Return to Bosnia-Herzegovina: Night Train Across Melania’s Slovenia

This is the third part in a series about Bosnia-Herzegovina thirty years after its civil wars.


A sleeping car on an ÖBB Nightjet train from Zurich to Zagreb. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

During the two years of the pandemic, I did not return to Sarajevo, although our informal band of brothers in Geneva shipped thousands of books there amid the global gloom.

A New Life for the European Enlightenment

One collection came from Syracuse, New York, where an esteemed professor of European history, Joseph Levine, had devoted his life to collecting books about the European Enlightenment.

After he died, his family found no place to donate the roughly 30,000 volumes, as libraries in the United States and western Europe generally have no interest in acquiring such collections (as we discovered with our friend Gene Schulman’s books). Eastern Europe is another story, although again the barrier was the cost and logistics of shipping.

The Syracuse books eventually went into more than 1,000 boxes and a 40-foot container, which for about five pandemic months drifted its way from the United States to Bosnia.

At the Bosnian border, even though the books were a gift to the national library (and thus the people of Bosnia), they were held up until money could be found to pay a shakedown import tax—an indication that everything in Bosnia comes at a price.

Eventually, the container was backed into the loading dock of the library, where everyone from the directors down to the maintenance staff carried boxes into storage. Now on the top floor of the national and university library there’s a large room devoted to the enlightenment. As Thomas Jefferson (surely a product of the Enlightenment) liked to say: “I cannot live without books.”

Balkan Railways Run Off the Grid

Occasionally to get back to Bosnia, I would check Sarajevo train schedules in my various timetables. I learned that not only was train service from Zagreb to Sarajevo still suspended, but that the Talgo train from Banja Luka was no longer running. Nor did the train connection to Sarajevo from Belgrade, which ended during the Yugoslav wars, survive a brief revival after the fighting ended.

As best I could determine, Bosnia-Herzegovina had become one of the few countries in Europe that no longer had any international train service (the others are North Macedonia and Albania).

It spoke to the larger isolation of the Balkans in pan-European evolution: during the pandemic, train service was cut from Belgrade to Skopje and Thessaloniki (and then on to Athens); from Belgrade to Bucharest; from Belgrade to Sofia; and from Bucharest to Istanbul. And none of these trains are operating today, although I may be the only traveler who misses them.

Nevertheless, when this past winter I wanted to get back to Sarajevo, I was determined to get as close as I could on trains, which meant taking an intercity Swiss train to Zurich and catching at 20:40 an ÖBB Nightjet sleeper to Zagreb.

On my night train from Zurich to Zagreb, I was lucky to have a single compartment of my own, with a sink, a small desk on which to unfold my maps (the German general staff traveled with fewer maps than I cart around), and a closet in which to store my grip.

Occasionally on other night trains, I find a shower at the end of the corridor, and finally, train companies are installing toilets that are neither open to the tracks nor prone to backing up five hours into the journey. But progress is slow.

The Night Train Revival

For those who last spent a night on a European train in the 1970s—squeezed into an upper berth of a six-person couchette that reeked of stale cigarette smoke and beer spilled on the floor—ÖBB is the Austrian national railway company that has tried, almost single-handedly, to revive the lost charms of European night trains.

Into the 1980s, Europe was awash with couchettes—rolling dormitories—that rumbled through the night with stacks of prison berths and a vile toilet at the end of the corridor. No wonder everyone embraced easyJet and Ryanair as a way to get from Barcelona to Milan or Paris to Rome.

With Vienna and Zurich as its hubs, ÖBB Nightjet now has a fleet of sleepers that each night crisscross Europe to places such as Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Warsaw, and Budapest.

Under its EuroNight brand (the various names are confusing), together with other national rail companies, it markets additional sleepers on secondary routes, say from Hamburg to Basel or Vienna to Krakow.

In all, it means that central Europe especially is well served by a network of night trains that roll (in some fashion) from Stockholm to Rome and from Amsterdam to Bucharest.

All Aboard from Geneva to London?

Best of all, night train companies are responding to passenger demand, especially among travelers who believe that short-haul European budget airlines flooding the biosphere with carbon waste will add up to death for the planet.

Unfortunately, the great sell-off of rolling stock (it started about fifteen years ago) means that there is a shortage of sleeping cars, especially those in which you would like to rest your head.

