Over 435 bridges and through 254 tunnels, this spectacular scenic railway is one of Europe's most stunning rides.
Sundown in Montenegro, and the train from Belgrade is winding its way through the mountains. On slopes washed orange by the last rays of the day, villages slide by — idyllic snapshots of wood smoke and pitchforked haystacks. On board, in the optimistically named dining car, cigarettes are lit, voices rise and lager spills on the lino. The guard looks absently at the assembled drinkers and the ravishing hills, sparks up and returns his elbows to the counter.
Welcome to one of Europe's best-kept rail secrets. I'm on the Belgrade to Bar railway, a 476-kilometre journey between the Serbian capital and Montenegro's Adriatic coast. The line was opened to much fanfare in 1976 by the Yugoslavian ruler Tito, whose private Blue Train once rumbled regularly along the route. These days the service takes 10 hours, and its graffiti-veiled carriages and old-style, six-berth compartments make it a no-frills affair. The scenery, on the other hand, is a symphony of riches. The journey costs the equivalent of NZ$32.
Serbian station departure boards are often in Cyrillic, adding exotic mystery.
"Yes. Montenegro train," the whiskery attendant at Belgrade had confirmed, pointing at the engine on platform three. Serbia uses Cyrillic and Latin scripts interchangeably. It means that the most essential information — the departure board, for instance — is often in Cyrillic, adding in exotic mystery what it takes away in convenience.
I do, however, know that the train departs daily at 9.10am, allowing me time for fried eggs, coffee and warm flatbread at the forecourt cafe. More than 15 years after the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević, Belgrade has long grown accustomed to tourists. It's a sunny autumn morning and the small main station is stirring to life. Four carriages sit ready on the platform, with 254 tunnels and 435 bridges between them and their Adriatic terminus. I step on board.
Ten hours is a long time on a train, so I'm splitting the journey into three parts. I'm travelling first to Užice in Serbia's southwest, almost four hours away. We clank out of the capital on schedule, past weed-choked rolling stock, and within 45 minutes the countryside opens up — wide cornfields, roaming goats and squat Orthodox churches. Soon afterwards, the horizon off to the east is full of blue hills.
We stop at local stations. By mid-morning I'm sharing my compartment with three elderly ladies carrying flowers, who find the language barrier between us hysterical. My Serbian stretches to "Hello" and "Thank you". Their collective English extends to "Let's go!" I establish that they're all sisters, and it looks like being a more mirthful journey than anticipated — particularly when they start insisting I smell their roses — then we roll into Užice.
The town was the first in Yugoslavia to be liberated from the Nazis in the Second World War, but I've stopped here because it's a short bus ride from Zlatibor, a resort town in the Dinaric Alps. I trek up 1359-metre-high Čuker, fuelled by supermarket chocolate. When I reach the top I'm utterly alone, and the view extends in all directions, filled with lakes, ridges and sun-baked valleys.
Back on the train, we continue southwards. I'm now travelling as far as the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, a seven-hour stint that also includes the line's most dramatic topography. The tunnels come thick and fast. They show what a feat it represents, this narrow electric track worming its way down the Balkans, at times suspended thrillingly above glassy riverbeds, at others burrowing deep into the mountains.
We pass through birch forests. We veer briefly into Bosnia for a few kilometres of bulging hills, then track back into Serbia. In the compartment, phone-glued youngsters and luggage-laden families come and go. A small town with two minarets glides by. At the border, the Montenegrin official holds my passport against the compartment door to stamp it.
Over the next two hours, we descend slowly to the city. At each station, a red-capped guard presides over the platform and a wheel-tapper walks along the train with a hammer, gently knocking the undercarriage. In the tobacco fog of the dining car, thirsty afternoon becomes rowdy evening as fruit brandies are cracked open. The clouds above the summits glow pink in the fading light. Podgorica arrives in darkness.
I explore the city the next morning and find the centre is a friendly grid of plain buildings and tall sycamores, with a fountain commemorating independence in 2006. It's an easy place to fall for.
Podgorica — which from 1946 until 1992 was known as Titograd — sits just over an hour's ride from the port town of Bar. It provides a fitting trip finale, the train trundling past Lake Skadar before heading into the olive belts of the coastal hills. For the last few kilometres it traces the Adriatic.
In Bar's old town I find a restaurant serving grilled octopus and local white wine. Orient Express, eat your heart out. I think back to the bored-looking guard in the dining car and raise a glass. The poor fellow had clearly had too much of a good thing.