The train ride between Bar, Montenegro and Belgrade, Serbia is famous. It’s known to be one of the best routes in Europe and arguably the most scenic east of Switzerland. From the moment it was completed in 1976 until now, it’s been considered a modern marvel of engineering with its 254 tunnels, 435 bridges, and one of the highest railway viaducts in the world, Mala Rijeka. A true legend, it’s the kind of journey that’s probably made it onto thousands, maybe even millions of people’s bucket lists and a travel opportunity that for many only comes once in a lifetime.
I, on the other hand, could have cared less about all of that this past June. The thought of it actually made me cringe and gave me anxiety. I was trying every single thing in my last minute, budget power to avoid getting on that train and at no other point in my life had I wished teleportation to exist more.
Let’s start with the current schedule situation. At the time of press, there is only one journey a day north due to damage from recent floods and it takes 17 hours. 17 HOURS. That’s 6 hours longer than it took this time last year, 10 hours longer than it took 38 years ago when it first opened, and about the same amount of time it would have taken me to fly, land, and already be drinking a sugar-free peppermint iced mocha in California. Where is the justice in that?
Moving on from the unjustifiable to jaded, the other issue and main reason for the internal protest of this train ride was that I had unfortunately hit the point where I was hating travel. The traveling part of travel, that is, which can happen to even the best gypsy/nomad/wanderer from time to time. After a fast and heavy two months on the road and with one more to go, I didn’t care about the experience, I just cared about getting back to Belgrade as quickly as possible after my “seven days away” turned into almost seventeen.
And lastly, there was this:
Sweet memories from when I partied my way in the opposite direction VIP style aboard Tito’s Blue Train with Yomadic last year. Like having Korbel or Cooks champagne forced upon you when all you know is Dom Perignon…being stuck in a run-down tin box all by my lonesome and possibly without electricity, food, or water for an absurd amount of time when all I knew was this? It was going to be painful.
It was also going to be necessary since I was trying to make these travel arrangements the day before and I had a flight to catch from Belgrade the evening after. I literally had no other choice unless I wanted to spend a couple hundred euros on a plane ticket, so on my way I went. Slow train to Belgrade is what was meant to be…
My first impression upon entering the train was that maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I had imagined. I immediately noticed a 220 volt power outlet when I entered my sleeper car so all of my devices could stay fully charged, not to mention that I had the whole thing to myself. The beds were clean, pillows of decent fluff, and plenty of space on the top rack for my bags.
After the wheels started rolling, I made myself right at home on the bottom bunk, pulled out my laptop, and started to organize some photos because seriously – WTF else was I going to do with all of this time? Maybe write a book or produce a short film while I was at it. Fifteen minutes down, 1005 more to go, until all of a sudden it hit me.
I am on one of the most beautiful train rides in the world.
Seriously, what was my problem? The sun was shining outside, I had an entire room to myself, and there was absolutely nothing to be complaining about nor anything else more important to be doing than enjoying every minute of it.
And so I did, for like 4 hours straight, until it got too dark to see anything. Snapping photos like a mofo, rocking out to my jams like nobody was watching (FYI nobody was watching), thinking lofty thoughts while staring out the open window. The only thing missing was a nice, chilled bottle of rosé, but I made a mental note of that for next time.
CRUISING TOWARDS CLIMAX
About an hour and 15 minutes in the scenery started getting really good. At that point we were well away from all the main roads and cutting our way through the magnificent mountains of Montenegro towards Serbia full-speed ahead. Tunnel after tunnel, bridge after bridge. I didn’t count but apparently 1/3 of the Montenegro segment of the trip is through a tunnel or on a viaduct, and it’s only when heading north that you can catch a glimpse of the highest, Mala Rijeka.
NEARING NO MAN’S LAND
Approximately three hours and 15 minutes after we left Bar, we rolled into Bijelo Polje which is the final stop in Montenegro and where we had our first passport check. We sat there for about 30 minutes which in retrospect would have been the best time for me to jump out and grab something to eat or drink since I didn’t bring anything with me, but I refrained. Food and water didn’t seem as important as making sure I didn’t get left behind in a border town.
After another 20 minutes passing through No Man’s Land, we arrived at the Serbian border. Nothing was going on there, it was already dark by then, and I had realized that the 220 volt power outlet was just a decoration, so I decided to put away a few of my dead electronic devices and crawl into bed. From the Serbian border onwards I pretty much zoned out/slept for the rest of the time minus the few minutes I spent totally confused at the text message I received welcoming me to Bosnia & Herzegovina. Fantastic. Was I on the wrong train?!
Before I got too worked up and out of bed to check with the train man, I suddenly remembered from the last time that Bosnia actually does make a little cameo on the journey for about 10 kilometers, so nothing to be alarmed by. Also, since it’s such a short distance, no passport checks.
