Swiss Railways train in Zurich Station
Night train to Serbia, and beyond
In early spring I arrived in Belgrade. It was 6pm and already dark. It was a city I had known well many years before but now it looked sad, and very different. My journey had started at Zürich Hauptbahnhof where I stocked up with some provisions for the night journey as there was to be no restaurant car or buffet and the only sustenance provided would be breakfast the following morning. My cabin was comfortable enough and from what I could see there were few people in the sleepers or couchettes but no doubt plenty in the seating compartments towards the front of the train. We set off on time just before 9 pm and over the following nine hours made our way to Villach in southern Austria via Feldkirch, Innsbruck and Schwarzach St Veit where we were attached to another train coming from Munich and at Villach part of us split off to Graz. During the night we had made three changes of direction with engines moving from one end to the other. Snow-covered mountains loomed ahead, we passed through the Karavanken Tunnel into Slovenia then via Kranj and Llubljana. At this point the conductor came round with breakfast which consisted of coffee, ham, cheese, yoghurt and fruit which I eagerly consumed on the way to Zagreb in Croatia where we arrived at 11am for a short stop. Here the sleeping cars are disconnected and we are reinstated in a very comfortable second class coach with sheepskin covered seats but once again no buffet!
The journey across the plains via Slavonski Brod towards Serbia was uneventful until we reached the frontier when the Croatian passport control came on board: we hung around for half an hour then set off in fits and starts: once over the border a stroppy gun toting police sergeant says something and I just keep looking out the window: no one moves and he disappears. Then the Serbian passport chap comes round and he stamps my passport without a word: another change of engine and eventually we are off on the final lap towards the Serbian capital.
Getting off this comfortable train into the main but now semi derelict railway station was a bit of a shock as it was in the process of being closed down and most trains transferred to the new Centar station. But here I had to find a certain Mr Popovic to whom I had entrusted the purchase of my onward rail ticket for the next day to Bar. There were a few people around and most of the lights weren’t working so in the end I went to the Western Union window where I asked if this gentleman was known to them. An envelope in silent communication was slid under the window to me and therein lay my ticket and receipt for my €22! First class at that! At that same window I managed to change some Turkish lire into a small float of Serbian dinars which would be useful for my supper and food for the next day. Was that him on the other side of the darkened glass I wondered? After a beer in the rather grubby station bar but with a friendly chap serving, I walked through the bus depot to my hotel, a pretty good evening meal and a comfy bed.
Next morning up early as the train was due to leave from the same station at 8am. At the kiosk on the platform I bought some interesting looking goodies to keep me going for the day; found my train was the only one due to leave in the next couple of hours and that it was totally covered, all three coaches of it, and the engine, in colourful graffiti. My first class coach had six comfortable seats in our overheated compartment but there was no view from the window as the double glazing had long since failed. There were two others besides myself, one an elderly lady of unknown origin and a young Serbian man who worked for an airline in the Middle East and was going home for a short break. Luckily for me he spoke good English and we were able to talk our way through the journey which gradually became more and more wintry as the snow began to fall and we climbed up into the hills of western Serbia. I was surprised to learn that the line had been electrified from when it was first built during the time of President Tito and opened by him in 1976. My friend left the train in Uzice where his family lived and we continued on through an afternoon of falling snow: it was then that I found the buffet car although the only item available from the not extensive menu was coffee, thick, Turkish and warming but I enjoyed that and the views which at last I was able to see through new and clear double glazed windows. A warning however…avoid the toilet!
For a few kilometres the line passes through Bosnia and eventually makes its way to the frontier with Montenegro where once again passports are checked and baggage looked at rather than examined. By now it was almost dark; it had stopped snowing but we could see from the windows the long snaking line of stationary trucks hassling their way through the bureaucracy of Balkan customs formalities just across the river. At this point the elderly lady in my compartment suddenly jumped up from her seat and went into the corridor where she opened the window and lit up a cigarette, as did others to my surprise. I can only surmise that smoking on board in Serbia was banned but not in Montenegro!
Next some local rogue came round selling ‘duty free pivo’ (beer to you and me) brewed in Hamburg he said and only 400 dinars for three cans: anyway I was pleased to be rid of the remainder of my Serbian money, and the beer wasn’t too bad. The rest of the journey to Bar on the Adriatic coast is scenically the more interesting part of the journey and best done in daylight in the reverse direction; for me however there were no longer any views but I was aware of crossing the Mala Rijeka bridge which when it was built was the highest railway viaduct in the world just 20 km before where I was going to leave this train. And so I disembarked at 7pm in Podgorica as this was to be the starting point of the next part of my journey through Albania and into northern Greece – but that’s another story!