A trip to the Adriatic Coast on the amazing Belgrade to Bar line My pronunciation of Topcider (I made it sound like “high-ranking apple drink”) did not impress the taxi driver at all. We sat outside the Hotel Moscow whilst I tried to clear up the confusion. I produced our train ticket, pointed to the word and then made an impression of a steam engine complete with a whistle noise. This did the trick; the driver nodded and soon we were heading along Terajize and then towards the south of the city.
It was about a 15 minute run. Our driver clearly spoke no English and seemed happy to listen to the morning talk show that was blaring out of the car stereo at full blast. It was obviously full of Serbian jokes as he was continuously laughing out loud as he drove us out of the city. We entered an area of woodland scenery, drove down a steep incline and after a few twists and turns we came to the station. “Topcider” our driver announced. I got the impression it was supposed to have a lot “shush” sounds in the middle.
It seemed as if we had been left in a clearing in a large forest. There was a tram terminus (35 minutes from Belgrade) and a small shop across the road from the station but nothing else but trees. This was certainly a strange place to catch a train that was advertised as “starting in Belgrade”.
We dragged our luggage over and stood on the platform. The station building, originally built for the royal family and then used by Tito, was small but quite impressive. It was 8:30am and although the train was due to leave at 9:20am there was no sign of it and there seemed to be only a few people waiting.
The 300-mile Belgrade-Bar railway, a pet project of Tito and only finally opened in 1976, is an engineering wonder and has more than 430 viaducts and 250 tunnels. There are only two through trains on the line each day. We had paid less than 30 Euros for a 11 hour trip on one of them. We were heading to Sutomore, now part of Montenegro, on the Adriatic coast and just short of the Bar terminus. We would be travelling on the “Tara Express”
After a few minutes on the platform, I noticed a little sign pointing towards the ticket office and I followed it for about 100 yards. The ticket office was in another small building and adjacent to it was a café with a large outside seating area crammed full of people waiting for the train. This was a nice surprise. We grabbed the last two empty seats and sat down next to a middle aged woman and a younger guy.
Given that the station only serves two trains a day, I hadn’t expected any facilities at all. We had brought our own breakfast but we weren’t going to turn down this chance of a hot cup of coffee. It was easier said than done though; we tried to order but we struggled to make ourselves understood with the lady proprietor.
The young guy stepped in to help us. He introduced himself as Dragan and we got chatting. He was in his early twenties and was working in the computer industry in Belgrade. The lady was his mother and they were off to Bar for a holiday for 2 weeks. It was their first time on the train and the first time to visit Montenegro.
It was quite a nice atmosphere sitting there in the morning sunshine, sipping coffee, munching on bread rolls and watching a few trains go past. At around 9:00am a brand new train ground to a halt on a track opposite to where we were sitting. My wife suggested hopefully that it might be our train. “I think it is more likely to be that one” I said, pointing to an old electric locomotive and some shabby coaches in the siding behind us.
Almost as soon as I had pointed, the locomotive burst into life and dragged its train slowly into the platform alongside us. All around us people began to pay their bills and scramble forward towards it. We paid our own bill and followed them.
The “Tara Express” consisted of 3 coaches and an empty car transporter wagon. The first carriage was in Montenegrin Railways red and yellow livery, the other two in blue Serbian colours, and all 3 were covered in graffiti. We clambered into the first carriage and found the seats that Mr Petrovic had reserved for us in one of the six-person compartments. They were already occupied by a Serbian family.
We stood in the corridor for a few minutes listening to what undoubtedly was the Serbian for “there are plenty of free seats everywhere else, the reservations don’t really matter, why don’t you sit somewhere else?” but we continued to smile and stood our ground. Eventually they moved and we sat down. We were soon joined by a middle-aged man with a bandaged left hand. He didn’t speak English but he sat there smiling at us with his hand pointing in the air.
At 9:20am, bang on time, the train moved off slowly. Very slowly. We crept past the Topcider depot, still home to Tito’s blue train, and gently out onto the main line. We soon made another halt in one of Belgrade’s suburbs and a few more people got on. It was quite a while after we had left this second stop that the train picked up speed, but even then we couldn’t have been moving faster than 70km/h. I went to explore the train.
It was formed of three ex-Yugoslavian Railway coaches probably from the late 1970s or early 1980s. The first, in which we were sitting, was an ex-first class side corridor and was the only one of the three that was air-conditioned. The cooling meant it was the most popular too; most of the compartments were taken and I noticed Dragan and his mother in the next one to us.
The second carriage was an open saloon with two-and-two seating. It was virtually empty. The final coach was a second class side corridor, not air-conditioned, and had three or four of its ten compartments still empty.
One thing that I immediately noticed was that the buffet counter that Mr Petrovic had mentioned would be on the train was missing. We had brought our own food as we had heard the food in the buffet wasn’t particularly plentiful or good, but I had been looking forward to a cold beer or a hot coffee. Finding there was no buffet was a disappointment.
