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)