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)