SUDDENLY IN SERBIA
Waking up to the fields then suburbs of Serbia the next morning was certainly less sensational than the dramatic landscapes of Montenegro, but beautiful nevertheless. And damn exciting once I spotted the Ada Bridge. FINALLY. Back in the White City. Even though a small part of me was a bit sad my little solo train party was about to be over…
BACK IN BELGRADE
After 17 hours in a not-so-run-down tin box all my by lonesome without food, electricity AND water, I was still alive. Probably more alive than I had been the day before and back in Belgrade somewhat in disbelief that I almost let myself miss out one of the best train rides I have ever taken just because was I was suffering another minor case of travel burnout and feeling like a diva.
In the end, I was forced to drink Korbel instead of Dom Perignon, and it didn’t matter. In fact, I loved it. Champagne is champagne – you can have just as much fun, if not more fun, drinking a bottle that you found for $4.99 than drinking the expensive stuff. Sure it would have been nice to live it up in the lap of luxury like last time, but at the end of the day, witnessing one of the best train rides in Europe in a more confined space without any amenities and all alone turned out to be just as awesome.
Seventeen hours was a bit too long, I’m not going to lie, but it is what it is/was what it was and it’s times like these you just gotta stop dwelling on the negatives and focus on the positives of the situation, because seriously, when you do, life will be beautiful. Travel, even the most exhausting and tedious parts of it, will seem beautiful. And no doubt, even the tiredest gypsy of them all will find themselves in love with it all over again.
- At the time of press, one “fast” train a day departs from Bar, Montenegro at 5pm and arrives in Belgrade, Serbia around 10am the next day – you can check Montenegro’s main train website to see if anything has changed
- A one-way ticket with seat reservation in a 3 bed sleeper car costs 36 euros – think of it as the “First Class”
- There are also 6 bed sleeper cars that costs 21 euros and where you are more likely to find people smoking in the hallway, having feasts of rakija and zakuska, or hanging out in their underwear – think of it as the “Second/Third Class” and a legit introduction to the Balkans
- Bar’s train station is only about a 3 minute walk from its bus station if that’s how you are arriving into the city
- The ticket office in Bar is cash only/Euros only and the closest ATM is in the center of town about one kilometer away
- There was no dining car on the train so if you want any sort of food or drinks for the journey, better bring your own
- There was no toilet paper or hand soap in the bathrooms so if those are of importance to you, better bring your own
- The 220V power outlet in my room didn’t actually work so if that is of important to you, better bring some extra charge or take it as a sign that it’s time to reassess your priorities as a traveler
- Coordinates for the Mala Rijeka aqueduct are 42° 33′ 9″ N, 19° 23′ 15″ E if you’d like to plug them into one of your devices beforehand so as not to miss it
- There is a dude working in one of the wagons that makes coffee in the morning – it costs 1 Euro and is pretty good (or maybe I was pretty desperate)
- According to the bunk above me, Jovana can be reached at 067407485
Rachel of Hippie in HeelsAugust 17, 2014 at 2:17 pm
That looks like a nice ride :) I did a 16 hour sleeper class (lowest class) train in India from Mumbai to Udaipur- it was ROUGH to say the least. That looks like a dream in comparison. I understand travel burn-out though, happens to us all.
LarissaAugust 17, 2014 at 5:05 pm
Train travel in India, especially the lower classes, is in a league of its own from what I hear. I can only imagine and I’d say after doing that trip you’re pretty much prepared for anything and this one would seem like the Ritz Carlton ;) By European standards though, trains in the Balkans are probably the worst, absolutely tolerable though, and hopefully will get some real attention from their respective governments soon – not just more talk about it. As for the travel burn-out, yes, it happens to many and I hate bringing it up, but it’s a fact of travel and important to note sometimes. Just in case there are still people out there that believe traveling permanently or semi-permanently is all rainbows and gum drops.
Elena@Elena's travelgramAugust 31, 2014 at 2:10 am
I liked traveling low class in India actually. It was kind of fun with all the locals trying to talk to you, sellers giving tea for free, but doing a 10+ hour ride doesn’t seem as fun to me :D
Recently, I took a 10 hour sleep train from Nice to Besancon in France. There were 6 bunks in the compartment (2nd class), no power outlets and lights over bunks to read. Ticket price – 70 euro.
Ah, and it broke at the tiny station and I’ve missed my connection in Mulhouse, but got free breakfast as compensation and a new free ticket to Besancon.
Serbian train doesn’t seem that bad to me :) Your compartment looks cozy! And the scenery outside is mind-boggling!
