Aboard the peace train

Andrew West travels by rail through the Balkans and finds beauty and new life along with the scars of war.

They seemed so terribly certain, as they lounged about the waiting room of the railway station in the Croatian coastal town of Ploce. The weather in neighbouring Bosnia would be awfully hot, they insisted in perfect Oxford English accents.

The five young men and women have brought no sweaters, long trousers or solid shoes, only flimsy muslin shirts, shorts and Birkenstock sandals - the modern-day uniform of the bright young things of Evelyn Waugh's English aristocracy summering on the continent.

I warn them that the BBC website is forecasting just 19 degrees for the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, even in July. But they're adamant: the innkeeper in the nearby resort town of Dubrovnik has told them Bosnia will be 40 degrees and "not a nice place at the moment".

They have fallen for an old trick. Quite a few people in the Balkans, it seems, will do all they can to dissuade you from visiting Bosnia.

Encircled by Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia is the country that many leaders wanted to tear apart in the early 1990s. After the break-up of the unitary state of Yugoslavia began in 1991, Croatia laid claim to part of southern Bosnia-Hercegovina, while Serbia, under Slobodan Milosevic, inflicted such a savage war on Bosnia that Europe faced the prospect of another genocide, just 50 years after the Holocaust. The international community intervened - belatedly - and in 1995 imposed an imperfect but workable peace on the region.

One of the most positive signs of slow reconciliation is that the railway lines between Bosnia and its former enemies were restored in late 2009 and riding those rails is the primary purpose of our trip.

We have decided to travel from London to Athens over land and sea, eschewing flights within Europe. The Eurostar took us from London's St Pancras station to Paris's Gard du Nord station. From here we catch an overheated overnight train to Santa Margherita in Liguria, on the northern coast of Italy. A week later, we're on an overnight ferry from the port city of Bari to Dubrovnik, on the other side of the Adriatic.

The charms of Dubrovnik, even when it is crawling with mid-summer tourists, are obvious. Though the 1300-year-old city was shelled in 1991, it has recovered and lures an estimated 600,000 visitors a year. Its beaches and islands, once the budget option for those who found the Greek isles beyond reach, are now compulsory stops for yachties. Dubrovnik's "pearl" is its old walled city, protected by its inclusion on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The main street - which once had such useful amenities as grocers, butchers and tailors, serving actual residents - is now lined with boutiques and tourist gift shops. But the stone paving of the streets still shines at night and, in the back lanes, buildings pock-marked by shells remain.


Our journey into the heart of the Balkans really begins in Ploce, a relatively nondescript town on the Adriatic, and a 90-minute bus ride north of Dubrovnik. At 5pm most days, a train pulls out of Ploce to begin the four-hour journey to Sarajevo. The day we travel, the old brown rattler, almost beautiful in its decrepitude, has only four carriages, mostly compartments.

Our Oxford chums loll about the saloon car. I check on them periodically as the train climbs higher into the mountains, noticing that, one by one, they have shut the windows against the breeze. We leave the train in Mostar, about 90 minutes from Ploce and an hour across the Bosnian border, and we don't see the shivering Britons again.

Mostar is one of many Bosnian towns that encapsulate the country's recent trauma. Its famous Stari Most (Old Bridge) straddling the Neretva River was destroyed by Croatian bombs in 1993, having stood since 1566, when the Ottomans ruled. It was rebuilt, almost stone by stone. In 2004, Prince Charles presided over its reopening. The bridge is rather more quaint than grand but its beauty derives more from what it represents - connecting the Muslim and Christian sides of the Old City - than its design.

We arrive on the eve of the most popular day in the Mostar calendar. In the annual bridge-jumping competition, local men compete with out-of-town and sometimes international divers to plunge 21 metres from the arch into the water, which can get as cold as seven degrees. About 5000 Bosnians line the river's edge, some wading knee-deep into the water. Others crowd into the restaurants and cafes overlooking the dive site, one eye on the river, the other on the TV, where Bosnia's national broadcaster covers the event with the seriousness of the Olympics.

A fellow train passenger had insisted we would never find a room in town and should continue on to Sarajevo. But we do find a hotel, easily and relatively cheaply and spend an evening dining in the Old Town, which had been under siege for several months during the war.

The memory of war seems to permeate almost everything in Bosnia. Perhaps it's a case of a genuine psychological damage, or just an excuse for the mistreatment of animals, but when I remonstrate with, then refuse to tip, a waiter who kicks a cat lurking under the restaurant table, a woman at the next table says, by way of exculpation: "Understand, this country had a war."

Two days later, we wait at Mostar station for the 8am train to Sarajevo. The train is running 40 minutes late but it matters nought, for the ride through the Bosnian countryside - between three and four hours - is one of the great unheralded pleasures of Europe.

The train line follows a fertile valley, then a river, before climbing into mountains that resemble the Swiss Alps. We pass through ravines and gorges and villages that remain unscarred, despite outcrops of Soviet-era cinder-block buildings.

One of the most beautiful towns en route is Jablanica, high in the mountains and surrounded by forest. This was the scene of a fierce attack by Croatian forces during the war. In another town along the line, Dreznica, Croats were held prisoner in a church. The city of Konjic was hotly contested during the war for its strategic value.

Then we enter Sarajevo, once one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The surrounding mountains that give the city an intimate feel were also the battlements from which the Serbs fired bullets, shells and mortars. The human suffering was terrible - an estimated 10,000 people died during the siege of Sarajevo by Serb forces, between 1992 and 1996.

