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)