Eurostar Business Premier 🔵 and Thalys Premium 🔴: how they compare

Eurostar 🔵 and Thalys 🔴 are two international high speed train companies in Europe that were both launched in the 1990s and are owned by a consortium including SNCF Voyageurs – part of the national state-owned railway company in France. The two companies have their own identities, but they have more in common that you might think. Both companies serve cross-border services across four countries and have three classes of accommodation onboard, for example.

It was announced in 2022 that the companies would be merged into one and eventually the Thalys brand would disappear in favour of the Eurostar brand. It has been widely reported that this merger would mean improved scheduling, ticketing and the same loyalty programme.

But while these companies are separate from each other, what are the current service levels like in the most premium class on both trains? Having taken a trip recently in Eurostar Business Premier from London to Brussels and another trip in Thalys Premium from Brussels to Cologne, both journeys of around two hours, this is what I discovered.

Trains

Both Eurostar 🔵 and Thalys 🔴 have two types of trains in their fleet all capable of operating up to 300 kilometres per hour. The most common types of train for each company, and the newest, is the e320 for Eurostar and the PKBA for Thalys which are pictured below. These Eurostar trains have sixteen carriages, while these Thalys trains have eight carriages – with two sets sometimes coupled together to make sixteen carriages.

Routes

Eurostar 🔵 trains run through the Channel Tunnel, connecting the United Kingdom (UK) with France, Belgium and the Netherlands; while Thalys 🔴 trains connect France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The only market that is served by both Eurostar and Thalys is Brussels to Amsterdam, although availability is often limited / non-existent with Eurostar for this journey and no fares exist at all available for Business Premier – only for Standard and Standard Premier classes.

At the Station

Security

What is the security process like for each operator?

For Eurostar 🔵, Business Premier is only available for trips to and from the UK. Passengers travelling to/from the UK are required to go through luggage and passport control at the departure station. Ordinarily this means arriving to check-in at the station less no later than 30 minutes before departure, however, for Business Premier tickets customers are able to check-in up to 10 minutes before departure through its own dedicated check-in area.

This process was a complete breeze compared to when travelling in Standard and Standard Premier class check-in which is impacted by often long queues.

For Thalys 🔴 , irrespective of travel class there are the same checks in place at some stations. At Paris Gare du Nord baggage is scanned on the platform; while in Belgium, random baggage and personal security checks whilst entering the platform area in stations. On my journey from Brussels I was able to walk straight through to the platform.

Lounge Access

A perk of travelling in the most premium class of both operators is the complimentary lounge access at most of the Eurostar and Thalys stations.

Eurostar 🔵 offers its own lounge at London St Pancras, Bruxelles-Midi and Paris Gare du Nord stations following the check-in procedures, while offering access to the NS International lounge at Amsterdam Centraal and Rotterdam Centraal before check-in.

Pictured below is the lounge at London St Pancras, offering complimentary alcoholic and soft drinks and snacks, UK and French newspapers and magazines, and comfortable seating allowing for a space to relax and work prior to the journey. There are two floors with the stairs accessing the more relaxing, quieter upper floor, on the far left hand side on entry.

There was a good range of drinks on offer, but no meals – only snacks. It did appear that croissants were available upon request, however, on this visit it was a struggle to flag any staff down to ask as they were in the midst of changing shifts. We appeared to be too early for the cocktail bar that was closed as of 12pm when we accessed the lounge.

Thalys 🔴 offers its own lounge in Brussels and Paris, but a short walk from Bruxelles-Midi and Paris Gare du Nord station buildings in both cases. Pictured below is the lounge in Brussels. The Thalys Lounge & More is a quiet and warm place to wait or work for your train but really that’s it – the catering offering is very limited with only a coffee machine, tea and water available. I’m really not sure what they were thinking when they added “& more” to the end of its name.

Thalys customers are also able to access the NS International lounges at Amsterdam Centraal and Rotterdam Centraal.

Onboard

Seating

Seating in the most premium class on both Eurostar 🔵 and Thalys 🔴 trains is in a 2+1 configuration with a mixture of tables for one, two and four travellers available. Seat reclining is possible on both services and a table – specifically a seat back tray table on solo and this is a fixed table or tray table. Power sockets are available at every seat with complimentary WiFi. Thalys trains have more padded seating than Eurostar, which I did find more comfortable.

