The train from Sarajevo to Zagreb skirts fields of mustard that shine vivid yellow in the midday sun, ancient fortresses clinging to dramatic ridges, charming hamlets of red-tiled roofs and row upon row of perfectly symmetrical vines clinging to wobbly trestles. But linking the former states of Yugoslavia, the train also tells a story of reconciliation.
First established by the Ottomans and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the mid-19th century, rail lines once criss-crossed much of former Yugoslavia, from the azure blue Adriatic Sea flanking the spectacular coastline of Montenegro and Croatia, to the pine carpeted mountains of Serbia. The lines were shut down with the first Yugoslav War in 1991, when the region dissolved into a complicated web of bloody ethnic disputes, with allies turning enemies and neighbours turning on each other. Reopened in 2009, the lines herald a new era for the Balkans and a giant step towards peace and resolution. Now, thanks to a special itinerary put together by train specialists Rail Bookers, travellers can catch a glimpse of former Yugoslavia, one country at a time.
My journey starts in the picturesque Adriatic city of Dubrovnik, where the train line no longer runs (the line between Dubrovnik and Sarajevo was shut down in 1976) but is justified on Rail Booker’s Balkan’s Explorer itinerary for being the big tourist Mecca of the Balkans. Dubrovnik’s charms are not hard to see: jutting out of a coastline of dramatic cliffs thundering down to the deep blue sea, the 1300-year-old walled town with four- to six-metre thick ramparts looks straight out of Game of Thrones (actually, the city is the backdrop for Kings Landing), with a mass of stone cottages overlooking spacious squares and grand cathedrals. Bombed by Serbia and Montenegro during the Yugoslav war, much of it has been rebuilt and is a draw-card for tourists, who pack the streets and quaint cafes year round.
From here we travel by car to Mostar, a stunning journey that crosses the barren mountains bordering Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina, peppered with deep fertile valleys of vines and poplars. An old Ottoman trading town, Mostar is highlighted by Stari Most, its 16th century high-browed bridge crossing the Neretva River. The bridge was destroyed by the Croatians during the Yugoslav Wars; it and the old town have since been rebuilt, but pock marked and skeleton buildings lining the new town are a persistent reminder of the not-too-distant past.
We board the train to Sarajevo as a thunder storm rolls in on the surrounding mountains. Battered and clouded by chain smokers, the old-fashioned wooden carriage chugs through a dimming valley gushing with raging rivers and surrounded by snow-capped mountains before arriving in drizzly Sarajevo later that night.
An attractive city with a fine collection of Rococo buildings and a pretty Turkish quarter straddling the Miljacka River, Sarajevo’s became the best known of all the Balkan tragedies when it was held siege by Serbian forces for almost four years from 1992. More than 10,000 people died. Sarajevo’s battle scars are still raw; crater-ridden buildings line every street. However, with cafes sprawling onto the street, packed bars, savvy youth and a strong creative vibe, Sarajevo is forging a new era.
From Sarajevo my journey continues to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Made lengthy not by distance, but rather by the ramshackle carriages and border checks. The ageing German-built train moves through a patchwork of vine, mustard and wheat for nine hours, passing merry makers fishing in mountain streams and frolicking in fields of purple wildflowers.
The most prosperous city in the Balkans, Zagreb is handsome, with tree-lined avenues, lush, manicured gardens and stately Rococo buildings. But being Easter Sunday when we arrive, this fervently Roman Catholic capital has virtually shut down. We pop into the cathedral to witness mass before indulging in $2 half-litre beers on Tkalciceva Street, a stretch of gingerbread cottages filled with bars and restaurants.
From Zagreb it’s onto Belgrade, the Slavic city that teams Moscow’s grey hues with Berlin’s gritty, dark character. Strategically located on the Sava and Danube Rivers, Belgrade’s history is one of conquer and raid; it has been attacked 115 times; razed to the ground 44 of them. Scruffy and peppered with communist blocks, Belgrade is not a pretty city. But with an edgy, patriotic air and thumping night life scene, it makes up for it in character.
From Belgrade the train journey takes its last spin over flat and mostly sandy farm land, leaving Serbia and ending in Eastern Europe’s other big tourist Mecca, Budapest. Essentially two cities – hilly Buda and flat Pest – divided by the Danube River, attached by a series of pretty bridges and dripping in Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, Ottoman, Baroque, Classic, Romantic and Art Nouveau architecture, it’s a fitting end to a fascinating journey.
www.croatia.hr, www.bhtourism.ba, www.serbia.travel, www.gotohungary.com
Rail Bookers’ 11-night Balkan Explorer starts in either Budapest or Dubrovnik and travels to Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo and Mostar from $1795 a person, twin share, including accommodation and train tickets. Check their hotel choices before booking; some are several kilometres out of the city centre. See railbookers.com.au
Dubrovnik: The Hilton Dubrovnik has a superb location, steps from the Old Town gate, with views over the palace and Adriatic Sea from some guest rooms. Double rooms from €112 ($162). See hilton.com
Mostar: Villa Fortuna is a small, comfortable guest house with attached travel agency and stone courtyard, two minutes’ walk from Mostar’s beguiling stari most bridge; double rooms from €57, including breakfast. See villafortuna.ba
Sarajevo: The Bosnia Hotel in Sarajevo has diminutive but well equipped rooms in the centre of the city’s commercial district. Rooms from €80 euro, including breakfast. See bosniahotels.com
Zagreb: Arcotel Alegra Zagreb is a large, modern hotel with spacious guest rooms five minutes’ walk from the train station and 15 from the city square. Rooms start from €80.50. See arcotelhotels.com
Belgrade: The grand Metropol Palace hotel, designed by Serbian starchitect Dragisa Brasovan, first opened as a hotel in 1957. It is now part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection. Rooms are from €155 including breakfast. See metropolpalace.com
Budapest: K+K Hotel Opera has 200 comfortable rooms a stone’s throw from the historical opera house on the Pest side of the city and great breakfasts. Rooms from €97, including breakfast. See kkhotels.com