On our roadtrip from Kotor to Bosnia & Herzegovina we decided to break up the driving by taking the train from Mostar to Sarajevo. We had heard many things about this train, from Trip Advisor reports of packed, smoke-filled cars to claims of it being one of the most scenic train rides in Europe, so we thought we’d try it out for ourselves.
The family we rented a room from in Mostar (check out their airbnb listing here) happily let us leave our car at their house for a few days and they even woke up at 6am to make us Bosnian coffee before we set out for the train station (the hospitality and friendliness we experienced throughout BiH was extraordinary in both touristy and non-touristy locations).
The Mostar train station feels similar to what I imagine an East Berlin train station in 1946 being like: boarded up ticket windows, staircases that lead to second stories that don’t exist and little cigarette and magazine stands dotted around the exterior that I’m sure haven’t been open in five years. The one open ticket window has the schedule printed on a small piece of paper. I had learned the day before that you could only buy tickets the day of (and in cash) so we were there 30 minutes before the train was due to depart, which is when the ticket window opens, and lined up with a very small crowd of locals. Of all our fellow passengers waiting in line for tickets we seemed to be the only people with luggage. About half of the people appeared to be making a day trip, carrying only their pack of cigarettes with them, while the other half were carrying their personal items in large plastic bags, worn out and faded as though they’d made this trip many times. One guy among us even had a scythe, an old wooden one, with the two grooved handles and a recently sharpened blade.
There are no assigned seats on the train, so when the train engine and two trailing cars pull into the station there’s an urge to rush to find a seat. Molly and I identified the non-smoking car and went to board. The stairs were really steep and I almost had to lift our suitcase over my head to get it on to the train. Everyone grabbed a seat easily and despite the small non-smoking signs we heard one hard pack after another being tossed onto tables and the subtle clicks as everyone lit up a cigarette. The cars themselves are old and a bit dirty, but since they’re from a previous time they’re roomy, the seats are comfortable (when not falling apart) and everyone has their own big table to use. It feels exactly like a grimy version of the train car the aristocrats in Anna Karenina would have ridden in – it’s not absurd to think it might actually be a train car Tolstoy himself rode in 150 years ago, except those who work with scythes would never be allowed to ride in a car as opulent as ours.
Quickly the train leaves Mostar and immediately the scenery is beautiful. The train rolls alongside a river and through a valley, where beautiful hills and rugged peaks fill up the window. The train stops a few times in tiny villages built against the hillsides with small terraced farming plots above town. At one of these stops the man with scythe hopped out. Below is the road that leads to Sarajevo where I watched cars speed by us. This is when you know you’re in Southeastern Europe: the train from Amsterdam to Paris moved at 180 mph for two and half hours but cost us $150/person (and we ended up with no seat!) whereas the train from Mostar to Sarajevo moves at about 40 mph for two and a half hours but costs less than $10/person.
The scenery moves on like this for a few hours, through one beautiful valley after another. The thing about the mountains in Bosnia is they look like nowhere else in the world and the opportunity to sit in a big old comfy train seat and stare out the window is better than going to a movie and much less expensive. And the reason to take this train instead of making the drive becomes clear as you start to move through the outskirts of Sarajevo where, like most cities, the traffic and chaos of cars would only add to the stress of traveling. On the train however, I put down the book I’d been reading, took a bite of a pastry we’d bought that morning and feeling relaxed, I was excited for three full days of touring Sarajevo.
Three days later the train back to Mostar was equally as easy to catch, equally as old and equally filled with smoke but it was as pleasant a ride as all trains are and the scenery out the window was still more beautiful than most. Driving a car might be a better option if you don’t mind battling the traffic and parking lots of Sarajevo, but if you’re considering not visiting one place or the other because you don’t want to take the train, I’d urge you to think otherwise. Both towns, even Sarajevo if you’re stretched for time, can be seen in a long day and an early morning train one way and an evening train the other is perfectly doable. And while the train and stations aren’t the nicest you’ll ever see, they are truly an experience you won’t find elsewhere in Europe.