Croatia by rail and ferry

Exploring the land between the Adriatic and the Balkans

click to enlarge Street in port of Rijeka
  • Street in port of Rijeka

At Vienna's Sudbahnhof station, I caught the 7:58 a.m. train to Graz and, via Maribor in eastern Slovenia, to Zagreb, Croatia.

From flat Austrian farmland the train ascended into the mountainous southeast. We skirted hillsides dotted with whitewashed houses and traversed a series of tunnels and forests. Now and again, a bulbous church steeple, reminiscent of Turkish incursions more than three centuries ago, rose in the distance.

Increasingly, the railway stations were of rough-hewn stone. At Murzzuschlag, we began descending — swirling it seemed — toward the Mediterranean. Spielfeld was the final Austrian station; the train passed into Slovenia.

We traversed a farmscape of corn, grapes, vegetables and cone-shaped hayricks. "An old-world Eden," I wrote in my notebook as the train slid along a slow-moving river. We stopped at Celje, an important city in medieval times. Then the river widened and Slovenia became dustier and more industrial.

A trailer marked "Policija," and flying the blue-and-red Croatian flag, signaled the Slovenia-Croatia border. A half-hour later we were in Zagreb.

The Croatian Railway ("Hrvatske Zeljeznic" in Croatian, with a stylized " hz " logo) offers first and second-class service from Zagreb to Split. So after several days in wonderful Zagreb, I made my way to the city’s imposing 19 th -century railway station.

It was 6 a.m. and bleary eyed, I couldn't figure out which rail cars would travel all the way south, and which would (I’d been warned) be uncoupled along the route. An elderly man led me to a car marked "Split."

The train departed with a delightful rendering of “Auld Lang Syne” over the loudspeakers, then wended along a broad river with a series of small rapids. I bought a long, chocolately coffee from a train attendant.

Most of the railway stations along this stretch were temporary huts or simple buildings of wood and stone. At every station, including those that the train rumbled right through, a local trainman waved a red flag.

At Ogulin junction, the train split in two, with some cars heading west to the port of Rijeka. From Rijeka, trains travel into western Slovenia; long-distance buses head into the touristy Istrian peninsula and Italy; and ferries sail down the Dalmatian coast.

I shared a train compartment with a middle-aged woman who spoke as much English as I did Serbo-Croatian. But with the help of a map, she explained that she lived on the island of Solta, just off Split. She shared her bag of peanuts with me, and together we tolerated (barely, for my part) the Euro-pop music that blasted through the car.

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