Built by the Ottoman and then Austrian-Hungarian empires in the mid 19th century, rail lines once crisscrossed much of the Western Balkans, from the shores of Montenegro to the pine-carpeted mountains of Serbia. With the start of the Yugoslav Wars in 1991, however, train travel in the former Yugoslavia ground to a halt as the federationâ€™s six socialist republics fragmented into independent states, sparking a decade of bloody ethnic conflicts. Thankfully, the region has put that era behind it, and the tracks once operated by the state-run Yugoslav Railways were returned to service six years ago, operated by their respective countries as part of a network that offers not only pretty landscapes, but also a window into reconciliation.
Easing the way for rail buffs is the 11-night Balkan Grand Tour from Sydney-based train specialists Railbookers, a special itinerary that zigzags between the Hungarian capital of Budapest and Dubrovnik on Croatiaâ€™s Adriatic coast (or vice versa). Guests spend five to nine hours a day aboard trainsâ€”which range from Bosniaâ€™s old but endearing carriages to Croatiaâ€™s modern, if nondescript, onesâ€”before stopping for the night at the regionâ€™s most poignant cities. These include the old Ottoman trading town of Mostar, whose splendid 16th-century bridge and rickety old town were destroyed by Croatian bombs in the early 1990s but have since been rebuilt and awarded World Heritage status; sobering Sarajevo, still pockmarked with bullet holes from its four-year siege by the Bosnian Serb Army; and Belgrade, the fiercely independent Slavic city and Serbian capital renowned for its welcoming people but gritty, dark character. Throw in some dramatic scenery en routeâ€”eerie canyons so deep they rarely see daylight; fields of mustard and wheat gleaming in the midday sun; long-abandoned stone fortresses straddling craggy ridgesâ€”and youâ€™ve got a journey that is as edifying as it is inspiring.Â â€”Leisa Tyler
Railbookersâ€™ Balkan Grand Tour is priced from US$1,280 per person, twin share, including hotel accommodation, breakfasts, transfers, and train tickets.Â
This article originally appeared in theÂ April/MayÂ print issue of DestinAsian magazine (â€śOn Track In The Balkansâ€ť)