I guess people may be getting a little sick of my train stories by now. But bear with me, because this one was spectacular.
The train was as expected – very old, smelling of cigarettes, creaky and rattly and with loos best avoided. The best way to travel on Balkan trains is constipated and I am cutting out all vegetables for the duration.
Again, we were lucky enough to get a compartment of 6 to ourselves, but this time I allowed Lauren to sleep on the middle bunk rather than the bottom one she had been allocated. This was a compromise, as she wanted to be on the top. Of course I still spent half the night worried she’d fall off, and jerking awake as soon as she muttered something in her sleep (she does mutter!) or the train braked particularly hard.
Needless to say she slept wonderfully.
But the whole point of this journey on the ‘Balkan Express’ (ha ha) was because a number of people had said that it had spectacular scenery. We weren’t disappointed. Even Lauren put down her tablet and gazed in awe at the views.
The first part of the journey was across south west Serbia, overnight in the dark. I woke at dawn to views of spectacular hills, soon followed by the evocative sound of bells ringing out from a tiny church as the mist rolled up the valley.
Just before the border, a guy I will never forgive came down the carriage offering coffee. I eagerly requested a black coffee (he was offering cappuccinos too but I thought that might be a step too far) and he said he’d be back in a few minutes and that it would be a euro. He never returned, and that hopeful 1 euro coin sat on the table waiting for him the whole way to the coast.
Once we crossed into Montenegro, the scenery just got better and better, travelling really high up around and through the mountains (the route has 435 bridges and 254 tunnels).
We then descended fairly steeply to the capital Podgorica (which looked tiny) before passing the stunning Lake Skadar and reaching the coast.
Suddenly we were travelling alongside beach resorts and shops selling inflatable toys, which somehow felt slightly unreal after a morning of stunning views mainly devoid of human impact.
I had high hopes for Belgrade, but they weren’t wholly fulfilled if I’m honest. We had a pleasant enough time, and the old town is lovely. We certainly ate well, no one was unfriendly, and yes the city has a ‘buzz’ but after 3 days we were happy to move on.
There is so much to Belgrade/Serbian/Yugoslav/Balkan history that simply cannot be comprehended in a few days, and of course I remember the Milosevic regime and its role in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, so I found myself looking at people old enough and wondering whether they had been supporters or not. It’s an uneasy feeling, a little like being in Rwanda. And totally unfair of course. Many, Serbians and ethnic Serbs were actively against the activities of the Serb nationalists in Bosnia and elsewhere, and many rose up against Milosevic, but I simply feel I don’t know enough to understand. And that made me uneasy as Belgrade feels like the sort of place you should have a better handle on rather than just swanning around taking pictures and enjoying the pretty buildings.
Having said that, there is definitely a feeling that Belgradians (?) are doing just that, forging ahead in turning the city into a buzzing party city and leaving their miserable recent history behind.
We spent our first day pretty wrecked from the train journey, so after wandering around trying to get breakfast (i.e. trying to find somewhere serving both coffee and bread/pastries rather than beer or meat-dominated meals) and eventually settling on pain au chocolat from a bakery and take away coffee, we holed up in our accommodation (a double bed in the first ‘pod’ hostel in Serbia, where there’s a dorm but each bed has its own wooden walls so some privacy) watching strictly come dancing. What can I say, modern technology allows us to watch rubbish anywhere, and Lauren loves Craig and copying the dances. Later we did some grocery shopping, had a picnic dinner and a very early night.
Next day we explored the centre. Belgrade has a beautiful historic centre, and a lively main street of shops and restaurants and bars. It’s not become too gentrified for the old men who congregate at cafes to smoke and drink coffee, or for that matter the younger men drinking beer in the morning. And despite the glitz, I’ve never seen so many tracksuits worn in a non-ironic way.
It really is a mixture – beautiful old buildings, elaborate churches, communist-era blocks of concrete, and swish modern ‘waterfront developments’. Almost all the buskers were playing classical music, to great appreciation. There were lots of bookshops, with lots of customers. People were efficient and intervened if you were clearly lost (like the kind lady on the bus who made sure we got off at the right place) but didn’t go over the top to interact. There were fast food and pastry shops everywhere, and it felt quite Russian in some places – especially the stuffy and slightly spooky subways under roads, lined with shops selling tat.
The fort is at one end of the main street, and is surrounded by a large park. The fort is in an impressive location, overlooking the confluence of the two rivers (Danube and Sava) and we spent a pleasant morning wandering around enjoying the view. Before we got there we were pleasantly side-tracked by an exhibition of meteorites from around the world. Cue an unexpected lesson on meteorites, aided by google. There is also a military museum at the fort, which I ruled out on the grounds I wasn’t in the mood to admire humans’ ingenuity at coming up with new ways of killing each other. We had a very late lunch at a swish place that served a wonderful chicken and halloumi roast vegetable salad for me and gnocchi and chicken in pesto for Lauren. Lauren had a ‘dessert’ of grilled sweetcorn as we wandered the backstreets.
We popped into the tourist information office as I’d seen advertised a classical music concert of the Belgrade philharmonic orchestra. I’d found information online but it was in Serbian. The tourist office didn’t have internet and hadn’t heard of it and asked us to come back the next day. I pointed out this would be after the concert and was met with shrugs. I later found out it was sold out, which means we wouldn’t have got tickets anyway – but it also shows many people outside of the tourist information had indeed heard of it.
