Table 1330: Zagreb – Split

PART 1

This month we are following a scenic route which takes in Croatia’s two largest cities. We are travelling from the capital Zagreb, following the Lika Railway through the rugged hills of the Dalmatian mountains to the popular coastal holiday resort of Split.

Travelling by rail between Zagreb and Split is very easy, unlike some other major cities in Croatia where rail links are very limited. There are one or two excellent daytime trains on this lovely scenic route every day (more in the summer months) operated by Croatian Railways with “RegioSwinger” tilting trains, taking between six and seven hours. There is also a daily overnight service with couchettes and a car-carrying service in the summer which takes around eight hours (it only runs three times a week in the off-peak season). In addition, another night train from Budapest or Prague via Zagreb to Split runs three times a week in summer. This is a popular route for Interrail travellers and trains can get very busy in mid-summer, so advance reservation is essential.

Our starting point is Zagreb Glavni kolodvor, the main railway station for the city and the major hub of the Croatian Railways network. The striking neoclassical style station was once a stop for the Orient Express and a steam engine from its heyday is displayed next to the station. There are daily services from Belgrade, Budapest, Ljubljana, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna and an overnight train from Zürich, making Croatia easily accessible from all over Europe. The station is an easy ten-minute walk from Ban Jelačić Square which is a good starting point for reaching most of the city’s attractions. Compact and easy to navigate, Zagreb has plenty of historic sights including its twin-towered cathedral and Presidential Palace as well as many fascinating museums and art galleries. It also boasts the shortest funicular railway in the world, linking the Lower Town to Upper Town where you can get some of the finest views of the city.

PART 2

Departing from Zagreb Glavni kolodvor, the first stop is the city of Karlovac in the beautiful forested area of Lika. The city lies at the confluence of four rivers and is surrounded by mountains and untouched forests making it a popular destination for water sports and hiking in one of the many nearby national and natural parks. Karlovac was designed as a defensive town against the Otoman Empire, with fortifications and moats and the old town is quite unique, built
in the shape of a six-pointed star, divided into 24 blocks of equal size. Amongst the star, you will find plenty of examples of Baroque architecture including a monastery and palace.

The next stop is the small village of Oštarije where the train journeys into the hills and joins the Lika Railway. Next is the town of Ouglin, located at the foot of Klek mountain. The region has many walks and bicycle trails where you can explore the natural beauty of the surrounding lakes and mountains which are rich with legends and fairytales. In fact every year, in June, an international festival of Ogulin fairytales is held which attracts many curious visitors! In the town, you can try traditional meals with game, fish, mushrooms, and a range of local produce.

From Ouglin there is an easy connection to Rijeka (Table 1310), Croatia’s third largest city and a major seaport which acts as a jumping off point to visit the many pretty surrounding islands. The city itself has a castle, a bustling produce market and broad promenades full of upmarket shops and cafes and so makes an ideal day trip.

PART 3

Roughly halfway between Zagreb and Split is the oldest and most visited national park in Croatia, the breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Site of Plitvice Lakes. There is no way of reaching the park by train but it is well worth including a visit on any holiday in this region, so an organised bus tour or private transfer is worth considering. The park includes 16 terraced lakes with more than 90 waterfalls and several kilometres of boardwalks to explore. The lakes are dazzling, very clear and change colour in different light conditions due to the mineral content of the water.

From Oštarije, the line continues south through the arid and sparsely populated Lika region, with stops at stations in the small farming towns of Gospić and Gračac. The next major town is the fortress town of Knin which still bears the scars of its troubled past, having played a major part in the Bosnian War as the epicenter of the Serbian armed rebellion. Nowadays tourists are drawn to its spectacular hilltop fortress, the second-largest in Croatia and the historical seat of Croatian Kings. The hike to the top is worth it for the extraordinary views it offers over the valley to the mountains of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Knin and the surrounding area is also a paradise for cyclists, hikers and water sports lovers due to the nearby Dinara Mountain, the highest peak in Croatia and the various lakes, rivers, and breathtaking waterfalls.

