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 federation’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 Croatia’s Adriatic coast (or vice versa). Guests spend five to nine hours a day aboard trains—which range from Bosnia’s old but endearing carriages to Croatia’s modern, if nondescript, ones—before stopping for the night at the region’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 route—eerie canyons so deep they rarely see daylight; fields of mustard and wheat gleaming in the midday sun; long-abandoned stone fortresses straddling craggy ridges—and you’ve got a journey that is as edifying as it is inspiring. —Leisa Tyler
Railbookers’ Balkan Grand Tour is priced from US$1,280 per person, twin share, including hotel accommodation, breakfasts, transfers, and train tickets.
This article originally appeared in the April/May print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“On Track In The Balkans”)