullet holes. The past was really never very far away, both physically and historically in this city. The Drava train from Sarajevo to Budapest was waiting upon my arrival at the train station, a block looking structure that looked like it was designed by Tito. I wearily walked through its concrete corridors and boarded the train. One trip was now over and another was just beginning. What lay ahead of me was the unknown. For some reason, that seemed very comforting.

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