Tag Archives: train

Old men on plastic chairs in Lecce, Puglia

A chat on a train ride across Italy.

An overnight train ride to Lecce, down in the heel of the boot of Italy, the diagonally opposite corner of Italy to Turin. Going to sleep in the south of Piemonte after watching the sun set over cornfields and rolling hills, waking up in Puglia. Red dirt, dry grass, ancient olive trees. “The light really is different here, isn’t it?” says the Pugliese woman we’re sharing a couchette with. She’s right. The sky is blue, blue like it is in Australia, and the light is clear.

Her husband, also in the couchette, is a gentleman, not letting me put my bag up in the rack myself even when I insist it’s not heavy. He tells us about how his whole family has been up in Turin for his son’s wedding. His nephew and the nephew’s wife are in the next carriage and they pop in for a chat. “What’s going on?” asks the conductor as he walks past this little gathering hanging around the door of the couchette. The nephew grins. “Oh, just a family reunion!”

As we roll through Puglia in the morning, we chat about the usual Italian things — food (we should definitely eat orecchiette), and history. The gentleman has studied archeology, and he tells us about all the influences that have gone into this corner of the world, not just the Romans and the Greeks but also the Carthaginians and the Normans and even some Germans. Later that week we’ll see in a museum some of the artifacts found from these powers but for now I can feel the sense of history rolling as invaders come and go.

At last we can see the sea, deep blue behind the rows of olives. We’re getting close to Lecce. “The sea so close makes the weather much nicer here than in Torino,” says the woman.
“Ugh, yes, it always stays hot in Torino, even at night…” I reply. “We’re from the coast, too, in Australia.”
“Australia! That’s a long way to travel.”
“I’d love to go to Australia,” adds her husband.
“Yes dear,” she says to him. She adds to us, laughing, “Listen to him, he wants to go to Australia. He won’t even take me to Venice!”

PS: It’s almost exactly a year ago I wrote a little blurb about cyclists in Turin and decided to stick it on a blog since it was a bit long for facebook. A post (roughly) per week later, and now my friends introduce me as, “This is Zoe, she has a blog” (?!) Thanks for reading, commenting, and generally encouraging this little project!

PPS: I love the guys in the photo for this post, clearly if the piazza doesn’t have enough seating the correct solution is to byo plastic chairs!

Valley in Slovenia

How to get to Lake Bled, Slovenia, from Italy, by train.

The long version of the title of this post ends with “if you are cheap and/or stubborn and/or enjoy travelling by train.”

I own up to being a bit of all 3, so last summer when I read on the inimitable seat61.com that there are train options from Trieste/Venice to Lake Bled despite there being no direct trains from Italy to Slovenia, I knew I had to give it a try on my summer vacation. Seat61 calls the route “cunning, cheap and scenic” which I’m pretty sure is just a more eloquent way of saying “budget/stubborn/train-y”. I’m also pretty sure there are simpler options that involve buses, but I don’t care. Here is my experience: Continue reading

Zagreb to Split by overnight train.

Yeah, so this blog is rapidly turning into a collection of “Zoe catches a train” stories and I don’t care. As an aside, I definitely get it from my parents: a few years ago they took a trip around the US by train which from their accounts sounds amazing but if you know them you can just imagine Dad geeking out about AMERICA!!! the whole time and Mum being the most organized person to ever take a multi-week trip with only a small carry-on bag. Like I say, I get it from them.

So there I was at Zagreb’s main train station at 10.30 pm, peering into the train that was going to trundle down to Split overnight. It was a cool evening and I was glad I’d changed into jeans before I left my hostel. Almost everyone else on the platform was a backpacker, presumably with the same idea as me: get to the coast, with a night’s accomodation, for around 200 kuna (~30 euro). My ticket was for a seat, which I was quickly realizing was going to be a bolt-upright seat in a compartment of 6 — 3 facing 3. Uh oh. I can sleep on planes, but I need that 1–2 inches of reclining and I prefer not to have to negotiate leg room with the stranger facing me.

I kept walking along the train, and I’m glad I did because right at the end was the one car that had couchettes. A horizontal bed! What luxury! I found the conductor, and she had a spot available, for 13 euro (euros, not Croatian kuna. Huh?). I’ve paid more than that for mediocre sushi in Torino. Easiest sale she ever made.

I started to see why it was only 13 euro when I got into my compartment and there was zero aircon. It was sweat-pouring-down-your-face hot. There wasn’t much of a common language between the 6 of us in the compartment, except for the phrase “very hot” which we all agreed on, except for the Serbian lady who was apparently completely unaffected by heat and kept her cardigan on the whole time. As I was settling in for what promised to be a sticky night, I heard a girl in the next compartment say “Maybe we won’t be able to sleep, we’ll just have to party all night!” I got my earplugs out.

Once we got moving, the open window made a huge difference to the temperature and I ended up dozing beautifully, rocked by the motion of the train and the low background noise of the diesel engine (Ms Party All Night seemed to have slept, too).  I say dozing, because it’s hard to fall into a deep sleep when you’re on the upper (3rd) bunk and the straps that are supposed to stop you from falling out and breaking your leg are only tenuously attached.

