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Balkans train journeys: travels with Tito
Adrian Bridge follows in the footsteps of former heads of state on a luxury trip through the Balkans aboard the train known as the Yugoslav president’s 'Palace on Wheels’.
By Adrian Bridge
8:00AM BST 12 May 2013
It’s not often that you get to enjoy a train journey through some of the most dramatic scenery in southern Europe in the company of the Queen, the former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, the one-time Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first leader of an independent India.
But there I was tucking in to some Vojvodina pork cutlets and familiarising myself with a fruity Macedonian red, when, in addition to the striking mountain ranges and ravines I kept spotting through the window, I couldn’t help but notice the presence above me of an extraordinary array of past and present world leaders and heads of state.
They were not, of course, there in person, but instead were the subjects of a series of black-and-white photographs adorning the upper reaches of the dining car in which I had settled for what I hoped would be a very long lunch breaking up the magical journey between the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and the Montenegrin port of Bar.
Like me, the gathered dignatories had all been on this train. But their journeys happened long ago, when the land through which we were travelling was known as Yugoslavia and when the man in charge was one Marshal Josip Tito. Back then you had to be invited to come on board what was known as the “Blue Train”, the Yugoslav president’s “palace on wheels”. Here it was that Tito feted (and skilfully played off against one another) the leaders of West and East as he distanced his country from the dominant power blocs of the time and forged an alternative set of alliances revolving around what became known as the Non-Aligned Movement.
What vital discussions must have been held in the grand conference carriage that still contains the 28 burgundy leather seats on which the negotiating parties would have sat? What crucial agreements would have been sealed over a wink and a glass of slivovic plum brandy on the light-green sofas in the drawing-room carriage? What fun and games there must have been on board, too. For all the international diplomacy, Tito was a man who enjoyed life’s pleasures. He may well have entertained scores of world leaders in the train – and covered a lot of ground both inside and outside the borders of the former Yugoslavia – but his favourite journey was always the one taking him away from the bustle of Belgrade to the Croatian town of Pula, a short boat ride away from his holiday home on the islands of Brioni.
These days you do not need to be a head of state to ride the Blue Train. I was part of a small group on the first of what will be a series of journeys between Belgrade and Bar that are being offered for the first time this summer by the specialist British operator Explore Montenegro. It is a bold, unprecedented venture.
Since its final journey with Tito – the one in which the coffin bearing his body was taken from Ljubljana to Belgrade following his death in May 1980 – the Blue Train has barely seen active service. In the final years of the old Yugoslavia it still made the odd foray for official purposes; more recently it has been used for occasional private hire. For most of the past 33 years, however, it has lain dormant in a railway siding in a suburb of the Serbian capital. Until now.
And there was no mistaking that the train was back as we turned up at Belgrade’s main station shortly after 8.30am one Saturday late last month for the inaugural voyage. Those blue carriages were positively gleaming. The guards and staff were pristine, too: dressed in freshly pressed navy blue jackets and trousers; crisply ironed shirts; immaculate white gloves.
The journey back to another era continued inside as we were given a tour of the carriages, looking almost exactly as they would have done in Tito’s time, right down to those burgundy red chairs, the pale green sofas, some lovely marquetry in the dining car and bar, and the window from which the president used to deliver speeches in favour of his very particular form of market-socialism.
Further along the train we passed a carriage consisting of separate compartments before reaching Tito’s private quarters – with an office, the presidential bedroom, a large bathroom with two sinks and a powder-blue bath, and a connecting room, referred to diplomatically as the “Companion’s Room”. (Tito was not noted for his fidelity.)
With the exception of a British-manufactured air-conditioning system and a German-built Grundig radio, almost everything on the train was manufactured in Yugoslavia, a fact of which Tito – who in his firebrand revolutionary communist youth was himself employed on the railways – was immensely proud.
At the time of its construction in the late Fifties, the Blue Train was hailed as the most luxurious in the world. Although it clearly has a dated feel – not to mention some floral flourishes and colour choices that wouldn’t be made today – it still has a certain style. Let’s call it retro Yugo chic.
Showing us around was Thomas Popovic, one of only four people still alive who served on the train during the Tito days. Now 75, he remembers his former boss with affection and beams as we leave Belgrade and the Danube and Sava rivers far behind us and enter the plains of Serbia. “It’s great to see it back in service; a train like this should never be left in a railway shed,” he said. “I wish Tito could come back too.”
Not everyone in this part of the world would go that far – Tito was, after all, a dictator who was no stranger to ruthlessness – but there are plenty who do look back nostalgically at a time when the country was a player on the world stage, when it attracted tourists in their droves, and when, by and large, there was prosperity, freedom to travel, and peace.
Whatever they thought of the man, the people we encountered liked his train. We received looks of disbelief as we trundled past; heads turned; eyes bulged; children and even adults waved.
The landscape felt lusher and hillier as we left the plains of Serbia behind and approached Uzˇice, the place that catapulted Tito the partisan to global fame when, for a few weeks in 1943, it became the first territory in Europe to liberate itself from the Nazis. Popovic, an Uzˇice man, beamed again.
He recalled Tito addressing him affectionately as “comrade”. He recalled too some of his master’s foibles: his preference for sitting on the right-hand side of the train (facing forwards); his tendency, despite being an atheist, to exclaim “My God!”; his liking for pasta with turkey slices and cheese (a favourite in Croatia, Tito’s homeland); his wife Jovanka’s fastidious insistence on cleanliness.
