Taking the famous Bar to Belgrade train. Is it worth it?

Taking the famous Bar to Belgrade train. Is it worth itTaking the famous Bar to Belgrade train

The train between Bar (Montenegro) and Belgrade (Serbia) is one of Europe’s great train routes. Stretching 476 km, most of the 11 hour journey is spent crossing the huge mountain range (the Dinaric Alps) that separates the interior of the Balkan peninsula from the thin slice of Montenegro that lies on the coast. It passes through 3 countries: Montenegro, Serbia, as well as a tiny 9km slice of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The train route was a pet project of former Yugoslav dictator Tito who wanted to connect the Yugoslav capital to the coast. It started in 1958 and was concluded in 1976. It is an incredible engineering feat, the route including 254 tunnels and 435 bridges (including Europe’s highest railway bridge near Kolasin). As a passenger you’ll be treated to some incredible views of mountains and river valleys. You’ll also spend a lot of time in tunnels (I read somewhere that 115 km of the route is in tunnels. That’s 25% of the journey!).

There are 2 daily trains in either direction. A morning train leaves both Bar and Belgrade 9am. An evening train leaves Bar at 7 pm and Belgrade at 9 pm. Obviously, if you’re taking the train to enjoy the journey you should be taking it in the morning.

A short video. Not the quality I would have liked but had to work around some dirty windows…

 

What’s the Bar to Belgrade train like?

The train is the typical Balkan/East European train ie. no frills. Covered by graffiti on the outside, windows have probably never been cleaned. The interior won’t win any points for cleanliness either. Each carriage has toilets at either end which are basic (in our carriage the sinks didn’t work and the door of one of the toilets didn’t fully close). Another thing: if you have issues with cigarette smoke you’ll hate this train. There are non-smoking signs in each carriage but people stand in between carriages – right next to the doors – chain smoking. It doesn’t take long for the carriage to be filled with cigarette smoke.

It’s a shame really, especially if you’ve taken the train to “experience” the journey. I had read somewhere that there was a 1st class compartment. But there was none on this train. The thing is that the condition of the train doesn’t really allow you to fully appreciate the gloriousness of the setting (especially with the dirty windows). Most of the video I shot above was at the end of the carriage, standing by the toilet.

Curious about what you’ll see along the way and how the journey breaks down? I made some notes.

 

Hour 1
Leave Bar at 9 am. See a bit of coast before going inland. Pass through Skadar Lake National Park which looks like a large bay dotted with islands and marshes and surrounded by granite hills. Beautiful.
Arrive 10 am in Podgorica which looks as inviting and depressing as I’ve heard it is. You can see huge, far away mountains in the distance. The train had been about 30% full leaving Bar but with all the people that got on in Podgorica it’s now about 90% full.

Hour 2
Leave Podgorica around 10:15. Start going through mountains. Incredible scenery but about half the time is spent in tunnels. Incredible engineering feat. You go over an old railway bridge close to Kolasin which is the highest railway bridge in Europe. The views here are phenomenal.

Hour 3
Kolasin 11:25. Patchy Snow on the ground. High peaks in distance. At 12 arrive at Bijelo Polje close to border. Montenegrin customs come on the train and swipe (not stamp) our passports. Takes about 20 min.

Hour 4
We leave Bijelo Polje around 12:20, arrive at Serbian customs around 12:40 at Vrbnica. There’s a beautiful monastery there, lots of snow and mountains.

Hour 5
It’s about 1 pm when we leave the Serbian border. Large mountains, we’re following a river gorge. Lots of snow and snow-covered trees. Dreamy. At 1:50 we reach
Prijepolje.

Hour 6
More of the same. High snow-covered mountains. Too many stops, it seems we’re going slower than ever.

Hour 7

Following a large river (the Lim river) that at some point widens to look like a lake. High mountains, lots of snow. Beautiful. 3pm arrive at Priboj, a large narrow city in valley.

Hours 8, 9
Pass through a sliver of Bosnian territory. More of the same geography. It starts getting foggy, dark, and some guy comes to speak to me. He’s Montenegrin and studied in Albany NY. You always meet interesting people on long train rides.

Hour 9
The sun has set by the time (5pm) that we arrive in Užice. It’s a big, modern looking city judging by the high rises in the dark.


Hours 10 and 11
The train goes faster after
Užice. Terrain seems flat. There’s nothing to see in the dark.

