Trip duration: 5 days | Approx cost: £325 | When: Summer
Doinit factor: A great and inexpensive introduction to the Balkans
As with much of the Balkans both Serbia and Montenegro aren’t yet considered by everyone as a tourist destination. This would be my first taste of the Balkans, a short, cheap adventure which would ultimately take me to that nice beach break I’ve been wanting for some time; and hopefully challenge conceptions that the Balkans do not make for a great summer getaway .
Back of a brutal three year war that resulted in the dissolution in the Yugoslavian empire, the region has stabilised and the natural beauty of the two countries has been exposed to the world. Between the two countries, it boasts some one the most spectacular sceneries in the world – from lush green plains in Serbia to the rocky, yet green mountains in Montenegro, any traveller will instantly fall in love with this corner of the Balkans.
Upon arriving in downtown Belgrade, to us, it becomes apparent that Belgrade is not to be considered a ‘beautiful’ city. Grey, brown, and black office blocks, all crumbling from the previous wars are a stark reminder of Serbia’s dark past – suitably to be described as rather ‘haphazard’. Broken pavements, busy traffic, and the general hustle and bustle of the place are greeted with a sigh of relief as we cross without twisting an ankle or falling head over heels. Between all of this, I think Belgrade has kept some sort of its own charm. Close to the centre, stands the International Train Station built back in the 19th Century. With a towering presence, we find our bearings in the information centre that is accommodated within and exchange some much needed local currency. We had earlier decided that of the two trains that run to Montenegro, we would take the morning one rather than the overnight sleeper. For us, this was an easy decision but perhaps later to play a little on our conscious. Leaving early in the morning enabled us to not only experience Belgrade’s world renowned nightlife, but also to take in the incredible scenery and landscape that we had been led to believe would be on show during the daylight hours. Of course, we know that this would not only mean forking out for a night’s sleep in Belgrade, but also suffering in silence with a hangover then next day. Anyway, the decision was made and since we were there, we purchased our ticket to Podgorica. €19.20 and a €3 reservation booking later, a sigh of relief once again occurs as we realise that this train, in fact does exactly what every guidebook and website tells you; gets fully booked in the height of summer. We would have to endure the advertised 10 hour journey with a hangover at separate ends of the train.
Above: Belgrade is not one of the worlds beautiful cities
Having our accommodation already booked, we decide there is no point in wasting time waiting for the hostel’s 3pm ‘checkin time’ but instead head straight there to dump our bags and venture outwards, returning later only to complete all official paperwork. Going only by memory of Googlemaps which we studied almost a fortnight earlier, I was pleasantly surprised to find it so easily. A pleasant exchange of hello’s and once again we do as planned and head off into town, quickly realising that in terms of sight-seeing, Belgrade has little to offer. This didn’t stop us from simply walking around and taking in the atmosphere. From the train station, a short walk took us into the city centre and onto the city’s most popular pedestrian street – Knez Mihailova. Making our way down the road, we walk past a couple of home comforts and raise an eyebrow when the familiar sight and smell of McDonald’s hits our sense but come on, we aren’t hear for some home comforts and opt to going next door for a local Gyros. Kebab in hand, we browse the few souvenir stands that line the edges until the reach the end of the street. It’s here that the first real ‘touristy’ attraction hits us – the huge Kalemegdan Fortress. Now, whether you’re a castle fanatic or not, there is a lot more to offer than a boring tour. In fact, there is no tour. You are free to wonder the grounds at your own leisure. The fortress itself is engulfed in vast areas of lush green vegetation and is a popular meeting place for the romantics, a little disappointing to say the least considering my travel companion was the same sex. Anyway, wondering around it really is an unconventional experience. Amongst ruins dating back to 538AD, we found basketball courts, tennis courts, and more appropriately a military museum. Hours can be spent getting lost in the maze like development and if you’re lucky enough like we were, you’ll find the hidden café that overlooks the Danube/Sava confluence. Time to put the feet up and order a well-deserved local brew.
Above: The ruins of Belgrade Fortress overlooking the city
Not daring to have any more beers in the summer heat, we decided to view one thing we knew Belgrade had to offer. The Church of Saint Sava is to this day the World’s Largest Orthodox Church and ranks in the top 10 largest of all church buildings in the World – boy is it big. Built out of white rock we have to put on our sunglasses to fully appreciate it as the sun reflects of it and ignites the surrounding buildings into a glow. Water fountains lead up to the building and despite being Worlds apart, I can’t help but get a sense of the Taj Mahal. As we walk inside we come across what makes this so special. It’s not the size or the grand interior, in fact the opposite. The interior resembles a building site rather than a church. Scaffolding fills the grand hall and 85years after work started back in 1935, the church is nowhere near completion – it truly gives you a sense just of how massive a building can be.
