Way back last winter when we were planning our travels, John discovered that there is a train that runs from Montenegro, through the majestic mountains of Montenegro and Serbia, up to Belgrade. The rail line was one of Tito’s pet projects when he was president-for-life of Yugoslavia, and the story is that, back in Tito’s days of his presidency, he used to take his pals on the train trip as a way to show off the beauty of his country. As someone who loves a good train trip, and who is interested in the train’s history, John was hooked. We made sure that we worked this train ride into our itinerary. This decision had the added bonus of positioning us in Belgrade, which is a good spot for finding a flight to Athens, the next point in our travels.
The train ride began in Bar, Montenegro, a couple of hours from Kotor. To get to Bar, we took the bus, riding through the beach resort town of Budva and the small peninsula of Sveti Stefan, an exclusive resort that was popular with movie stars and rock stars in the 1960s and 1970s.
Bar itself is definitely not a tourist destination. It has a small coastal area, an unimpressive beach, an old town that was mostly destroyed by an earthquake in 1979, and the distinction of being the home of what is believed to be the world’s oldest olive tree, which is thought to be around 2,000 years old. But we were only there to spend the night and catch a 9:00 a.m. train the next day. Lucky for us, the bus station and train station were only a couple of blocks apart and we had rented a cozy and comfortable apartment that is directly across the street from the train station. The cafes near our place were small shacks with a few tables outside, mostly populated with older men drinking coffee or beer. We found what was, possibly, the only real restaurant nearby, and we ate both lunch and supper there. The food was good, although it seemed clear that the place was on the verge of closing for the season, since they had run out of more than half of the things we tried to order from the menu.
The morning of our train ride, we were up bright and early, and we made our way easily across the street for the train, which arrived on time. As we were settling in, a lady who was either Serbian or Montenegran, stopped by our seats and, in her limited English told us, “There is train and then you stop and there is bus.” We pressed her for more details but nothing she said made much more sense. She then told us, “It is ok, we are organized.” We learned what she meant much later in the trip.
The train trip itself was beautiful, although the ride is quite long, with many stops and slow stretches. It was no surprise to us that the train cars were Cold War era and pretty worn. In addition to that, there is no dining car so we had to rely on snacks we had brought of peanuts, crackers, and cheese over the course of a long day.
The ride has its strong points, as the scenery in that part of the world really is remarkably beautiful with its craggy mountains and deep canyons. Eventually, however, as the lady on the train had predicted, when we got close to Belgrade, we were told that the train would stop and we would ride a bus into town the rest of the way. We boarded the bus at around 8:00 p.m. and the bus ride was about an hour, after which there was a scramble for a taxi. We finally arrived at our rental apartment at around 10:00 that night. It had been a 13-hour day of travel. We were tired and ready to eat something after subsisting on peanuts and crackers all day. We walked around in our new neighborhood and found a little pizzeria right around the corner. It was empty, and didn’t look promising, yet the pizza was the best we’ve has since we left Italy, and it only cost €6.50 for the pizza and two beers. What a bargain!
We had been in Belgrade in April, near the beginning of our travels, just for a one-day stop on our Danube cruise of the Balkans. Back then we had enjoyed a walking tour of the fortress area near the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, along with a visit to St. Sava Cathedral, which is a little similar to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in its size and its ongoing construction, continuing after more than one hundred years. On that day trip, John toured the Nikola Tesla museum and I took a bike ride with some friends we made on the cruise. It was a fun day, but we could tell that there is so much to see and do in Belgrade, so we were delighted to be back, but a little sorry we only had one day.
On the morning of our one day in town, as we were in our apartment making plans for the day, the power in the apartment went out. This meant no internet service. No problem, we thought, and we walked out into the beautiful September morning in search of food and coffee. We walked past many ‘caffe bars’ which are popular in this part of the world. These establishments keep long hours and serve alcohol, coffee, and soft drinks — but no food. We also went past a number of bakeries with pastries and bread, but no coffee and nowhere to sit. We resigned ourselves to pastries on a park bench and made selections from a little pastry shop, and then managed to annoy the lady at the counter when we tried to pay with Euros. We had come in so late at night, we hadn’t cashed out any Dinar. Nothing was going right it seemed. And then were saw it: the sign for the Golden Arches. McDonald’s would have breakfast! I would love to say that this was the first time we had resorted to going to McDonald’s during our time in abroad, but it wasn’t; it was the second time. Our first McDonald’s trip in Europe was in Llubljana at the train station where there were so many sleeping backpackers draped all over the Mickey D’s furniture that I wondered aloud whether the place was an eatery or a hostel.
We walked the three hundred meters to McDonald’s and looked at the menu above the counter. No breakfast. We asked the lady behind the counter – “Egg McMuffin?” – she smiled brightly, but told us that, no, they do not serve breakfast. Oh, well. We had filet of fish sandwiches and coffee instead. With our stomachs full and our bodies caffeinated, we stopped at the nearby St. Mark’s Church, a relatively new Serbian Orthodox Church that was just competed in 1940. The outside is imposing and majestic, but the inside is what really dazzles. The iconostatis, which is a screen bearing icons, separating the sanctuary from the nave, was made up of some of the most exquisite mosaics we’ve seen. In our travels, we have visited more Eastern Orthodox churches than we can count, and this one definitely stands out.
Next, we headed off to find Tram #2 which, from many accounts, is great for a do-it-yourself, circular sightseeing tour around town. We found the nearest stop for Tram #2, only to find that the entire street, tram tracks and all, is under serious reconstruction. So much for our circular sightseeing tour.
It wasn’t even noon yet and, so far we had 1.) lost power in our apartment 2.) searched for breakfast and ended up with a fish sandwich at McDonald’s and 3.) missed out on the celebrated Tram #2 circular tour. What to do? We ended up in our default mode, doing what we love doing best in cities anyway: we wandered the town. It was refreshing to be in a place with residents going about their daily business after so many consecutive visits to cities dominated by tourists. Belgrade has the added bonus of being very interesting from an architectural perspective, with buildings dating back to the Ottoman rule, others in the Belle Epoque style of the 19th century, and still others dating back to the more recent Cold War era. Along the way, we saw the historic Princess Llubjica’s palace, which spans the Ottoman and Belle Epoque, and the lovely St. Michael’s Cathedral.
We finished the day with a visit to the Historical Museum of Serbia. The museum is currently hosting two exhibits on very different topics: one on Serbian war heroes of World War I and another on the former Yugoslavian Princess Elizabeth. Princess Elizabeth was only five years old when her parents, Prince Paul and Princess Olga, were removed from the throne during World War II – they were the last monarchs to reign in Serbia. Princess Elizabeth grew up and became a socialite in the United States, later returning to Serbia after the Balkan wars; she is now 83 years old. Her daughter, actress Catherine Oxenberg, was part of a different dynasty, that is, the 1980s nighttime soap, Dynasty.
The charms of Belgrade
In the end, the train trip may not have risen to the level of our expectations, but we highly recommend Belgrade for its beautiful buildings, gracious people, relaxed ambience, and its affordability. Just don’t count on finding breakfast.