But light sleep means you catch the early morning light, which makes everything worthwhile:

I swear my phone has an anti-Instagram filter and real life looked 20x more magic-light than this.

I swear my phone has an anti-Instagram filter and real life looked 20x more magic-light than this.

Yup I'm in a train.

Yup I’m on a train.

Practical details for future reference: You can buy tickets at Zagreb station and don’t particularly need to book in advance as far as I can tell (though I don’t know if the ticket window stays open as late as the train departure — I bought my tickets the day before). The lady at the ticket window didn’t mention to me there were couchettes, which is how I ended up with a seat ticket, but they do exist! The train leaves Zagreb at 11-ish and arrives in Split at 7-ish, at the train station which next to the bus station and the ferry terminal.

Throwback Thursday: going west by train.

The first time I ever travelled by myself was like this.

It was the first year of my PhD, and I was in Colorado for a summer school. I was able to take a week of holidays after the school, and I decided to go to San Francisco, because a) famous and well-loved city and b) it was on my way home anyway.

I decided that flying there wouldn’t be enough of an adventure, so I booked a train ticket. I can’t really remember now whether that decision was driven more by naive enthusiasm (“a 35-hour train trip, how romantic!”) or stubbornness (“I refuse to fly even if it’s the obvious solution”) or cheapness (pro tip: if you book far enough in advance and don’t mind sleeping in a seat, you can travel darn cheap on Amtrak. I think I paid something like $80 for Denver-SF).

Whatever my reasoning, everyone I spoke to clearly thought it was a bit odd. At the summer school, one of the other attendees tried to talk me out of it:

“How far even is it?” she asked.

“They reckon about 35 hours.”

“You know that trains here aren’t nice like the ones in Europe?”

“I’ve never been to Europe,” I said.

I’ve read enough travel writing to know that here is where I should be describing the characters I met on the train, the late nights spent playing cards and drinking smuggled-aboard cheap whiskey with my fellow travellers.

Real life isn’t so much like travel writing. I read some physics papers. I listened to the “USA” playlist my sister had put on my mp3 player. I ate a lot of bbq-flavour roast almonds. I walked up and down the train to stretch my legs, trying to hold my breath for the whole length of the carriage that smelled like a broken train toilet. I dozed. To be honest, I don’t have many tales to tell from the trip – turns out my sense of adventure only goes far enough to get me on a long-distance train, and once I’m on there I’m my usual quiet self.

(The closest I came to a memorable story was in the middle of the Rockies, we’d stopped at a tiny station for a smoke break, and I figured I had time to buy a postcard from the station shop. “You’d better hurry back on the train,” the lady at the counter told me, “They’re serious about it only being a 10 minute stop.” I made back on the train just in time.)

What kept my thoughts company was the view out the window. Seeing the train stretch behind my car as we wound back and forward on our way into the Rockies. Following streams through mountain valleys. Coming out the other side into Utah, with the sun setting over impossible rock formations. Waking up in Nevada and pulling into a station that was little more than a shelter to mark where the road and the railway briefly met. Watching the landscape slowly become more human-friendly as we made our way into forests and farmland in California. At some point in California we were re-routed due to track work, onto a line that was only ever used for freight. Seeing road-less sunny wooded valleys that only freight train crews got to see? Pretty special.

Would I do the trip again? In a heartbeat, although recent sofa-sleeping-induced neck pain makes me wonder if I’d spring for a sleeper these days. I also wonder if I’d be more out-going a second time around? I do regret not having struck up a conversation with the woman across the aisle from me, if nothing else because I’d love to know where she got her amazing knee-high lace up boots. Certainly I’d be sure to bring more varied snacks with me. But now I can say I’ve been on plenty of the nice trains in Europe, but I’ll never forget my ridiculous-stubborn-naive train trip across half a continent.

Dallas to Austin by Amtrak

If you don’t have a car, there are three ways to get from Dallas to Austin: fly, greyhound or take the train. I decided flying was out because I feel ridiculous flying such a short distance (~300 km). I wasn’t sure I was up for the kahrazy adventures every reckons you get on the greyhound, so train it was.

Turns out it’s also the cheapest way to go, at least if you buy a ticket in advance. Which you may as well do, because there’s only 1 train per day so it’s not like you need any flexibility. (Yes, people from countries with developed passenger rail infrastructure, that’s right. One. Per day.)

It’s also the slowest way to go, taking well over twice as long as the ‘hound. As in, 6-7 hours. For 300 km. But on the plus side, the seats are massive, with heaps of legroom and proper leg rests, and you do feel very dignified crawling along through the country side in the late afternoon, with views like this:

In fact, having previously travelled by rail from Denver to SF (scheduled time: 35 hours; actual time: more like 40), the 7-ish hours for Dallas to Austin positively flew by, and before I knew it I’d arrived in Austin. Which I really must write about soon, so that this blog gets to Italy while I’m still here.