Knin offers a useful bus connection to Zadar, one of Croatia’s oldest cities and historical center of Dalmatia. Zadar is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, attracted by its UNESCO-protected Old Town, Roman ruins, medieval churches, cosmopolitan cafes, and two very modern architectural attractions: the incredible ‘Sea Organ’, a set of steps that makes relaxing sounds with the power of the movement of the sea, and the ‘Sun Salutation’, a solar-powered light show set into the pavement along the harbourside promenade. The city also offers plenty of boat-trips and excursions to remote offshore islands and connections into its beautiful national parks.

PART 4

Last week we reached Knin, which is less than two hours from Split, but if you are dividing up your journey, you may wish to make a side trip to the coastal town of Sibenik. The town is a popular tourist destination, with two UNESCO protected monuments, Sibenik Cathedral and St. Nicholas Fortress as well as some lovely beaches and easy access to nearby Krka National Park with its beautiful expanse of waterfalls and river canyons.

On the approach to Split, we suggest taking a seat on the right of the train for the best view of the city. The station is situated about one kilometre from the old town and its main historical gems like the Diocletian’s Palace complex. There are also plenty of clean, family-friendly beaches to enjoy with the bonus of the beautiful mountain vista to enjoy, as well the bustling Riva waterfront promenade filled with cafes which are frequented by both locals and tourists. A popular activity with many visitors is a day trip to the islands of Brac and Hvar which are connected to Split via ferry lines or, going further afield, there is a regular connecting bus service to the pretty coastal resorts of Ploče and Dubrovnik (Table 1325) which takes around 4 to 5 hours.

TABLE 1200: Budapest – Zagreb

(Part 5/5)

We now reach the final leg of the journey. Departing from Keszthely we first pass through the border town of Nagykanizsa. For centuries the town has been an important trade and transport link between Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary and the Adriatic and Italian harbours. There is a pretty town square in the recently renovated city centre and a thermal baths with indoor and outdoor pools to relax in.

Next, we cross over the border towards the capital of Croatia, you can expect to have your travel documents checked which can take a while if the train is busy. The train arrives in the glorious Glavni Kolodvor station of Zagreb, a beautiful neoclassical building which was once used as a stop for the Orient Express service. The station offers plenty of international trains for extending your holiday, with daily departures for Belgrade, Frankfurt, Ljubljana, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna and Zürich as well direct services to Croatia’s beautiful coastal cities.

The city’s oldest and most beautiful quarter is the upper town which can be reached via the very short and steep funicular railway. At just 66 metres it’s the shortest in the world and affords some lovely views of the lower town. If you can, time your arrival for midday when the cannon from Lotrscak Tower is fired. The busy Ban Jelacic Square is the central square of the city and from where most of Zagreb’s key sights such as the cathedral can easily be reached on foot or you can hop on the blue trams which will transport you to the more distant parts of the city. The city has around 30 museums to choose from, including the quirky ‘museum of broken relationships’ and some delightful parks, or you could just relax in one of the many cafes and restaurants to sample the local specialities of štrukli (a rolled dough with various fillings) and sip on one of the many varieties of Rakija.

(Part 4)

This month we have been looking at Table 1200 Budapest – Zagreb. Continuing along the southern shore of Lake Balaton from Balatonfenyves, the next stop along our route is the town of Fonyód, famous for its bottled mineral water. The town’s railway station is one of the most beautiful and best preserved along the lake. Fonyód commemorates Hungarian history with a medieval drama festival in early August.

The next stop is Balatonfenyves which has one of the last remaining narrow gauge railways in Hungary, transporting tourists to and from Somogyszentpál over a distance of 13 km. It is a pretty trip through a nature reserve along marshy land which was originally part of the lake.

The next stop is Keszthely which is the most westerly and oldest of the towns along the lake. Central Keszthely is the site of the stunning Festetics Palace, built by the wealthy Festetics family in 1745 who also built the first agricultural college in Europe here in 1797. The white 101 roomed mansion is now a museum and conference centre with exhibits on the formation and history of Lake Balaton as well as rare paintings from the area. Its pride and joy is its library with over 100,000 volumes including some very rare books. During summer concerts are held weekly in the pretty grounds of the castle. The town itself is compact and easily explored on foot or via the small tourist train which circulates the town. Another popular attraction is the model railway museum, housed in a former military building, it has a 40 metre layout including reproductions of the railway stations around Lake Balaton.

(Part 3)

Continuing our exploration along Table 1200 Budapest – Zagreb, we now arrive in the first of several towns along the southern shores of Lake Balaton. For the best views of the lake make sure to sit on the right side of the train.

