Travelling the Balkan borderlands from Serbia to Greece is a navigation of the bristling enmities of the former Yugoslavia. By Hamish McDonald.

Through the Balkans

A station in rural Macedonia.
A station in rural Macedonia.
Credit: DOMINIC DUDLEY / Alamy

At 3.50am the train grinds to a halt and there is a knock on my compartment door. “Passport,” says a gruff voice in the corridor. I climb down from my berth and lift the bolt. A Serbian policeman adds my travel document to the pile on his cart and disappears.

It is pointless to try sleeping again. Through the open window, I can see railwaymen wandering up and down the low platform with lamps and flags, and a fettler with a long-handled hammer and torch eyeing the wheels. Jolts indicate the engine is being changed. Beyond the floodlights, the night is dark. By craning out the window and peering at the station building, I can see written in Cyrillic and Roman letters the name of this place: Preševo.

It’s the southernmost town of Serbia. The trip had begun at 6.35 the evening before, from Belgrade’s once grand, now shabby, main railway station located at the bottom of the hilly spine on which the old city extends to the ancient fort commanding the Danube.

The timetable in the booking office described this train as the “Hellas Express”, evoking images of a gleaming blue-and-white, airconditioned fast train full of comforts. It was listed to depart from platform 1.

Upon arriving to board, there seemed to be some mistake. On Platform 1 was what looked like one of the derelict trains falling into ruin on sidings across south-eastern Europe.

I walked past three carriages with rusted roofs, graffiti-covered sides, and broken window blinds. Would Serbian Railways let a train like this outside its borders? But behind the battered diesel engine was a carriage in moderately clean blue and grey paint, marked “Couchette”. This indeed was it.

My allotted berth turned out not to be the bottom one promised in the ticket office. A woman in a floral dress with strong body odour already occupied the compartment, her baggage taking up the entire floor. She pointed me to an upper bunk where I was presumably to perch for the entire 14-hour trip.

Fortunately, the conductor was there to help. Suggesting a modest fee of €10, about a quarter of what the ticket cost, he moved me to a six-berth compartment all of my own.

On time, with the connecting door to the lower-class carriages locked, the train departed. With a can of beer, a small bottle of Serbian red wine, a baguette, some salami and cheese for supper, I settled in for an evening of watching a land of wheat, corn and sunflower fields flow past until, after a final trip to a “WC” – actually without water, opening directly onto the track below – I climbed into the middle bunk, valuables under the pillow, bags on the top bunk and door locked.

The stop at Preševo lasts 20 minutes. The policeman comes back handing out stamped passports. The train trundles slowly ahead. We pass fences topped with razor-wire rolls, and a floodlit compound with vast temporary sheds and accommodation dongas marked UNHCR. We have crossed into Macedonia, third stop after Turkey and Greece for the refugees pouring out of Syria.

We slide into another station and a Macedonian cop collects the passports. Outside, the sky is brightening. Summer weeds grow along the tracks. A dog comes out of a small building to watch us. Beyond the station, a wide plain extends, sparsely dotted with houses. Somewhere up ahead, a male tenor voice sings the Islamic call to prayer. The wait is longer. Someone should open a coffee stall at Tabanovce station. I eat the remains of my baguette, watch the landscape for a while, and turn back into my bunk.

About 7.30am there’s another knock: Time to get off, says the conductor. We’ve crossed Macedonia and arrived at Gevgelija on its southern border. Serbian Railways are not sending this train abroad, it turns out, at least not outside the former Yugoslavia. We are moved to a bus. Another border crossing, into Greece, and we reach Thessaloniki midmorning.

It had been the most Agatha Christie or Graham Greene episode during a month of travels between three capitals of the now-separated republics of the Balkans. If distinctly less luxurious than the 1930s trains of their thrillers, it was free of mysterious fatalities – though passengers from the non-couchette carriages had their tales of woe. Two Spanish girls had kept their documents and money in body-belts, but woke to find their backpacks stolen. An English mother and daughter duo felt the need to take turns staying awake, suspicious of local travellers getting on and off at various intervals.

