IThat’s when I looked past the brash local graffiti and spotted dozens of bullet holes fired through the walls and hitting the house. Or had he come across a cemetery with multiple thin, white tombstones emblazoned with the date “1993,” like skinny soldiers standing at attention? Anyway, it took a trip to Balkans fully appreciate the impact of the Yugoslav wars of independence, which took place just 30 years ago.
These traces of conflict caught my attention in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the end of a 16-night train journey through the Balkan region, colored by its struggles for independence after the death of dictator Tito and the collapse of the Republic of Yugoslavia. . Suddenly they seemed completely new.
I had joined a group of travelers curious about history, traveling through seven countries that made up the former Yugoslavia. Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and North Macedonia – you probably know the names, but you’ve probably only visited Croatia, or maybe Slovenia if you’re a pioneer. In an effort to reduce my carbon footprint, I had joined this overland journey to these mostly unexplored lands, where we would travel only by train, bus and even local trams.
Not only was it much more planet-friendly to travel between public transport stops; this gave our group the opportunity to savor the scenery and learn about the culture along the way. Our key to understanding the Balkans was our guide, Jane (pronounced Yaneh), who introduced us to these little-known countries, where lively conversations – often about football or politics – as well as copious coffee consumption were a favored way to spend time. .
There were fifteen of us in Ljubljana, Slovenia, for the start of the tour. There was a whole range of ages, with lots of older travelers and several solo members in the mix. After a brief orientation tour by a local guide, Ute, we were free to explore the charming Slovenian capital, a gem city with an attractive old town and a variety of shops and cafes. Wandering through the beautiful Roman market, bordered by the fast-flowing Ljubljanica River, I spotted clever farmers cutting out the middlemen from supermarkets by installing vending machines, selling their milk directly to locals from their own containers.
We traveled to Zagreb, Croatia, our first train trip. On arrival we celebrated with a dinner in an excellent fish restaurant, Ribice and Tri Točkice. Appropriately for this group of rail fans, we had booked a hotel named after the Orient Expresswith the Croatian Railway Museum right behind us.
After a good night’s sleep, we awoke for a walking tour of Croatia’s historic capital, with its impressive food market, imposing cathedral and, in the upper town, a memorial to those who lost their lives during the trials medieval witches. That afternoon we ventured to the beautiful Plitviče Lakes with their incredibly clear azure colored waters. A likely herald of climate change was the 78-meter-high gushing waterfall reduced to a trickle, a shadow of its former self, according to a member of a tourist group who visited there already returned.
Our next train took us to spend the night in Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, a bustling city where new shopping centers and restaurants are developing, mainly thanks to Russian investment. That evening we ate at the traditional restaurant next door. Rostilj Beliour first taste of true Balkan goulash.
Then, a hitch: we would have had to take a train through the Kučka Korita mountain range, into Serbia, to reach Belgrade. But the Montenegrin section of the rail link was closed unexpectedly; Jane decided that we would head to the Serbian border and then take the train to Belgrade. Although it was a detour, it was no less pleasant: taking the Adriatic highway meant crossing stunning peaks and crudely dug tunnels, opening onto striking views of autumn-colored valleys streaked with morning fog. I even spotted a farmer leading a small herd of dairy cows to the high pastures.
After a brief coffee break at a charming Alpine-style hotel on the road, we arrived at the Serbian border and Prijepoljie train station. The city train we were now boarding near the confluence of the Lim and Milesevka rivers was almost empty, but that would change during the seven-hour journey to Belgrade as the carriages slowly filled up.
I chatted with a group of young people sitting across from me. Their English was excellent, picked up effortlessly on TV and YouTube. We talked about the West, which was called “evil” by teachers and elders. I felt like they were saying this for impact rather than for accuracy, but they were serious when they said NATO was seen as the aggressor in the Ukraine war. Very unexpectedly, they showed me how to bribe the conductor to pay a fraction of the train fare. “Everyone does this in Serbia!” » rings the girl sitting opposite, noticing my shock.
After breakfast in Belgrade, I poked around the neighborhood, spotting a patchwork of architectural styles. The magnificent Russian Secession style Hotel in Moscow was just around the corner, near newsstands filled with newspapers and magazines featuring headlines and photos of Putin.
Jane made sure we dined at restaurants populated by locals, some with live music; several stops had tiny orchestras that could cause a spontaneous eruption of folk dances. We loved her tidbits of cultural insight: early on, Jane warned the vegetarians in the group that, especially in Serbia, they might be labeled “devil worshippers.”
“Don’t take it personally,” he winked. He also introduced us rakijathe local grain alcohol inflamed, but he advises not to consume too much in order to avoid “eyes turning to negative signs”.
The next morning, we took the high-speed FALCON from Belgrade Main Station for a 30-minute ride to Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city and European City of Culture for 2022. An under-the-radar stop, it housed a beautiful cathedral decorated with a zigzag. -Zag patterned roof, not forgetting the delicious ice creams in several pretty lounges. We headed to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the city of Sarajevo, then Mostar, places I might not have flown directly to for a dedicated city break, but was happy to explore during this comfortable train journey.
Sarajevo remains most famous for being the place where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot, lighting the touchline for the outbreak of the First World War. It also successfully hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, but less than a decade later it was under siege during the 1992-1995 Bosnian inter-ethnic war. One of the most fascinating sites is its Tunnel Museum, where visitors can walk through part of a vast sub-tunnel. In its entirety it measured 960 meters long and 1.5 meters high, providing a lifeline and conduit to people stuck in the city for 44 months.
On the train to Mostar, Jane showed me the village of Kojnic, where Tito’s nuclear bunker was recently discovered. It is now open to visitors, he said, and is proving very popular with Slovenians. As our train journeys took us further east, I noticed the villages whistling past cemeteries adorned with white markers. But it was during our last stop, Mostar, that I finally visited one.
With some free time to explore on my own, I discovered a beautifully maintained Muslim cemetery just a short walk from the old town. Most of the sad white headstones were intertwined with flowers and adorned with photos of young men. Tracing bullet holes in nearby walls, it was Mostar that brought home to me the enormous number of war casualties and the staggering youth of those who lost their lives.
Feeling gloomy, I found myself drawn to Stari Most, Mostar’s picturesque “old bridge”, rebuilt after the war and an exceptional example of Balkan Islamic architecture. To add to the story, I quickly realized that a centuries-old tradition was about to take place: a young man was about to jump from the bridge into the fast-flowing and icy Neretva River. Jane had told us the story of the very first jumper, who plunged from the bridge to retrieve a silver coin thrown by a nobleman. Money remains the motivation for divers, even if it is now tourists who donate the coin.
Understanding this region’s troubled past is only part of the story of the Balkans, I realized. It is a region rich in traditions and culture, specific to each country, region and even city. Traveling the more contemplative scenic route, I had seen a society that was complex, warm and fascinating. A part of me would stay there long after I left.
Explore the 16 daysBalkan Rail Adventure travels through the countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and North Macedonia by train. Priced at £2,130 per person, it includes 15 nights of hotel accommodation along the route with breakfast, some additional meals and a local Explore guide along the route.