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.
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.
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.
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.