Posted by: viewfromtheriva | February 19, 2010

Zagreb to Split by train–wow!

The train?  Nobody in Croatia takes the train!  The service is slow, the trains don’t go further south than Split, they don’t run often enough, the rolling stock is old and didn’t you hear that there were two accidents this summer on the Zagreb-Split line—and six people died!

Yes, I know, I heard, but when I lived in the states I took the train a lot…the weary Erie-Lackawana in New Jersey to go to the movies in Suffern, NY (a thrilling 20 minute ride on cars that smelled of charcoal and steel with conductors on board who still had pocket watches).  When I went to college in Boston, I took the Merchants Limited to New York City and even commuted by train between Boston and Providence every day (the fastest track on the entire East Coast, 45 miles in 44 minutes, who-wee!).

And then when I lived in Russia for a decade, well, people LIVE on trains.  The week long job that runs between Moscow and the Far East even has shower cars.  Ancient but reliable, always packed (the cheapest way to travel is by “platzcart”–an open compartment filled with bunks that 50 or more people can sleep in, sing, drink and make merry.  The 2 berth and 4 berth compartments cost 3 to 5 times as much and are much less fun.

So finding myself in Zagreb with way too many hours left to wait for the amazingly cheap and fast 45 minute  Croatia Airlines flight to Split, I figured I’d give the choo-choo a chance.

For 180kuna I bought myself  a one way ticket on the 3:19PM trip that takes almost 6 hours to cover around 400km (about 35mph folks!).  The bus, which everyone takes because it runs so often and costs less than the train (and stops at an anonymous highway restaurant for 20 minutes where you can stuff yourself silly with a stunningly yummy pasticada) takes 45 minutes less than the train even with the stop.

There were about 20 people waiting on platform 4 for the 3:19.  The other trains on nearby tracks looked pretty ancient, so I was expecting the worst.

But the train that slid in backwards to pick us up was my first surprise.

It was less like a train and more like a modern tram or subway car in some European capitals.  It was completely self contained, without the normal diesel pulling it up front.  It had just two cars (connected by a touch panel that was pressurized to open and close the door between them) and a smooth streamlined 1980’s silhouette….cool!

The bathrooms on board were spotless, enormous and had the same kind of toilets (and flush!) found on an airliner.

The cars themselves were clean, bright, and had drop down tables behind each upholstered seat.  Some of the  seats faced each other and had a larger table in between them.

Not sure why such a modern-looking interior didn’t have seats that reclined, but they were more than comfortable and the windows were enormous.

We pulled out about 10 minutes late and as we got rolling a train stewardess comes up and offers tea or coffee brought right to your seat.  I had packed a dinner (the bread in Zagreb is fabulous, completely different from Split, so I always make a point to buy a loaf or two to bring back), some Emmentaler cheese and a bottle of water, but getting tea right to my table was a real treat.

As we left Zagreb, the train felt like it was on a narrow gauge track all on its own heading into the wilderness.  With only 4 million people, more than half of whom live in cities like Zagreb, Split, Zadar, etc., Croatia is still very rural country and the dream-like quality of our tiny train threading its way to places unknown and unmarked by real civilization was spell-binding.

Pretty soon I was glued to the window like a little kid.  Zagreb was much colder than Split and the patches of snow in the city proper gave way to the real stuff once we headed out.

With so little to disturb what nature is so good at creating, the snow was a marvelous tapestry that folded itself into every contour and turned an ordinary landscape into a dreamscape.

As we headed up into the mountains (oh yes, we have to cross the mountains to get to the sea!) I had a deja vu moment of being on the island of Corsica where the Swiss or some other Scandinavians had built a narrow gauge railway along a mountain ridge.  The spectacular drop offs and curves makes this one of the most unusual and beautiful train trips in the world.

And here I was in Croatia and the best was yet to come!

Up, up we went and I actually got giddy listening the engine rev  (or was it me catching my breath to make sure it could make it?).  We whooshed through several tunnels, none of them very long, and then finally darkness fell.

With so few landmarks and lights in this part of Croatia I felt like we were in a warm cocoon–and it was so odd to be able to see out of the FRONT of the train because on a straightaway, the two cars lined up perfectly and because the engineer’s compartment is on the side of the train, the front window was open to the onrushing track.

As we wound our way past Gospic, Drinis and Knin we swooped down to Kasteal Novi.  Wow!  it was like being in an airplane.  Up so high we could see the twinkling lights framing the bays and the sea beyond.

As we got lower, the landmarks were more clear–Bene in the distance, the “other side” (as in ugly) of Split that you see when you come in from the airport on the highway, and more.

But instead of ugly, it was all too beautiful, even the notorious cement plant looked fabulously surreal flooded with uplights.

We pulled into Split about 40 minutes late.

I got off in a daze to a gaggle of grandmas offering “sobe, rooms, sobe rooms!” and stumbled to the other side of the track to walk up to the Green Market in the darkness rather than break the spell and exit onto the busy harborfront road in front of the station.

I walked maybe 50 meters, then turned back to look at the train, like saying a soft good-bye to a friend you know you will see again.  And just then, the train said good-bye too, letting out a mournful sigh from its air brakes, its journey done, ready to sleep…

Enjoy our new Croatian vacation portal

Read more about Croatia at secret dalmatia’s unique blog

Coming to Split?


  1. Great post! I still remember going from Šibenik to Osijek on a train back in the 1985 (feels like 1884…) when we were visiting my aunt. The sound of train is the best lullaby ever :)))

  2. […] You find the original post here viewfromtheriva.word … | viewfromtheriva […]

  3. It was very interesting to read. The description of the snowy landscapes took me back to Croatia, the beautiful country I really enjoyed visiting!

  4. Hello. I just found your blog and I think its great. Its fun to read about other expat’s experiences Split. We haven’t braved the train yet – I wish they would get a high-speed one!

  5. “here we go again”, another couple that lives in our croatian neighbourhood.

    First of all I should say hello, and give you a compliment on excellent information, both on webside and blog.

    The story about the traintrip Zagreb-Split is giving me a problem, as I don’t know what to do.
    Reading on may mean that more of your Croatian experiences show up, inviting me to follow your steps/rides, while I already have my looooong list of “to-do’s”.

    Well, still in Holland at the moment I can take the risk reading on tonight, but as soon as we’re back in our hidden valley in Croatia, this blog will be a no/no zone for me !

    Thanks for sharing your part of discoveries, pozdravi, Pim

    (ps. got here after reading Elisa’s blog about horseriding in D. Ogorje.)

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