I’m tired and I wanna go to Bled.
Updated: Jul 5
From Venice to Ljubljana to Lake Bled to Zagreb….in 24 hours!
“Come on lad,” I hear you cry, “you’re supposed to be telling us about all these amazing train journeys, filled with scenery to make your eyes pop out of their sockets, travelling at speed, with comfort and the added social aspect of sharing a long distance rail experience with those in your near vicinity. So why are you banging on about your worst trip?!?”
Well, that’s not strictly true. This wasn’t my worst trip. It was a mind-blowing 24 hours, looking back. That much I can’t deny. It did begin with a pretty grim experience on rails. But you take the rough with the smooth when trying to position yourself somewhere for the next day at unsociable hours. Or indeed to check out a dicey journey that might not be suitable for paying customers as part of their holiday. There will be a few of these, the occasional bits of ridiculousness dotted amidst the undeniably vast expanses of rail-based sublime. So where do we begin?
Venice. Santa Lucia station. The squat, concrete entry of choice for me to the city of canals and romance. This was the first time I had clapped eyes on the floating city and I have been back several times since. Venice has that kind of attraction. Now, I don’t normally go for places filled with hordes of tourists and the cynical industry obsessed with extracting every spare penny from said tourists’ pockets, but there is a reason why Venice is filled with tourists. It’s so damned special. Do you know what I love most about it? It’s the simple pleasure of watching the boats come and go along the canals, going about their daily business. One of the few advantages of being poor at sleeping is that you get to be awake before the tourists to watch boats filled with cargo destined for hotels, restaurants and shops chugging up and down the canal; the secret freight boats preparing the city of romance for another day fulfilling the dreams of lovers yet to rise from their hotel beds.
I like Santa Lucia station. It’s stark and modernist and has a strange appeal, given its surroundings. From its incongruous concrete forecourt you are led straight to the Grand Canal. Kaboom! There’s Venice! Right there! In front of you! I had flown into Venice Marco Polo and, following a short transfer, was fortunate to have a couple of hours to wander amidst the alleys criss-crossing the famous canals before my direct evening train to Ljubljana. I was positioning myself to meet Milan from a Slovenian receptive tour operator the following morning at 7am sharp. My train would arrive in Ljubljana before midnight and the following day would be a long one, piecing together a new tour of the Balkans, inspired more than a little by Michael Palin’s then recent ‘New Europe’ tv series.
The train on which I travelled no longer exists. I’m wondering whether this particular evening was the straw that broke the camel’s back? Who knows? All I know is that I settled into my reserved seat and thought, “By jiminy, it’s warm in here!” We waited. No movement. Sticking to our seats, Santa Lucia began dropping down my league table of favourite stations as we anticipated the departure of sauna on rails via Monfalcone, Gorizia (Gorica) and onwards to Ljubljana. With air-conditioning in our part of the train malfunctioning, carriages were closed due to Health & Safety and I found a seat on the floor of a vestibule for our three hour delayed departure, with no scenery to make my eyes pop out of my sockets, travelling at questionable speed, zero comfort and with the added social aspect of sharing a long distance rail experience with a frustrated mother and son combo arguing into the night.
Into the night. It’s 3am and we are finally in Ljubljana. My head hits the pillow on what would become my shortest ever overnight stay in a hotel. I’m immediately woken by an alarm. No time for breakfast. Milan is waiting for me in reception, fresh as a daisy, a big welcoming smile on his face, pumped up for the long day ahead. Jeepers.
What was Milan’s first impression of me? Well, I’m not sure. A slightly dishevelled Brit with bloodshot eyes and general lethargy caused by the previous twelve hours on a vestibule floor? Milan was raring to get stuck into this new project and thankfully he had enough energy for both of us. We were about to piece together a unique new tour by rail (where possible) through the former Yugoslavia. The excitement of a new opportunity. The thrill of the chase for something fresh and different that I normally love.