The passengers were made up mostly of locals. There were two or three Germans sharing a breakfast picnic in the second carriage but almost everyone else looked local.
30 minutes out of Belgrade the scenery began to get better; first there were pretty little villages with Orthodox churches surrounded by cornfields and then we started to climb into the hills.
At Uzice the train stopped for a while and a lot of passengers joined. A game of musical chairs began. 2 young Russian couples entered our compartment and claimed the other 4 seats. The Serbian man with the bandage was turned out and went down the corridor to claim his own seat and turf someone else out.
Soon more people were moving through the corridor having been thrown out of their compartments. When the train left Uzice I noticed most of the people in the air-conditioned compartments were new and the people who had been sitting there were now encamped in the stuffy open saloon behind. Reservations did matter after all.
After Uzice the line briefly entered Bosnia. Fortunately it didn’t stop so there was no need for any border formalities. The track merely dipped into the neighbouring country for about a half an hour and then back into Serbia.
Whilst we were passing through Bosnia we made a few attempts to talk to the Russians. They were heading for the coast. One of the girls was working in Belgrade and spoke Serbian. The others were visiting and they claimed that this would be their sixth trip to the Montenegrin seaside.
They unpacked their lunches and we unpacked ours. We dined on bread, pate, cold meats, sausage, cheese and tomatoes with Serbian cakes for dessert. We had plenty of water but I mourned the lack of a buffet car and a hot coffee.
The train continued to climb, tunnels were coming fast and frequent now and the line was often suspended on high viaducts above river valleys.
I met Dragan in the corridor and we began chatting again. We spent an hour talking about all manner of topics. I told him of our visit to the Museum of Yugoslavia and he told me that Serbians of a certain age (he meant my age) are quite nostalgic for the old country.
He wasn’t so sure of the opportunities in modern Serbia himself and had thought about trying to emigrate to the USA. By the time we had finished chatting I saw that we had descended a bit and were passing along the side of a large lake.
At Priboj we passed the northbound Tara Express. I noticed that it had a buffet car and then I watched as a man alighted from it and ran towards our own train carrying with him a collection of boxes and bags. It was 2pm and the buffet car steward had finally arrived!
He set himself up as best he could in the end of the saloon coach and unveiled a small gas stove on which he started to boil water in a kettle. There was a cooler box full of beer, a box of soft drinks and two carrier bags of snacks too. It was primitive but it was very welcome. I ordered a coffee immediately and got two cold cans of beer for later.
After an hour or so the train stopped for the Serbian border exit check. There can be few more idyllic places to stop a train for a border. We pulled up at the foot of a beautiful rocky outcrop and next to the 14th century Kumanica Monastery.
I watched three people alight from the train and walk over to the monastery. I decided to join them and, without waiting for the border guards to reach my compartment, I went outside. There was no security and the four of us wandered around taking photographs and even standing on the track in front of the train.
Eventually more people alighted from the carriages and when my wife joined me I learned that I had received an exit stamp in absentia. About 40 minutes after we had first stopped, the train horn went and we all clambered back on board.
The train now set off again towards Montenegro. I peered out of the window trying to see exactly where the border was. I was looking for differences in the signs on the adjacent road. Eventually I saw there were more signs in roman lettering and noticed that the pricing on the posters was in Euros (Montenegro uses the Euro even though it is not part of the single currency) and I concluded we were across.
When we arrived at the first station in Montenegro, Bijelo Polje, the border process began again. I received my entry stamp and then ventured outside to see that our Serbian locomotive was about to be replaced by one in the livery of the Montenegrin Railways.
After another 20 minutes or so we set off again.
The Montenegrin driver seemed to be in much more of a hurry than his Serbian counterpart had been. We moved faster now as we climbed into the mountains again. We were about 30 minutes late. This was a little disappointing as the light was beginning to fade a bit just as we were entering the most scenic part of the whole trip.
Around about this time the Rakija salesman also appeared. I was with Dragan again and we were talking to a law student who was travelling from Bijelo Polije to her university in Podgorica. We were in the middle of discussing the different legal systems of the Balkan countries when “Mr Rakija“ appeared at the compartment doorway.
For one Euro he was offering a cup of strong homemade fruit brandy poured from a bottle concealed in his carrier bag. Dragan suggested even one cup was enough to do me some considerable damage. The man let me sniff the bottle and that was enough to tell me it probably was quite dangerous. Then the others all had a sniff too but nobody seemed inclined to buy. “Mr Rakija” smiled and then went off to try his luck in the next compartment. I have to admit that the catering arrangements on the “Tara Express” were certainly unconventional.
The scenery up to this point had been just “excellent”, but now it became absolutely stunning. The train carried on climbing through a series of tunnels until it was travelling along a shelf high up the mountain side. The views down into the valley below were nothing short of jaw dropping.
