Interesting places to stop on the most scenic rail trip in the Balkans

As its name would suggest, the Belgrade to Bar railway links the Serbian capital with Montenegro’s largest port city. Covering a distance of 476km, the train crosses three countries (*) and passes through some of the finest scenery in the Balkans.

(*) As well as Serbia and Macedonia, the track passes through 6km of Bosnian territory near the town of Strpci, although the train doesn’t actually stop there. 

Bar to Belgrade train (Balkan Express) Montenegro-14

There are two trains in each direction. The Tara makes the journey in daylight hours, while the Lovcen is a sleeper service and travels overnight.

The train line was built in stages, between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s, when all of the territories through which it passes were united and part of Yugoslavia. After the initial construction, the journey time between Belgrade and Bar was in the region of seven hours but due to a lack of upgrading on the track, which in turn has led to speed restrictions, the average time to travel between the two cities is now more like eleven hours (if you’re lucky!).

I don’t mind spending eleven hours on a train. In fact, I prefer it to spending eleven hours on a plane or a bus any day of the week but, and this is the reason why I suggest breaking the journey at least once, as well as crossing 435 bridges the train passes through 254 tunnels during its entire journey. According to Wikipedia, the total length of the tunnel on the route adds up to 115km (114,435m to be exact), meaning almost a quarter of the journey is spent without a view.

Bar to Belgrade train (Balkan Express) Montenegro-12

That’s not fun on a scenic trip like this, in my opinion. The view is constantly being interrupted as the train travels through yet another tunnel and taking decent photos is a challenge, to say the least (as ours will testify). What’s more, the train is fairly basic – there is no dining car, no electric sockets for charging devices and the toilets leave a lot to be desired.

Undertaking the journey in stages, on the other hand, is a great way of doing it and means there’s less chance of boredom kicking in. Admittedly, there will be more hanging around at stations (the train often runs late) and there is more planning involved but breaking up long days of travel always offers something new and interesting (even if is just the novelty of being the only traveller in town) and the places I am suggesting below are worthy of at least one overnight, if not more.

We took the train from Bar to Belgrade so I’m going to detail the places in which we broke the journey in that order.

Bar, Montenegro

To begin with, don’t miss out on spending a bit of time in Bar itself. The city is a transport hub for Montenegro’s length of the Adriatic coast and it’s tempting to leave as soon as you arrive in order to head to more well-known places such as Kotor or Ulcinj, but Stari Bar (Old Bar) way up in the hills behind the new city is definitely worth visiting. It’s a popular spot for package tour groups but arrive early (as we did) or late in the day and you will avoid the bulk of the crowds and be able to explore in relative peace. There are hourly buses from the city centre to Stari Bar.

We also enjoyed wandering around the city centre and strolling along the beachfront promenade, where we found a surprising number of Socialist-era buildings including the Dom Kulture (House of Culture) and the futuristically styled Izbor Department Store. 

Bar Montenegro-1-2The marina in Bar

Stari Bar

Izbor Department Store Bar Montenegro-1Izbor Department Store

Podgorica, Montenegro

Firstly, the one-hour train ride between Bar and Podgorica is one of the most scenic sections of the entire journey. The line passes alongside and over Lake Skadar and there are wonderful views from both sides of the train. Keep in mind there are plenty of trains between Bar and Podgorica if you don’t want to take the early Tara service at 7 o’clock in the morning (and who would blame you!).

As for Podgorica itself, we used to be in the, ‘Why the bloody hell would anyone visit this city?’ camp but this was our second time in the Montenegrin capital and away from the conventional sights (such as they are) we found some interesting stuff to occupy our time.

This included plenty of street art (which Kirsty has written about in detail in a separate post), urban districts such as Blok 5, an impressive WWII memorial (the Partizan Memorial), and some excellent examples of brutalist architecture including the Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus, the coolest house of worship I’ve seen in a long while (*).

(*) We were invited inside by a resident nun, who clearly had a penchant for brutalism herself as she knew plenty about the architect and the design etc. I’ve been known to use the words nun and brutal in the same sentence in the past but not in this context!

Admittedly, most of what we discovered is what the majority would call specialist interest, but we find ourselves going down this route more and more these days. I guess after nearly a decade of constant travelling, it’s to be expected and finding the weird and unusual has helped keep the spark alive. I now refuse to go inside another church unless it is brutalist in design!

