Scouring the departures board at Zurich’s main railway station, there was a moment of mild alarm when our intended Graz sleeper train wasn’t there. In its place though, at exactly the same departure time, was a train to Belgrade. I thought for a minute, and realised that given Belgrade was beyond Austria, this was indeed our train and Graz was a mere stop-off rather than the final destination.
This rather changed the feel of the journey for me. This wasn’t a simple sleeper train connecting two cities in neighbouring countries. It was a trans-European voyage that, at over a thousand kilometres, was twice the distance to Graz. The fact that it was a fairly dated train with a 1960s feel inside, the fact that Belgrade was formerly beyond the Iron Curtain, and the fact I’d never been to Belgrade, all combined to give the journey a greater than expected sense of adventure and mystery.
“Out of interest, what time does the train arrive in Belgrade?” I asked the attendant as he showed us to our cosy compartment.
“I’ve no idea,” he said. “I get off at Graz. I’m from Austria.”
As I write this I’ve discovered it arrives around five o’clock in the afternoon, making for a journey of over twenty hours. I told myself it was a journey I should undertake one day. A full convert to overland rail journeys as a means of exploring Europe, it would be a great way to reach Serbia, a country which (if you exclude Kosovo – and there’s a moot point if ever there was one) is one of the few European countries I have not visited.
But for now, Graz. Though a journey still across a border and of course over or through a whole heap of mountains. As we settled into our compartment, we drank the complementary sparkling wine to celebrate our forward planning that had allowed us to get a top notch compartment for a lot less than it would otherwise be. We sat at the table and chose from the breakfast menu card. I then looked around the compartment, train geek that I am, to check out all the features.
It was a plain, almost ugly, interior, that smacked of Communist-era utilitarianism. But the design was clever, with a sink nicely hidden away behind cupboard doors, ample storage space above our heads, and two beds that folded down out of the wall for sleeping. The toilet was down the corridor and there was no shower, but it was still a bit comfier than the ScotRail sleeper.
Our journey took us at first out of Zurich and along the lakeside, light rain and mist obscuring our views as we rattled along. After a long day, though, and with the darkness rendering the tall mountains increasingly indistinct, we went to bed. We’d had a long day that had seen us travel from Avignon in the morning and spend a day on the streets of Zurich, so the reassuring motion of the train sent us to sleep quickly.
We woke in the morning refreshed, though delayed by a good hour or so, the rain much heavier in Austria than it had been in Switzerland. We could barely see the tops of the mountains thanks to the constant splatter on the windows and the thick mist hanging to the hillsides. Construction vehicles and teams of railway workmen in waterproof gear alongside the track suggested, as was confirmed by our attendant later, that we were delayed due to floods.
An hour or so’s addition to our journey was fine by us – we were glad of the easier morning and were in no hurry. Graz would be our home for the next few days.