Where the Connecting Europe Express travels slowly, very slowly through the centre of the Balkans.
Well, the only thing I managed to see from Belgrade is the food, which was very good by the way. Also the locally grown chardonnay wasn’t at all bad 🙂 I went with some colleagues to this part of the city called Skadarlija, a very lively street with lots of restaurants.
We had a gourmet Pljeskavica, a national Serbian burger-like meat dish made of a mix of beef, lamb and grilled onions. It can be enjoyed all over the Balkans nowadays. We accompanied it with a fresh salad with onions, cucumber and tomatoes topped with grated cheese, also quite a classic in this whole area.
Serbian cuisine would deserve to be explored further, with their mix of Orthodox Greek, Mediterranean, Turkish and to a lesser extent Central Europe cuisine. A mirror of the complex history of this country.
A gourmet Pljeskavica in a restaurant in Skadarlija streetThe city is quite big – 2.5 million inhabitants – and it is kind of late, so after dinner we all just went back to the hotel. In the morning, at 8 AM, an event is taking place before the Connecting Europe Express with the presence of Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, who said something about the need to ensure economic growth, the right governance, and getting closer to the EU.
Then everyone left for the Western Balkans Rail Summit to discuss all the needs of railways in the area for the future, I am guessing many. I stick with the train though, which leaves Belgrade central station while the summit is still ongoing.
So off we go whistling nonchalantly our way through the wild, green and hilly centre of the Balkans, slowly.. very slowly. Possibly, some segments would be faster covered by bicycle. Why you ask? Well, it’s all a matter of infrastructure building of course, and investments are slow.. very slow, just like the train.
Funny to think that the 200 Km/h fast connection, Chinese-Russian funded line between Belgrade and Budapest is going to be operational soon, possibly in a couple of years. So, in some cases investments do gain speed. It is a line that supports a lot of freight transport.
It’s a pity the rail network is still so underdeveloped here because the Balkans are really a cool area to visit – I did it by car years ago, although on that occasion I didn’t pass by Serbia. The whole area can be a discovery for many travellers looking for off the beaten track destinations, including students on the inter-rail, or any kind of first long term travelling experience.
But also for people looking for easy and efficient train travel. I understand, for example, that in Croatia there are no railways along the coast. Definitely a destination high on tourist radars. Tourism, especially sustainable tourism in the future, is certainly a way to bring economic growth to the country.
Anyways, we keep going and we take advantage of the slow travel conditions to look outside the window and take a lot of photos. From time to time we pass by old Communist time abandoned stations, lots of old locomotives and wagons scattered here and there, but the view is pretty much the same. Wild vegetation, corn and farms, little houses each of them with a vegetable garden. Every now and then some people waving at us. It really feels like being in a remote area, although we are not that far from big European capitals.
There is something mesmerizing about going through an unchanging landscape by train. At one point we can’t make the difference between what we see and what we think of, and the rhythmic tu-tum tu-tum of the rails helps the process. All senses come together, a good moment to gather one’s own thoughts.
Perhaps, for the first time since our departure in Lisbon, I’ll be able to pick up a book and read a little bit, one of the best things to do on the train. The conditions are right. I’ll see if I have a Balkan writer in my e-book, or at least a book about adventures and travel. Jack London comes to mind right away, or Jules Verne, I certainly have some of their books.
Today’s border crossing approaches, we are still on one of the Orient Express routes, and today we enter North Macedonia, but we’ll arrive late and probably darkness will have already taken over. Day 12 is going to find its real finish on the train.
Our mascot Chickee is also travelling on the Connecting Europe Express and having his own special journey. She also has her own Instagram account. Here are some of her adventures.