First class single from Haslemere to Podgorica

An hour late and in pouring rain Montenegran Railways Co-Co electric loco 461-029 is about to depart Podgorica on 11 May 2023 with the southbound Lovcen service from Belgrade to Bar

After last month’s enjoyable trip from home to Split via Switzerland and Austria, it is time to head off slightly further afield this time and take an Inter-Rail journey via Stuttgart and Zagreb to the Serbian capital Belgrade, and from there head south to Montenegro on the acclaimed scenic route to Podgorica and the Adriatic Coast at Bar.

For those who may have missed the account of my Split trip, this is the second of my three planned excursions using the first class Inter-Rail pass I bought in the 50th anniversary half-price sale in May 2022. It is one that will give me a first taste of two European capitals – Belgrade and Podgorica – as well as an overnight journey on one of the newest and most scenic rail routes in Europe.

Republic Square is one of many attractive features in Belgrade city centre

The route from Belgrade to Bar only opened in 1976, is fully-electrified and along its highly scenic length, and features the highest railway viaduct in Europe (Mala Rijeka) and the 3.9 mile (6.2 km) long Sozina tunnel. I would have chosen to travel it during the day, but until the summer-dated Tara starts on 17 June the only option is the overnight Lovcen service.

This train features sleeping cars and couchettes and departs from Belgrade at 20.20 each evening, reaching Podgorica (292 miles/468kms) away at 06.17 the following morning and Bar (327 miles/524kms) just over an hour later. Reservations are compulsory, but can only be made once you are in Belgrade, so that will be a first challenge on my arrival there. 

Besides travelling to Bar, my plan is to complete travelling the entire Montenegro passenger network by taking a trip on the 35-mile (56.6km) branch line that heads north-west from Podgorica to the town of  Niksic. This route opened as a narrow gauge (760mm) line in 1948, but was converted to standard gauge in 1965. Having been used only for freight for many years, it was re-built, electrified and re-opened to passenger services in 2012, with five daily round trips in the current timetable.

So on the day after the King’s Coronation (Sunday, 7 April 2023) I head once again to the European mainland, travelling from Haslemere (08.17) to London Waterloo and then heading for Paris on Eurostar 9022 at 11.31. From Paris Est I then take TGV9577 via Strasbourg to my first overnight stop at Stuttgart, which I chose in preference to Munich in view of the high cost of Munich hotels. 

Belgrade and the Sava River as seen from the park surrounding Belgrade Fortress

Both my train to Waterloo and the Eurostar to Paris are right on time, but the TGV to Stuttgart arrives 18 minutes late and then, after a lengthy detour due to station rebuilding, I cannot find a plan of the suburban S and U Bahn lines, so have to get help in heading to my hotel, which is just three stops away.

With this day’s delay in mind I decide to bring forward my Monday departure, so that instead of leaving Stuttgart at 09.58 and facing two critical 20 minute connections on my 12-hour journey to Zagreb, I play safe and decide to take train EC217 at 07.58 that will take me all the way to Graz in Austria, where I will have a couple of hours for beer and trainspotting before the train to Zagreb.

Belgrade’s magnificently-preserved main station closed in 2018

Over the course of the eight hours it takes train EC217 Dachstein to reach Graz we firstly head south-east before reversing direction at Munich, then continue in SE direction before crossing into Austria shortly before a stop at Salzburg (12.10/12.18).

From here we head south to the junction at Bischhofshofen (13.02/13.12) before reversing again and heading due east along another stretch of route highlighted as scenic on my European rail map. Finally we reach a junction near a place called Bruck an der Mur and from here head south to Graz.

Train EC217 with a German loco has reached its destination at Graz Hauptbahnhof

The train is very busy for the first half of my journey, but a huge number of people alight at Salzburg, which seems the ideal time to head for the convivial bordrestaurant and sample a decent bowl of chilli con carne (€10.90) along with a Bitburger Pils beer (€3.60) as we trundle past still snow-capped mountains and dense forest.

Arriving on time into Graz Hauptbahnhof at 16.14 and, having just over two hours to wait until EC159 Croatia whisks me off to Zagreb at 18.39, I recall that amongst the benefits given to 1st class Inter-Rail pass holders is access to OEBB lounges. So after photos of my DB train it’s off to the lounge for some nibbles and orange juice – beer and wine no longer being offered in the evening, despite what it says on the Inter-Rail app!