We also found some excellent places to eat and drink within the city and our opinion of a place is always favourably swayed if we can sit outside in balmy weather (we were there in July) and drink ice cold beer and chow down on yummy cevapi (mini sausages accompanied by flatbread and onion), all for under €10!

Blok 5 Podgorica Montenegro -15Blok 5

Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus Podgorica Montenegro-3

Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus in Podgorica

 

Kolasin, Montenegro

About an hour out of Podgorica, the scenery comes into its own. The train climbs and there are stunning vistas (mostly on the left-hand side of the train, going from Podgorica to Kolasin) of the surrounding mountains and the valleys below. The only thing buggering up this part of the journey is, yep you’ve guessed it, those darn tunnels that seem to be forever blocking the view. Nonetheless, this was the most enjoyable part of the journey and the train crawled across some mighty bridges including the Mala Rijeka Viaduct, the longest on the route.

Kolasin is Montenegro’s main mountain resort, bursting with skiers in winter and filled with hikers during the summer months. Oh, and I forgot, popular with spomenik-hunters at any time of the year!

We stopped in Kolasin because we wanted to see the brilliantly-designed Spomen-dom (Municipal Assembly/Town Hall), an unusual building to put it mildly which dominates the town’s main square.

The Spomen-dom in Kolasin is not a classic spomenik (Tito-er WWII memorial/monument) in the true sense of the word as it is more of a public meeting place. It was completed in 1976 and commemorates the first meeting of the National Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Montenegro and Boka. A bit of a mouthful but essentially a gathering which took place in 1943 that led to the formation of the Montenegrin government and therefore a new nation.

These days, half of the building is used as municipal offices and the other half, which houses an auditorium, is locked up and abandoned to the elements. There is a local campaign to put Kolasin’s Spomen dom on the map and it has recently been highlighted by the World Monuments Fund as a significant piece of modernist architecture in need of preservation.

We lucked out when we discovered that Dusko, the owner of the apartment we were staying in, is actively involved in the efforts to restore the town hall to its former glory – or at least prevent it from falling into complete disrepair. This meant he had a key to the abandoned part of the building and when we told him of our reason for visiting Kolasin, he promptly took us inside for a look around! Inside the auditorium, the extent of the renovation required was revealed – the roof badly needed fixing and the level of dampness was allowing moss and ferns to thrive behind the stage curtain. Props from past theatre productions lay abandoned and books and paperwork were strewn everywhere. Rows of seats remained and Dusko told us of how he remembered watching cinema screenings there as a child. For us, it was a fascinating experience.

We did a little bit of walking on the outskirts of the town but we didn’t have enough time for anything serious. The countryside surrounding Kolasin looked very enticing and, on reflection, we could have easily have spent two or three more days there.

Kolasin is the highest part of the railway and the train station is a puff-puff no-talk 2km uphill walk from the centre town! 

Spomen-dom (Kolasin Municipal Assembly) Kolasin Montenegro-9-2

Kolasin Montenegro-2Street art on Kolasin’s main drag

Uzice, Serbia

Uzice is not a looker, that’s for certain, but it was by far and away the most interesting place in which we broke the Bar – Belgrade train journey. Concrete dominates the cityscape, with the gargantuan Hotel Zlatibor overshadowing everything else around it, but if you look beyond the ugliness you’ll find a very affable city with friendly locals and enough to see and do for a day or so.

Hotel Zlatibor Uzice Serbia-3Hotel Zlatibor

The first thing you notice from the train when travelling in from a southerly direction (i.e. towards Belgrade) is Uzice’s Stari Bar (Old Town). It’s perched high on a craggy outcrop and can be reached on foot via a series of narrow streets that lead up to it from around the back of the town centre. The route isn’t always obvious but ask around if you’re not sure of the way and someone will point you in the right direction.

The main square (also concrete-dominated) is a good place to get a coffee or a beer and down by the Detinja river there is a pleasant promenade, some green space, and an area where you can swim in the river if you’ve a mind to and the weather is warm enough. There’s even some street art and an abandoned hotel to explore so we were as happy as the proverbial pigs.

Uzice Serbia-1-5

The National Museum was also a good find. The exhibits aren’t bad but it was the more than life-size statue of Marshal Tito plus the former WWII ammunition depot located deep in the mountainside behind the museum that were the highlights for us. For a small fee, the staff at the museum will turn the lights on in the ammunition factory and allow you to explore the tunnels. There is also a separate fee to enter the museum itself.