Travel between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina is visa-free, with border-crossings requiring no more than a scan of passports and a rubber stamp. Trains are less frequent, more expensive and often slower than the efficient intercity buses, which cost the equivalent of about €25 in Serbian dinars, Croatian kuna or Bosnian marks (only Slovenia and Montenegro have joined the euro zone).

Car and minibus shuttle services such as Belgrade’s Terra Travel offer door-to-door transport for a bit less than that, and jam you up against some interesting travel companions. From Budapest to Belgrade, a young Serbian man told me he spent “all his spare moments” reading motivational books: he seemed hyperactively restless with unfulfilled ambition. From Belgrade to Sarajevo, a smartly dressed woman revealed herself as a script development writer going to work on a Bosnian TV comedy series called Don’t Touch My Mum.  

More than the Anglophones, the Balkan Slavs are divided by a common language. One translation of foreign books serves them all. But especially in Croatia, authorities play up minor nuances of accent and phrase to emphasise distinctness. Religion, of course, is the big separator. Catholicism draws the Croatians towards the Germanic north, Orthodox Christianity the Serbs to the East. Both claim Nikola Tesla, the electrical inventor, with museums and memorials in Belgrade and Zagreb. They tally up each other’s atrocities, and nurture the bullet holes and bombsites of the “Homeland Wars” of 1991-95.

Neither emerged with credit from Bosnia in those wars, which have kept the international war crimes court busy. Sarajevo’s Ottoman and Hapsburg centre is restored – its Muslims observed Ramadan this year without expecting others to change their dining habits, and Saudi Arabia and Iran vie for influence. Walls facing out to the encircling mountains are still riddled with sniper fire. Its young study hard, hoping they will not have to leave to find work. 

Croatia joined the European Union in 2013. Just as earlier entrant Slovenia tried to delay Croatia’s accession, to gain border concessions, the Croatians are doing their best to hold up Serbia’s application. “They would be happy to see Serbia out until 2080,” a European diplomat told me over a beer at the Gradska Kavana café on Zagreb’s Ban Josip Jelačić Square. “Or preferably, 2090.”

If Croatia enjoys a tourism vogue – for its Italianate riviera on the Dalmatian coast, its splendid Hapsburg architecture, and clever sites such as Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships – its self-confidence has been shaken by a $US6 billion debt crisis at its biggest private enterprise, a farm-to-supermarket conglomerate called Agrokor.

Even in prosperous coastal cities such as Rijeka – formerly known as Fiume, when Gabriele D’Annunzio set up his proto-fascist state in 1919 – you can see neatly dressed pensioners picking plastic bottles out of rubbish skips to sell to recyclers. Like everywhere else, Zagreb has in-your-face graffiti covering the drab Tito-era fringes where most people live, as well as a wonderful artistic strip along the wall outside its central railway yard. 

In Serbia, the mysticism of Slav nationalism remains. Though a republic, the state emblem is capped with a crown; the preserved remains of ancient, sainted kings are state treasures. Moscow tries to draw it away from Western Europe, and staged an attempted coup last year in closely allied Montenegro in a vain attempt to block Montenegro’s NATO membership. Serbia itself is a long way off formally joining the Atlantic alliance, but this month the Serbian army sent a detachment to United States-led NATO war games around the Black Sea. In June, its president, Aleksandar Vučić, appointed the country’s first female and first openly gay prime minister, Ana Brnabić, defying conservative elements who called this a “Western degenerate plot”. 

Two blocks away from Belgrade’s self-conscious Skadarlija Street “Bohemian Quarter”, where cheesy accordion and violin bands serenade outdoor diners, I found a genuine Bohemian haunt, at a little hole in the wall on Žorža Klemansoa (named for the French statesman Clemenceau). On tables outside, intellectual types play backgammon, smoke herbal rollies and talk long over tiny coffee cups. When I ask for a “Serbian brandy”, the owner supplies one glass of viscous, aniseed-flavoured rakija, another of ice water. The next night, the place is empty. “One of our customers is playing his music somewhere else,” says the owner. “They’ve all gone to listen.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2017 as "Balkan billing".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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