In the evening, we had (yet another) picnic dinner in the lounge of the hostel, where a strange assortment of individuals had assembled to watch a football game between Belgrade Red Stars and Koln. There was an emaciated Serbian guy who kept muttering to himself, an overweight individual of indeterminate gender who didn’t even watch the game until there was a goal, at which point he/she jumped up, punched the air, then went back to staring into space, the young cool Serbian guy who was running the reception desk, a rather bewildered Chinese guy in his 20’s, myself, Lauren and Gina the cat. It wasn’t a gripping game, but after getting into a sort of conversation about it with the mutterer, I felt somewhat obliged to stay to the end. Lauren had more sense and wandered off with Gina. Luckily, the Red Stars won 1-0 and everyone left happy.
Day three we headed for the Ada Ciganlija, a bizarre park on a peninsular in the river. Actually, it used to be an island, and they turned it into a peninsular in the late 50’s. While elsewhere this might have become exclusive housing or upmarket bars and restaurants, instead it was turned into a sports/recreation area. It feels a little like ‘you will have fun here’ and the beautiful natural forests and waters are interspersed with soviet-style blocks of concrete (‘Serbian Canoe Federation’ was one, another had massive radio masts on), cycle lanes, designated picnic areas, and cafés and restaurants. Oh, and an artificial pebbly ‘beach’, deck chairs and umbrellas and all.
We hired bikes and cycled round the whole island, stopping off for lunch by the beach. Poor Lauren was stung by a wasp but managed not to make too much of a fuss despite her arm swelling up.
After returning the bikes we spent some time searching for the climbing wall, which we located on the map but it just didn’t seem to exist. We asked a few people and one gave us quite specific instructions in English, which turned out to be completely wrong, and others just shrugged, despite (or, on reflection, perhaps because of) my best efforts to mime ‘climbing wall’. I never was very good at charades.
Having given up on the climbing wall, we still had the challenge of finding our way back to the accommodation. The guy at the hostel had given us the number of the bus to get out to Ada, but getting back was another story. For some reason, we couldn’t just get the same number bus from the other side of the road. In the end, we jumped on a bus going vaguely in the right direction, and hoped it wouldn’t cross the river. Luckily it headed approximately where we wanted to go, and using google maps to track progress, we jumped off when I judged us within walking distance of the hostel.
Another picnic dinner and then I went to the room to finish packing while Lauren stayed in reception to ‘say goodbye’ to Gina the cat. As I came back, three people were huddled around her taking pictures. Oh my goodness, I freak out wondering if I’m a terrible mother for leaving her in the next room alone, what the hell were these people doing to my kid? Well, she had fallen asleep on the sofa with the cat snuggled up on her, and they looked so cute everyone apparently wanted a picture. The owner of the hostel said that Lauren had turned into one of the hostels’ attractions!
It was a nice end to our flying visit to Belgrade, and once I’d woken her up and prised Gina out of her arms, we collected our bags for the night train to Montenegro.
After the home comforts in Skopje, it was time to hit the rails again, this time getting back on the same train we’d arrived on (and I think it is actually the same train) that runs from the Greek border to Belgrade.
Lauren was excited about the prospect of a real overnight journey, I was too but tempered with anxiety about who we might share our compartment for 6 with and if I’d be happy falling asleep with strangers near my kid. Travelling with Lauren certainly brings out the mother bear in me. I nearly decked someone who jostled Lauren on the metro in Athens.
We got to the station way ahead of schedule, and the train, against all predictions, was pretty much on time. There was the usual moment of panic as we boarded – where’s our carriage, I can’t see any numbers, just get on anywhere, what if it goes after one of us gets on and the other is still struggling with the bags, is it better for Lauren to get on first or me…. None of which is ever remotely necessary as no train, ever, has left without plenty of warning. This one certainly didn’t. In fact, it had a good three attempts at leaving.
We did our big goodbye thing to Elspeth, calling out last minute messages and invitations to visit us in Portugal, and thanks for everything etc etc … then the whistle blew, and we were off!!!
In the wrong direction, and only about 100 metres.
Then we stopped for a few minutes, still in sight of the station. I wasn’t worried. Lauren was hyper, climbing up the ladder to the top bunks, spinning around in the confined space of the carriage we still had to ourselves, opening and shutting the window, wanting to get into bed immediately.
Then, we set off again, this time (bonus!) in the right direction. Then we stopped again. Back at the platform. Suddenly there was a sharp tapping on the window, which made me jump half off the bed. It was Elspeth, who despite it being nearly 11pm, had waited to make sure the train was actually going to leave. Apparently, they were trying to attach another carriage. We had another chat for a bit, through the window and this time when the whistle blew we moved in the right direction – then stopped again after about 300m. We sat there for a good while, perhaps 20 minutes, before eventually leaving for good, and rattling through the night towards Serbia.
Once it was clear we were definitely underway, we made up our beds – much to Lauren’s annoyance we had been allocated bottom bunks – with the rather grim and hard sheets and pillow cases, which were clean but full of cigarette burns. Smoking is still huge in the Balkans, and while there are ‘No Smoking’ signs everywhere, they are routinely ignored.
Despite all her excitement, Lauren fell asleep within minutes of getting into bed. Or maybe she passed out from the fumes after her trip to the toilet – let’s just say, the train didn’t have water.
I struggled to get comfortable and by the time I was dozing off we had reached the border with Serbia. This involved two sets of border police boarding the train and working their way methodically along it, shining torches into the compartments and taking away passports for inspection. They were generally polite and kind enough to not wake Lauren, who slept through the whole thing, including a torch shone directly on her face to check her identity.
The train creaked and jolted its way north, stopping occasionally for no apparent reason; people joined the train at various places, shouting down the corridors, but no one disturbed us in our compartment and we made it to Belgrade about an hour behind schedule, Lauren well rested and excited to be in yet another country, and me desperate for some coffee and a shower.