Come twilight, the itch to experience the nightlife has set in and we retire to the hostel for a quick change and to complete the formalities. There is a very fine line in Belgrade’s social scene. During the day we walk past a café, only to find that it has turned into a trendy bar a couple of hours later and by 1am if it hasn’t already closed, a bustling nightclub. We do our usual exploration of bars and shuffle towards the river where there is an array of nightclubs to be found. These ‘floating nightclubs’ nestle on the banks of the Danube offer a unique experience. An experience that back home will most likely be out of our price range suddenly makes us feel like a king. We had been told to have a reservation by our hostel as to avoid disappointment however disappointment still set in. An apparent dislike of large, especially English tourists had clearly been adopted and we head, along with the other English guys we meet in the hostel, to the next boat along. We were in. No entrance fee, no dress code and clearly no health and safety in mind. Imagine being on wooden decking, smoking a cigarette, with fellow ravers bumping into you and nudging 50% spirit all over you. Now I’m not one to worry, but surely that has fire written all over it. Still, nothing can take away from partying in 30 degree’s Celsius on an open top deck on one of the significant rivers in Europe. We party until the early hours.
Above: The Church of Saint Sava, the largest Orthodox Church in the world
A couple of hours later, and the need to drag ourselves from bed arrives. Miss the 9.10am train and we might as well have to call it quits on going to Montenegro. With just 5 days available, it would have meant that because of the train duration and the actual departure times, it would have been impossible to get there and back in time. I think this is the only thing that kicked us out of bed but alas, a hot shower, a couple of coffee and we set off for the train station. We arrive with some time to spare and go about searching for our train in what was a very large, yet very basic international train station. Within seconds it’s in our view and we go our separate ways to our allocated seats. The reality sets in. This train was certainly not designed for a 10 hour cross country journey. No cabins, no tables, just row upon row of seats, all without air conditioning. This was unlike any other train I had taken before. It was only 9am but it was already creeping up to 25 degrees and last night’s generous portion of alcohol was not going down a treat. Still, I could do nothing but sit. Surely enough, as researched, the train pulled away from the station late. However, a saving grace. The seat next to me was still unoccupied. Perhaps some sole had wisely decided that a road trip was the better option so I got up to grab my companion. Almost as on purpose within what seemed moments my head hit the window and my eyes shut.
I had awoke just 30minutes into the journey by something unusual. Not noise or pestering, but by motionless. The train was at a standstill in the middle of nowhere with Belgrade still clearly visible in the background. No explanation into what was happening but the look on everyone’s faces suggested that this was not a sight of concern. Minutes, turned into an hour and still no progress. Anxiety had set in but what could we do? Then the most unusual occurrence happened. People started to wonder off train and sit in the field, attempting to soak in the sun rays. We adopted the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude and found ourselves messing around for the next hour. Eventually, a change of scenery as the train started to move forward at a snail’s pace… for 10minutes… until it draw to a halt again. The next two hours we’re met with the same occurrence and we started to hope that these stops and delays were all part of the advertised 10hour journey. They were not. And in total we would spend a total of 14hours on the god forsaken train. Eventually during what was to be the train’s last ‘breakdown’ as we had come to know it as, the reason behind all the delays revealed itself in the form of a smokey pass by. The night train from Montenegro had in fact been delayed and because there was only one stretch of rail, we had to wait for it to pass. What a feat of engineering! At least we were on our way.
Above: The train journey can be slow but the scenery is nice and we get a chance to stretch are legs as the train stops in the middle of nowhere
With some notable hours later, pins and needles had set in and we decided to go for a wonder down the train. We came across a ‘restaurant’ carriage with little in it apart from a bar. No seats or tables, just catering to the standing. To be honest, it was a welcome break and we stood for the next couple of hours observing the changing landscape from the open window. The lush green plains had now turned to undulating hillsides and further south into sheer mountains. I can still remember to this day saying to myself that I had never seen such a bright and healthy green in vegetation as I had done here. As time went on, a compromise seemed to take effect that said, ‘spend the majority of your journey in a dark tunnel, and we’ll reward you with seconds of spectacular landscape when you’re out’. Happy to oblige, the train passed 254 tunnels in all, crossed 435 bridges and as promised, delivered the scenery that we had read so much about.