Finally. We arrive at Topčider train station outside Belgrade. With the Central Station closed because of the Waterfront project, they’re using this as the end station for trains from Montenegro and Bulgaria. Yikes. This is really not a train station, it looks like an outhouse in the middle of the forest. There’s nothing here except for a stray dog that comes to greet us as we get off the train. My Montenegrin friend tells me that we can take a bus to the city (#3A) but we have no Serbian Dinars. There’s of course no ATM. We walk to the parking lot and find a couple of taxis. No problem, he’s got a meter. Of course we get screwed, costs 27 Euros to get to Republic Square. He’s got a meter on steroids. I should have done a better job planning.

 

 

So, is the journey worth it?

I enjoyed the views and most of the journey. You can’t help but be incredibly impressed by the engineering feat of building this railroad. But I’m not convinced that the average traveller would appreciate an 11 hour trip considering the duration and the conditions of the train. I’m on the fence about recommending it. It’s a shame because it could be a fantastic experience if the train and facilities were something along the lines of El Chepe in Mexico (if it was, it would be even more impressive than El Chepe). Still, I’m glad to have done it.

Lissette will tell you that the journey is absolutely NOT worth it. She hates dirty train rides with disgusting toilets. She hates being exposed to cigarette smoke for 11 hours. Her opinion is that no view is worth any of that. She says she’d rather spend 11 hours on a donkey.

So there it is. 

 

Tips and recommendations

  • Tickets cost the equivalent of 24 Euros for the one-way trip. You can’t buy it online. We arrived in Bar a day before our trip and bought tickets at the station in person.
  • They will give you assigned seating. But this is the Balkans, nobody follows it. So…if going from Bar to Belgrade sit on the left side. If going Belgrade to Bar sit on the right side.
  • From Bar trains leave every day at 9am and 7pm. From Belgrade (Topcider station) trains leave at 9am and 9pm.
  • If going to Belgrade, make sure you pre-arrange to have some Serbian Dinars for the bus from Topcider station to downtown. If you’re going to take a taxi, it should come out to the equivalent of about 6 Euros to get to downtown Belgrade. Try to negotiate a fixed rate because they’ll screw you with their jigged meter. In Bar (Montenegro) they use Euros and the going rate is 5 Euros to get from the train station to downtown.
  • Prepare yourself for the train ride by bringing some snacks, water, handy wipes…and toilet paper. 

So what do you think? Would you do this train trip?

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Taking the famous Bar to Belgrade train

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9 Comments

  1. obviously, i would love this train ride. Actually, in 2004 I DID this train ride BUT I did it at night. Mostly. and i wasnt videoing back then and I have a very vague memory of a cabin being too full with people trying to sleep. now I wish i had done it in the day!

  2. Hello Frank,

    I have enjoyed reading your blog for the past several months and we are currently in Croatia in no small measure due to reading about it on here.

    This train journey has been on my ‘list’ after having read about it on so many other blogs too (sometimes it seems like all bloggers go to the same place and hearing about a place over and over from multiple sources makes me feel like I am missing out on something valuable if me and my partner are not doing/experiencing it…kind of like how with this Wuhan virus in the news ut seems like almost everbody and their uncle has been to or through Wuhan except us…ha ha).

    We were in Split for two weeks in a very comfortable apartment and while the weather was pleasant and the crowds low, we both came away with the impression that it distinctly felt like a summer tourist town in off-season. We then decided to abandon our initial travel plan of going down the coast to Dubrovnik, Montenegro and taking the Barr – Belgrade train and instead took the 6hr day train to Zagreb where we will be for another 10 days.

    The train was super clean..no smoking..and there were only 7 people in the two compartment train including the driver ! It was one of the more scenic rides I’ve taken and just about the right duration.

    While perhaps the majority of online blog readers would prefer to read about where to go, what to see and where to eat type of posts, I’ve most enjoyed your posts that have been reflective and introspective about life on the road as well as about attempts to understand a culture or people (eg post about what’s wrong with the Balkans). I do wish you would increasingly include your spouse’s perspective too (the piece on her missing Split/Croatia was nice writing.. especially the concluding scene in the cafe with the smell of cake) since we are also traveling as a couple long term with an average age of 55 yrs old.

    We wish you the best in your travels and in finding a home base. We might be in a similar situation ourselves though I am still evaluating the pros and indeed also the cons of multiple residencies/passports and will no doubt learn vicariously from your experiences.