I live in Geneva, which has the dubious distinction of having no night train service, despite not-so-long-ago having sleepers to Barcelona, Florence, Rome, Venice, and Trieste. Mostly what the city needs is a night train to London, as the local airport sends off some fifteen daily flights to Great Britain.

With luck, the era of budget airlines might now give way to the return of the night train, especially if the costs are moderate and the accommodations are a pleasure.

European Sleeper: The New Wagons-Lits

To supplement the sleeping car inventory shortfall, a new company, European Sleeper (“The Good Night Train…”), has just started up, with nightly service between Brussels, via Amsterdam, to Berlin.

Its hope is to make booking night trains—now somewhat complicated, like the paperwork for a second mortgage—an easy online experience and to build up train sets of sleeping cars that are modern, clean, and efficient to serve, for example, the trade between London and Provence or Paris and Madrid.

In many ways, European Sleeper would love to be the successor to Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, which once operated the Orient Express between Paris and Istanbul.

Actually, the historic company still exists—if not its Orient Express except as a luxury cruise train—and it even owns sleeping cars and catering franchises used on national rail lines, but the quality of sleeping cars in Europe has taken a dive in the last fifty years.

Balkanized Railways

The problem for all sleeping car operations in Europe today is that while the European Union is a presence in many industries across the continent, the rail network remains distinctly nationalistic, as if Bismarck (or, god forbid, Mussolini) were running the trains.

To be sure there are celebrated high-speed international trains, such as Eurostar from London to Paris or Amsterdam, but even that operates more as a land-based airline than an international railway company (it scans luggage, obsesses over passports, body searches, jams passengers into dank waiting spaces, and features cramped seating, as though it were easyStar).

Otherwise, many trains stop at their national borders, and few companies have tried to use EU advantages to operate services in other countries, which would permit, say, Deutsche Bahn to run trains from Barcelona to Paris. The result is a Balkanized rail network in Europe, which with the coming of discount airlines decided to kill off its night trains.

Even the thriving sale of Eurail/Interrail passes that allow for seamless train travel across Europe is being thwarted by national rail polices that have developed the most arcane (and frustrating) rules regarding seat reservations, often rendering the passes inoperable on anything except some midnight milk trains. And don’t even think of taking along a bicycle unless it’s a folder.

Melania’s First Catwalk

On my overnight train to Zagreb (which was a great pleasure), I woke up as the train was passing near Lake Bled, a fashionable year-round resort in Slovenia. From my window, I could see neither castles nor azure blue water, but from the surrounding mountains dusted with snow, I took it on faith that the area is one of alpine splendor.

The railway breakfast was a prepackaged croissant, yogurt, and instant coffee, so instead I grazed from my picnic sack as the train crossed the rolling alpine landscape between Ljubljana and Zagreb.

About halfway along that line, the train passed through Sevnica in the Sava Valley, where Melania Trump spent much of her childhood in what was then Yugoslavia.

In her first iteration, she was Melanija Knavs, although as a teen model, she took the German form of her last name, hence Knauss, and at some point dropped the Slavic “j” from her first name.

Flooding the Old Real Estate Developer Market

As Yugoslavia was breaking up and Slovenia was gaining its independence, her family moved to Ljubljana. Then for her modeling work in the mid-1990s, Melania decamped to Milan and eventually New York City, where she managed to flip a short-term visa into permanent residence, if not a glass slipper.

She met her future husband, Donald J. Trump, in 1998, at a fashion show at the Kit Kat Club, where (correct me if I am wrong) older men of means looked over the dealership of the assembled new models.

Seen from the train in the bright morning sun, Sevnica looked both well-tended and prosperous, although I am sure that it felt claustrophobic to a teenager in newly independent Slovenia, as would have her family’s high-rise apartment in a Ljubljana housing project.

For a while, Melania must have felt like Sleeping Beauty, waking up as the princess of Trump Tower. Now, with her Studio 54 prince under indictment for paying off a porn star and stealing government secrets (leaving aside the civil convictions for sexual abuse and financial three-card monte), Melania may wonder if she would have been happier had she stayed closer to home and raised a family at a chalet near Lake Bled.

Next installment: Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia. Earlier pieces in this series can be read here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.