As the train pulled into Podgorica, the sun had long set we were we left to make our way around in darkness. Our hostel had promised to be a 5 minute walk from the station however 14 hours of being brain dead on what was essentially an oven with seats and wheels, our map reading skills were said to be lacking. We wondered around the city for a while until we found someone to ask. She had no idea; we were none the wiser. As a last resort, I whacked on the mobile and consultant the GPS. Surely enough, it was 5 minutes from the station but rather more hidden than our booking had made out. We dropped our bags, ‘meeted’ and greeted and set off by what was 11pm to see what was around. To our surprise despite being a school night and reasonably late all the bars were full to the brim and we struggled to find a place for a beer. In contrast, the streets were almost empty and there was a strange contrast. The city itself was clean and well maintained but seemed to have more of a town and perhaps even a village feeling. It was incredibly small, filled with one or even two storey buildings at a maximum all displaying independent shops rather than the large chains we are so accustomed to back in the UK. It’s easy to forget that despite such a tiny population of just 150,000, this is still the largest and busiest place in Montenegro.
Above: Walking around the sleepy capital of Podgorica | The millennium bridge | City clock tower | Natural History Museum of Montenegro
We woke up in our cosy hostel of only 8 beds to another glorious day of sunshine; up in time to explore the city and then make a decision on whether to stay or head further East to the coastal city of Bar. Unlike the handful of things to see in Belgrade, Podgorica really has no monuments to boast about, perhaps the under-lying problem of why it is still awaiting its tourist boom. With nothing to effectively do, tourists tend to stay clear of this part of the Balkans and if it’s not for missing out Montenegro all together, they either head to the mountainous north, or the coastal east. Wondering around, we stumble across something Montenegro is well-known for, in the most unusual place. Here in the city centre lies another stunning feat of scenery. The Morača River flows past naturally; there are no artificial barriers or levies to constrain the flow, instead the river takes its natural course, carving out a wide but shallow valley. Here lay thousands of exposed pebbles that act as a sort of beach accommodating the few that brave to dip there feet in the freezing water. Overlooking the beautiful dark blue water is Podgorica’s ‘Millennium Bridge’. A unique piece of engineering to say the least however unfortunately with no historic meaning you could perhaps think of it as Montenegro’s show to the world that it is moving forward. It’s a place to gather our thoughts and decide that as nice it is to chill out here, it’s time to go and experience what Montenegro has to offer by the seaside.
We arrive back to the laughter from our resident hostel staff. Apparently Bar, is definitely not the place to visit. A large industrial port with even less to see/do than the capital should not be added into any itinerary. Instead the coastal resort of Budva is recommend and in a rush of spontaneous madness, we forget about our booked hostel in Bar and head on over to the bus station with no plan, and no place to stay. An hour long minibus drive takes us through the familiar stunning landscape and into the heart of paradise.
Above: Finally made it to the sea at Budva
The minibus had left us a 20minute walk from the old town but in doing so ensured that we walked along a hilltop that overlooked the picturesque gulf, giving us a birdseye view of the area. From here it looked like exactly what we had been looking for and we couldn’t wait to hit the beach. As we made our way through the town we could have been mistaken that we were in a capital city. Budva seemed busier, bigger, and all in all a little bit more impressive than Podgorica had. People were walking around topless, in flips flops and it seemed that everyone was on there way to Budva’s main attraction. We pressed on and we finally reached the old town. Located somewhere in the maze of narrow stone wall roads was a hostel that had been recommended from the place we stayed at in Podgorica. Montenegro is unlike any place I had previously visited in that there is still a distinct lack of budget accommodation. Podgorica had only 2 hostels but here it was even less from what we had been told. The situation was only made worse by our lack of preparation. We entered the old defensive walls and started our quest. With everything being so narrow and compact it was difficult to see any signage but after asking in one of the shops we were on our way.
It was too early to check in but to our luck, they had space. The friendly member of staff warned us however that we would be staying with half a dozen ‘crazy’ Aussie’s. Being accustomed to Australia’s backpacker attitude, especially when in Europe, I laughed and brushed it to one side. Once again she re-alliterated ‘crazy’. Nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to witness. By now it was noon and the sun was blazing outside yet somehow they had managed to black out the windows with makeshift curtains and it was pitch black inside. A flick of the switch and a rubbish tip ensued. There was a spare bunk bed lying on its side, over a dozen empty bottles of Vodka in the kitchen, and suitcases of clothes scattered around the room, not to mention the smell. I had been to house parties with hundreds of guests that had ended up cleaner than this room. Without any movement from them, we dropped our bags off, changed into our trunks and hit the beach.
The sun was certainly doing its job, the temperature had already crept up to 30 degrees and the sweat had started to roll of our foreheads. We found a spot near the old town and lay our towels down. Unfortunately we were not greeted by soft sand, rather a mixture of pebbles, stones, with the odd grain of coarse sand. Still, it was hot; we were by the beach, in Montenegro and in no mood to complain. The water was crystal clear and warm and provided the perfect cool down. Looking back at the beach, was like staring at something in a movie; a perfect contrast of colours as the blue of the ocean hit the yellow of the beach, leading to the lush green mountains in the backdrop. We stayed here for a couple of hours until we decided it was time to venture down the coastline to see what else was on offer.
