Day 8: Belgrade to Podgorica
Goodbye Belgrade – we head for the train station and get in the long queue to catch our replacement bus service.
The trains have got progressively shitter as I've gone further east and, when we finally reach it, this one is the worst yet. There is no dining car or even a coffee bar, the windows are graffitied some to the point of obliterating any view, and second class is both dirty and stewing warm. To be fair, the 10-hour journey costs just over €20, or around 40p an hour, which is a bargain even by Brummie standards.
The reason we are doing this is that the journey is a seat61.com top pick – "one of Europe's most spectacular train rides" – as it will take us up into the mountains of Montenegro, in and out of around 400+ tunnels, across 200+ bridges and over Europe's highest viaduct before descending into the capital Podgorica.
Thanks to Mr Popovic we know the train has been declassified so we quickly shift to first class, which is slightly nicer with reclining seats and a clear window. We settle down to pass the time, me looking, Pete reading.
We are sharing our old-school six-seat carriage with a guy who looks like a sexy hitman, and things are pleasantly quiet until three burly old Serb fishermen enter. Their conversation doesn't pause for several hours. I have no idea what they are saying and very soon want Sexy Hitman to finish them off. Serbian should be a lovely language to listen to with its soft shmuzhy consonants and zhuszhes and itzas but any language spoken relentlessly is a form of travel torture. We three quiet imprisoned passengers all resort to headphones. Too late, local touts board the train selling beer and soda and an alternative option for escape.
The busy carriages and few remaining functioning toilets hum with the smell of sweat and sewage. Smoke fills the corridors and pervades the carriages. The air is oppressive and I find myself counting down the hours, not to Podgorica but to smelling fresh air again. But, of course, there are the dual border checks and the train randomly stops for nearly an hour en route and so we are once again running late. This is how a 300-mile journey takes 11 hours.
Fortunately, the general discomfort is more than outdone by the fact that we are travelling through a green version of the Alps, and even here the train climbs high enough to venture above the snow line.
I spend the last hour out in the corridor, staring far down into the valley at tiny moving cars a thousand metres below and muttering 'inconceivable' and 'unbelievable' at how the hell this crappy commuter train got up here and wondering if we'll essentially be riding a rollercoaster down into the valley.
We arrive into Podgorica in darkness. Taxi touts swarm around, crossing the tracks to chase down business. We follow the hotel's instructions to look for Halo or Red cab companies and soon we are enjoying our splash-out boutique hotel (£68 for two inc full breakfast), with the best monsoon shower and an unexpected mirrored ceiling. I didn't see that in the reviews.
The joys of comfort and cleanliness and fresh air last only 30 minutes before I realise my small purse with my currency and Visa card in is missing, possibly lost in the back of the cab or back on the train as I packed up. After a long day I feel overwhelmed with emotions and having to deal with stopping all the credit cards. I want to kick myself for being so lax.
After all the cancelling is done, we go out for French fries and then a beer in Bar Berlin over the road to unwind, listen to music and not talk.
I am besieged by thoughts that I am a much less robust traveller than I think. I contemplate all that work planning the trip, organising the different currencies, checking Google Streetview, making a spreadsheet – and how I've just gone and fucked it up.