To look around Sarajevo today is to feel the guilt of the Western world. Aid money is still being poured into rebuilding it. There are signs declaring assistance from the European Union, the Council of Europe, the German government, the US government aid agency and the royal houses of Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands.

Sarajevo's old city is a relatively small settlement of mostly one- and two-storey buildings clustered around laneways. As you head west and the buildings become taller, it evinces a grander, late-19th-century feel before you hit, as in so many central and eastern European countries, the belt of cinder-block high-rise apartments of the communist era.

For me, the surest sign the city has regained its mojo is not the crowded restaurants in the old city - including one cafe that serves nothing but the most splendid cevapcivi (grilled minced meat wrapped in flatbread) - or a thriving arts scene, which attracts cultural tourists in the thousands. It is the 10-kilometre city tram line running east to west, past the bright-yellow Holiday Inn, which remained open during the siege and housed most of the news media, and along a ribbon of high-rise neighbourhoods.

We're in town during the latest must-see event on the European cultural calendar: the Sarajevo Film Festival. It began in 1995 as an act of defiance during the shelling. One brisk evening, we sit in a square surrounded by apartment blocks and watch an outdoor screening of the latest Woody Allen movie, with one of the stars, the elegant doyen Gemma Jones, in attendance.

We had taken the only train line from the south into Sarajevo but, to the north, there are two train routes out of the city. One goes west, to the Croatian capital of Zagreb. Our destination lies east, in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

The train line between Sarajevo and Belgrade was closed for 17 years; it reopened only in December 2009. To reach Belgrade - a trip of about nine hours - we pass through the Serbian enclave of Republika Srpska. The change is almost immediate. A new team of guards, all ethnic Serbs, boards the train to re-inspect our tickets. Along the route, we see the small churches of the Serbian Orthodox Christians and no longer the mosques that serve the 40 per cent of Bosnians who are Muslim.

As if to psychologically buffer, as well as physically separate, the recently warring states, the train to Serbia passes through a sliver of Croatia. At the border, a Bosnian woman sharing our compartment - and sharing with us her small parcel of fruit and nuts - is bustled off the train for not having a passport. She is embarrassed and, as she departs, she explains to us that before the break-up of Yugoslavia, when the strongman president Marshal Tito suppressed divisive ethnic nationalism, she routinely travelled between Sarajevo and Belgrade using nothing more than a social security card.

On the journey to Belgrade, we begin to understand the Serbian paranoia about the fracturing of their country. We travel through the province of Vojvodina, the "bread basket of the Balkans", where separatists are agitating for independence from Serbia; a few days earlier, the International Court of Justice affirmed the independence of the breakaway province of Kosovo. The Serbs fear they could be left with nothing but a city state of Belgrade.

The city is quite a prize, a metropolis at the junction of the Danube and Sava rivers. In 1999, NATO forces bombed the city to force the Milosevic regime out of Kosovo, where Western authorities feared a repeat of the Bosnian tragedy. The public anger at the bombings, which killed several thousand and levelled the Chinese embassy, remains. But the city - which brings to mind Melbourne, with its wide streets and trams - appears to have recovered well. Its cafes serve the only coffee I can boast about outside Italy, and in the restaurants off the cobbled stone street of Stari Grad (Old City) we find the finest mixed grills in the world.

The cuisine steels us for the penultimate leg of our journey: a 15-hour, often-rough train trip from Belgrade to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. Skopje is a sad, hot and dusty city. It appears to be under permanent construction, with roads dug up and cranes overhead, but nowhere near completion. For us, it's the place for a four-hour stopover before a bus ride to the "pearl of the Balkans", Lake Ohrid.

Though we had never heard of the deep, freshwater lake near the border with Albania and Greece, much of the population of the Balkans seems to descend on the place during summer. In the past 20 years a string of high-rise hotels has been built, not especially sensitively, around the lake's edge but the town of Ohrid, on the north-east shore, retains its authenticity and splendour. The monastery of Saint Naum, about 10 kilometres to the south, sits just 200 metres from the border with Albania. It was once highly guarded, even fortified. Tempted to visit the one country in Europe that can still claim a modest touch of mystery, I walk 500 metres into Albanian territory before a guard waves me, half-heartedly, back into Macedonia.

It's to the more familiar destination of Greece that we're headed. Frosty relations between Macedonia and Greece means there is no bus service connecting the two countries. So early one evening we walk across the border. Despite diplomatic tension, it is a lightly guarded frontier and cars with Greek number plates frequently head to Macedonia for the casinos. The weather is warmer now and I think, for a moment, of those self-assured bright young things, in their summery attire, on the other side of the Balkans.


To explore the Balkans by train, begin in Dubrovnik. Take a bus north to Ploce and join the twice-daily service (6am and 5pm) to Mostar. The tickets cost 23 Croatian kuna ($4.30). The Mostar-Sarajevo service, which is best to book two or three days in advance at the station, leaves about 8am each day and costs 20 Bosnian marks ($14). Book ahead for the Sarajevo-Belgrade train, which costs 33 Bosnian marks. At Belgrade's main station, book two days ahead for a sleeper berth to Skopje, costing 4400 Serbian dinars ($58). Rail Europe has flexible passes that cover most of the journey and are easy to arrange from Australia; raileurope.com.au.