by Betsy Herbert
I began traveling with my Eurail pass (the one you can only buy in the USA before you leave) when I left Aix-en-Provence, France on April 28. I was bound for Zagreb, Croatia for a two week Sierra Club International Tour beginning on May 31, so I had 3 1/2 days to make the journey.
(Below are some photos of the journey; top two are from Venice; then Milan train station, and last one is the view of Lake Lausanne at sunrise)
I thought from reading my Eurail Pass brochure that I would be able to make my train reservations all the way from France to Croatia at the Aix-en-Provence railway station. After all, I had a Global Eurail Pass which entitles me to train travel at a hugely discounted rate in most countries in Europe, including all of the countries on the most direct route from France to Croatia: Switzerland, Italy, Austria, and Slovenia.
But this was not the case. As the agent at the Aix-en-Provence ticket counter explained in a patronizing way, French policy is to not allow Eurail Pass holders to reserve seats on any trains except French trains leaving from France (unless of course, I wanted to pay the full fare, which was already included in the cost of my Eurail Pass).
So I boarded a TVC (bullet train) bound for Lyon, France where I would change trains to get to Geneva. I placed my big bag at the back of the car and my small daypack on the overhead luggage rack.
On the way to Lyon, another train broke down ahead of us and our TVC train ground to a halt for a half hour, and I knew I would miss my connection. Nevermind . . . I met a very congenial French business man on the train who was fluent in English and whose son lived and worked in Los Gatos, California. We were having a great conversation until water started dripping on his head, apparently from the air conditioning unit that ran along the bottom of the overhead luggage rack. He motioned to the conductor and asked if perhaps the air conditioner was leaking. The conductor’s response was a snort and a haughty dismissal. So we moved to different seats and I moved my small backpack to the overhead bin above our new seats.
As we began our conversation again, water started dripping on my head. I looked up to discover that it was my water bottle in my backpack that was leaking! The snooty conductor was vindicated...much to my embarrassment. I did miss my connection and had to spend another couple of hours in the Lyon railway station waiting for the next train to Geneva.
I tried again in Lyon to reserve a seat all the way to Zagreb, but the agent there gave me the same story, scolding me for not making my reservations at least a month in advance (even though there were plenty of empty seats on all the connecting trains). I could get only reserve as far ahead as Geneva, Switzerland.
Once in Geneva, I was able (after standing in line for an hour and a half) to reserve a 5:40 a.m. train the next morning all the way to Venice through Milan. Once in Venice, I was able to reserve the rest of the journey through Austria and Slovenia, and then down to Zagreb in Croatia (after standing in two lines for another hour and a half).
Geneva and Venice were both worthwhile places to spend even one night. The train ride at dawn from Geneva to Lausanne was breathtaking as we travellled along Lake Lausanne to watch the sun rising over the Matterhorn. As we continued through the Alps that morning I forgot all my earlier travel woes.
From Venice I took a bus to Austria, which connected with a train to Slovenia. Once I changed trains in Slovenia for the last leg of the trip to Zagreb, I felt like I had just switched to a different century. The train was old, and it clickety-clacked in a rhythmic manner, lulling all four people in my cabin to sleep.
The countryside of Slovenia was lush and green, with steep limestone cliffs. Rain was gently falling. I felt like I was in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
My cabin mates were quite interesting. There were two college aged women from Uruguay who spoke great English. I found out they were having one last vacation before going off to graudate school. One was going to Cornell University to work on her doctorate in math, and the other was going to Paris to work on her master’s degree in math.
The young man sitting across from me was from Poland. He worked for the railroad and got free train travel as a benefit, so he was going all the way from Poland to Croatia for a long weekend.
As we crossed the border from Slovenia into Croatia, a swarm of Slovenian armed police boarded the train...shortly followed by another swarm from Croatia. I thought perhaps there was an axe-murderer on board, judging by their gruff and intimidating grilling of each passenger as they took away our passports. I imagined that we would all be shepherded off the train for body cavity searches and more questioning. But the Polish man on board told me that was just their normal modus operandi.
The Croatian police returned shortly with our passports and then smiled as they handed them back. The Polish guy was right. I was glad to finally be in Croatia!.