The next train will leave at 10 o’clock, the lady at the counter signals by raising both her hands and stretching out her ten fingers, as if a robbery was in progress. The ticket for one of the most beautiful train rides in Europe costs 3.20 Euros (less than 4 US dollars). At another counter I later discover a handwritten note with the departure times of the most important train connection in former Yugoslavia.
I still have 20 minutes left. The little shop doesn’t have a Cola, but Cockta, a Slovenian Cola substitute which tastes more refreshing, but doesn’t inject any caffeine. And a chocolate bar for the train journey. On the platform for track 3, there is a man with a chainsaw. That one must be the right track for the train into the mountains.
From Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, I want to reach Kolašin, a small town in the mountains. Already before the first stop, two police officers who are walking through the train check my passport as thoroughly as if I was about to leave the country. The route is indeed part of the train connection to Belgrade, but since the floods in Serbia in the summer of 2014 there is only a night train to Belgrade.
Back in 1855, planning began for a rail connection from Belgrade to the Montenegrinan coast. Only in 1976, a full 121 years later, the whole 454 km (282 miles) were opened. With 254 tunnels and 243 bridges, it was the most expensive infrastructure project in Yugoslavia. The railroad overcomes a difference in altitude of 1,000 meters (3,280 feet). The train station of Kolašin, which is my destination, is the highest station along the route at 1,024 meters (3,360 feet).
Shortly after leaving the capital, the train begins to climb. A turquoise river meanders deep down in the canyon next to the rail track. Rivers in Montenegro display colors which you otherwise see only on postcards from Sardinia and the Caribbean.
My eyes quickly wander back and forth between canyons and mountains. A dramatic landscape with small mountain villages in between, in which the unplastered stone houses can only be told apart from the adjacent stables by the satellite dishes. And tunnels, tunnels, tunnels. A quarter of the whole distance runs through tunnels, the longest ones of which are piercing into the mountain for more than 6 km (3.8 miles).
Sitting alone in the compartment, I am writing these notes, but jump up again and again to rush to the window and take photos. On the right hand side the mountains rise as steeply as they fall down on the left. This train journey has to be made at least twice, because once is not enough to absorb everything. There are not many countries in which one can marvel at the most impressive natural beauty in such a simple, convenient and cheap way.
There it is, Mala Rijeka Viaduct. 500 meters (1,636 feet) long and 200 meters (660 feet) deep. The tallest railway bridge in Europe. I see it from afar, then another tunnel, and immediately as it leaves the tunnel, the train is on the bridge. Fantastic views open up. I can’t decide which side to look down first.
The train winds its way across mountain passes, through canyons and across bridges. Building a straight line is impossible in this terrain. The engine takes the enormous ascent impressively easy. At stations like Bratonižići, where one railway employee stands in front of the lonely station building which is surrounded by dense forest, the train doesn’t even stop. It was not only geography which determined the route, but also politics. Before World War I there was an international conflict, mainly between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, about where new long-distance railroads should be built. Serbia, which had no access to the sea, wanted to open up an Adriatic port with the rail connection. Austria-Hungary tried to counter with competing routes. It was this conflict over the Balkans, not the assassination in Sarajevo, which lead to World War I in 1914.
But now it is peaceful. The first snow-covered mountain peaks appear in the distance. Down in the valley, the road winds beside the river, while the train keeps ascending and thrones above all over means of transport. As it should.
At the stop at Lutovo a train which came from the other direction is waiting. Nobody lives around here. Maybe the stop only serves the purpose of allowing the trains to pass because the line is otherwise a single-track line. The railway staff working up here can only get to their place of work by train. Thus the company creates its own demand.
The river has dwindled to a trickle. Caves have been blown into the rock, maybe by partisans during World War II or maybe there was some dynamite left from building the tunnels. Fall-colored foliage, steep granite walls like in Yosemite. In between a lonesome wooden hut. The fir trees on top of the Ostrovica tunnel already wear white. It is October. I would like to make this journey once more, but in wintertime.
The journey to Kolašin took only 78 minutes, but it was 78 minutes of great natural cinema! Leaving the train, I see one of the police officers stretched out across three seats, sleeping, his shoes removed and his tie loosened.
Despite the noon sun, this highest train station in the country receives me with an ice-cold wind. Except for the treetops’ sough, there is absolute silence. Only a few birds are chirping. Most of them have moved away for the winter, have frozen to death or have been eaten by wolves. In a basin there is the town of Kolašin, still a considerable march from the station. 78 minutes on a train, and I feel far away from the lowlands and reminded of the opening chapter of “The Magic Mountain”.
As I look back, the train has already left.
It will continue to Bijelo Polje, deeper into the mountains. Only one row of the chocolate bar is missing because I didn’t have time for it with all that marveling, photographing and writing. Usually, chocolate never survives that long in my company.