We are up at the crack of dawn for our family adventure, taking the 07:00 EuroCity through Dresden, and along the Elbe Valley through the rocky outcrops of the national park shared by Saxony and Bohemia. We sit on the left for the river view, and tuck into bacon and eggs in the excellent Czech restaurant car. At Prague Central station, there are left luggage lockers (cheap and easy to find on the lower level, though you need Czech currency handy) and we set off to make the most of our afternoon in the City of a Hundred Spires.
This RegioJet is a seasonal special with couchette cars (and a few seating compartments) heading through the heart of central Europe, with portions for the two Croatian Adriatic resorts of Rijeka and Split. Passengers are mainly students, backpackers and young families, and the lived-in compartments with open windows give it an old-fashioned Inter-rail feel, mixed with the more modern buzz of low-cost beach holidays, the thrill of passing through 4 countries’ capitals, and breathtaking scenery.
Our carriage on this trip has certainly seen better days, but the staff are extremely friendly and helpful with workarounds when a socket is faulty. The Czech language dominates, but English and German are widely spoken. I didn’t test the staff’s Hungarian, but passengers certainly boarded in Budapest too! In the morning, the train splits for Rijeka at Ogulin (or if you’re travelling to Rijeka, splits for Split). The final stretch through the mountains is the highlight of the journey, until the whole train squeals with excitement at our first glimpses of the sea.
The maze of Diocletian’s Palace fools even my GPS. When only 20 metres remain to our apartment in the heart of the Old Town, there are streets in 4 directions, and it whirls giddily like a top, clueless as to the direction we’re walking in. “I think you are looking for me!” exclaims a friendly gentleman in a baseball cap, who turns out to be the owner. He takes us down a side-alley off a side-alley off an alley, and through two iron gates. He shows us around, and then takes me aside. “I have a funny drink for you!”, he winks. The fridge is stocked with Croatian orangeade- brand name Pipi.
A mixture of the genuinely Roman, rebuilt Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, modern and lived-in, with some Game of Thrones memorabilia thrown in, Split has enormous charm, its alleys full of sun-seeking Northern Europeans, and cats. The Riva, the seafront promenade packed with eateries, has an affluent Mediterranean charm, and it is hard to believe that less than 30 years ago this was a scene of desolation at the heart of a civil war, the hotels full of Bosnian refugees from the hills just inland. (I was shouted out of an otherwise friendly Bureau de Change for daring to try and exchange Serbian dinars- “Dollars, yes! Euro, yes! No Africa! No Makedonia!”)
Bačvice, the town beach, is pleasingly situated next to the end of the railway line. The restaurants are cheap and cheerful, staffed by English-speaking students doing summer jobs. Nataša, a pale waitress with numerous piercings, is genuinely ecstatic that we are reading “actual books”. After taking our order, she stops to comment “Can I just say- that’s amazing!” I wonder if maybe she is a literature student, an aspiring writer. When she comes back with a tray to collect our empties, I clearly choose the wrong moment to ask her if she herself reads. “Do I read?” she stutters, miscalculating her balancing act and sending a Bitter Lemon bottle on a downward trajectory that ends in a smash, a spray of shards, and a massive round of applause from the other staff, which soon ripples out to the tables of diners. “Yes,” she says wistfully, returning with a dustpan and brush. “Yes, I do read.”
We make several day trips from Split: Marjan hillside park is a beautiful walk up steps from the Old Town, passing cave dwellings once inhabited by Christian hermits, to reach leafy Kašjuni beach. We take the local train north in a thunderstorm to Kaštela, with its mansions and towers built to protect the nobility from the Ottomans in the 15th and 16th centuries, including Kaštel Gomilica, another filming location for Game of Thrones (Braavos). It’s a short ferry trip to the beautiful island of Šolta, the site of many battles including in the recent civil war, and now thriving as an independent municipality with helpful tourist office (though when we get to the traditional restaurant up the hill in Grohote which they describe as “mwah mwah mwah!”, a lady says “All my family has gone to Split today. There is no food” so we have to walk back down again).
