On Friday morning it was time to say “dovidjene” to Belgrade (and Serbia) and “dobar dan” to Sarajevo (and Bosnia). I’d already purchased my train ticket for the 9 hour journey (a whopping $22): all I had to do the morning of departure was to grab a few supplies (there’s no meal car on this recently relaunched) route, and exchange my Serbian dinars for either € or Bosnian konvertible markka (km). I’d scoped out the grocery store the night before, so I was in and out of there by 07h45–plenty of time for my 08h15 train.
Except I forgot about exchanging the dinar–more about that later.
I thought I was being a bit silly boarding the train at 08h00…until i got on. the more seasoned travelers were all already onboard, marking their territories, doing anything they can to discourage having to share their (6 seat) cabins with strangers. Luckily, being a non-smoker in Serbia means many more seats available in the non-smoking car. Rather quickly I found a pod with one woman in it: we smiled, said “dobar dan” and both settled into our reading. Which was perfect, because there wasn’t much else I could say to her anyways… ne govorime bosanski (I don’t speak Bosnian).
The train passes through Croatia en route to Bosnia–that means two border crossings each with two transactions. Firs the Serb folks come on, see who’s leaving the country, then the Croatians see who’s coming in. A couple of hours later the Croatians see who’s leaving and the Bosnians who’s coming in. nary a question or comment: just a “hvala” and a passport stamp. Of course they didn’t stamp the Bosnian woman’s passport even once. Yugosphere, don’t ya know. And…at each border one country’s conductors march off, the locomotive is disconnected, a new locomotive attached and a new team of conductors come on board. Which, unsuprisingly, takes waaay longer than scheduled. Hence our first delay of the day. Times two (once entering Croatia, then again entering Serbia).
The three car train’s coaches were typical Serbian Railways: former Yugoslav railway cars from the 1980s. The bog was hideous–no exaggeration. The seats were worn and the floors grotty. And the smoking–oy the smoking! Apparently non-smoking means “stand outside the non-smoking pod with the door open and puff away.” I was a good Canadian: I quietly seethed rather than (try) to say anything.
In fact, the train journey was something of a metaphor for the three countries. On the Serbian sector the conductors were decently groomed, but no one’s uniform fit: they either swam in them or were bursting out of them. The Bosnians were decidely more casual. The Croatians all were impeccably groomed and their unforms very nicely fitted. They clearly were stylin’. In fact, the Croatian Railways trains we passed were also decidedly more modern looking.
Not many people got off or on in Serbia or Croatia, but as soon as we were in Bosnia the train was like a revolving door. Lots of folks getting on and off at each station. So for the last 4 hours of the journey we had 1-2 new people join us at nearly every stop. In the end we had a jovial farmer who I suspect was bringing his fresh cherries to the Sarajevo markets. The two large buckets overflowing with cherries was something of a clue. I thought it was awesome how folks passing by would grab one as they passed and he just smiled. Very cool. My first impression of Bosnians (fruit dude and my long time lady companion) was they’re very salt of the earth. I like that . For last couple of hours we were joined by a young man one sees a lot of in the region: very tall, razor thin, black hair and chain smoking. Southern Slav, in other words…
About three hours from Sarajevo things got very exciting, however. Belgrade was having a hateful heatwave when we left: 35C each day, only getting down to about 20C at night. When our train left it was already at least 25C and humid. A cold front was making its way East though, and it got to Bosnia first. Very quickly dark rainclouds appeared, which then let loose a monsoon-like deluge. Which was mixed with hail. Then it was all hail. Then all golfball sized hail. For about 20 minutes. All the other passengers had their mobile phones out taking video or photos. But it was sure cooler afterwards.
I suspect the driver couldn’t see very far in front of him, so we stopped at the next station for a long while. Then longer. Turns out a bridge signal wasn’t working. Eventually we got moving again and arrived in Sarajevo around 90 minutes late. So that’s a nearly 11 hour journey. The Sarajevo station had no tourist office, no ATM machine, no currency exchange (remember those dinars), and it was POURING out. So I dug out my hand Vancouver 2010 poncho, and rolled off into the twilight in search of an ATM. Found one in about 10 minutes…though my VanCity cards wouldn’t work. Stuff it, I thought, and took out a small cash advance on my Visa. Needed.To.Get.To.Hotel.Stat.
I see an empty taxi and wave and smile. He turns around and drives in the opposite direction (did I look like a Blue Meany or something?). Then I find a taxi stand…but give up waiting for one to show up. Then I find a shopping mall…with no public washrooms (I needed to go before the train arrived; by now I was dying for a wee). But then I look and see the infamous Sarajevo Holiday Inn! Where there’s a queue of taxi drivers. I was at my hotel in 5 minutes and weeing in 5 more. A nice hot shower and I was ready for Sarajevo!
My hotel–the Hotel Hecco Deluxe–is at one end of Ferhadija, the pedestrian high street leading into Bascarija, the Old Town. Great location. As it was Friday night, many observant Muslims were off to one of the 5 or so mosques in the neighborhood. But lots more folks were out for their Friday stroll. From the onset Sarajevo had a very chill vibe compared to Belgrade.