On last month’s journey to Split I had noticed that EC159 was pretty lightly loaded and so it proved one again on the near four-hour trip to Zagreb, with me having an entire first class coach to myself for much of the trip and no one for company while I once again tucked into a Wiener Schnitzel (€13.00) in the bordrestaurant, washed down with some very acceptable Austrian white wine (€4.40/0.25l), as seen above.

Reaching Zagreb slightly late at 22.35, I had learned a lesson from my visit here last month, by booking an apartment that was only a five minute walk from the station and a location I had already checked out. Now it is high time for some rest before an enforced new mode of transport tomorrow (9 May 2023).

After a good night’s sleep, a four-stop ride on a number 2 tram – conveniently from right outside my apartment – brings me to the huge Zagreb bus station, from where I have a €21 six-hour bus journey to Belgrade, and a country that since the pandemic has been cut off from the rest of Europe’s railway network.

My rail map shows links from the Serbian capital to Budapest and Sofia, but both are currently closed, the former for track re-building, as well as Zagreb, meaning the only cross-border service currently running is the overnight train to Podgorica and Bar, which I am planning to travel on.

The Flixbus service from Ljubljana arrives a few minutes after its scheduled 12.00 noon departure time, and around 15 of us climb aboard for the eastward 393km (246 mile) journey along a rather bumpy A3/E70 motorway. It may not be first class rail travel but it is cheap and comfortable, with wi-fi, charging sockets and a working toilet.

Our steady progress is halted at the border where all passengers have to disembark for Croatian passport control before re-boarding and then doing it all over again 300 yards later at the Serbian frontier. We then make a detour for our only scheduled calling point at the town of Mitrovica, before continuing on to Belgrade and arriving a few minutes ahead of schedule at 17.50.

A ten-minute pit stop shortly after crossing the Croatian and Serbian frontiers

Having been forced to rebook my accommodation when the apartment I had picked was no longer available, I decided to go upmarket and booked the smart Design Hotel Mr President across the road from the scruffy bus station (just under £70 B&B), where I was delighted to be upgraded to one of its Presidential Suites (Eisenhower). 

A free hotel map had finally given me a good idea of the city’s layout, so after several failed attempts to buy a 24 hour bus and tram pass at various kiosks, I take a free ride on a 36 bus, as I cannot see any means of buying a ticket, and reach the hideous new Belgrade Centar station in less than 10 minutes.

A clockwise No. 2 tram descends Nemanjina and heads towards Belgrade’s old railway station

After my hotel upgrade it is another great pleasure to have no difficulty in booking a single berth on the following night’s (10 May) Lovcen sleeper train to Podgorica, from the ticket counter on platform 10 of the Spartan new station, which costs a reasonable RSD5382 (£40.12).

After three days of intensive travel it is wonderful to be able to spend a fine spring day (10 May 2023) walking around the delightful heart of Belgrade, beginning with a walk north from my hotel to the park surrounding Belgrade Fortress, high above the city and with fine view of the merging rivers Danube and Sava.

A view of Belgrade Fortress and the Monument of Gratitude to France, which commemorates the help given to the Serbian people by France during World War 1 and was unveiled in 1930

From there it is a pleasant walk down the pedestrianised Knez Mihailova to the impressive Republic Square, then continuing on past the National Parliament building for a visit to St. Mark’s Church, before a lunchtime break in the charming Manjez Park, as seen in the photo below.

I was keen to take a trip on one of Belgrade’s metre-gauge trams, so having been repeatedly told that I could buy a one-day pass from the driver I boarded one of the route 2 circular services with my RSD290 (£2.20) counted out and ready to pay. But the driver is locked in his driving cab and certainly not set to accept my cash.

In the total absence of the tourist hop-on hop-off type buses that seem to plague every other European capital, a 40-minute circuit aboard the number 2 tram is a good and exceedingly cheap (well free for me) way of seeing much of Belgrade’s city centre.

Serbia is one of those rare countries where banknotes rule – The country’s smallest note is 10 Dinar (about 7.5p) so coins are almost non-existent, and it becomes normal to pay for even the smallest and cheapest items with a pile of paper money.

