'Riding the Balkan rails' dispatch series

Freelance writer Eric Marx has been riding the rails in Europe for the past several months. In this series of dispatches, Marx explores the Balkans via train trips through Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. This is the last dispatch of the series.

A languid mood is essential to Balkans rail travel -- if you want to keep your sanity intact.

"They need much time and patience," the Serbian state railway manager told me when I asked for advice I should give to wannabe Balkans rail travelers.

Vesna Brayovic, director for logistics at Zeleznice Srbiije Public Enterprise, the Serbian rail system, was surprisingly eager to tell me about her rail network's shortcomings: not a single carriage built within the last three decades, a maximum speed of 62 mph and an antiquated infrastructure that doesn't reflect the country's now smaller size.

But Brayovic, tall and strikingly elegant, wasn't contrite about why and how her country and its rail system became so outdated.

War and ethnic tension have touched her life: 50 years earlier her family was forced to flee Dubrovnik, Croatia. She seemed dug in by pride and a sense of Serbian victimization.

 "They [Kosovo's Muslims] like war because in war they get the drugs and weapons," Brayovic opined as I sat there wincing, "and so all the time we have problems with them."

It's as if Britain's Stonehenge was given to the French, said a friend who wanted to impress upon me the ancestral pride and depth of feeling attached to Kosovo, where the Serbians were defeated by the Ottoman Empire in 1389 and where some of the Serbians' most important churches and monasteries now reside.

"Why is it all the time you punish Serbs?" Brayovic demanded when asked why the country persists in harboring those indicted for war crimes. "We are not all the time the guilty ones. Try to find the guilty ones in other nations."

These and other conversations I had left me perplexed. Could an outsider like myself really grasp the full complexity of the war? Serbians themselves haven't yet sorted it out, and meanwhile beautiful towns like Novi Sad, Subotica and Sremski Karlovci go unnoticed for the larger political turmoil.

The next morning it was still raining when I caught the early train to Bulgaria. Communism was particularly severe in Bulgaria. While most people of the former Yugoslav republics will speak well of their once-socialist existence, Bulgarians seem unmistakably glad they can begin to put the past behind them.

At the Bulgarian tourism board I was told visitor numbers are way up since the country's E.U. admission in January. Ten golf courses are under construction and Black Sea resorts are thriving, with rail access to the coast via the towns of Varna and Burgas making for scenic travel through the countryside.

Sofia's historical center is small, so for a sense of place it's best to head to the National Museum of History. There you'll get a taste of the remarkable Thracian civilization that thrived in ancient times in what's now Bulgaria. The Thracians' gold and silver jewelry and drinking vessels are a treasure trove of beautiful Stone and Copper Age craftsmanship.

And if you don't have time to head to the countryside, check out the National Gallery and its stunning collection of paintings by Vladimir Dimitrov, "the master" whose depictions of farmers and peasants show heartfelt admiration for the common folk.

Bulgaria remains deeply rural, and life is still very hard for much of the population. Pensions often don't cover the cost of living, unemployment is high and there's disillusionment with the country's leaders. It makes for pessimism that I encountered on more than one occasion, and which left me wanting to get on the train to my next and final destination.

So, onward to Romania.

Romania's attitude is outward-looking. Although mostly Eastern Orthodox by faith, Romanians speak a Romance language descended from Latin and have longstanding cultural ties to France. And the country was for centuries home to a large German-speaking minority. So there's some merit to their claim that the term "Balkans" does not apply here.

Romania is the largest country in Southeast Europe. Bucharest, the capital, has about 2 million inhabitants, roughly as many as Sofia. But walk the downtown and there's an unmistakable big city flavor that makes Sofia look like a small village. There's a confident pace reminiscent of western capitals and in the old architecture there are remnants of a past when Bucharest was considered the sophisticated Paris of the east.

This openness to western influence was on full display in my meeting with officials from Romanian railways company CFR Calatori.

"I am in a very strong competition with buses and cars, with every earth transport, and my intention is to get people from the road to the train," said CFR's director of marketing, Valicu Adrian, his end-goal sloganeering sounding like what one often hears from Western European rail managers.

Romania's main three lines are being upgraded, and when completed next year the system will have more frequent service and higher speeds approaching 100 mph to 125 mph, whereas now the average is around 75 mph.

E.U. investment is working, and the coming changes should also improve border crossing times, thereby bumping up the number of cross-border trains. My train's pause at the border between Bulgaria and Romania took more than an hour, and the train was three-quarters empty, very likely because of such inefficiencies.

"That will be reduced to a half hour," Adrian assured me.

Good news I thought to myself, and perhaps an indication of more positive changes to come.

 To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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