A short walk past a marina and we stumbled across another beach. This one, more lively and offering a range of beach bars and water activities. This is where we would set up base. We sat down for a glass of the local stuff (Niksicko) and soaked in the atmosphere. A large DJ booth supplied music the crowds who were tanning and this is the first time we decided to definitely return next year. A cling of the steins, a large gulp and with a bit of Dutch courage it was time to find some adrenaline. We found a stand that offered jet skiing, parasailing and tubing all at a reasonable costs. Having neither of us never doing any of them, we thought to give them all a try. Negotiation was the subject and a frantic attention surrounded us as if no-one had ever enquired about doing all three. Five minutes passed and we agreed for the grand total of €80 and 10minutes extra on the jetski. The rest of the evening was spent in exhilarating fashion and an early night beckoned.
Above: Paragliding over Budva is a real treat
Up at the crack of dawn, we gingerly made our way to the bus station. Half an hour later, our navigation had let us down and we whistle for a cab. In my finest Serbian I asked to be dropped at the main station; turns out we weren’t as lost as we had thought and 5mins later we were there. We had arrived just in time to jump on our 1 hour coach back to Podgorica, where we would have a train waiting for us to take us back to Belgrade. The ride was spent catching up on sleep and what seemed a click of fingers we were back in the capital. Our trip to Budva had been brief but we both agreed it was definitely worth the effort, if only to take a quick dip in the Adriatic Sea.
We arrived to Podgorica Train Station in good time and went to arrange our tickets. The man in the ticket office seemed to speak good English so we requested our tickets for the 10.20am train back to Belgrade and paid no further attention. The station itself was rather busy but as a train approached, a panic ensued as people barged their way into the carriages. Just a handful of people were left and to our surprised, unlike on the way to Montenegro, the train appeared empty. Not even a quarter full. We boarded the carriage and were pleasantly surprised that we were clearly in a more modern train than before. Private cabins with air-conditioning were available and there were even beds for those who had paid extra. Feeling rather satisfied that somehow I had managed to book one of these cabins we entered to a nice cool chill. There was already someone in there so we showed him our tickets, and the boy, aged about 12 was happy to be on his way. We made ourselves comfortable and settled for what would hopefully only be the set 8 hour journey. As the train pulled away we were joined by a further 2 people. They spoke amongst themselves and seemed confused at the fact there was someone else in their cabin, not just their cabin, but also there seats. To our joy, they spoke very good English and coincidently had also spent some time in London. They showed us there tickets and surely enough they were booked into exactly the same place. Coming to the conclusion that there must have been some mistake and that it will be fine they sat with us and we chatted well into the journey. The brothers, aged in there early twenties were extremely friendly and accommodating. Their grandmother’s cake was shared around and we made our way to the drinks carriage for a few beers. As the ticket inspector neared, we retreated back to our cabin, ready to show our tickets in anticipation of what would be said. He looked at the tickets, inspecting them for some time until his silence was broken with some Serbian dialect. A conversation broke out with the two boys, the tickets were handed back, and the ticket inspector walked off. We looked puzzled, but we were informed that our tickets were of no use and had we had been booked onto the same train, that had left yesterday.
Above: Back on the train and back to Belgrade
Circumstances never seem to cease amazement as it begs belief how it is possible to book a ticket for a train that had already left 24hours earlier. Anyways, the Montenegrin inspector acknowledging that we were way out of our depth, decided that he would accept the tickets. It was a lucky escape, or we thought it was. Not long after our tickets had been checked, we crossed into Serbia. No border proceedings, merely another ticket inspection, this time carried out by the Serbians. Conversation flowed once again between the brothers and the inspector. This time, he was far less accommodating. Whether to make a quick extra buck from some foreigners or genuinely charging us for a new ticket, we were forced to cough up for a new ticket or risk being thrown out in a small village somewhere in Serbia. Fate had taken over and we had exact change for two new tickets, not a dinar left but thankfully we would at least make Belgrade. The time passed and we found ourselves in Belgrade at sun down and back in the hostel we stayed prior to leaving. Without our flight at 6am the next day, we retired early that night after soaking in the last of Belgrade on an evening walk.
WHERE TO STAY
A simple internet search will relieve ample options for accommodation. Like all cities you can find luxury as well as more modest accommodation.
- Info on train travel between Belgrade and Podgorica: Man in Seat 61
- If you’re interested in a longer trip through the Balkans check out our story on backpacking between Zadar and Corfu