    Sincerely,
    Michael

    1. Hi Micheal!
      Thank you so much for the kind comment. I appreciate your mention of the deeper posts. You hit it on the nail that what the majority of blog readers are looking for are Top 10 lists. Which gets boring, even when you try to make it unique. I’ve always thought that a blog should be personal, but you’re never sure if people are reading or appreciating those personal thoughts. So it’s nice to get feedback. And Lissette appreciates your comment as well, I’ve been telling her to get a bit more involved and those are the words she needs to hear 😉

      Your comment about Split is one of the issues I had with it as a long-term base. In the summer it gets too crazy and you just want to escape…in the winter everything closes down and it’s too dead. There’s no in-between and you wonder which is worse. It’s also horrible when it comes to flight connections in the off season.

      Yes, we’ve taken the Zagreb-Split train. The modern one, right? Great when it’s working which seems rare. We’ve had times we’ve shown up and they told us it would be replaced by a bus (which is even worse than a normal bus because it stops at every train station that the train would stop at). I once took the train at night Split-Zagreb which took 10 hours…it was a mix of passenger and freight carriages. You never quite know what you’re going to get.

      It’s a shame you’ll missed Dubrovnik and especially Kotor. Zagreb is ok but there are many places I’d rather be…

      Always nice to hear from long-term travelling couples. Where are you going to next?

      1. Hello again,

        I’m glad to support good writing wherever I see it, since it seems to be increasingly harder to come across in the blogosphere. For me, blogs are all about being personal…a way to look at the world through someone else’s eyes…biases, emotions and all. Looking at the world through someone else’s eyes…is one of the most human things we can do. All great writing has that as a common theme (imagine if Steinbeck had written…top 10 places to eat in Monterey..or Hemingway compiled a list of best tapas in Spain 😁).

        I seem to live in a world of too much quantity of information (text and visual) and too little meaningful observation, dialogue and expression…. overfed and starved at the same time. So I am glad to hear you (and hopefully spouse) will be continuing to write your personal impressions..at least every now and then. I will look forward to those posts.

        I did notice you had Facebook pages too and having been a recent adopter of the social media, had a look at those and enjoyed some of the humor therein.

        We will be in Zagreb for another week at which point we would have completed our Schengen penance and would likely head west ..perhaps even by rail. We would like so see some more of Spain in February and in March the intention is to walk the Camino Portugues starting in Porto. We mostly enjoyed our experience of slow walking the Camino Frances a couple of years ago and the experience of a 45 day amble across a country made us want to do another long walk.

        Regards,
        Michael
        P.S. Yes..the train to Zagreb was a very modern one…more like a couple of tram coaches with clean toilets and clean windows and aircon.

  3. The train is a good way of travelling between Bar and Belgrade but doing it in one hit is too long, in my opinion. If you break the journey, however, it becomes way more pleasant. Overall, probably the nicest place to break it up is Kolasin (nice walking in the surrounding countryside) but I also thought Uzice was interesting and it’s also easy to get to Zlatibor from there.

    1. Thanks Mark. Yes, I saw your blog on your trip and stops. Honestly, those stops didn’t appeal to us too much in winter. Instead we visited Novi Sad (after Belgrade) which we really enjoyed.
      The trip is like a bandaid. We just wanted to rip it off in one go 🙂

  4. Wow Frank!

    This journey has been on my (rather short) list of Epic Train Rides for a few years now. Admittedly, I hadn’t pored over TripAdvisor reviews for the nitty -gritty but I have enjoyed the few blog posts that put it on my radar. None of which seem to provide important details like yours. I’ll have to find and reread them.

    Perhaps I had a different mindset at the time and glossed over the condition of the train.

    I know I am solidly in Lissette’s camp. Smoking, dirty windows and worse toilets – for 11 hours – sheesh! And darn. Now I’m sad. Sniff.

    Thanks for being frank, Frank. And for including Lissette’s perspective.

    I’ll still watch out for the ‘first’ class car.

    Colleen

    1. Sorry to burst your bubble Colleen.

      Lissette is pretty picky when it comes to public toilets if that eases your mind a bit. But the worst for her was the smoking – really, it was literally a metal carriage full of cigarette smoke and of course it was winter and all windows are closed. Being in that for 11 hours sucked and we smelled like ashtrays when we finally got out. That was the worst aspect.

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