The wagons from Tito’s time are just the beginning. By train through the countries of the former Yugoslavia

My journey starts with a comfortable journey in an Austrian night train from Vienna. However, we arrived in Villach two hours late. Luckily the train that would take me to Zagreb was also late. However, this was just a taste of what awaited me in the Balkans.

I wondered if it was possible that the railroad would run smoothly in this part of the world. After all, it was here that in the 90s there was a civil war, the memory of which still lives. But doubts and unexpected changes of plans were fixed points on my journey. The temptation proved stronger. One of the most spectacular railway lines in Europe runs through the former Yugoslavia: Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro. Part of the route was closed so it had to be done by bus, but it was still worth it.

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Across the Austro-Slovenian border, the train travels through idyllic hilly landscapes, but the treetops of mixed forests alternate with chimneys of dilapidated industrial wastelands. Memories of history lessons come back. Slovenia was the industrial heart of socialist Yugoslavia. Even now, with a gross domestic product of 25,000 holes. per capita it is the most economically strong country of the countries of the former Yugoslavia. This is reflected in elegant single-family homes and immaculate facades.

With their stucco facades, the streets around Zagreb Central Station are reminiscent of the old Habsburg charm of metropolises such as Prague and Budapest. But Zagreb does not resemble the capital of the Czech Republic or Hungary. It is more damaged, which only adds to its charm in good weather. On rainy days it is so gloomy there that it was tempting to travel on to the sunny Adriatic coast.

Until December 2016, there was a direct connection from Zagreb to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The 496 km long route was served by cars from the time of Tito (1953-1980). Afterwards, the Bosnian railway company replaced the carriages with comfortable Talgo trainsets.

Zagreb Train Station – Leonid Andronov / Getty Images

However, it was not the earthquake in April this year (5.7 on the Richter scale) that destroyed the rail link, but a policy that could be even more catastrophic in the region than a natural disaster. The Bosnian authorities reportedly did not want the cost of the new trains produced in Spain and asked Croatia to contribute. The result was the split of Bosnian Croat railway companies. “What can you do?” – noticed the lady at the ticket office at Zagreb station, who told me this story.

For those train travelers who don’t want to miss a stop in Sarajevo, the former cultural capital of Yugoslavia, the answer to the question is: by train to Split on the Croatian coast, then change to a bus to Mostar. From here you can continue your journey by train.

Since it is worth stopping for a few days in both Split and Mostar, transfers are always worth it. However, the charm of these two cities is completely different. Split is a bustling port city. Despite the wave of tourists, the buzz of the locals still dominates the old town with its street markets, winding cobbled streets and the late Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace, part of which has been preserved. It is a historic city that has not yet been converted into an open-air museum like Dubrovnik.

DivideSplit – ALAMY LIMITED / Agencja BE&W

Mostar is also an interesting place. You can see that the authorities have much less money to keep the streets and facades in good condition. More than 25 years after the Bosnian War, you can still find bullet holes in the facades of houses and bombed-out war ruins.

Irfan Colaković survived the civil war in the 1990s. He now runs a museum on the east bank of the Neretva with artifacts and images from the conflict. There you can see how the Old Bridge, the hallmark of Mostar, was destroyed by Croatian artillery.

After the war, the bridge was rebuilt. Since 2005 it has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since then, tourists have been flocking to the city more and more, which has brought in residents like Colaković. However, he is not satisfied.

MostarMostar – ALAMY LIMITED / Agencja BE&W

He considers the worst condition of the main street, named after Tito, just meters from the museum. Burnt-out walls and faded facades give the impression that the war ended only a few weeks ago. “My city has been destroyed. Nobody has done anything about it, neither the aggressors nor the EU, which abandoned us then.” – underlined.

By “aggressors”, Colaković refers to the Serbs who attacked the city from the east in 1992, and the Croats who attacked from the west a year later. Colakovic belongs to the Bosnian ethnic group, the Muslim Bosniaks, and remembers well how at the beginning of the war, at the age of 11, he stole his uncle’s weapon and angrily fired at the Serbian barracks.

In a strange way, the landscape reflects the multi-ethnic Bosnian state. The train from Mostar to Sarajevo passes through the rock walls that Karl May must have imagined in “In the gorges of the Balkans”: vertical, often overhanging rock formations and rock layers, sometimes clamped together, sometimes harmoniously intertwined, then again fan-shaped parallel and contactless, or brutally colliding with each other.

For passengers, this means a journey with unforgettable views. There is an abundance of window seats anyway, because despite the modern Talgo carriages and low prices that rival any bus operator, hardly anyone here travels by train. In Sarajevo, where the final stop is, a maximum of twelve passengers disembark from the seven carriages.

