Train trips that’ll keep you coming back for more: Eastern Europe
On the conclusion of my second Eurail trip, my friends and family stopped asking me the inevitable questions of when will it end. Instead, the focus shifted towards the next big trip. Questions about where I’ll be heading, and what the next journey will entail, eventually pushed me to do another. This time I would head to Eastern Europe.
Though there’s little consensus on what constitutes “Eastern Europe” – does it include Czechia and Hungary? What about Slovenia, tucked in so close to Italy and yet seemingly with one foot in the Eastern Europe of old? Poland, compared to neighbor Germany feels more eastern than central, but then again its western border is almost in line with that of Sweden’s.
These are questions that ran through my head as I considered exploring the countries on the eastern side of the continent. But after visiting several of these destinations, it became clear that aside for articles such as these, regional classifications are generally not very useful. Instead, it’s significantly more productive to focus on what each unique country has to offer.
A cursory glance at the Eurail timetable in Berlin revealed a curious sight. In spite of a pretty significant distance, Warsaw, the Polish capital, was just six hours away by train. An express EuroCity train connects the two capitals, and so it seemed to make sense to take the trip. The trip to Warsaw led to a lengthy exploration of Poland, including a visit to the famous streets of Krakow.
In spite of incredible natural beauty – and some of the best value winter sports on the continent – many Eurailers overlook the country of Slovakia. Though the rail infrastructure may not be as advanced and comprehensive as neighboring countries, it’s predictable and efficient. And with views like these from the picturesque capital of Bratislava, it’s a worthwhile inclusion in any rail itinerary on this side of the continent.
Budapest was the starting point for my first Eurail trip, and it’s featured at least three times since then. There’s a magic to this capital city that’s hard to pin down. It lingers in the streets, at the trendy coffee shops and gritty ruin bars. It reveals itself in its friendly and intriguing people and their melodic language. But it’s when you take a walk down the sparkling Danube in the late afternoon that you realize this is a city so unique and beautiful that it’ll keep drawing you back.
“You should check out Lake Bled,” the guy at the hostel bar said to me as he pulled out his phone. “Look how incredible this island is!” He was right – the photograph on his phone was remarkable. The small island looked like something out of a fairytale. I then established that it was easy to reach by rail, and so adjusted my itinerary. Two days later, I stood on the shores of Lake Bled and reveled in the surreal beauty of this now iconic European attraction.
Croatia may not be the most rail-friendly destination in Europe. With a limited selection of lines, and long-distance trains to the coast that run at unusual hours, it can get frustrating. Because of this, my first trip to Croatia started and ended in Zagreb. But with some determination, I returned three years later to make it all the way to the coast. The town of Split, which at times feels like a movie set, along with the idyllic coastal lifestyle on the islands nearby, was well worth returning for.
I’d never really intended to visit Montenegro. But when I heard of a train ride that may well be the best in Europe, I realised I had little choice. After pottering down the coast over several days, I found the humble starting point in the town of Bar. The all-day journey took me through the colossal mountains, across hundreds of bridges and through hundreds of tunnels, and eventually emerged into a full autumnal wonderland that cemented it as the best train ride I’ve been lucky enough to experience.
The Serbian capital of Belgrade was initially on my itinerary only because of its position as the end point of the Montenegro Express train from Bar. But Belgrade is a fascinating destination in its own right. This is thanks to its impressive but often sombre history, vibrant bars and restaurants, and beautiful pedestrian streets that can easily soak up an entire day.
After three Eurail trips through three unique regions of the continent, it’s easy to think it’s time to look to a new continent for future trips. But when I stop to consider that after a collective 8 months, and thousands of miles on the tracks, I’ve yet to even scratch the surface of the continent. What about Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, and the heart of the Balkans? The only answer I have to these questions is to pull out my collection of Eurail maps and figure out where to head next.
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