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The enthusiasm of many travelers exploring Europe by train seems to flag when they reach Budapest. The Hungarian capital is so very easy to reach from the west and north, and it is thus possible to travel as far as Budapest without any detailed planning.
There are regular comfortable EuroCity trains from Prague and Berlin; sleek, fast RailJet services from Munich and Vienna; for those with the stamina for very long journeys by day, it is even possible to travel to Budapest by direct train from as far away as Zürich (11 hrs 15 mins) or Hamburg (14 hrs 20 mins).
It is moving south from Budapest that demands a more sustained engagement with the timetables. There are perilously few trains across the border between Hungary and Serbia. Just two direct services run each day between Budapest and Belgrade—one by day and the other by night.
Take the day train if you are minded to come this way, for this is a journey well worth making. Leon Trotsky nicely identified the appeal of the route when—as he traveled south in 1912 preparing to report on the Balkan Wars—he observed in his diary that “although the railway from Budapest to Belgrade proceeds mainly in a southerly direction, from the cultural standpoint one moves east.”
The landscape is nowhere startling, yet it has a quiet beauty. Running south from Budapest to the border there are prairie-like grasslands, productive farmland, forests and occasional saline depressions. These are the landscapes of Sándor Petöfi’s poetry. An hour or two out of Budapest, the train stops at Kiskölrös, the town where Petöfi was born.
The first community in Serbia is Subotica, a place that packs a few surprises. It is famously multilingual and multicultural, a hallmark of Serbia’s semi-detached northern province of Vojvodina which has six official languages. Subotica is well worth a stop for its extraordinary feast of art nouveau architecture. Look out for the overly fussy town hall and the more restrained synagogue with its striking triple-tier dome and green glazed tiles. Beyond Subotica, it is a pleasant run south through Novi Sad to Belgrade.
If you are traveling from Budapest to Belgrade, bear in mind that you’ll need to use one of the twice-daily long-distance trains to cross the border—although there is also a useful thrice-daily branch-line service from the Hungarian town of Szeged to Subotica.
The daytime train on the Budapest to Belgrade route is called the Avala. The journey takes about eight hours in each direction. Belgrade need not be the end of your journey. There are good onward connections to Podgorica in Montenegro and Skopje in Macedonia. This month has also seen the reinstatement of the direct train from Belgrade to Thessaloniki in Greece—only for it to be suspended again almost immediately due to flooding. However, the railway authorities in the region are evidently working day and night to restore damaged sections of track, so the through rail services that run south from Belgrade to Macedonia and Greece should be operating normally again by early next month.
Find out more about train times in the latest issue of the European Rail Timetable.