I must admit, I was equally looking forward to, and anxious, about this trip. Four different trains, a bus replacement, some short connection times, an overnight train where we most likely wouldn’t be lucky enough to get a compartment to ourselves, two bags, and an 8-year-old to entertain for a day and a half.
We had lots of maths and English planned and all devices fully charged.
The first train was from Split to Zagreb – a two-carriage fairly modern affair, airconditioned and tilting. At times, as we tilted our way around mountain sides and sheer drops, I missed the bulky and solid, non-tilting Macedonian and Serbian trains. The lack of cigarette smoke was a huge relief though.
The views were spectacular, and gave a completely different view of Croatia compared to the coast. Small villages with houses made from local stone, seemingly with only the railway or unpaved tracks as access, craggy mountains and rolling green foothills, some of the trees starting to turn lovely shades of yellow and red, we ate our breakfast (surprisingly good pain au chocolat and takeaway coffee) while gazing out the window.
In a way, this felt like the end of one phase of our journey – the bumbling about with little sense of urgency, direction or a plan part – as we now had definite dates and purpose. We needed to get to Brussels and then onto the UK before our rail passes expired.
I was a little sad to stop the bumbling, but also excited to head north, where worse weather would be made up for by friends and home comforts. In fact, as if to mark this point, the heavens opened about an hour out of Split, and suddenly we were in ‘English weather’ – cool, grey, drizzly and dull.
For the first part of the journey Lauren worked on her maths – some fairly difficult stuff involving calculating the area and perimeters of things. She likes maths and has an instinctive grasp of many of the concepts, but gets easily discouraged when she doesn’t ‘get it’ immediately. Of course, as she progresses she won’t be able to ‘get it’ immediately and she needs to learn to deal with this. We are working on it.
We transferred to a bus replacement about halfway to Zagreb, which actually got in 45 minutes before the time scheduled for the train to have arrived, despite having been told it’d be an hour later.
We faffed about sorting out onward tickets and Eurostar reservations with a very helpful if somewhat technologically challenged lady at Zagreb station, meaning I wasn’t entirely sure the bit of paper we had would be recognised as a reservation in Brussels.
Once that was sorted, we stuck our bags in a left luggage locker and headed out to explore. I took an immediate liking to Zagreb – there seemed to be an energy and vibrancy to it that felt more real than the touristy places we’d been, and more sophisticated and quirky than some of the non-touristy places we’d been.
One odd example of the ‘quirkiness’ of this town is the Museum of Broken Relationships. A strangely compelling little place with ‘mementoes’ and write ups from people after relationships had ended. Some were very funny, some were very sad, and some made you think. A few were not child suitable, but luckily, I’m a fast reader and managed to head Lauren off onto more promising territory.
After being somewhat bemused by the Museum, we wandered through beautiful back streets – largely pedestrianised – among elegant old buildings and some ornate churches. There was a smattering of tourists but certainly not the hordes encountered elsewhere.
It was the first time the weather felt really cold and ‘northern europeany’ and I was glad I had packed warm clothes for us both.
After some grocery shopping in a massive department store, a snack of (yet more) roasted sweetcorn, and a pricey but delicious dinner in one of the vibey, busy, techno-blasting restaurants in one of the main squares, it was soon time to return to the station for the overnight train to Munich. It was Friday night, and Zagreb felt like it was just getting going.
We, however, would be crammed into a 6-person compartment with two middle aged German ladies and a lovely (if rather, ahem, gassy) Croatian guy who took on the role of protector and insisted on hauling everyone’s bags about and ‘shielding’ Lauren from a rather drunk/stoned woman who barged down the corridor in a right state.
In a whole carriage, only two of the 6-bed compartments were occupied, but while on Balkan trains this simply allowed everyone a compartment to themselves as the train company spread you out, the perhaps more profit-minded German company that ran this train decided to cram all 11 passengers into two 6-bed compartments… I guess otherwise, people would never pay for the 2 bed compartments, which are significantly more expensive. Lauren and I had been allocated the very top bunks, but as there were only 5 of us in the compartment, I negotiated the middle bunk. Lauren was delighted to finally be on top.
After the border checks with Slovenia we all settled down and got some sleep; the train was certainly smoother and cleaner than the previous ones we had been on, but somewhat less ‘characterful’. The upper and middle beds had two vertical straps on the ‘outer’ edge which were designed to stop you falling off. At one point I woke up and Lauren was curled up into a tiny ball, with half of her body halfway off the bed; she would have easily fallen between the straps if she’d rolled over. I edged her back on without her waking and got a kick in the face as a reward as she stretched out.
A full hour before arrival the overly cheery attendant woke us all up, but all was forgiven as this time I did actually get the promised coffee, and even a bottle of water and a pain au chocolat, courtesy of the train company. Living the high life now we were in Western Europe! A very quick change at Munich went as smoothly as might be expected, and then after a few hours, an even smoother change at Frankfurt (they have diagrams of every train that runs from each platform, with a colour-coded guide to where to stand for each carriage!) saw us arriving exactly on time, exhausted but happy to be in Brussels, where we were excited to catch up with friends from Mozambique.
Next: Red light districts and Reunions in Brussels.