LA Times Travel to Serbia part 2
I wanted to see the Serbian countryside, all but off the tourist map since the recent Balkan wars, and to follow the wild gorge of the Tara River into Montenegro. My trip coincided with the potentially explosive May 21 election deciding whether Montenegrins would vote for independence from Serbia. (They did.)
Everyone warned me that it would be an uncomfortable, dirty, crowded ride, that trains on the Belgrade-Bar line are usually late and that the state-run railway system hasn't been improved since the 19th century. Even the Serbian Railways website issued warnings about the dilapidated state of its equipment and tracks.
Many Serbs travel to the sunny coast by plane or bus, a Belgrade travel agent told me. He politely and efficiently arranged the two-day trip, adding a night's layover at Zlatibor in the Dinaric Alps, but clearly thought I was crazy.
In Belgrade before the trip, I visited the city's small Railway Museum on Sava Square near the main train station. The museum is small and hardly state of the art, but it has old equipment, photos and maps of interest to train buffs, and descriptive panels in English as well as Serbian. From these I learned that trouble has dogged the country's trains.
The French company engaged to build a link for the Orient Express from Belgrade to Istanbul, Turkey, in 1880 went bankrupt, delaying the project 15 months. Unlike other European countries, Serbia invested little in its train system, ultimately laying only about 2,000 miles of tracks. Both world wars interrupted service and damaged railway infrastructure, as did NATO bombings in the 1990s.
But there were other, positive signs. The Belgrade train station turned out to be a handsome yellow Baroque edifice built in 1884, then rebuilt after it was demolished in the first and second world wars. Outside, travelers can admire the vintage locomotive that pulled the "Blue Train," used by President Josip Tito on cross-country tours. Tito's luxurious cars can be rented for special occasions, and the railway offers sightseeing excursions on lines such as the "Sargan Eight," which passes through 20 tunnels and over 10 bridges in about eight miles near the country's mountainous southwestern border.
When I looked on the Internet for reports about the Belgrade-Bar line, I found one from the Associated Press, dated Feb. 1 and headlined, "Parts of Wrecked Train Are Recovered for Montenegro's Investigation Into Deadly Accident." That was as far as I read, because by that point, my wheels were on the track. *
THE train I boarded for the three-hour first leg of my journey from Belgrade to Zlatibor looked ready for the scrap heap. It had bathrooms with toilet holes through which you could see the track, windows that opened instead of an air-conditioning system and well-worn compartments that seated six.
I was traveling first class (for about $10 one way from Belgrade to Bar), but I couldn't find a seat corresponding to my ticket. So I simply chose a spot, which is what passengers do even if they don't have reservations. At first, the scenery was flat and monotonous, though I couldn't see much because the window was filthy. When we got into the mountains around the town of Uzice, the site of the country's first modern hydroelectric plant, I left the compartment and stood at an open window in the passageway so I could see out. Others joined me there to smoke.
When the train pulled into Branesci, the stop for Zlatibor, I found Dragan Savicic, the owner of the villa hotel where I had a room for the night, waiting for me. He and his friend Marko Lukovic are about 7 feet tall, former professional basketball players. They took me by car to the Vila Bajka in Zlatibor, a pretty lakeside mountain town where Serbs ski in January and February and rusticate in July and August. When we got there, we had coffee on the terrace, which Dragan and Marko said was how they generally spent their time the rest of the year.
Then they let me choose movies from their extensive DVD collection and showed me to my neat third-floor apartment, which had a kitchenette. Once I settled in, I walked back down the road to the town center, where I found cafes, nightclubs, shops and a folk craft market.
It rained that night, so I cooked spaghetti with bottled Bolognese sauce in my kitchenette before curling up to watch Michael Caine in the 1964 movie "Zulu." The next morning, I took another long walk, into the hills, where I saw women collecting dandelions and children riding ponies. But I had a train to catch around 1 p.m.
The scenery improved on the second leg of the trip, which lasted about seven hours. The train passed through the town of Prijepolje, birthplace of Vlade Divac, who played for the Lakers, then followed the Lim River to the border, which the train crossed without stopping for passport inspection. Near Mojkovac, the train skirted the western border of Biogradska Gora National Park, with its alpine lakes and snow-capped peaks, then wound along the steep side of the Tara River gorge.
There, a woman from my compartment who spoke English pointed out a pile of wrecked train cars from the Jan. 23 accident. I read the rest of the AP story only after I reached Bar that night. The wreck killed 46 people and is thought to have been caused by brake failure. It seems doubtful I'll ever ride that train again. But I'm glad I did it once, because how else would I have met two tall Serbian basketball players and seen "Zulu" in Zlatibor? *
Jolly Travel, Hotel Hyatt Regency, 5 Milentija Popovica, 11000 Belgrade, Serbia; 011-381-11-3011-237, can arrange trips on the Belgrade-Bar line.
Train tickets are also sold at the Belgrade Railway Station, about a 15-minute taxi ride southwest of Republic Square. For Serbian railway system information, see http://www.yurail.co.yu .
The Railway Museum is nearby at 6 Nemanjina; http://www.yurail.co.yu/eng/kultura/muzej.htm . 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays by appointment.