hidden europe 47

Slow train to Sarajevo

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia & Herzegovina, is served by just one international train each day (photo © Dejan Vekic / dreamstime.com)


Twenty years ago this autumn, the Dayton Peace Accord brought a measure of peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Join us as we take the train from Zagreb to Sarajevo, travelling through a region which still bears the scars of war.

The editors of hidden europe, Susanne Kries and Nicky Gardner, are busy preparing a completely new edition of their book ‘Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers’. It will be published in 2016 by European Rail Timetable Ltd. You can find out more about the upcoming book at www.europebyrail.eu, where you can sign up to receive e-mail notification of publication and other news about the book. This article for hidden europe gives a sneak preview of one of the rail journeys featured in the book.

The main railway station in the Croatian capital was designed for grand departures. This neoclassical Habsburg building is one of the finest stations designed by Hungarian architect Ferenc Pfaff. Half a century ago, the departure boards at Zagreb Glavni kolodvor recorded the passage of trains to Athens, Hamburg, Istanbul and Paris.

But today our sights are set on Sarajevo. In 1980, the year in which Tito died, there were five direct trains each day from Zagreb to Sarajevo, with the fastest of them taking 5 hrs 40 mins for the 496-km journey. The late-afternoon express on the route was one of Yugoslavia’s premium trains, carrying only firstclass carriages and running non-stop from Zagreb to Doboj, a distance of 324 kilometres. A picture of President Tito hung in the train’s buffet car which served supa, stuffed peppers and Sarajevo beer.

Those were the days. The break-up of Yugoslavia did no favours to the country’s railway network which has now been starved of investment for a quarter of a century. It shows in the timetables. Today, there is just one train each day from Zagreb to Sarajevo and the journey between the two capitals takes nine hours. Yet, for those not in a hurry, this train journey from Croatia to Bosnia is one well worth making.

Take a look around the vicinity of the station before leaving Zagreb. The north is the posh side of the railway tracks. The distinguished Croatian writer Miroslav Krleza wrote a damning essay on social (and spatial) divides in Zagreb in 1937. To the north of the station, he found “hot water, roulette, lifts, on parle français, Europe, good!” Over on the south side of the railway there were “open cesspits, malaria…Balkan, a sorry province.” To Krleza, those quarters of Zagreb beyond the railway were “the back of beyond, Asia.” That from a left-leaningwriter who was keen to shock the Zagreb bourgeoisie (all by definition residing north of the railway) out of their complacency.

Nowadays, the cesspits south of the tracks are long gone and the district between the railway and the river, while not pretty, is an edgy part of town where activists protest against real estate speculators. Even Zagreb has its rebel zone.

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