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Rail Journeys

See Europe's nooks and crannies and majestic cities via Eurail pass

Budapest just one of many places to visit by rail

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Okay, here's the first thing you should know about buying a Eurail Global Pass: even though it's good in 23 countries across Europe, the continent has more than 23 countries. If you foolishly plot a journey from point A to point B through one of these non-Eurail Pass lands, as happened to me, you'll pay extra for the portion of your journey that goes through it — Slovakia, for example. You may, however, decide it's worthwhile.

The Eurail Pass began in 1959 when a handful of European nations wanted to fill empty first-class seats during the slow summer months. Europe was still recovering from the Second World War, but North Americans had money, so it was pitched to them: buy one ticket, see everything.

Now there are four passes, covering travel in just one country or as many as 23, and for varying amounts of time. My Global Pass, for example, is good for any 10 days within two months of the first time I use it (prices from $765).

It's not quite a one-price-covers-all-costs ticket anymore, though. Besides the extra charge if your route crosses one of the few non-Eurail lands (the only big one is the United Kingdom), you also pay a premium to use any of the elite, high-speed European trains — France's TGV and Germany's Thalys, for example — for which reservations are required. Overnight trains with sleepers cost more, too.

Where you really get your money's worth with a Eurail Pass is on regional trains. No supplement is required and you can simply hop on and off at will. These slower services also let you see a lot more of the countryside.

Which is how it comes to pass that, at 3:45 in the morning, I'm looking out on the orange-sodium-lit rail yards in Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, where our overnight train from Prague to Budapest has paused to shunt cars. This activity has woken me from a sound sleep and for a moment I wonder if it would have been smarter to have taken a couple of day trains and gone via Vienna instead. I'd have slept in a hotel and saved the cost of the ticket supplement, since going from Prague to Budapest by way of Austria would have avoided Slovakia. But the supplement price wasn't great, this was the only night train, and I really wanted to take a night train through Eastern Europe.

The Bratislava rail yards at night, silent but for us, are oddly compelling: it's like waking up in a scene from a Cold War–era espionage film. I keep straining to see someone wearing a fedora and a trench coat, standing between the tracks, casting a long shadow under the eerie orange lights and waiting for...what? I don't, of course, but the entire experience — the dead-of-night rail yards and creaking, warm, well-worn train, its narrow corridors and cramped compartments filled by an exotic assortment of families, strangers and perhaps spies — is something I'm glad not to have missed, even if I've inadvertently strayed off the Eurail map.

Budapest: The Hospital in the Rock

BUDAPEST — The temperature is cool in the all-but-empty tunnels of the Hospital in the Rock, making them a pleasant place to be in Budapest's hot summer. Today's monastic tranquility makes it difficult to imagine what a hellhole this would have been in December 1944 and January 1945 during the Siege of Budapest, when these halls were packed with the living and the dying.

"They ran out of food, and medicine, but they still had bandages because they took them off the dead people, sterilized them and used them again," says Hospital in the Rock guide Attila Vegh. The deceased were carted out of the underground hospital at night and buried in bomb craters. At the same time, dead horses were brought back and cooked in the kitchen.

The hospital had been created in the 1930s, as a second world war loomed, in a section of the cave system that honeycombs the rock under Buda Castle. When Hungary entered the war, on the side of the Nazis, the hospital was designed to hold 60. But over Christmas 1944, with the Russian army advancing on the city, 600 crowded in. There was one toilet for men, one for women.

The Siege of Budapest ended in February 1945 with the Soviets victorious, following months of street-to-street fighting that killed an estimated 40,000 civilians and destroyed 80 per cent of Budapest. After that the Hospital in the Rock was mothballed, except for two months in 1956 when it treated casualties from the year's uprising against Soviet rule, which was put down with tanks.

But in the 1960s it found new purpose as a nuclear fall-out shelter, and for the next 40 years, until 2002, it was a top-secret facility. Fuel trucks kept its generators running by pretending to water flowerbeds above the complex; its power plant emissions were pumped out of a fake house near the Chain Bridge, a well-known Budapest landmark.

The Hospital in the Rock wasn't where Hungary's Communist leaders would have spent a third world war. "There are many other bunkers under Budapest," says Vegh. This facility was intended to house 200 doctors and nurses for three weeks after a nuclear attack, and then to treat the survivors, who would be allowed in from above. In reality, only a caretaker and his wife ever used the place, changing the sheets on the beds every two weeks and keeping the equipment in working order.

On his tour, Vegh shows a room still filled with medicines and anti-radiation kits. There's also Russian spyware from the 1960s, looking very large and clunky to the modern eye.

Plenty more material left over from the 1960s is scattered around, including crates of gas masks piled by the hospital entrance. These, it turns out, aren't just for display: they're the real things and visitors can buy them. In fact, besides "full head gas mask set," a list of items for sale in the souvenir shop includes "stretcher," "civil protection uniform" and "medical box–fully equipped."

They could be the perfect gifts for your "be prepared" friends.