May 2016, Serbia to Montenegro
“Are you looking for something specific?” the big, craggy man sitting next to me wanted to know, having listened to my camera schnicking away since he got in from one of the small towns near the border.
“No,” I responded. “Just the scenery. It’s beautiful outside.”
“It’s beautiful to you because you’ve never seen it before,” he said, waving a hand at the vista rushing by. “But I see it all the time!”
Two weekends ago, Flemming and I took a very long train ride from Belgrade (Serbia) to the port town of Bar in Montenegro, and back again.
The Belgrade to Bar railway makes it to The Guardian’s list of 10 spectacular rail journeys … that you’ve probably never heard of, Business Insider’s 10 spectacular rail journeys to take in your lifetime, among many others.
There was a bounty of green most of the way through. Serbian and Montenegrin mountains in spring are astonishingly verdant, and the Montenegrin portion of the ride upped the ante on dramatic mountain-scapes. It was an epic 12 hours there, and another 12 back to Belgrade two days later. An article I read about this journey warns that the train slows enough in places, that it is likely to be overtaken by ambling sheep. This happened; the slowing, not the sheep, sadly. You can’t be in a hurry. But with 200-and-something bridges (including the fabulous Mala Rijeka viaduct) and over 400 tunnels threading through 476km of flatlands, mountains and sea, why would you be?
I found the train itself very comfortable throughout the journey. It was old, but from all appearances, reasonably maintained and clean. Seats were broad, comfortable and adjustable. Half of the passengers in our car were smoking out the window in the corridor at any given moment, as smoking is prohibited in the compartments, but kept the windows open so it wasn’t too smoke-clogged. The toilets were another matter altogether, so there wasn’t a lot of drinking going on!
There was a perpetual flow of people in and out of our compartment who sometimes chatted with us, other times about us, and others who didn’t speak a common language so either stared at or ignored us – A three generation family with grandparents cooing at their granddaughter, a woman and her son (we think) who didn’t stop talking for the entire 7 hours they were on board, a big group of school kids who were returning to Belgrade from what looked like a weekend sports meet. A young man got in at one of the towns before the border, shared his chocolate with us, and chatted happily away, despite knowing two words of English, and Flemming and I only one of Serbian (rakija). He still managed to get across to us how far up the track the Montenegro border was, and that we were to stay on the train as Montenegro border police would come on board to check our passports, like Serbian border control did.
While waiting in our compartment the border town of Bijelo Polje to get our passports checked, a vendor came selling selling beer, wine and soda. The group of British travelers in the next compartment, who got on the train 10 hours ago in Belgrade with us, erupted in cheers. “Wine!” “Do you have any pino?” “What about some chardonnay? Oh I’d better get two.”
Montenegrin border officials reached our compartment, cleared everyone, then got to my passport and frowned.
“Where is your visa?” asked one officer.
“I don’t have one,” I said, alarmed. I’d checked the visa policy some weeks ago, which said 90 days, visa free. Crap, did they change it recently?
More frowns, and unhappy beeps emitting from his handheld swipey-machine thing, so another officer was beckoned over.
“…….. Singapore……. ah!” Beep, tap, stamp. They hadn’t changed their tourist visa policy after all. I guess there aren’t many red and gold passports coming through this particular point of entry.
“You are from Singapore?” the big man wanted to know afterwards.
“I was in Singapore recently,” he said. “I am there three or four times a year.”
As it turned out, he’s a seaman with a major shipping company, and calls into Singapore frequently.
“I’m sorry for this,” the big man apologized, when Flemming reorganized himself to accommodate the old lady travelling with him, as she tried to ease her back. “I will make it up to you if I see you in Singapore!”