Currently, the entire Sarajevo train station is serviced for only one connection to Mostar. Nevertheless, the spirit of optimism was still strong with the purchase of the Talgo trains a few years ago. In 2009, even the historic rail link with Belgrade was temporarily reopened.

SarajevoSarajevo – ALAMY LIMITED / Agencja BE&W

The reason for the closure of the line after only a few months was the same as for the suspension of rail connections with Croatia in 2016, that is, the inability of the various rail operators and governments to agree on compromises. The failure of the railways points to the fundamental problem of the former Yugoslav states.

Ethnic conflicts have also left their mark on the demographic composition. As a result of the war, Mostar became a divided city – Croats lived in the west and Bosniaks in the east. The center of Sarajevo, which was under siege for almost four years during the war, is today almost exclusively Bosnians. The buildings still bear witness to the multicultural past: the Ottoman bazaar next to the plastered facades of the Habsburgs, two cathedrals by the mosque, a Roman Catholic, an Orthodox and a synagogue a stone’s throw away.

Driving a minibus through the Bosnian countryside towards Belgrade is strenuous. Neat Serbian villages with church towers border Muslim settlements with minarets that often seem abandoned. You see burnt down, empty houses time and time again. Serbian nationalism is prevalent in Republika Srpska, which is part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The return of the Bosniaks expelled during the war is still made difficult or completely impossible.

The bus crosses the border with Serbia. Unlike Sarajevo, where the devastation of the war is still clearly visible – partly as a monument, partly for lack of money, partly for tourist reasons – at least in the center of Belgrade, people have chosen to leave the past behind. We have an old town there, with great buildings after the Austro-Hungarian model. Some corners are hard to distinguish from Vienna.

Kneza Mihaila Street in BelgradeKneza Mihaila Street in Belgrade – ALAMY LIMITED / BE&W Agency

But the appearance of the Central European capital is deceiving, despite all the western brands and neon signs. Unlike Bosnia, Serbia is already an official candidate for the EU. But the prospect of being part of the community in the distant future is much less attractive even for younger Serbs than, for example, young people from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The fear of losing one’s identity is evident in Serbia, as is the nationalism and unwillingness to compromise with its neighbours.

The railway reservation system also prefers to go its own way. Instead of using the internet, passengers in Serbia still need to buy their tickets directly at the box office – preferably a few days in advance to make sure seats are still available. You will also get a stamp on the ticket in the old Yugoslav way. Nevertheless, the night train from Belgrade to Bar on the Montenegrin coast, with a bed in a 6-person compartment, leaves at 21:00 sharp.

If you are afraid of heights, do not choose the Belgrade-Bar route. The darkness protects us from dizzying views, but in daylight you can feel sick looking through the gorges.

At seven in the morning, half an hour late, the carriages (which, judging by the inscriptions, must have driven in the distant past in German-speaking countries) rattle over the Mala-Rijeka viaduct. The 198 meter high bridge is to this day the highest railway bridge in Europe and when it was inaugurated in 1976 it was the highest in the world.

Railway bridge Mala-Rijeka Mala-Rijeka Railway Bridge – ALAMY LIMITED / Agencja BE&W

In old carriages, the most attractive are windows that can be closed. So beauty can be admired with the head exposed to the wind, as before. The ravines along which the railway meanders are up to a thousand meters deep. meters, and in the most spectacular places the slope of the tracks is as much as 24%.

The Belgrade-Bar line is not without dangers: damaged bridges, broken brakes, landslides, derailments – the causes of possible railway accidents are numerous. And almost everything has already happened.

After crossing the most exposed parts of the Dinaric Mountains, another view rewards brave passengers: Emerald Lake of Scutari with the fortress Lesendro, which was built in the 18th century under the Montenegrin Prince-Bishop Petar II to protect against Ottoman offensives. The train passes so close and slow that you can almost touch the old walls through the open window.

The author of the article on the Belgrade-Bar . routeThe author of the article on the Belgrade-Bar route – Teseo La Marca / Die Welt

Finally, the train arrives at the terminus in Bar, a port city characterized by factories, quays and new apartment buildings. The old town was destroyed by an earthquake in 1979 and abandoned. Currently only a part has been rebuilt. The train is mainly alighted by people in suits with laptop bags and locals who visited Serbia for a family visit.

But there are also a few backpackers among the arrivals. Good sign. So there are still adventurers who won’t let the old carriages, worn tracks and old-fashioned ticket windows stop them from making one of the most unforgettable train journeys in Europe.

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