We have an even more leisurely last day than planned, due to delays up the line. We check out and leave our luggage, for a last visit to the beach and plate of seafood pasta. The incoming train from Prague is nearly 4 hours late, so our departure will be delayed by at least 2 hours, until the early evening. This is a common occurrence with low-cost airlines of course, but the difference here is that the station platform is 5 minutes walk from the beach, and well-equipped with cheap refreshments. Also, when we finally board, we will have the kind of full-length beds and privacy you can only get in First Class on a long-haul flight!
When the train finally arrives, huge black bin-bags are planted in front of the doors, and Czech children help the elderly local cleaners plonk the filled ones into the supermarket trolleys they use to scoot along the platform- not being Croat speakers, their helpers use a combination of English and beaming grins to communicate. Not for the first time, I am thrilled to be admitted into a hybrid Bohemian-Balkan travel experience.
They don’t just clean the compartments, they hoist shut the windows and pull the curtains, as if the travelling bedrooms will be left to cool for hours. We shuffle on board, and all the compartments are unlocked except ours, which is nearest the door, meaning we completely block the corridor until the guard comes to unlock. She reclaims her own suitcase, which for some reason is under our bed. She slithers around the overweight passengers and over-sized luggage, somehow extricating herself and her luggage like a pink-shirted Regiojet Spiderwoman.
The scenery at sunset is breathtaking, as we creep away from the sea, and the shadows lengthen over the fortifications of Kaštela and the grimy scrapyards of the harbour. We recline, and munch. Above Knin, near the Bosnian (and therefore EU external) border, the moon lights up a ragged wasteland as a skinny grey wolf-cub scuttles along a rusty branch line. According to the map, it leads to Bihać, notorious in the 1990s as the site of a 3-year siege. Hopefully free movement will return to this region one day, and those trains will run again.
The teenagers watch US comedies on the laptop on the upper bunks. I half-register the shunting at Ogulin and Zagreb, and sleep until Gyékényes, where the Croatian and Hungarian Border Forces carry out their pre-dawn inspections. All lavatories (and even the washrooms with sinks) are locked out of service to avoid stowaways. “Német, Német,” mutters the Hungarian guard conspiratorially to his comrades as he takes down our every detail (we are possibly the only passengers on the train with German paperwork). He is assiduous in his duties, but uses his visor-mounted torch to cast only a cursory glance at the snorers above.
We read and sleep, and enjoy the hotel-on-wheels pyjama-party that criss-crosses Central Europe, up Lake Balaton to Budapest, sneaking in past Győr to take the suburbs of Bratislava by surprise on the back road, a clanking old freight route. We lean out of the window and take in the scents of dawn, and the sights of a retreating Hungary and gently encroaching Slovakia. We trundle through villages, almost nosing into back gardens, tilting over rivers and through waving cornfields- and then suddenly there is a crumbling concrete monstrosity: a border inspection post. But the train doesn’t need to stop at this now peaceful weed-strewn border, or the next, or the next; and we can cuddle up in our bunks and reminisce.
“I can’t believe this holiday’s nearly over,” says a voice.
And “I still want that 40-cent apple crumble from the buffet.”
Seats booked through České dráhy (Czech Railways), and exact composition of the train checked on Vagon Web. We got a compartment in 2nd class (which we shared for half the journey with another couple). There is 1 socket per compartment and basic wifi. Czech restaurant car serves full meals.
2nd class single €24 adult, €12 child, including seat reservations.
Journey time: 4 hours. Services every 2 hours daily.
Free water and coffee, two sockets per compartment and basic wifi. There is no dining car, but a bistro in the Split portion serves hot drinks (including the excellent free espresso) plus slices of cake for 40 cents apiece. There’s also an at-seat menu of cold food and drinks, plus the option of pre-booking sushi and wraps online.
Private couchette compartment one-way €125 (sleeps up to 4 people, with plenty of luggage room).
Journey time: officially 21 hours, but frequently delayed. Less stressful to book a (maybe en-suite?) stop-over on arrival rather than a connecting train. RegioJet operate numerous connecting buses to other resorts using through ticketing. In 2021, the first year of operation, services are nightly in July and August, thrice-weekly in June and September. There are plans to extend the season for 2022.