National Museum Uzice Serbia-1Marshal Tito around the back of the National Museum

The main reason to stop in Uzice, however, is to visit the Kadinjaca Memorial Complex. Situated 14km from the centre of the city, this is one of the most important and well-maintained spomeniks in the country. We had actually visited it before, as part of our Serbia road trip earlier in the year (April 2017) but on that occasion, we viewed the monument in knee-deep snow and so wanted to return to see what it looked like in more pleasant climes. It’s a beautiful spot and the memorial, which is manicured and well-kept, really is something special.

On our previous visit, we drove ourselves up the winding road that leads to the memorial but this time we relied on public transport. There is a fixed schedule for the journey from Uzice. There are quite a number of buses throughout the day and they pass Kadinjaca en route to the small town of Bajina Basta, where they turn round and come back via the same route. The staff at the bus station in Uzice can give you the timings for the buses going to Bajina Basta but they don’t know them for the return journey so it is best to ask the driver what time he expects to be coming past the memorial on his way back.

Alternatively, BalkanViator is a good place to look for online schedules (*). We took the 3.45pm bus up but our return ride never materialised for some reason so we ended up hitching back. Thumbing a ride for short distances (never tried it for longer ones) is dead easy in Serbia and the young lad who picked us up took us all the way into town even though it meant going out of his way. On the downside, he drove like a crazy person and I thought we were going to meet our Maker (or at least end up in hospital) on at least two occasions during the ride. By my reckoning, he covered the 14km distance in about 6 minutes flat. The bus takes about half an hour!

(*) Balkan Viator is a handy website as it lists bus schedules for many destinations in the Balkans but, from our experience, the information on it is not 100% reliable and it’s always best to get verification from another source, namely the local bus station if you can.

Kadinjaca Memorial Complex Uzice Serbia-21 copyKadinjaca Memorial Complex near Uzice covered in snow

Kadinjaca Memorial Complex Uzice Serbia-3And Kadinjaca Memorial Complex near Uzice in nicer climes

And one final suggestion … Uzice is only 25km from Zlaltibor, Serbia’s premier skiing and hiking region and there are plenty of buses connecting the two (45 minutes travel time). Zlatibor itself is a little on the tacky side but we like it and it’s a good place for a bit of R&R. There is also an abundance of inexpensive, good quality accommodation in the town, especially in the summer months when the demand is lower.

There is only the one daytime train between Uzice and Belgrade as listed below. If you want to arrive earlier then consider taking the bus. This part of the train journey is not as scenic as other sections, plus the bus is slightly quicker. The train and bus station are next to each other in Belgrade.

Current schedule for the daytime train (based on recommended places to break the journey)

Belgrade to Bar

Belgrade 9:10 AM (departure)

Uzice 12:55 PM (departure)

Podgorica 8:16 PM (departure)

Bar 9:16 PM (arrival)

Bar to Belgrade

Bar 7:10 AM (departure)

Podgorica 8:10 AM (departure)

Kolašin 9:30 AM (departure)

Uzice 3:32 PM (departure)

Belgrade 7:13 PM (arrival)

Up to date schedules (including all stations and the overnight service) can be found here.

Bar to Belgrade train (Balkan Express) Montenegro-3

Tips and suggestions for when taking the train between Belgrade and Bar

Take the train from Bar to Belgrade (south to north) for the best photographic opportunities (tunnels permitting!).

The best scenery is in Montenegro so try to do this section during daylight hours.

Be prepared for delays.

Try and buy tickets in advance but don’t worry about it too much if you can’t as the train is rarely full.

It is possible to buy tickets for different sections of the train at the same station if you know what date(s) you want to re-board.

In Montenegro, you get a discount of 20% if you book in advance and purchase your tickets from a train station. I’m not sure if this is the case in Serbia.

You can also buy tickets on the train itself, at no extra cost, if you need to.

You can pay extra for a seat reservation but it’s probably not worth it given that nobody else seems to bother and just sits where they fancy.

Take food and drink. There is no dining car and little opportunity to purchase anything on the platform.

Try not to get a seat in the compartment next to the toilet as the smell carries!

Even though the train is officially non-smoking, don’t expect this rule to be strictly adhered to, especially in the corridors – this is the Balkans after all!

Ensure any electric items you want to use during the journey are fully charged as there are no power sockets on the train.

There are six seats in each compartment. Try and sit near the corridor if you want to get up and take photos on a regular basis as it is easier than clambering over your fellow passengers every time you want to get up.

And most importantly, if you don’t want to get bored on the Belgrade – Bar train, break the journey at least once!


READ POSTS FEATURING THE BALKANS

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