Sunday – Tuesday 19 – 21 Jan 2020 A train ride to Montenegro and the Adriatic coast was one of the diversions that we had been considering when in Istanbul. (The other was a road trip to Skopje in North Macedonia from Sofia which was eventually ruled out because the 3 hour drive each way meant that you only get a couple of hours in Skopje – a bit disappointing considering the c.£150 cost. We’ll just have to come back this way in the summer when there are trains running!)
Christine’s guru, The Man in Seat 61, reckons that the ride from Belgrade to Bar is one of the great train journeys of the world. The first two hours definitely are not but after that we hit the mountains of southern Serbia and it became extremely pretty, particularly with the snow covering as the altitude increased. We didn’t actually get to see what is supposed to be the most spectacular (the section in Montenegro) because the slow speed of the train and the faffing around at the border meant that darkness had fallen – that will have to wait for the return journey to Belgrade on Wednesday.
The route was only completed in the 1970s and has 250 tunnels and more than 400 bridges in its 300 miles length. It even crosses into Bosnia Herzegovina briefly but doesn’t stop there and at least half of that 9 km stretch is in a tunnel.
We had decided to stay in Podgorica, the capital, because it seemed a better place to base ourselves rather than Bar which we had read was rather shabby without much going for it other than the port (not exactly true as we were to find out the next day!) The hotel was right by the station and we were soon tucking into a very welcome meal (there had been no food on the train other than the few snacks we had with us).
On Monday we jumped on the train to Bar and enjoyed crossing the bridge over Lake Skadar (which is shared with Albania). After what we had read about Bar we were pleasantly surprised – the area around the station was rather shabby but things improved as we headed towards the sea and the area around the terminal for the ferry to Italy had some nice buildings including a small former royal palace and blocks of flats. The Montenegrin navy was also in port with half a dozen very small ships tied up. With the sun shining the Adriatic was a beautiful colour and the temperature was, in marked contrast to the previous few days, a comfortable 10° – at least when the icy wind from the mountains to the north stopped blowing.
Having exhausted the sights of Bar and with the delights of Podgorica calling we headed back to the capital. Compared to the other cities we have been visiting on this holiday it has a distinctly “small town” feel although we were surprised to learn that it’s population is approximately 200,000. It was not a place we had heard of before we came – except that we discovered that we had! Before the break up of Yugoslavia it was known as Titograd after the despot who lead the country for more than 40 years.
We found more to see than in Bar – an old town with a clock tower, a mosque and a cute little bridge all from the 17th century when it was part of the Ottoman Empire as well as some nicely laid out parks and squares in the newer part. We also visited the new cathedral which was completed in 2013 and were impressed. As typical in Orthodox churches the walls and ceilings were covered in religious paintings (one of which features Marx, Engels and Tito burning in Hell!) but we were particularly taken by the floor which was laid out in a tasteful pattern of marble and incorporated a mosaic of Noah’s Ark.
It was Kotor’s turn for a visit on Tuesday. Neither of us had heard of this town or the bay on which it is situated but it sounded appealing when we read the guidebook – a mini Dubrovnik seemed to be the gist. The railway network in Montenegro is very limited but Kotor has a frequent bus service from Podgorica so we were on a different mode of transport.
The ride there was spectacular – in simple terms it was up a big hill, down the other (steeper) side to the sea and follow the coast for 20 km. The mountains all around are lovely to look at but would not sustain much agriculture – and they are incredibly steep!
To start off with we walked past the old walled town along the sea front. The Bay of Kotor has a very narrow mouth from the Adriatic but then opens out to a large sheltered expanse of water surrounded by sheer cliffs with a narrow step of habitable land around the water’s edge. In the warm (it was low to mid teens °C!) January sunshine it looked absolutely stunning. The water was clear, had hardly a ripple and reflected the blue sky above. We can imagine that in the height of summer it is rammed with tourists but today it was calm and peaceful. We can certainly imagine spending a week here in, say, March or October.
We stopped for lunch at one of the many (mostly open, even in January) cafes beside the sea and had a glorious time taking in the views.
After that it was time to explore the town itself and that too was very impressive. The narrow cobbled streets and old buildings were very atmospheric and not spoiled by hordes of tourists sweating in the heat of the summer or pushy shopkeepers intent on extracting every last Euro out of them. (Did we tell you that they use the Euro here unofficially? Who knew?)
Tomorrow we are heading back to Belgrade to continue our journey westwards and going that the weather is clear enough for us to enjoy the views from the train promised by The Man in Seat 61.