Zagreb – Budapest (via Vienna)

The map above shows the route I had planned to take today. A two stage trip via the small town of Pragersko. However, there are four words nobody likes to hear, whatever the language. They are universally met with disdain, and instantly bring about a state of anger, or even panic. And when those four words are delivered in a less than empathetic manner, the effect can be worsened.

And so it is, on this very wet and cold morning in Zagreb, that I turn up to the station in good time for the 0705 connection that will eventually take me to Budapest, only to be told that there will be a “rail replacement bus service.” The woman at the ticket counter already seems stressed when I ask her how I might get to Budapest, since the bus on offer is only going to Vienna.

She retreats to a computer before finally giving me a printed timetable, which seems to suggest not one but two buses are required to get me even as far as Vienna, but that I can then get the train onward to Budapest. She then tells me that the first bus doesn’t leave at 0705, but at 0630. It’s a good job I got here early.

However, there is more confusion and surprise to come. After just an hour driving through the suburbs of Zagreb we arrive at the small station of Stavski Marot. Everyone is told to get off and board the waiting train – though again it’s another one of those two parters, with half going to Munich and half going to Vienna. But still, our first class compartments are back as we make the onward journey. NewsMutt doesn’t quite know where he is.

He’s not the only one having an interesting day. At Dobova, the station just before the Croatian border, a confused passenger (who I think is Italian) asks me if this is the correct train for Innsbruck. Now during this trip I have become something of an expert at reading the timetables but I’m at a loss to help her on this one. My instinct says she should change at Graz in Austria, but a few minutes later two railway officials shout at her to move to the other part of the train, and to do so quickly. This is made even more confusing when five minutes later she comes back, making exactly the same enquiry of another betwildered passenger. Perhaps she just likes making conversation.

In total, the unexpected diversion via Vienna will add just 90 minutes to my journey today. And in a twist of fortuitous fate, going West only to head East again brings a number of unexpected benefits. Firstly, the slopes of the Slovenian mountains today shrouded in mist.

And then, as we head toward Vienna, the Semmering Pass. At 965 metres (over 3,100 feet), it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has presented an ongoing dilemma for the railways. The track climbs and falls through a series of relatively small tunnels. But it’s also a major bottleneck for freight trains, struggling to haul their load through this part of the Austrian Alps. A larger tunnel is under construction, though not without dries of foul from the environmental lobby. But the tunnel is not open yet, so today our train takes the traditional route, opening up some rather stunning views.

Through the mist in the second picture, you may just be able to make out another train at the foot of the pass, which is where we are heading. Another feature whic I didn’t manage to capture was houses along the line on the ascent – which appear to have been built at regular interval between the tunnels. Most seem abandoned today, which suggests they may have been a by product of the railway, perhaps accommodating staff who manned the line in earlier times. If the OBB isn’t marketing them as holiday homes, they’re missing a trick.

Our arrival in Vienna is prompt, and then there’s another stroke of luck. The earlier train that had been due to depart from Budapest at 1240 was 90 minutes late, meaning it’s actually ready for departure on the adjacent platform. The beauty of an InterRail pass is that reservations aren’t always needed, so I can just hop on the next available service.

It turns out there are trains just about hourly through the day between Vienna and Budapest. Half are operated by OBB, the others by MAV, the Hungarian state railway. A now familiar sight greets me – a first class compartment carriage that’s almost empty. And frankly, I’d prefer this view to a three grumpy randoms.

It takes just two and a half hours to get to Budapest – and if you’re coming here it’s worth nothig which of of it’s several stations you’ll be arriving at. Today it’s Keleti, built between 1881 and 1884. And it’s a grand place to disembark. The two huge statues adorning the entrance are James Watt and George Stephenson, two pioneers of the steam engines which were used to power the earliest trains.

The first thing that hits me in the temperature. A couple of days ago in Ljubljana it was 19 Celsius. Here in Budapest it’s just 4 Celsius – but with a wind chill that makes it feel like minus 1. Strong winds hit you from every direction, bouncing off the various buildings. Thankfully my journey to the hotel is a short Metro ride away – and a quick walk across Ferenck Deak Square to my hotel.

The Metro is one of the most clean and modern anywhere in Europe, and is helpfully free from any ticket barriers – although some are used at key stations during peak hours where tickets are checked. It means a quick journey to the comfort of the Roombach Hotel. I’ve stayed here previously and it has a great, modern boutique feel to it – though NewsMutt is convinced that someone is watching him.


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