Each Tuesday I will be recalling an overseas train journey that I have undertaken.
Skopje to Belgrade Overnight Train
No trip around Eastern Europe would be complete without an overnight train journey.
One day there will probably be high speed routes and super modern trains in the region, making slow progress through the night a rarer experience – a huge loss in my opinion.
For now there are still plenty of opportunities to bunk up for the night in your carriage, being lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the train and the tinkling sound of wheeltappers.
We had bought our ticket from Skopje to Belgrade upon arrival that same morning from Kosovo. The worrying aspect was we were not able to secure our berth for the journey until we saw the guard on the train.
Our train would start from Thessaloniki in the evening and arrive in Skopje around 10pm. What if all berths were taken? What if we would be crammed in with four others who would be already snoring loudly as we would have to clamber up to the top bunks in the dark?
These and other unsavory thoughts crossed our minds, which were luckily soon diverted by the sheer tackiness of Skopje.
After a day of disbelief (and a very good short excursion), we arrived back at the hideous train/bus station to retrieve our bags.
We had just enough coinage left to buy some Balkan style jaffa cakes, some cheese nachos (old favourites from my inter-rail days and still an essential train journey staple), some bananas and water.
Having already drunk three dark beers and wanting to avoid 3am toilet trips from the top bunk, we unusually did not bring any more beer with us.
We waited for the arrival of our train on the cold, dark platform. We only had a couple of drunks for company and at one point one of them tried to engage in some slurred conversation with us, to which we grunted something along the lines of “we don’t understand,” before swiftly moving along the platform.
The train and huge diesel locomotive pulled in fifteen minutes late and two anxious travellers made a rapid beeline for the sleeping compartment. Our anxiety was happily unfounded as we were allocated a six-berth carriage to ourselves for €6 each and were soon happily laying out crisp white sheets on the lower bunks.
What we initially considered as great fortune, soon dissipated however……
We realised that the heat was on full power as we started to fry. Unfortunately the on/off slider control had no effect on the temperature. We had two options, move to another carriage or roast.
Just like the heating control however, the train guard refused to yield. He intimated that all carriages were the same and that the full-on heat was controlled centrally with just two settings – off and red hot!
He refused the off option on the basis that it would get cold later. Like the rogue heating system, we were stuck. What had only moments earlier appeared to be a comfortable journey in the offing, turned into an irritating, sleepless, fractious journey. I even shouted out “this is absolute b******s!” at one point in the early hours as I struggled to cope with the prickly heat.
To make matters worse, the window refused to open. I immediately thought of Matthew Woodward who had described such a predicament on his trans-Siberian adventure recounted in his excellent book Trans-Siberian Adventures. I will leave you to take a read of his account, which involves a spanner and some sheer panic!
Our route would take us through Niš, infamous as the start point of our most tortuous train trip ever in 2006 as we made our way to Sofia. You can read my account here for what was a completely opposite issue i.e. sub-zero temperatures. We considered that the curse of Niš had struck again!
I moved to the middle bunk in a vain attempt for some respite, but did thankfully at least sleep for a few hours to avoid having to read any ‘welcome to Niš’ signage.
We had fallen an hour behind schedule during our fitful sleep, scuppering any lingering thoughts we may have had to take a side trip to Novi Sad before returning to Belgrade and onwards to Timișoara in România.
It was now morning, 06.30 to be precise, and a chance to view some of the Serbian countryside slipping by. We stopped in a few small stations, joyfully each stop sending a wheeltapper scurrying over to tap the wheels of the train to sound out whether any may have become damaged since the last station.
Something tickles me about wheeltappers. I am always reminded of the classic Will Hay film, ‘Oh, Mr Porter’. At the start of the film he his asked why he taps the train wheels, to which he replies, “when it goes clang I know that the wheel is there and if it doesn’t go clang I know the train has left already.” You can watch the highly amusing oldie by clicking on Porter.
Back to the present, I also noticed how smart all the stations guards looked in their immaculate uniforms. A far cry from some of the scruffy so and so’s serving the UK’s Network Rail.
We finally reached the outskirts of Belgrade, with the usual train graveyards & maintenance stock, plus the familiar sight of the bridge over the Danube.
We pulled in just before 9. My impoverished inter-rail days of the late ’80s came flooding back as I arrived feeling tired, irritated & unwashed.
Arrival Into Belgrade
We would be heading straight off to the Belgrade Dunav Station for our train to Vrsac on the Romanian border, from where we would take another train to Timisoara.
We had no idea where Dunav was, but I was immediately in that unpleasant situation of needing a wash to think straight, needing some Serbian coins to gain entry to the less than inviting station toilets, whilst not being able to think straight enough to work out how to get the small amount of currency we may need for our short stay in the Serbian capital. A vicious circle of dithering!
I was very irritable with it all, but eventually after much deliberation decided that a wash was priority number one and all else could wait.
I therefore changed €5 at an awful exchange rate in the station bureau de change, bought my way into the dank facilities and washed in freezing cold water as dishevelled blokes went through their toilet rituals around me. That was one memory that I hadn’t minded leaving firmly in the past!
When I dropped my toothbrush on the bathroom floor, I figured that it would never survive the bacteria attack and promptly binned it, leaving me to clean my teeth with my finger!
Hamish had used my ablution time wisely and got information about how to get to the station. We could walk 300 metres and catch a bus taking twenty-minutes to get there.
After watching two packed rush-hour buses sail through without stopping, we abandoned that idea. Not that getting a taxi was much easier. I first drew out about €10 worth of local beans, then we flagged down two taxis who had no idea of where we wanted to go, before resignedly trudging back to Belgrade Central (nowadays only serving a few local trains) to try & find a driver who did know. Fifth time lucky……
That was just the start of our fun. We were dropped near the front of the nondescript and decidedly tatty Dunav station building. There was not much clue that it was a station, maybe a sign as to why taxi drivers were seemingly unaware of its presence.
Upon entering our hearts sank. A scrawled note pronounced, ‘ No Trains Romania’. The train lady behind the counter was less than helpful, giving us a shoulder shrug and a response of “no train” when asked how we could get to Romania.
We agreed, we would get to Vrsac near the Romanian border and chance our arm there. Tickets procured for eighty minutes hence, I now needed to assuage my need for coffee. There was a shabby looking cafe adjacent to the station and there we headed, more in hope than expectation.
As soon as we opened the door to the dingy place, we were hit with a wall of oily food aroma mixed with thick cigarette smoke. Someone approached us from the dark depths, but we did not have time to see who it was as we shut the door and scarpered.
After a few minutes we found a bakery selling pastries & sandwiches. Unfortunately for Hamish all the fresh sarnies contained ham, leaving him to consume a cheese pie soaked in grease. My cheese & ham roll was very tasty in contrast.
As the pie weighed heavily on Hamish’s stomach, we were pointed in the direction of a coffee shop. The pleasant place did a lovely latte, had an immaculate bathroom for a second all together more refreshing wash, plus power points to recharge our phones. Things were looking up!
It was soon time to go and find our train north.
Travelling By Train Across The Balkans
You can read more about my Balkan train adventures in my book that is now available from Amazon.