The lake itself is 48 miles long and around 8 miles wide and is a major holiday resort in landlocked Hungary. The water is warm in summer and becomes Europe’s biggest ice rink in winter. The lake is surrounded by rolling hills with rich soil which produce some great wines.

Balaton’s southern shore is almost entirely built up with a continuous chain of resort towns, the lake is shallower on the southern side which makes these shores popular with families. The largest and most popular destination is Siófok, which is the first stop on our route. The Water Tower, which stands in the centre of the town, is the most well-known symbol of Siófok and the café at the top offers some nice views of the area. Boats leave from the harbour frequently so you can easily hop on a boat for a day trip to the lovely towns on the northern shore.

The next few stations are all resort towns along the lake. First is Zamardi, which has been the site of Balaton Sound, an electronic music festival since 2007. Next is Balatonföldvár, one of the prettier towns. It’s popular because of its natural beauty, impressive promenade and flowery parks. The views of the north shore from here are breath-taking, you can see the flat, table-like mountain of Badacsony, a famous wine producing area and the hills covered with the purple haze of flowering lavender fields during the summer season.

The next 3 stops have almost merged together into one resort. The towns of Balatonszemes, Balatonelle and Balatonboglár all provide the usual mix of tourist accommodation and entertainments. The towns are trying to undergo some renovations with many of the ugly dull buildings being repainted, but a lot of work is left to be done.

(Part 2)

Budapest is the amalgamation of two historic cities lying opposite each other on the river Danube (Buda on the western bank and Pest on the eastern). With its interesting mix of heritage and architecture it is one of Europe’s most delightful and enjoyable capitals to visit. The central area of the city is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has many notable monuments, including the Hungarian Parliament, Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion, Gresham Palace, Széchenyi Chain Bridge and the Liberty Statue. The urban area is well covered by metro lines which are an excellent way to get around, the Millennium Underground Railway is actually one of the oldest electrified underground railways system in the world, opening just a few years after the London Underground. For the best views of the city take the Budavari Siklo (Buda Castle Funicular) to the top of castle hill, this historic cable car has been in service since 1870 and runs every 10 minutes, saving the legs of many passengers. Rail enthusiasts may also enjoy the Hungarian Railway History Park which has a fleet of steam and electric engines as well as other interesting exhibits

The early morning train to Zagreb is called the Agram, leaving Budapest Deli it passes through Kelenfold on the outskirts of the city then onto the former royal seat of Székesfehérvár. Today the city is an important rail and road junction between Lake Balaton and Lake Velence but this historic city has had a turbulent past, at one time it served as the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary and several Kings were crowned and buried here. There are good walking tours of the city where you can see the remains of the coronation basilica and medieval castle walls or the baroque architecture of the city centre. A site worth exploring is Bory Castle, built as a piece of art by a sculptor and architect following his own imagination and plans. It has seven towers, thirty rooms in different sizes including three studios, and there are statues, paintings, antiquities and works of art all over the quirky castle.

(Part 1)

For June we will be focusing on Table 1220 from our timetable which covers an interesting and very scenic route between two capital cities in central Europe.

The route starts at Budapest in Hungary and travels 352km to Zagreb in Croatia. The entire journey could be completed in around 6 and a half hours on one of the two daily direct trains which leave from Budapest Deli (Southern railway station) and Budapest Keleti (Eastern railway station).  However, there are lots of interesting places to stop and explore along this route so we recommend breaking up the journey with a few stops.

It’s relatively easy to travel from Hungary to Croatia, especially if you’re travelling to or from Budapest which is a great starting point for many rail journeys with connections all over central and eastern Europe. One of the most popular options is the overnight train from Budapest to Split via Zagreb (Table 89) but this train only runs between June and August.

Apart from the very interesting cities and towns along this route there is some wonderful scenery. Of particular interest is Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater lake in central Europe and one of the region’s foremost tourist destinations. This route passes through several pretty lakeside towns and resorts including Siofok and Fonyod on the southern shore and Keszthely on the western shore with its grand town houses and shallow beaches. Then onto the Roman city of Nagykanizsa, a connecting point for several routes due to its location between the western corner of the Lake Balaton and the Croatian and Slovenian border.