Montenegro only has two train lines – to be fair, it’s a small and wildly mountainous country – which makes it all the more remarkable that one of them turns out to be a candidate for Europe’s most thrilling train ride.
There are other spectacular train journeys that are far better known – the Bernina Express in Italy for one – but the 11-hour trip from the Montenegrin port of Bar to the Serbian capital Belgrade is one for true train aficionados. There’s no advance booking, so you have to put your trust in the Train Gods, and it’s a rattling, frill-free ride that’s slightly hair-raising at times. But it’s oh-so-cheap and oh-so-magnificent, and this is how you do it.
Two trains a day roll out of Bar, one at 9am and one at 7pm, and I’m going to assume A) you want to see as much of the scenery as possible and B) you don’t want a largely sleepless night. That means taking the 9am day train and not the 7pm night-sleeper, which will get you into Belgrade at six in the morning entirely unrefreshed and ready for bed. The day train itself is a lengthy and slightly challenging journey, so why make things even harder?
435 bridges, 254 tunnels
Ahead of you is over 290 miles (470km) of deep Balkan train travel, and it starts beautifully, running along the craggy coast from Bar before turning inland and heading for the waterlily-clad expanses of Lake Skadar.
After about half an hour, passing Virpazar, the train crosses an arm of the lake by low-slung bridge, with views to the mountains beyond. This is one of 435 bridges en route, by the way – plus 254 tunnels – which gives you some idea of the terrain that is to come as you snake your way from the Adriatic to Belgrade.
An hour into the journey and you reach Podgorica, capital of Montenegro, which is another popular place to start the trip – though it would be a shame to miss the coast-and-lake section from Bar.
From here, things – by which I mean the scenery – get serious as the railway climbs steeply from near sea level to 1,000 metres up at the town of Kolašin. It does this in little over an hour, which is only short of miraculous given the sheer mountains on all sides.
Work crews battled the heights and the elements to complete the line in the 1970s, and I’m not sure it’s at all reassuring to know that the entire Bar-to-Belgrade trip takes four hours longer today than it did then because line safety can’t be guaranteed at higher speeds. On the one hand – that’s good, right? Safety conscious and all that. On the other – what do you mean ‘safety can’t be guaranteed’? Hello?
Carriages rattle along in mid-air amidst bare alpine peaks
Musing on this – well, I did, you don’t have to – the train thunders over the single most extraordinary piece of engineering on the route, the 500-metre-long Mala Rijeka viaduct, which crosses 200 metres above a river canyon. They’re figures that don’t seem hugely impressive in isolation, but believe me – 500 and 200 suddenly seem alarmingly unattainable as the carriages rattle along in mid-air amidst bare alpine peaks, with just a glimpse below of an icy blue river.
Whether the most dramatic scenery is all in Montenegro, or you just become blasé the longer the journey goes on, it’s difficult to say. There is, though, some definite respite as the train rolls into the town of Bijelo Polje – ‘White Field’ – after around three hours, where Montenegrin border officials stage a walk-through and examine passports.
Next stop? Serbia, where the same routine is repeated by Serbian border officials, who introduce a whole new level of adventure and excitement by collecting everyone’s passports and disappearing off the train with no explanation. This is all fairly alarming if, for example, you’d like ever to go home again, but after an indeterminate period – anything up to an hour – the same officials reappear and re-distribute the now-stamped passports. Not, it has to be said, with any great level of care or to exactly the right people, so there is a certain amount of checking and cross-checking. The two of us were, for example, given three passports back, which was all very kind but not entirely helpful to Mr. Sven Lundquist of Sweden sat further down the carriage.
It’s also worth pointing out that if you had taken the night train, you’d be neck-deep in this cross-border malarkey at well after midnight, which is another reason for self-congratulation all round at our sensible choice of departure.
Look! There goes Bosnia-Herzegovina!
There’s actually one more border crossing to come, but it doesn’t register as the train doesn’t stop on its six-mile loop through a corner of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Look left after the Serbian town of Priboj, if you want to claim another country for your tick-list.
The mountains gradually give way to hills as the greener side of Serbia comes to dominate, and as far as Valjevo – a good nine hours from the start – the scenery remains verdant and charming, if no longer strictly dramatic and awe-inspiring. It’s been a long day thus far – with no on-board buffet or restaurant-car to help pass the time – and mountain villages with prominent church spires are slowly replaced by commuter towns and, finally, suburbs on the approach to Belgrade.
There’s a final treat at the last, as the train pulls into Topcider station in Belgrade, whose lovely main building was once a royal waiting room. And that’s it – you’ve travelled one of Europe’s finest railway routes at a stately 70km/hr and have arrived in the very cool city of Belgrade (hopefully, with passport). Topcider is about 4km out of the centre, so all that remains is to jump on a tram (for which you’ll need local currency) or put yourself at the mercy of the waiting taxi drivers (who take euros – lots of euros) for the next part of your Balkan adventure.
Need to know – taking the Bar-to-Belgrade train
You’ll find all you need to know about taking the train below, but for supporting information – and tons more besides – The Man in Seat 61 is an invaluable resource. There’s even a video of the route, where the train runs over a horse, and you can’t say fairer than that.
Tickets and times
The 11-hour train ride from Bar costs an unbelievable €21, plus €3 for a seat reservation; it’s a couple of euros cheaper if you get on at Podgorica. You can’t book online or in advance, and as long as you get to Bar or Podgorica stations in good time – at least half an hour before departure, in case there’s a queue – you should have no problem buying a ticket on the day. I went the day before, to be on the safe side, and the ticket office basically sent me away and told me to come back the next day.
English may or may not be spoken at the ticket office, but all you’re saying is ‘Belgrade’, so it should be plain-sailing. Theoretically, you’ll get a reserved seat for the journey, but there will usually be room to sit where you like.
If you insist on taking the night train, it will cost another €15–20 for a berth in a sleeper car.
The timetables are available on the Montenegrin Railways website – click on the English tab, then on International Timetables, where you’ll see the two departures from Bar (and Podgorica). Click through to ‘Route’ and you can see all the stops and times. I’d take the Belgrade arrival time with a pinch of salt – it could be up to an hour or more later, depending on the antics at the borders.
Views Heading north to Belgrade, the best views are on the left-hand side, so that’s the side you want to sit on if you can.
Eating and drinking There might be a buffet car on the train but I wouldn’t count on it. Take enough picnic food and drinks to last you for the day. At the border stations, vendors toting bags of canned and bottled drinks work the trains.
Topcider station, Belgrade There aren’t any ATM or bank facilities at Topcider, and you can’t get Serbian dinars in Montenegro in advance. The taxi drivers at the rank across the road from the station will happily take euros, but be prepared to pay a whole lot more than the actual local rate to get into the centre – it’s the equivalent of a €5 ride but you’ll be charged €15–20. Do you know what? Pay up. It’s been a long day. Let it go, let it go.
Mala Vijeka Viaduct by Vicuna R, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Spectacular Moraca river valley by Vicuna R, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Train in the afternoon sun, Vicuna R, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0