“You’re taking the train to Belgrade? It’s at least 10 hours – if you’re lucky. Why don’t you fly?” The friendly barman in Virpazar in southern Montenegro had a valid question. By air, it was only a hop, skip and a jump from the capital, Podgorica, to its Serbian counterpart. If you were in a hurry, you would probably cough up the minimum €65 fare. But I wasn’t in a rush, nor did I want to miss out on one of Europe’s most beautiful rail journeys. And I couldn’t resist the thought of paying only €10 for the pleasure.
Yes, €10. That works out to one euro per hour. Admittedly, it was a promotional fare, but the usual cost of €21 isn’t too bad either. The problem is that Montenegro Railways don’t make it easy for you if you’re not already in the country. Its glossy website has timetables and fares but no way of booking online. It also shows shiny new trains, not the ancient long-distance one that actually trundles slowly through the mountains and gorges of northern Montenegro and southern Serbia.
Still, as I was already in the country, I was able to get my tickets and reserve my seats a week in advance. My ticket came with a carbon copy – remember those? I’d been given dire warnings about the capricious opening hours – not to mention quality – of the restaurant car, so I brought enough food to sustain us through any of the horrendous delays that regularly afflict this service. The website’s tantalising promise of first-class seats for a nominal extra charge came to nothing when I was told that they’re available only on the overnight service, not the 10am one I was taking.
Podgorica station – a ramshackle, unlovely place that, in spite of its sad appearance, had free Wi-Fi and a drinking fountain – was heaving that morning. We were surrounded by crowds of people who were taking advantage of a four-day public holiday to go home or visit family. I was expecting pandemonium on the train, and I got it. The carriages were the old-fashioned sort, with compartments of six seats and a narrow corridor running alongside. It was already packed with people, and the newcomers (including us) patiently but firmly turfed out those who were in our reserved seats.
Finally we could stretch out and eat our breakfast of burek, a cheese-filled filo pastry pie we’d picked up at a bakery. The train chugged slowly through a stark but compelling mountain range of barren, scrubby peaks reaching 1700m and higher. I could see twisting mountain roads leading to remote villages of ancient stone houses, many in ruins. The Morača river was below, slicing through gorges.
After slipping in and out of countless tunnels, the train emerged into such a vibrant landscape that it almost was like going from a desert to a jungle. The thickly wooded slopes – some still topped with snow even in May – of the Bjelasica Mountains slid down to luxuriant valleys dotted with farmsteads. It looked very alpine, so I wasn’t surprised when we passed Kolasin, one of Montenegro’s most popular ski resorts. It’s also the gateway to the Biogradska Gora National Park, whose untouched forests, mountains, glacial lakes and rushing streams made me wish I could stop and explore it all properly.
After about two hours we reached the last town before the Serbian border, Bijelo Polje, where customs officials kept us waiting for half an hour while they made their methodical way through the packed train. Those warnings of interminable delays were starting to make sense, especially as we were kept for another 30 minutes once we crossed into Serbia. I was admiring the monastery at Vrbnica, which was just beyond the platform. “You would have been able to visit it in the time we’ve been sitting here,” a young woman in the carriage remarked drily.
After enjoying the drama of Montenegro’s mountains and gorges, we settled down to the gentler rolling hills of southern Serbia. The river Lim was our constant companion; its clear waters a particularly vivid shade of blue-green. A text from my phone cheerily welcomed me to Bosnia, but fortunately we swerved in and out of the country too briefly to warrant a visit from border guards.
As someone who has spent a lot of time in the monotonous landscape of northern Serbia’s Pannonian Basin, I was revelling in the forested hills and fertile valleys of the south. Tidy villages of red-roofed whitewashed houses and petite Orthodox churches were filled with orchards and vineyards. We passed through the Zlatibor mountain range, home to one of Serbia’s most popular spa towns and another place that I added to my list of “next time, definitely”.
Before I knew it, we were in the outskirts of Belgrade – and only 30 minutes behind schedule. Somehow 10 and a half hours had slipped by in a pleasant haze of astonishing scenery, books, music, writing, chat with friendly fellow passengers and an absurd amount of food. It was almost easy to forget the nasty state of the toilets (note to self: bring wet wipes next time) and the constant cigarette smoke wafting through the corridors.
Exactly a fortnight later, the worst floods in Serbia’s recorded history devastated much of the route I travelled. With admirable speed, the authorities got the line going again, but for the time being they are operating only one train a day, which happens to run overnight. It’s better than nothing – and preferable to cutting off this lifeline between the neighbouring countries where so many citizens flit back and forth across the border. Not to mention the occasional lucky tourist.
Top image: Train entering the tunnel on the route from Belgrade, Serbia to Podgorica, Montenegro © Shutterstock