Belgrade’s magnificently preserved main station closed five years ago and trains now depart from Belgrade Centar, that is anything but central and currently feels like a poor man’s Birmingham New Street. It should one day be part of a massive new office complex called Railway City that is now under construction above the station.

Arriving somewhat early for the 20.20 Lovcen to Podgorica after another free ride on a 36 bus, it was good to find decent free wi-fi and toilets and a bar on platform 10 next to the ticket counters offering a very pleasant dark beer called Nicksicko Tamno for a reasonable RSD210 (£1.50) a bottle.

A view of Belgrade Centar station with office development taking place above

Right on schedule the Lovcen made its appearance on track 6 of the dismal station and I find my berth towards the rear of the train. The ancient coach had something of a Third World feel about it, with no running water in the wash basin, and my complaint to the steward being quickly brushed aside. 

There was running cold water in the toilet at the end of the carriage, though no toilet seat or paper! But at least my bed was comfortable and the motion of the train soon sent me to sleep, until I was woken at about 03.30 for the Serbian passport checking at a place called Prijepolje and then again at 05.10 by the Montenegran authorities when we reached Bijelo Polje.

The 08.00 service to Niksic waits to depart from Podgorica on 11 May 2023

By now the train was almost an hour late and did not make up any time on the way to Podgorica, which we reached in pouring rain at 07.20. Despite the dire weather there was time during the final 90 minutes of this trip to admire the remarkable scenery as we passed through an endless succession of tunnels and over some spectacular viaducts.

Podgorica has to be the most dismal capital I have ever visited, if the area around the station is anything to go by, but will explore more later. First though it is a trip on one of the five daily services along the 35-mile branch line that heads north-west to a place called Niksic that seems to brew good beer, but probably doesn’t feature on many people’s Inter-Rail itineraries.

The end of the line at Bar, where the 12.55 from Podgorica has arrived on 11 May 2023

With the weather remaining dismal for the hour long journey, when there is minimal visibility of the passing scenery, I follow the example of the three-man train crew on our arrival and head straight across to the rather smoky Caffe Train for a very welcome couple of coffees.

Returning to Podgorica shortly before midday my view of the place began to mellow when, in order to avoid the steady rain, I spotted Pizzeria Ciao nearby and enjoyed an excellent bacon, eggs and chips for just €3.10 washed down with a bottle of local Niksicko beer from the place I had just visited (€2.20).

A glimpse of the Adriatic and the town of Sutomore just north of Bar

To complete my coverage of Montenegro’s railway network I board an aged and graffiti-covered EMU for the hour-long journey to the end of the line at Bar on the Adriatic Coast. Highlights of this final leg of my trip are crossing the huge Skadar Lake, which extends eastwards across the border into Albania, and plunging under a huge mountain through the 3.9 mile (6.2km) Sozina Tunnel, the longest on the entire route from Belgrade.

After my return to Podgorica in the comfortable first class coach of delayed loco-hauled service bound for Bijelo Polje, the country’s northernmost station, I checked in to the cheapest place I have found to stay all week, the comfortable Hotel Terminus (£35.20 B&B) which is right outside the railway station.

An on-time departure for the 14.12 from Bar to Podgorica

Montenegro seems a delightfully cheap place to visit, so having concluded that there was not much tourist related interest in its dismal capital I returned to the Pizzeria Ciao and had a marvellous large pizza and a quarter bottle of local rose wine for €9.00, the same price I have been quoted for a taxi to the airport the following day (12 May).

A view looking east across Skadar Lake towards Albania

It has taken me almost exactly four days to make the overland trip from Haslemere to Podgorica, but takes only nine hours for my return on 12 May. I depart in a taxi from Hotel Terminus at 08.30 local time, flying from the nearby airport at 10.45 and, after rail and tube from Stansted to Haslemere via Tottenham Hale and Waterloo, reach my home station at 16.28.

The same loco which hauled my sleeper train from Belgrade prepares to work the 15.30 from Bar to Podgorica and Bijelo Polje on 11 May 2023

A Ryanair flight to Stansted with no paid extras came in at just £36.15, so costing less than my UK rail travel (£36.65) and only slightly more than my Eurostar reservation cost (£34.45). But somehow it is the outward journey and visits to two new countries and capitals that will linger longest in the memory.

If you enjoyed this account then do return to after 7 June 2023, when my third Inter-Rail rail trip will be from Haslemere to Sofia via Athens

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