The scenery became even more dramatic as we came off the ledge and on to the 139m (456 ft) Mala Rijeka Bridge, the highest railway bridge in the world until 2000 (now surpassed only by China), and the views still continued as we started to finally descend to the capital of Podgorica.
It was dark as we left Podgorica, made our way across a causeway, through a long tunnel to finally emerge onto the Adriatic coast almost 11 hours after leaving Belgrade. Soon we stopped at Sutomore and we got off the train. We were surprised at how many people got off with us. The train would be carrying on to Bar (another 20 minutes to the south) but for the majority of the passengers it seemed that Sutomore was the coast.
We clambered into a taxi and headed north along the shore of the Adriatic.
The Montenegrin coast stretches from the border with Albania to the border with Croatia and has a variety of resorts spread out along it. They are all linked to each other by the main coastal road and they cater to a wide range of different markets. There are towns that offer only budget accommodation, there are more upmarket centres and then there is the super rich enclave of Sveti Stefan, where rooms can go for more than £1000 a night and where a few weeks previously David Beckham had been photographed on holiday.
We had chosen to spend a few days in the resort of Becici close to the most popular town on the whole coast: Budva. Budva is in a beautiful location and has a quaint old town to wander around, but it is also actually home to some of the most popular night clubs in Europe and has a reputation for being noisy. Becici, we were promised, was the quieter end.
We spent our first day exploring Budva. It had the atmosphere of end of season. Coming from a seaside resort myself, I actually like this time of year a lot. The main tourist rush is over and you start to see the town slowly start going to sleep. Budva’s beaches were more than half empty and the restaurants and bars that filled the town were now obviously a little more desperate for custom.
Like Serbia, Montenegro is predominantly Orthodox. In fact, apart from the writing system, it was quite difficult as a casual observer to discern the difference between the two countries. The obvious thing we noticed was that Montenegro used the Euro. This made it seem to be more prosperous, but it probably just made it more expensive.
Montenegro’s economy is very dependent on tourism and the country makes a special effort to welcome the biggest single group of visitors: the Russians. Russian language signs are everywhere and the restaurant owners call out in Russian first as you walk past. There were actually a lot of Russians visiting too. I would say that about 75% of the guests in our hotel were Russians.
We liked Budva. We visited the old town and had a meal and then walked back the 2 miles or so to Becici along the beach whilst watching a glorious sunset. It was touristy as hell but at the same time it was a place that seemed definitely worth a visit.
On our second day we went by bus to the nearby settlement of Kotor. The trip started in the bus station at Budva. The terminal was decorated like a rain forest, had its own mini vineyard and included a restaurant that several of the guide books raved about. It got my vote as the best bus station in the world.
The trip took 40 minutes and Kotor suddenly revealed itself as we exited the long tunnel bored through the mountain. The location was just breathtaking. Kotor is situated, not on the Adriatic coast itself, but in a large fjord-type bay. The mountains rise steeply on either side of the bay and the little town with its medieval walls is located at the edge.
We walked around the quaint little streets of the old town. It was like a smaller version of Dubrovnik (itself not actually that far up the coast in Croatia) with a maze of little alleyways full of old houses, shops and churches.
Like Dubrovnik, Kotor is now getting “too” popular. It has become a big stop on the cruise-ship itineraries and is filled with hundreds of tourists every day. Slowly the town has started to change from being a real independent sustainable settlement to a Disney-style replica full of shops and restaurants catering only to tourists. Tourists like us of course!
The change is well underway. We found very few “authentic” shops in the main old town and even when we visited the market we found that the stalls that were selling jams and cheeses to tourists were doing much better business than their counterparts selling fruit, vegetables and fish to the locals.
On the day we visited there was, thankfully, only one small cruise ship in the port. The MS Marella Celebration was built back in 1983 as the Holland America Line’s MS Nordam. She was small enough and elegant enough to fit in Kotor’s harbour without looking out of place.
We walked around for a few hours dipping in and out of shops and churches and then we paused for a beer. The Montenegrin tipple of choice was Niksicko.
We had snacks of local figs and peaches before venturing onto the city walls and up a few thousand steps to the hilltop fortress overlooking Kotor. It took us about an hour to get to the top and the views from there were well worth the climb.
We descended back into the town and went straight to the quayside for dinner. We had beautiful locally-caught sea bass with a selection of fresh vegetables and local wine. The setting on the water’s edge and facing the Marella Celebration could not have been better.
The food was excellent. We had eaten well during our time on the coast. Seafood was the mainstay. In the old town at Budva we had enjoyed “octopus under the bell”, a local specialty.
Then we decided we were done with Kotor and returned to the bus station to catch one of the frequent buses back over to Budva.
We got an early night. The next day we would be leaving for Bosnia.