There I was, settling into my seat on an early morning train that just left the sleepy town of Ogulin in northwestern Croatia. I had one more transfer to make before I arrived in Split: the triumphant mid-point of my rail journey from Slovenia down to the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.
I was proud of myself for, thus far, having navigated the extensive rail system of Eastern Europe without a hitch. Some of which, I had conceded, might have been thanks to the ease with which I’d been able to flash my Eurail pass, but mostly, I thought to myself, it was because I was awesome.
Despite the blasphemy I’d feel when closing my eyes on these trains — because picturesque villages with crumbling stone churches and sparkling aqua lakes appeared with each passing kilometre — I began to let my lids droop. I felt comforted by the elderly nun to my left, who was snoozing with her feet up on the seat beside her. With the warm glow of sunrise on my face, I closed my eyes, fell asleep, and missed my next stop.
“Excuse me, can you please help?” I whimpered in the direction of a stone-faced train attendee, explaining my mistake through blurry eyes as the speeding train moved further and further away from my station. With a you’re-basically-screwed expression, she told me to stay put and wait, proceeding to disappear into another cabin. I sat slumped over in my royal-blue passenger seat like a child in detention, waiting on my teacher before determining my next move.
Here, discombobulated and dishevelled, I turned my thoughts, for comfort, back to Ljubljana, Slovenia, where my journey had begun a week prior. On my first venture out into the opulent and bustling city, I had sat on a patio by the canal under heat lamps and devoured a platter of kielbasa, pickled cabbage and fresh cheese, washing it down with a frosty Slovenian beer.
The day after that had seen me take my first Eastern European train journey to Slovenia’s Lake Bled. With all the spectacular scenes I would take in that day — a postcard-worthy church on an islet in the middle of an emerald lake, for example — I was most taken aback by how simple it was to travel to this paradise in the Julian Alps. A quick nod of recognition and stamp on my Eurail Select Pass, which allows rail passengers multiple travel days in bordering European countries within a two-month period, was literally all I needed to circle to and from this must-see destination.
With the tangled check-in procedures of cross-country travel evidently off the table, I had continued my journey with gusto. My next rail line, speedy and speckled with local families, had taken me to Croatia — where 21 million passengers travel by train annually. First I had found myself in its enchanting capital, Zagreb, where I passed lovestruck couples necking in the shadows of every moonlit corner while making my way through a maze of cobblestone walkways.
Then, using Zagreb as a jumping-off point, I visited Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park, where I spent a day strolling amongst gigantic waterfalls and aqua-blue pools. Finally, there was Cres Island, a jewel in the northern Kvarner Gulf, where a local I had befriended hiked with me to a ghostly abandoned manor in the mountains. I arrived to Cres by ferry from the seaport town of Rijeka — another major station on Croatia’s rail line. It had all seemed so easy then, with the world, my train oyster.
Bolted back to the present, my tight-bunned train attendee reappeared from the depths of the cabin ahead. By this point, I had come to accept that my epic journey had gone off the rails. I was far out from my perfectly mapped route, unsure of where I was now headed and would certainly have missed my connecting train, which departed only once a day — and my ego, once convinced of my prowess as a railway connoisseur, was surely damaged forever.
“Get ready to get off,” she said, as she closed in on my seat. Confused as I was, I obeyed, asking her where I was and what I was supposed to do next as I gathered my things. But she was busy on her walkie-talkie and unable to hear my desperate questions. Surely I was doomed.
The train stopped and the dust settled around me as I hopped out onto train tracks in who-knows-where Croatia. Confused and feeling defeated, I glanced to my left to see, in the clearing, a train on a neighbouring track flanked by three railway workers who were waving me over in unison. I made out that the train marquee said Split, and with the encouragement of my attendee, I ran with my suitcase across the tracks and was hoisted up into the train, which took off as soon as the door shut behind me. I was sweaty and tired, but somehow I had ended up, ahem, back on track.
I tried to work out exactly what happened that day throughout the rest of my trip — at one time while sipping a glass of red wine on a balmy night within the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, and on another occasion when I was traversing the ancient walls of Dubrovnik’s Old City, looking down at hundreds of vibrant orange rooftops complemented by the crashing waves of the Adriatic.
From what I could work out, my seemingly disinterested train governess had quickly alerted the train I had been meaning to take of my error. The train’s conductor must have then opted to stall briefly on the tracks, waiting for the moment my current train would pass it, just moments before the two would divert in their differing directions. Boarding, once again, had involved a nod of recognition at my Eurail Select Pass, and I was on my way southward down the coast.
There are three lessons I took away from this rail-life experience. The first being that the people of Eastern Europe, though occasionally stoic in their first impressions, will routinely go above and beyond to lend a hand to strangers. Second, rail adventure, as in any other travel, does not necessarily have to stay on a linear track. Mishaps, chaos and the taking of routes less travelled can often give way to your greatest adventures. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I learned that when a destination as spectacular as Eastern Europe is passing you by, it’s best to keep your eyes open.