There’s many reasons to visit both Serbia and Montenegro but let’s skip all those for now – they are awesome and I know you’re already planning a trip there. If you are trying to figure out how to get from Belgrade, Serbia to Montenegro you may be skimming Tripadvisor forums and finding all the suggestions about renting a car or taking the super convenient and cheap bus. Ignore that. Take the train.
The (somewhat infamous) Belgrade to Bar train opened in 1975 some 23 years after construction began (15 years more than expected according so some sources online.) The massive delay to the opening was perhaps a sign of the problems to come. In the 1990s the train systems were chronically underfunded resulting in deterioration of the line. In 1999, UN bombing destroyed a large section of the train line and the 6 mile stretch that runs through Bosnia was blown up by UN ground forces whose mission was to maintain stability in the region. The track was rebuilt however in 2006 just north of the Montenegro capital of Podgorica, a southbound local train derailed killing 45 people and injuring another 184 (this was not the same train as the Belgrade-Bar but they shared the same route in this section.) Following the accident the maximum speed permitted was further reduced and a ride that originally took 7 hours now takes 11 assuming no delays. Lastly, in the summer of 2014, serious flooding in the Balkans damaged the track again. This was also rebuilt and as of May, 2015 the train is back on the normal daily schedule.
During summer months, there are 2-3 daily trains in each direction (the schedule changes depending on the year) with at least one day and one night train. We opted for the day train after hearing it’s one of the most scenic train rides in Europe. Leaving the train station shortly after 9am there was immediately scenery, but not the type I was expecting. Lining the tracks as you depart from Belgrade are a large number of inoperable, graffiti-covered train cars. Are couchette-mate, a talkative man in his 60s, was quick to point out these have been inoperable since being bombed by American and England (knowing we were one of the two but not knowing Taylor’s father could understand his German.) True or not, it definitely set the mood for the rest of the trip and is a sentiment for the rest of the trip. The older folk in Serbia tend towards being reminiscent about the past and seem to gloss over the atrocities of the 90s, stating things as fact, not judging you if you come from a country that participated in the bombings. True to form, after returning from a smoke break the man brought George and me a beer. No hard feelings, the facts just are what they are.
As the train picks up speeds it passes by farms and rolling hills of the Central Serbian countryside. It’s several hours into the ride that real beauty starts. Following a river valley, the train winds around corners, over small bridges and through countless tunnels. About halfway through your journey you will pass through the short Bosnian section although there won’t be any signs – track your progress on a map if you want to know where the spot is. It’s after the brief stop when you cross into the border in Montenegro that the magic starts. The train continues to climb and every tunnel you exit will reveal a new and stunning view. Small towns dot the valleys below and massive granite cliffs tower above. Some cars (and usually the dining car) will have windows that open. Take your spot after crossing the border if you want the clearest view possible. The windows will soon be filled with other tourists sticking their heads out the windows quietly watching the gorgeous scenery pass by.
So that’s the best way to travel this route. Forget the two hours you’d save on a bus, forget the supposed convenience of a car – take the train. You can bring your own food and drinks aboard (and the local Serbian beer is quite good.) You can relax. You’ll meet characters. You won’t regret it.
Here’s a timelapse video I took of the train ride:
The train from Belgrade to Bar was only $16 when we purchased tickets. Supposedly you are sometimes able to buy tickets from Serbian Railways although the site didn’t work for anyone I talked to and we gave up. Some people suggest emailing or calling Putovanja Wasteels at email@example.com or 381 11 265 but he didn’t respond to my messages and his office in the Belgrade train station appears completely closed. If you are arriving in Belgrade at least a day before you want to purchase a ticket you should have no trouble doing so and reserving a seat in a couchette for just a couple dollars more. The lady in the train station said it almost never sells out but buy your tickets when you arrive to Belgrade to be safe. No credit cards in the train station, cash only. You can take the train to Podgorica for the most convenient transfers to the rest of Montenegro or take the train all the way to Bar if that’s your final destination.