"Without question, this is the best $6.34 I've ever spent. Ever." That's all I can keep thinking to myself as my train rumbles through the stunningly gorgeous Bosnian mountain landscape on a three-hour journey from Sarajevo to Mostar.
While the bus and roadway between these two towns travel through the bottom of the valleys, the railway snakes across the tops of the mountains, offering vistas like this:
It's not a journey for the faint of heart. Amenities like toilet paper and soap in the stations, signs in English and the high-speed trains of Western Europe seem like a distant luxury, worlds away from this seemingly untouched pocket of the Balkans. The train's wood-paneled interior, lineoleum flooring and well-worn upholstery recalls the styling of 1970s rec rooms, or an old recliner in dire need of repair.
But it's also strangely comforting, a connection to Yugoslavia before its brutal civil war. Communist, yes, but also an era fondly recalled by many for its prosperity, universal health care, and tolerance between religious factions.
As the train leaves the hillside of Sarajevo, with its orange-roofed houses creeping up the mountains and hundreds of minarets pointing upwards, I recall the morning journey, and publish some of the details here, since online information about the trip is scarce.
Taxis in Sarajevo are cheap, plentiful, and seemingly honest, with every driver that I had running the meter, conveniently located in the rearview mirror. The trip from the old town, near the Latin Bridge (where Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and ignited the first World War) ran about 5 Bosnian Marks ($3.20).
In typical fashion, the taxi driver honked, smoked, and slung a few choice profanities at the other drivers, even though the early-morning traffic was minimal. Some things are universal, I suppose.
The train to Mostar departs bright and early. The schedule for Sarajavo station lists the pertinent train second from the top. No. 723, Sarajevo-Čapljina line, leaving at 7:15, stopping in Mostar at 10:05, departing from Platform II.
Arriving at 6:15 AM afforded me plenty of time to buy the 10.90 KM ticket, enjoy an caffeine infusion via espresso, and clamber onto the train, although the people that boarded directly were able to call dibs on private cabins. No matter- they probably wouldn't appreciate the Old-World "ambience" of the plebian quarters.
As the journey goes on, the mountains increase in size, and the train transits a series of switchbacks and tunnels, ascending and descending, offering brief glimpses of distant towns far below before plunging into alternating daylight and darkness.
The train careens down the mountainside, picking up in speed, and one can occasionally discern viaducts that we crossed earlier in the journey. As beautiful as this trip is in late August, it must be transcendental later in the fall, as the leaves change and variegated foliage blankets the mountains. At ground level, we pass beautiful lakeside villages situated next to emerald-green waters.
On schedule, we pull into Mostar, another outpost of the Ottoman Empire, like Sarajevo, and another city at the crossroads of East and West ravaged by war and in the process of rebuilding. Its Old Bridge (Stari Most), icon of Bosnia, was destroyed by Croatian tanks during a brutal 11-month siege of the city in 1993, after spanning the Neretva River for 400 years. It wasn't reconstructed until 2004, a symbol of a beautiful country on the mend, but a reminder of a painful past and a long recovery ahead.