Every train lover has heard of it, and practically nobody else has—the magnificent Bar-to-Belgrade Railway.
Comprised of 54 tunnels and 435 bridges across three countries, this marvel of twentieth-century engineering cuts a jaw-dropping path across the Balkan Peninsula, from the Montenegrin seaport of Bar to the Serbian capital of Belgrade.
The railway’s historic night train is frequently (and ill-advisedly) overlooked by travelers excessively preoccupied with the lurid extravagances and stratospheric costs of modern luxury rail lines like the ones operated by Belmond.
Nevertheless, the Bar-to-Belgrade line enjoys well-deserved, legendary status among rail travel enthusiasts, both for its affordability and for its exceptional scenery.
Low Prices, Priceless Views
The Bar-to-Belgrade train is, in fact, two trains. One line, Tara, runs a daytime route, with a 9:00 am departure and an 8:00 pm same-day arrival in both directions. Consisting entirely of second-class carriages, Tara's seats generally sell for about $25 apiece.
While the journey’s inherent magic is best captured by sleeper train—so that the endlessly stunning views of the Balkans' rugged beauty might be taken in from the comfort of one’s bunk—Tara’s dawn-to-dusk schedule makes it a reliable option for catching the route’s scenery at peak visibility in either direction, especially in winter when there is less light.
Choose your window carefully on Tara! For the best views going from Bar to Belgrade, sit on the left side of the train. When going from Belgrade to Bar, sit on the right side of the train.
Tara’s sister line, Lovcen, runs the overnight route between the two cities, departing at 7:00 pm from its starting terminus and reaching the end of its journey at 6:08 am (on the northbound line), or 7:30 am (on the southbound line) on the following day.
Lovcen hauls second-class carriages with seats similar to Tara’s ($24), as well as 6-Berthe and 4-berthe couchettes ($31) and triple sleepers ($39).
For an optimally scenic route on the Lovcen sleeper, rely on the encyclopedic knowledge of Mark Smith, who recommends the southbound train (Belgrade to Bar) in winter for morning views of the Montenegrin countryside. In the summertime, he suggests the northbound train (Bar-to-Belgrade), to maximize daylight on the route’s most scenic portion.
Railcars Straight Out Of History
Lovcen is a classic Eastern European sleeper train—graffiti-stained, ramshackle, and brimming with character.
Onboard, the washrooms are run-down but clean, and traces of smoke may drift through the compartments (an inevitable consequence of passengers covertly lighting cigarettes between the cars). Still, the windows are adjustable, the sheets are freshly laundered, and the bunks are extremely comfortable.
All in all, a berth in one of this train’s couchette or sleeper cars offers a better night’s sleep than many similarly priced hotel stays, not to mention the opportunity to awake to awe-inspiring panoramas of the Dinarides.
Even more excitingly, recent reports confirm that Serbian Railways has been dispatching Plavi Voz Car 2-13—the original staff sleeping car from the historic private train of former Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito—as a standard single sleeper on Lovcen.
A staunch revolutionary, remarkable statesman, and great lover of trains, Tito ordered the creation of Plavi Voz (Croatian for "Blue Train") in large part to enjoy the Bar-to-Belgrade route. Its carriages included a conference parlor car, a saloon-style restaurant car, and Tito's own private car.
For its name, he drew inspiration from a classic French luxury night train, the Calais-Mediterranée Express, which ran between Calais and the French Riviera from 1886 until 2003 and was colloquially referred to as Le Train Bleu (now the name of a stunning modern brasserie in Gare de Lyon station in Paris).
Over several decades in power, Tito used his Blue Train to entertain a litany of illustrious and influential guests, including Yasser Arafat, Sukarno, Elizabeth II of England, and Jawaharlal Nehru. After his death in 1980, it carried his coffin from Ljubljana to Belgrade.
Naturally, the staff sleeping car is much more modest than many of the other offerings on Tito's original train; nevertheless, it is a richly historic relic made all the more remarkable by its occasional appearances on Lovcen.
While a number of historic railcars run on limited-feature or touristic lines, like the British Pullman or the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express, the appearance of such a car on a public line like Lovcen is practically unheard of.
Plavni Voz Car 2-13's presence on the modern Bar-to-Belgrade route is intermittent and unannounced: reserving it is a question of luck alone. Every traveler who books a single sleeper on Lovcen should keep their fingers crossed that they will experience the journey on this marvelous piece of living history.
It isn't possible to reserve tickets for either Tara or Lovcen online, but seats or bunks can be purchased in person at the ticket counters in the Bar and Podgorica railway stations, as well as at Topcider Station in Belgrade.
The Balkans As Never Seen Before
The Lovcen’s dramatic course through the Balkans showcases the region’s wild beauty, featuring sharp inclines and thrilling descents into the verdant wilderness. The northbound Lovcen strarts by traversing the Adriatic Coast outside of Bar, running at sea level, parallel to the shore.
Next, the line follows the shoulder of the stunning Lake Skadar, the largest lake in Southern Europe, on the Montenegrin border with Albania.
After passing Lake Skadar, the line ascends into the Dinarides, meeting with increasingly spectacular scenery. Before sunset, it crosses Mala Rijeka Viaduct, the highest railway bridge in Europe (and, until the early 2000s, in the world).
At a dizzying 650 meters above sea level, this architectural wonder offers a breathtaking of the Montenegrin countryside at dusk: a sublime patchwork of regal peaks, idyllic valleys, and meandering rivers.
As the sun sets, the train continues to climb steeply, reaching its summit not far from the Montenegrin town of Kolašin, at 1000 meters above sea level. Throughout the night, it continues its winding course through the hills and farmlands of rural Serbia before calling in the lively capital of Belgrade on the banks of the Sava and Danube rivers.
Bosnia and Herzegovina en route to its destination.The southbound train follows this route in reverse, with sunset views of the Serbian wilderness and a morning descent towards Podgorica and the Adriatic Sea. In both directions, the line passes briefly through
In either direction and at any time of year, the Lovcen sleeper is one of Europe's best-kept secrets.
Inexpensive, understated, and timelessly scenic, this classic train transforms the 296 miles between Bar and Belgrade into a spectacular overnight journey through the Balkans that no passenger is soon likely to forget.