War and peace: Romance on the rails of a Slavic odyssey

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Adrian Phillips takes a honeymoon train journey through the countries of the former Yugoslavia

He chatted hard, the taxi man, as he drove us from the station to our Belgrade hotel. "I have never left Serbia. I learn English from magazines – I practise, practise." I watched the back of his head while he practised now, a swirl of grey hair bouncing with every gesture as he careered from one broken story to the next. Finally he paused to look at us in the mirror. "You married? I been married 27 years; I very old – first was God, then I born."

Monika and I were indeed married, although we'd been man and wife for a rather shorter time – just two days in fact. Bridesmaids had raised shapely eyebrows at our decision to honeymoon on a train trip through the Balkans rather than on a beach in Barbados. But everybody knows romance rides the railway: hadn't they seen Brief Encounter? And so we'd boarded at Budapest with a bag of pastries and an itinerary taking us through the former Yugoslavia, and settled back as a rolling ribbon of red tractors and rural steeples.

Next morning we joined our Serbian guide, Srdjan Ristic, for a tour of the capital. You couldn't call Belgrade a pretty city – its buildings have a greyness that lingers even when the sun comes out – but there was no shortage of colour nonetheless. Street performers juggled on the old town's pedestrian thoroughfare, Knez Mihailova, while restaurants with quirky names such as "My Hat" and "Two Deer" buzzed with customers on Skadarska Street. Belgrade's nightlife had been voted the best on earth, Srdjan informed us. "You can get a four-course meal at 6am!" It was good to know.

But of course Slobodan Milosevic cast the blackest of shadows and Serbia became the pariah of Europe in the 1990s Balkans war. "This is where I first experienced tear gas, protesting against the crazy tyrant," said Srdjan as we stood in Republic Square.

We left the centre and climbed up to Belgrade Fortress, spread among chestnut trees on its high bluff above the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. This is where young lovers stroll. However, the name of the surrounding Kalemegdan Park (from Turkish slang for "battlefield") points to a pricklier past. On average, Belgrade has experienced conflict every 35 years and the walls of the fort have seen their share of action.

Srdjan picked his way through a hotchpotch of archaeology before stopping at a particular pile of stumpy foundations. These, he said, were the stones of the medieval castle and reminders of a period pre-Milosevic to make a Belgrader proud. Raised in 1403, the battlements were the last barrier to northward expansion of the Ottoman empire – beyond were the tame plains that led to Europe's midriff. For more than a century the city held out, surviving a six-month siege by 100,000 Turkish soldiers in 1456 that to this day is commemorated across Christendom with the ringing of noon bells.

Our three-carriage train for the nine-hour international journey to Sarajevo left at 8.15am. A steady stream of students trickled to the corridor outside our compartment to drop the windows and ignore the no-smoking signs. Outside, crows flew above never-ending cornfields and a man scanned furrows with what looked like a metal detector.

"Sarajevo: the Jerusalem of Europe!" "Sarajevo: the city of contrasts!" We'd rolled our eyes at the brochures' puffs but on arrival late that afternoon we had to admit there was clout behind the clichés. Alleys of the Turkish quarter, the Ottoman centre between the 15th and 19th centuries, tapped to the tune of coppersmiths' hammers. Little shops were hung with handwoven carpets. Locals sucked strong coffee through lumps of sugar in the courtyard of a former caravanserai. And yet, a short walk brought us to the broad steps of the Catholic cathedral and the grand shapes of neoclassical apartments. It was as if we'd crossed from Marrakech to Vienna in the space of three minutes.

Bosnia's capital is stimulating and romantic, its heart conjoined twins of distinct cultural flavours. But brooding in the background, camped at the edges of the city, are the silent hills that hid Serb tanks during the longest siege in modern European history. Between 1992 and 1996, 11,000 people died as Milosevic tried to cow the population and assimilate the country into a Greater Serbia. Follow one of the steep roads from the centre and you'll look down on a cheerful canvas of terracotta roofs and turquoise-domed mosques, on cemeteries with headstones like rows of skewered chalk – and on a pitifully vulnerable city.

The "Tunnel of Hope" was the citizens' only lifeline during those 1,400 days of siege. Dug with makeshift tools by the Bosnian army, it opened beneath an unremarkable house in the tatty suburb of Butmir, snaked under the runway of the UN-controlled airport and emerged in the kitchen of another unremarkable house in Dobrinja. Today, the Kolar family runs a memorial museum from its Butmir home, preserving a short stretch of the tunnel that led from the garage.

