The Belgrade-Sarajevo train takes 9 hours, chugging along at the steady pace of most Balkan transport. If it arrives on time, great. If not, oh well. The French aren’t the only ones with a great national shrug.
The train is only a few mismatched carriages long. It’s a little grimy and the windows are blurred, with the seats having a slightly 50s-airline feel to them. If you take it as it is, it’s a pretty unremarkable train. When you learn a little about its history, however, you start to appreciate it for what it really is. Everybody – including any brief tourist who has read a quick history of the area – boards the train knowing what significance it carries. This journey didn’t exist for 18 years, and during the war almost all communication between the capitals of Bosnia and Serbia was completely shut off. Before that this slow, shabby, behemoth of a train, was once pride of Yugoslavia. Named the ‘Olympic Express’, it was once decorated with plush red carpet and manned by smiling stewardesses. It ferried eager tourists, skiers and industrial figureheads between two of Yugoslavia’s biggest cities; a bastion of the communist country’s success. When war came, the train was discontinued.
The rail line only opened again in 2009, showing that there has at least been some progress in knitting this region back together.
The journey pops you briefly into Croatia before you hit Bosnia (taking us to the third country of trip before our second, confusingly) which means your passport gets an array of stamps, each with their own little steam-engine symbol. And it’s when you hit Bosnia that the view out of the window starts to really impress. The train twists over a valley floor, with the mountains in the distance inching ever closer as the journey progresses. Bosnia was lush when we chugged through in the last few days of August, and you have to peer through the greenery to see the life behind it. But every now and again you are rewarded with a glimpse of the beautiful white brick and red roofs of the villages. Some cluster at the bottom of the hills whilst others spread out across the valley floor, each with church spires and mosque domes mixing at their centres. Every now and then a tidy white bricked farm appears with a sleepy dog watching you as you trundle past.
And there, through the trees, I spied something I had been looking for since we hit the Bosnian border. A Cousin Itt. Sitting in the middle of the field, with a wooden pole sticking horizontally out of the top. Five of them, actually. Two middle sized ones, one larger one with a big shaggy head, and another short fat one. And then one podgy looking one in the background staring longing at the crowd, wanting to be included.
Ok, maybe I am anthropomorphising these haystacks a little too much. But they have fascinated me ever since I took my first book out of the library for my dissertation and saw these fascinating Cousin Itt-like haystacks on the front page. I have no idea if this way of stacking hay is common in other places, but for some reason these hunched, almost human shapes of hay standing alone in the centre of empty fields like overweight scarecrows just make me smile.
They are a great symbol of the countryside, and as you come into Sarajevo this starts to fall away. The villages turn to towns and the well-spaced, two-floor red roofed buildings are jumbled together between the high rises. The gentle hills turn into rugged peaks, which I later found out were in the Dinaric Alps.
The first glimpse of Sarajevo is hardly inspiring. This was something we quickly learnt when travelling around by train; you never enter the prettiest part of town. In fact, train stations are usually the most run-down parts of any city all over the world. On our approach to Sarajevo, we saw the back of huge warehouses and empty scrubland that made up Sarajevo’s industrial heart.
It was with a heavy heart that the train eventually stopped in Sarajevo. Not because we weren’t excited to arrive – my dissertation was focused on Bosnia and it was this country that fascinated me and brought me to the region – but because we had to get our enormous rucksacks down from the luggage racks. Mine just about hit 9kg; my friend’s came to 11kg. This meant that we were in line to become the next Team GB Olympic weight lifters.
After dragging our bags out of Sarajevo train station – a cavernous, soulless building with absolutely no indication of where or when trains were arriving/departing – we stood in front of an enormous car-park sized area of scrubland and sweated in the early afternoon heat.