LarissaSeptember 3, 2014 at 3:42 pm
It actually surprised me, how bad it wasn’t. Totally cozy and I really need to stop making up scenarios in my head because more often than not, I am wrong. Would definitely love to experience the trains on India at some point though short-haul will be just fine for me :)
ShaunAugust 18, 2014 at 8:06 pm
Excellent tips in the end, especially about bringing TP! Can’t get over the scenery though and the fancy retro style in those cars too.
Hope you’re not feeling guilty about the travel burnout. You do anything for too long and you feel it. I’ve wished for teleportation just to get a beer out of the fridge. You are not alone.
LarissaAugust 19, 2014 at 2:20 pm
Definitely retro sexy. I always feel a little guilty complaining as it’s what I love to do and feel so fortunate that I even have the opportunity, but you are definitely right – too much of anything is not always good. Actually just had a really in depth conversation about teleportation the other day and came to the conclusion that it would be really great to have in some emergency situations, but that’s it. Think it would totally change what it means to travel and not in a good way. Sounds amazing in theory though!
HallvardAugust 20, 2014 at 10:44 pm
I enjoyed reading your blog post. Seems like a really nice trip. Much better than the bus.
By the way speaking of beautiful train rides, have you traveled the Bergen railway in Norway?
LarissaAugust 21, 2014 at 12:30 am
I like to hear that and definitely better than the bus! Unfortunately haven’t seen anything of Norway other than Oslo but I read about the Bergen railway while I was researching this post – looks stunning. One day :)
DanaitSeptember 10, 2014 at 3:23 pm
I loved reading this post – this journey looks amazing. Do you know if visas are necessary for all the checkpoints you passed?
LarissaSeptember 18, 2014 at 6:05 pm
Glad to hear that! Just depends on which country you have a passport for. For a US passport and I believe most of, if not all European ones, no. Otherwise you will have to check the embassy websites for Montenegro and Serbia.
KatrinkaSeptember 10, 2014 at 11:40 pm
I tried to take this train trip last summer in the opposite direction, but the tickets were all booked. A shame! Next time, next time.
LarissaSeptember 18, 2014 at 6:02 pm
Really?? Must have been the peak of the peak season because both times I’ve been on, train was not even close to being full. Next time for sure and maybe then you will have the opportunity to go from Bar to Belgrade. Though both directions are gorgeous, you get more of a show in Montenegro so better to be in that part while the sun is still up.
JasonOctober 21, 2014 at 11:45 pm
I did this train ride in July, 2014 from Belgrade to Podgorica… while I had food poisoning. Not the best time, but you were right about the 6-berth sleeper being where they hang out of the windows and smoke. Also, the bar car was pumping all through the night. Would’ve been a great experience if I wasn’t so sick…
P.s. enjoy your style of writing, some of your articles pushed me to head east in the first place!
LarissaNovember 11, 2014 at 7:08 pm
Hey Jason – I really appreciate that :) And food poisoning on a Balkan train, what a nightmare! At least you had a bar car…
MikeMarch 20, 2015 at 10:36 am
I’ve done this trip by bus overnight leaving Belgrade to Budva and it’s just as spectacular waking up to no mans land and enjoying the ride to the coast
LarissaApril 3, 2015 at 1:30 am
Interesting. Hadn’t thought about what the bus ride might be like, thanks for sharing the information. I suppose it would be a really cool time to be in no mans land sometime around sunrise.
KevinJuly 7, 2015 at 6:02 pm
Hey there, thanks for the great article.
Do you know if there is a way to tell if the train is “Tito’s train” vs. a generic train? I’m looking at the timetable on the Montenegro train site, and i see two trains – Train 430 and 432. One leaves/arrives at 9am/8pm, the other 7pm/6am. They are labelled as “fast”. Cost is 21 euros for 2nd class, 31.80 for first class. This seems a bit different from the times and costs you had. That coupled with an article I found (http://www.seat61.com/tito.htm#.VZv32FWlxBd) saying all departures are cancelled due to damage, makes me a bit worried!
LarissaAugust 14, 2015 at 9:05 am
Hey Kevin and sorry for the delay. I have no doubt the times are different by now and while I did see that on Seat61, seems strange they would advertise the journey as being available on the national rail website when it’s not – but then again, stranger things have happened.
As for determining which is Tito’s train, it’s privately run (and attached to the end of the normal train) a few times every summer by a British tour company called Explore Montenegro, so you won’t find it on the national rail website. I was highly impressed on my first ride in 2013, but it seemed by 2014, they were more concerned with profits than actually giving their customers a good experience and quite frankly I would never give them money for that again. Haven’t checked the situation for 2015, but if it’s the same, all I have to say is that it’s a shame such a historical relic has fallen into the hands of a greedy business owner and non local one at that. Unfortunately, money talks too loud in these parts.