I'm on a Train

Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Flag of Austria  , Austrian Alps,
Monday, June 14, 2010

I got up at 5:30am this morning in order begin a ~13 hour trip to Slovenia by train. I had to leave early because there were a limited number of trains going to Ljubljana from Austria, and I needed to make the check-in time of 10pm for my Ljubljana hotel.

Even though it was a long trip, I decided to do a day train (or rather a series of 4 daytime trains) instead of traveling overnight because every blog post I've read about taking a night-train goes like this: "I couldn't sleep well because the temperature was wrong/I didn't have a comfortable place to rest/the train stopped every hour, and then my money/passport/camera was stolen even though our compartment was locked and I had it under my pillow/at my feet/sown into my underwear." Also, the train went through the Austrian Alps, so I expected some good scenery.

I was not disappointed by the view. Even though it was another day with a blanket of high clouds around the mountain tops, the vistas were great. In the US, train tracks run alongside burned-out warehouse shells and abandoned rust factories. In the Alps, they run alongside mountain lakes, rushing rivers, and verdant valleys.

The train itself, on the other hand, had a few problems. Actually, the first three trains connecting from Switzerland through to Salzburg, Austria were fine. I went in second class, but with a reserved seat for just $5 more per train. The ticket agent had suggested the reservation to make sure I didn't end up standing on the long leg from Zurich to Salzburg. It wasn't crowded enough for that to have been a possibility, and Zurich was the first station for that train, so I would have gotten an early pick of seats anyway, but the reserved 2nd-class car was actually a little nicer than the unreserved 2nd-class. It was certainly less crowded, and a nice compromise between 2nd class and 1st class, which was > $100 extra for basically just a bigger chair.

The problems came on the Salzburg to Ljubljana leg. First, the Salzburg train station was under renovation, and I couldn't find a board listing which trains were on which platforms. Reading the boards on the individual platforms was no help as well because for whatever reason, they didn't list the train numbers, just the final stops on the routes (not even any intermediate stops).

This was completely useless for me as I had no idea where my train was going to go once I got off of it. As an extra twist, my train split into two at Villach, Austria, and the final stop listed in Salzburg was for the half of the train I wasn't taking. This meant there was exactly a 0% chance of me matching the one city listed on the platform sign to the train I needed, even though I had a list of all the stops between Salzburg and Ljubljana. (Did I mention my train was late getting in by 10 minutes, and I had fewer than 5 minutes to digest all of this?)

So, I fell back on the universal method for navigating unfamiliar train stations. 1) Locate someone standing on one of the platforms with an official looking hat. 2) Approach said person with a confused look. 3) Show them your ticket. Thankfully the method worked again and I made my connection.

I should have been relieved to make my train, but as soon as I hit my car, I noticed the A/C was broken and the windows on the train didn't open. So I ended up in a crowded compartment with a Croatian family and no air conditioning for around 3 hours (the A/C did come on for about an hour in the middle of the 4 hour trip). It might have been worth first class for that leg of the trip, but the broken A/C helped to break the ice between me and the Croatians so it could have been worse.

After a long and (for the last bit) hot train ride, I was ready to take a cab from the train station to my hotel. They were just over 2km apart, and when I was planning my trip a few months ago, I had assumed I would walk, but after the train I wasn't at peak energy so today I thought I would take a cab. However, I talked to the tourist info desk at the train station about possibly taking a bus instead of a cab, and the woman working the counter talked me back into walking. My hotel was in the old town and much of the area is closed to cars, so a cab couldn't have taken me much over halfway there anyway. Tired, sweaty, and hungry, I didn't have a problem with paying a cab $2 to take me one of the two kilometers, but she insisted so strongly that walking was the way to go I couldn't resist the challenge.

I was the sweatiest I've ever been without participating in a major sporting event when I finally made it to my hotel, but it was a good walk and the buildings shaded the street. Also, making it there with my bags, under my own power, added to my sense of accomplishment in getting from the west of Switzerland to the middle Slovenia.

For another pick-me-up after the sweltering 3-hour train ride, I even managed to buy dinner for under $4. So long Switzerland prices! (For now...)

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