Milan’s car sped westwards, back towards regions through which ‘that train journey’ had brought me. Our first destination was Lake Bled, where we visited the stations in the countryside north of the lake that might be our customers’ entry point, checking their suitability, followed by five or six of the resort’s hotels. Lake Bled really is Slovenia’s jewel, with a perfect focal point in the middle of the lake, a wooded island topped by a medieval church. The glistening waters and general contented calm was enticing me to sneak off for a power nap, soothed by the lapping of water collected from the stunning surroundings of the Julian Alps. But no, I’ve decided which hotel is most suitable for the groups and it’s back into Milan’s car, speeding eastwards whence we came. Time is in short supply today.
It’s lunchtime. Thank goodness. I haven’t eaten anything since Venice. Ljubljana, however brief the visit, was a joyful respite on that gorgeous summer’s day. As a capital city it’s manageable. In fact it has more of a feel of a provincial capital, which is, I suppose, exactly the role it played for many centuries. Its centre boasts baroque and art nouveau architecture and we ate in a relaxing setting overlooking the Ljubljanica river, which I found unusually serene for the middle of a capital city. And for those of us searching for rails wherever we venture, a funicular railway leads from the very centre of the city up to its crowning glory, the castle.
Two more hotels visited in Ljubljana in order to decide finally whether to base the groups in Bled or Ljubljana (I would choose the former, with a day excursion to Ljubljana), the crazy day continued. The irrepressible Milan dropped me off at Ljubljana station to meet my train to Zagreb. He wouldn’t be travelling with me, instead belting down the motorway into Croatia to meet me at the other end, no doubt still jumping with enough energy for the two of us.
The EuroCity train had originated in Villach and was operating with Austrian rolling stock. For me there is somehow a soothing whiff of nostalgia on EuroCity services. They are the product of historic cross-border co-operation between national rail operators, requiring a certain level of speed, comfort and catering in order to carry the EC name. Equally appealing for me, the origins of the EuroCity system lie with the Trans Europ Express network, harking back to great days of European international rail travel, which were sadly over before my time. EuroCity trains are essentially cross-border Inter City services (rather than the high speed, ultramodern ICE or TGV trains). For those with a little more time to kill, EuroCity routes are a great way to explore Europe at a fast but not breakneck pace. An additional advantage for me is that, dependent on the operator or route, they occasionally use the nostalgic compartment-style carriages that I love.
The journey between these two now proud capitals of independent ex-Yugoslav states is a scenic one along the attractive Sava river valley and with a pre-alpine backdrop of rolling hills and meadows reminiscent in parts of Lower Austria. On the EuroCity it takes around 2 ½ hours. The stretch between Ljubljana and Zidani Most is particularly pretty, before approaching the Croatian border at Dobova and that other piece of nostalgic excitement, the arrival on the train of square-jawed, stern-faced Croatian border enforcers with scary guns, looking your embodiment of weariness up and down with disdain in an atmosphere crackling with tension, before stamping your passport, managing a knowing smirk and wishing you a pleasant stay.
Zagreb finally pulled into view and the train had beaten Milan’s car to the Croatian capital, where my home for the night would be the Hotel Esplanade. Zagreb Glavni Kolodvor station is a grand building in its own right, but, situated opposite and at the head of the city’s parkland on a grand tree-lined boulevard leading to the Old Town, the Esplanade is one of Zagreb’s grandest art nouveau buildings. One of the great railway hotels, it was opened in 1925, having been built to service customers stepping off the Orient Express before those decades of political turmoil eventually confined that particular route to history. At check-in, still in need of that illusive second wind, I was offered a comfortable seat and a coffee whilst completing the paperwork. Now this is my kind of establishment. Coffee, I’ve since learned, is very much entwined with Croatian culture. After dining in the Esplanade’s ornate restaurant I was very grateful to hit the very grand sack I had been afforded by the hotel at the end of a fascinating, full-on and fatiguing 24 hours.
The new day would bring a morning’s work in Zagreb, before embarking on the next leg of the adventure, heading southwards to Split. These tracks lead right through a region that can bear witness to immense and relatively recent political turmoil and human suffering. With some trepidation, I admit, I had the feeling that the following 24 hours would be no less fascinating.