Popovic was on board in 1970 for the longest trip the train ever made – to Paris – and again for its final crowd-drawing journey with Tito’s coffin in 1980.
Popovic was also there when, in 1976, the Blue Train was the first to complete a journey on a brand new railway line – the 476km stretch that linked Belgrade with Bar on the Adriatic. Passing through what are now three countries (Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Hercegovina), the line incorporates 435 bridges, 254 tunnels and (at Mala Rijeka) the tallest railway viaduct in Europe. It was, with justification, hailed as a triumph of engineering at the time.
After crossing into Montenegro, the journey along the valley of the Tara river is genuinely astounding. Dramatic peak after dramatic peak flashed by as we began our ascent to the town of Kolasˇin, the highest point on the route. As we climbed ever higher we passed through some stupendous gorges and had wonderful views of canyons below and streams of gushing water – excellent, we were told, for white-water rafting.
Late in the afternoon we saw snow-capped peaks – a reminder of the fact that, in addition to being fantastic hiking territory, this is also ski country.
Then began the rapid descent to the coast. Railway buffs on board (who included Mark Smith, “the Man in Seat 61”) delighted in revealing that the gradient of this particular stretch was one of the steepest on the planet. (To get technical, it drops 1,000m in 70km.)
You didn’t have to be a buff, though, to recognise the screech of the brakes and a slight smell of burning, lending the experience genuine authenticity, not to say urgency (though there was, we were assured, absolutely no danger).
By the time we reached the Mala Rijeka viaduct, night was falling, but its vast supporting structures were just about discernible and a cheer went up.
From then on it was downhill all the way – to the Montenegrin city of Podgorica (formerly Titograd) and the waters of Lake Skadar, shimmering in the moonlight; to the coastal port of Bar and the promise of the Adriatic.
I’ve done a few train journeys in my time but this – a unique combination incorporating significant recent history and stupendous scenery – really is something special.
As we began to get the scent of the sea, we raised our glasses.
The Blue Train rides again.
Tito’s Blue Train Essentials
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit Serbia and Montenegro is between late April and the end of October, though in the height of summer (Mid-July to the end of August) it can get very hot and crowded – especially along the coast.
Airlines flying from the UK to Belgrade include, from Luton, Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com), and from Heathrow, Serbia’s flag-carrier, Jat Airways (020 8976 6000; jat.com). Montenegro Airlines (020 7864 4032; montenegroairlines.com) flies twice a week between Gatwick and Tivat. Further up the coast, Dubrovnik is served by a host of airlines. For fares and frequencies, see travelsupermarket.com and skyscanner.net.
TICKET TO RIDE
Places on Tito’s Blue Train for the journey between Belgrade and Bar (and vice versa) are being offered exclusively this summer by the British specialist operator Explore Montenegro (020 7118 1002; montenegroholidays.com) on a number of dates between now and early October. The price for a one-way journey (scheduled to last about 11 hours) is Ł99. This includes coffee, tea and a four-course lunch on board, and an expert commentary on what you are seeing. For what you get, it is excellent value.
For those wanting to incorporate the train ride into a longer trip, Explore Montenegro also offers a five-night package from Ł899 per person including return flights from London (Luton – Belgrade, Dubrovnik – Gatwick), five nights’ accommodation (one in the characterful Hotel Moskva in Belgrade and four in Montenegro), traditional dinner and guided tour of Belgrade, fully inclusive day on the Blue Train and a boat trip around the Bay of Kotor. All transfers included.
While there is a certain logic in doing the Tito train ride from the city to the coast (Belgrade to Bar), there is also a strong case for doing it the other way round. Both journeys start at 9am which means that if travelling from the coast you will enjoy the most spectacular scenery (through Montenegro) in clear daylight. Travelling from Belgrade, the light might be beginning to fade for this stretch.
Don’t leave Montenegro without trying at least one bottle of Vranac (Black Stallion) red.
Join locals at the Belgrade Fortress to catch the sun setting at the spot where the river Danube merges with the Sava.
Ł1 buys you 131 Serbian dinar and about nine Croatian kuna. The currency in Montenegro is the euro, even though the country is not even a member of the European Union.
ON THE TITO TRAIL
There are a number Tito-related sights in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, including:
Kumrovec, a village in northern Croatia, is the place in which Tito was born (his father was Croatian, his mother Slovenian). His former home is now a museum forming part of a larger collection of houses depicting how life was lived in Croatia in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.
The Valley of Heroes in Bosnia commemorates the place where in May/June 1943 the Partisan forces led by Tito managed to escape a vastly superior German and Axis force and then re-group.
The Croatian islands of Brioni where Tito liked to sun himself were also the place he entertained among others, Sofia Loren, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Today the islands are a national park with several hotels. Vila Bled in Slovenia, another picturesque spot in which Tito liked to relax, now an upmarket hotel.
The Technical Museum of Slovenia in Bistra contains several of the prestigious cars presented to Tito – including a 1937 Packard (a gift from Stalin before they fell out), a 1939 Mercedes and a 1952 Rolls-Royce.
The Tito Mausoleum is located in the House of Flowers in the lovely garden of what used to be his Belgrade residence. Nearby is a museum containg some of the vast number of gifts he received – including African spears, Burmese swords and brightly coloured Bolivian costumes.
WHAT TO AVOID
Throughout the former Yugoslavia the subject of the war will inevitably come up. Try not to be judgemental.
DID YOU KNOW?
The bar-lined Stahinjica Bana Street in Belgrade is known as Silicon Valley.