Bye Bye Balkans

Wednesday & Thursday 22 & 23 Jan 2020 The trip from Podgorica certainly lived up to its advance billing. It starts climbing almost immediately following a steep sided valley with views of the river and the road a long way below. There are also glimpses of a new motorway being constructed (when it isn’t passing through a tunnel). To start with there was only a little snow to be seen on the highest peaks but, as we moved further from the coast and as we climbed higher, the coverage increased to several inches.

We were surprised at the number of passengers boarding the train in Podgorica but almost all of them alighted at the last station in Montenegro, Bijelo Polje, leaving a few “hardy souls” to endure the boredom of the border crossing. (The hour+ long waiting for the border police to check everyone’s passports and identity cards in this part of the world certainly makes you appreciate the benefits of the Schengen area.)

Back in Serbia the train stopped more frequently than in Montenegro and, after a number of tiny stations, started to fill up again at the first major stop of Prijepolje. Soon after, darkness began to fall and the loss of a view from the window reduced the attractiveness of the journey. By the time we arrived in Belgrade (8.00 p.m.) we were looking forward to the hotel which was thankfully only a short taxi ride away. 

On Thursday morning we were up for the start of breakfast at 6 o’clock because the train for Zagreb left (so we thought) at 7.00. After a 5 minute walk to a different, closer station we were perturbed to see no trace of it on the departures board. Enquiring at the international ticket office we discovered that someone (no names, no packdrill) had misread the website – the train actually left at 10 o’clock, the earlier time being applicable from October 2020! Still, it was better to be three hours early rather than three hours late. Rather than sit on hard chairs in the station waiting room we decided to return to the hotel so that Christine could catch another couple of hours sleep and Stephen could sit on a comfy sofa with another coffee or two.

Returning to the station at the right time we were a little surprised to find an international train with only two carriages but, on reflection, these two countries (Serbia and Croatia) were fighting each other in the recent past so any contact most be positive.

The countryside was a complete contrast to yesterday – absolutely pan flat and unremarkable all the way! The train trundled its way out of Belgrade which we assumed was due to the extensive works on adjacent tracks for the high speed link to Budapest. However, this may not have been the case because after we turned away from this we started to go even slower – between 15 and 20 mph. It was painfully slow! On our phones we watched the border and the inevitable passport check creep slowly closer. We were stopped on the Serbian side for ¾ hour even though there were only about 30 people to inspect. Presumably the timetable has to allow for the extra time required when passenger numbers are higher in the high season and it did allow the Serbian locomotive to make way for a Croatian one which was either much more powerful or had a driver who was in a rush to get home! Either way the speed increased to around 80 mph which was much more satisfying. (And the Croatian passport check was much quicker/less rigorous!)

The later train meant that we arrived in Zagreb at just after 6 o’clock and so missed out on any chance of a quick look round. However, with another early start (definite this time – Christine has checked on the Deutsche Bahn website!) we were glad that the hotel was just across the road from the station.

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