As we ducked to enter, I hit my forehead on a timber beam; it was gloomy and damp and uncomfortably cramped. Thousands passed through this waterlogged passage, creeping for nearly a kilometre with bent backs and heavy packs. Bullets and petrol were carried inches from oil lamps strung along the walls, while all around the shells fell. The wooden props and underfoot planking might have come straight from the trenches of the First World War, yet this was a tunnel used just 20 years ago. Afterwards we watched grainy footage of grandma Kolar feeding cups of water to skinny soldiers climbing blinking from the darkness. I rubbed my forehead and glanced across at Monika; her face was streaked with tears.

The next stage took us from the capital of Bosnia to the capital of Herzegovina. The 125km route south-west through the Dinaric Alps from Sarajevo to Mostar is said to be one of the prettiest rail journeys in Europe. But a strike by train workers meant we had to cover the distance by road. It wound through hamlets set in forest as thick as moss and past sheep turning on spits at roadside ovens. The Neretva River opened into an emerald-coloured lake, and then we reached a notch in the mountains and passed through the gateway to Herzegovina.

Mostar is synonymous with the Stari Most – the bridge at its core. The town's very name comes from the word mostari or "bridge keepers". When we arrived, the modern-day keepers seemed to be a pair of chunky locals in bulging Speedos. A crowd formed as the keepers lifted themselves on to the side of the bridge, paused to pick their spots on the surface below and then plunged into the river with a silvery splash. They swam lazily to the bank, luxuriating in the tourists' applause. It's a dangerous sport – each year bones are broken when divers collide with rubble lurking on the river bed.

Stari Most – 24 metres high and 30 metres long – seems to defy the laws of physics, tapering towards the middle like a pinched rainbow as it arcs across the Neretva. For more than 400 years the Ottoman bridge was the hub around which Mostar gathered: mosques sprung up near it; traders traded around it and artists took it for their muse. Images of its graceful shape caught in the web of a brutal conflict filled television sets across the globe. The bridge proved more resilient than it looked, surviving the impact of 63 tank shells, but when the 64th hit and the arch came crashing down, the news tore a hole in a nation's soul.

We followed the story at the Old Bridge Museum. The Bosnian Croats coveted Mostar as the capital of their longed-for autonomous zone. For 11 months in 1993 they pounded the Muslim stronghold on the eastern bank. An exhibition showed photos of children posing with rifles and women carrying water through streets reduced to ruins. But most affecting of all was film of the moments after the bridge fell. As the dust settled and space gaped above the river, it was as though the town had lost its front teeth.

The bridge rose again. The replacement was the original's doppelgänger, pieced together from stones recovered from the river. When Prince Charles cut the ribbon in 2004, the reopening symbolised a renewed link between the two halves of an ethnically divided town. Tensions remain, but as we visited the Cejvan Cehaj Mosque with its prayer niche painted with garlands, as we browsed stalls in twisting streets and listened to church bells playing "Ave Maria", we struggled to reconcile the Mostar of today with the corpse of a town in the photos.

From Mostar, the railway leads down as far as Ploce in Croatia, where we hopped in a car for a final left turn along the Adriatic shore to the old Yugoslavia's greatest glory: Dubrovnik. It is big and bold, laid with acres of polished paving and wrapped inside fat walls. We walked the fortifications around an orange cascade of tightly packed rooftops and ducked into the cool cloisters of a Franciscan monastery. A boat took us to the nearby island of Lokrum, a nature reserve with strutting peacocks and a quiet cove where we saw a man snorkelling naked, buttocks in the air.

Dubrovnik fits the classic honeymoon mould. But we'd found romance too in the other stage posts on our Balkan journey: not frilly, chocolate-box prettiness but the hardier stuff of Shakespeare, tales of spirit forged in adversity's fire. As we spooned desserts seated by the harbour on the last evening of our trip, we chatted to an elderly man at an adjoining table. "I lived here through the terrible war," he said with sadness.

Squadrons of swifts swooped in a frenzy of acrobatic dogfights around us before wheeling away out of sight. Our companion watched them go and smiled. "But we move on."

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Budapest is accessible from a wide range of UK airports on British Airways, easyJet, Jet2, Ryanair and Wizz Air. Returning from Dubrovnik, the options comprise BA, easyJet, Jet2 and Monarch.

Getting around

Budapest-Belgrade-Sarajevo-Mostar-Ploce is a achievable by rail. The journey along the Croatian coast can be made by bus.

Organised trips

The writer travelled as a guest of Railbookers (020-3327 2439; railbookers.com), which offers a tailor-made 10-night Balkan Explorer rail trip, including travel from Budapest to Dubrovnik via Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo and Mostar, return flights with British Airways from Gatwick and 10 nights in hotels, with breakfast, from £1,149 per person. A guided Belgrade tour with Srdjan Ristic can be arranged through explore-belgrade.com.

Further information

Bradt (bradtguides.com) publishes standalone guides to Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia.

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