Out for a Ride with Serbian Railways
About 23 hours. That’s how long we spent as passengers of Serbian Railways. 11 hours from Sofia to Belgrade and another 12 hours from Belgrade to Podgorica, Montenegro. While “Taking a Train in Europe” typically conjures up images of fast, clean & efficient, perhaps with a nice dining car, the trains in this particular part of Europe aren’t quite there yet. At both train stations when we showed up to look for our train we did pass several new, modern, clean trains – but those were the ones going into Central & Western Europe. The trains that shuttle people around the Balkans were, well, a bit more archaic.
But the Bus is Faster
It all started with stumbling across this entry on Seat61, one of my favorite travel tools when trains are involved. It says:
The journey from Belgrade to Podgorica and Bar in Montenegro over the celebrated Belgrade to Bar railway is one of Europe’s most spectacular train rides, and one of my favourites. It’s a marvel of engineering, with 254 tunnels and 435 bridges on the 296-mile journey from the Serbian capital to the Adriatic. Construction of the line started in the 1950s but only completed in 1976, opened by President Tito himself. Yet it costs only €21.
Those 4 sentences basically drove our itinerary for the first part of this Balkan Adventure and I informed Luis that we just had to take the train in Serbia and preferably take this exact train route. And that’s how we ended up boarding a train in Sofia on a sunny Sunday morning, eager to ride the train, despite it being longer than the bus. After all, it’s about the journey, not the destination – isn’t that what they say?
With the biggest event of the day already behind us (figuring out which train to get on) there was nothing to do but settle in for a long, hopefully picturesque ride. For the most part of the 23 hours we had a cabin to ourselves, but we did occasionally have someone join us. We had a Bulgarian man who was making his way by train to Denmark to compete in a marathon or triathlon or something like that. He had a backpack full of lettuce and other greens and hard boiled eggs, which he offered to share with us multiple times. We also had a minor league soccer player join us for a bit and somehow, despite not speaking a word of each others language, Luis and this Serbian dude managed to have an intense 30 minute conversation about soccer, players and various leagues. Once again proving that soccer is a universal language, everywhere except in the states.
Neither of the trains had a dining car except for a man selling horrid coffee by the thimbleful, and we had come prepared. This pastime required a frenetic and thorough disinfecting of the tray tables, given that I don’t think they’d been cleaned since 1950. I then felt sort of okay about spreading our picnic items out to enjoy. We had packed a few local beers, a bottle of local wine, water and juice but I quickly figured out that it was a fine balance between enjoying what we’d brought and having to use the bathroom on the train, which was a bit, well, unpleasant.
Luis is great about finding and downloading documentaries about the places we’re visiting and he had a few ready for us to watch, mostly about the relatively recent Balkan War and various conflicts that have occurred in the region. With time on our hands, we sat back to watch and learn a little about the countryside that was passing us by.
Waiting for Sunset
Another great pastime is waiting for the sun to set. Something to look forward to when the hours seem to be stretching out indefinitely.
Snapping Pics Out of a Moving Train
The main objective of taking the train was to enjoy the countryside and experience the changing scenery, especially on the second train which promised the 254 tunnels and 435 bridges. We weren’t disappointed and the two days we spent riding the Serbian rails remains among my favorite memories of the entire 6 week trip.
For me, riding along with Serbian Railways was a solid deal. It got us where we needed to go, allowed us to see long stretches of the countryside, and provided our entertainment for the day….all for a low cost. What could be better? Based on my husband’s expression in the photo below, I’m not sure he felt the same. 🙂