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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Night Train to Zagreb

Travel Dates 25th-27th May 2011.
Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Before this trip I had almost no experience of European railways. I used Seat61 and these rail web-sites for research:

I also found that the German bahn.de website was invaluable for timetables and research into the various options for getting from A to B and I received good advice on various travel forums.

In a way, although all that research helped plan the trip well, some of it resulted in over-planning. Because of my lack of past experience I made two pre-bookings that really would have been better left to the day. One was the Glacier Express, mentioned earlier. Balancing that, pre-booking gave me very good discounts on the Eurostar and the TGV Lyria.

The night train from Venice to Zagreb was the other train which would have been better booked on the day. I used the Trenitalia site to pre-book. I had to wait a long time for the bookings to open; supposedly 90 days prior to the trip but in fact it was less than a month before they opened and I started to worry because of the warning on the web-site that trains could book out early. Eventually I rang using Skype to sort it out; that was also a frustrating experience. I chose a two-berth, prepared to share, but when I arrived on the train I found I could have paid for the cheaper three or four berth and still had a compartment to myself. 

Some trains may book out early, but not this one.

I enjoyed the experience on the night train, which according to the conductor was built in East Germany shortly after WWII. It showed its age, with worn furnishings and limited facilities, but I didn't mind that too much. However, if you are looking for a train with a shower (none that I could find) and clean modern washrooms (end of the corridor, not ensuite) this is not the train for you.

Nor is it the train for a good night's sleep. It departed on time at 21:20, and arrived in Zagreb at 04:20. After watching north-eastern Italy passing my window by night for a while I slept through Slovenia, but I was woken at the Slovenia/Croatia border at some ungodly hour for passport checks. I didn't bother going back to sleep after that.

The train arrived in Zagreb Glavni Kolodvor station on time but I thought the train might not stop. We passed the station building and kept going, finally stopping a long way down the longest platform I have ever seen. I reckon we were about a km from the buildings. The locals who got off the train were more alert than I. They simply crossed the tracks and walked to the tram terminus direct from the train. Not being a local I plodded along the platform and out via the front door, with a brief stop at an ATM in the foyer.

I was booked at the Best Western Hotel Astoria, mainly because it was a short walk from the station and had 24 hour reception. I didn't expect to be able to check in at that hour, but the staff were quite helpful and let me use the business centre with free web access while I waited for breakfast to begin. After breakfast I left my bags there and took the tram to the centre of town to have a look around while I waited for the room. 

Zagreb was still waking up, but the coffee shops were starting to see business. Down-town Zagreb has several wide streets which have been turned into pedestrian malls, with the centre of the road filled with a multitude of street cafés. Some are served from kiosks on site and some from cafés in the nearby shops. I was there on a Thursday, but those street cafés were busy and bustling all day. I later found a similar café culture in Sarajevo. There must be a lot of very relaxed employers in the Balkans or a lot of work is performed via laptops on café tables. Or there are a lot of coffee-loving unemployed.

The tram system was excellent. I bought a very cheap all-day ticket (about 30 kuna or $5.50 IIRC) and used it to save my feet when I could. I used it to return to the hotel when my room was ready and, after a shower, returned to the centre of town.

I noticed this funicular on a side street off the main street. It has to be the shortest I have ever seen. I found that it led from down-town up to the Old Town.

The Old Town was almost deserted. It is a collection of older restored buildings and Government Offices. In a couple of hours up there I didn't see another tourist. The only people appeared to be government officials and their drivers.

Zagreb has been around for over a thousand years, with a long and complex history. For much of the 18th and 19th century Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were several attempts to break away and achieve independence with limited success in the mid 19th century. Zagreb was also on the edge of the Ottoman Empire; although parts of Croatia were ruled by the Turks Zagreb never was. In the 20th century the country came under several different external rulers, with the Nazis eventually being succeeded by Tito when it became part of Yugoslavia.

I liked this little car.  Perfect for narrow European streets and limited parking, although that is not a problem in the Old Town.

I spent a very pleasant hour in the bar opposite the Post Office sampling local beers, chatting to the owner and listening to his music collection. Unfortunately I lost his card; I was the only customer.

When I returned via the funicular to the lower section of town a street party appeared to be in progress, together with a craft market and rock band.

The statue is of Count Josip Jelačić of Bužim. He was one of those interesting characters in the chaos of Eastern European history who managed to steer a fragile course balancing the military and political needs of Croatia at a difficult time when the country was under the rule of the Habsburgs. You can't please everyone, as the wiki entry notes:

"Consequently, Jelačić's, reputation differs in Austria where he was looked upon as a rebel seeking to breakup the Austrian Empire, Croatia where he is a national hero, and Hungary where he looked up as a traitor to the Hungarian Revolution for independence from Austrian throne."

For dinner I randomly boarded the first tram going past and decided to travel to the end of the route and back again to see some of the town away from Tourist Central. I stopped on the way back at a small café and tried the local equivalent of fast food: Ćevapčići. I liked it, and ate it quite often for lunch or dinner during my remaining period in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Flavours varied depending on the chef's choices of spices and herbs. It was usually accompanied by some form of salad and suited my lower-carb requirements very well. Croatian red wine is also very drinkable.

After my broken sleep on the train I had a good night's sleep in the Best Western's king-size bed in a room just big enough to fit it in. Unfortunately, there are no trains between Zagreb and Dubrovnik, so the following morning I used the tram to get to the Airport bus terminal and departed by air to Dubrovnik.

Cheers, Alan, Australia

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