Both operators require customers to make a seat reservation which is automatically assigned at booking for no further charge. Eurostar has functionality online and in its app to select a specific seat online after booking which is very welcome if you would like to book a table for your party size. You are unable to select your own seat booking online with Thalys.

Food and Drink

Now for the most exciting part (for me anyway) – the onboard catering. Both operators provide catering straight to your seat, included in the ticket price, and in a similar form of an airline style tray meal.

On Eurostar 🔵 lunch and dinner services are those that depart after 10:15. On departure, a welcome drink is offered including champagne, wine, beer, a small range of spirits and soft drinks. Shortly after departure, the meal service commences where customers are provided with a cold starter, a bread roll, the option of a hot, cold or salad main course and dessert with bottled water and a second drink from the same trolley as previously. On departures after 17:15 a cheese course is also included.

Tea and coffee is then served with the option of a top-up. No further drinks were offered, but there is an opportunity to ask for another cold drink when the meal trays are cleared away which I’ve always found the staff to be happy to provide. Eurostar does cater for special dietary requirements (including gluten and dairy free) which needs to be ordered in advance via the Manage My Booking part of the website or app.

On Thalys 🔴 a similar tray meal is provided on trains designated as lunch and evening meal in the timetable. This includes wine, beer and soft drinks, a salad starter, a cold main course and dessert as pictured below. This is served with tea/coffee with an option of herbal teas. For services departing between meal times, the full meal is not served – only a complimentary snack is provided which is shown as ‘Café Gourmet’ in the timetable.

Both meals are pictured below. The presentation of both wasn’t amazing for a premium class of travel, but I found the taste to be good in both cases.

Booking and Fares

The most premium class of travel on both operators includes flexibility – so you are able to amend or cancel free of charge right up to the last minute.

Eurostar 🔵 Business Premier fares are one fixed cost – they don’t vary in price according to demand as Standard and Standard Premier fares do.

Thalys 🔴 Premium fares do vary according to demand as per their Standard and Comfort classes.

Eurostar JourneysOne WayReturn
London to Paris£276 (93p per mile)
317,40€
£490 (82p per mile)
563,50€
London to Brussels£276 (£1.22 per mile)
317,40€
£490 (£1.08 per mile)
563,50€
London to Amsterdam (direct)£299 (91p per mile)
343,85€
£520 (79p per mile)
598,00€
Prices correct as of 28th October 2022 for one adult travelling in November 2022
Thalys JourneysOne WayReturn
Amsterdam to Parisfrom 145,00€ (40p per mile)from 290,00€ (40p per mile)
Amsterdam to Brusselsfrom 100,00€ (68p per mile)from 200,00€ (68p per mile)
Brussels to Colognefrom 72,00€ (45p per mile)from 142,00€ (45p per mile)
Prices correct as of 28th October 2022 for one adult travelling in November 2022

Assuming tickets are purchased online, both operators offer mobile ticketing for travel on their services producing a barcode that can be downloaded to your device such as an Apple Wallet. Otherwise there is the ability to print your ticket on an A4 piece of paper or collect at the station on departure. It is, however, not possible to print the online Thalys ticket at stations in Belgium, and print at stations in the Netherlands a fee is charged.

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Trips Conclusion

Both Eurostar 🔵 and Thalys 🔴 have a number of similarities in their service provisions including in the range of seating options, flexible ticketing and onboard catering appearance. The key differences where, I believe, Eurostar fairs better is in the booking experience and in lounge comforts but the ticket costs are higher by comparison. However, Thalys trains have more comfortable seating on the train and the availability of some cheaper fares that give pricing as low as 40p per mile. Between the two I would choose Eurostar.

When the merge is completed, and the two operators are standardised in their offerings, it will be interesting to see which are retained and what will be new. The potential to offer more destinations from the two portfolios can only be a good thing.

This article was first published in November 2022.

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Italy’s Scenic Routes by Train 🇮🇹

Italy, which boasts a vast national rail network, is well known for its modern ‘Le Frecce’ high-speed services; but what about those people who like to take it slowly and enjoy the scenery that a train journey has to offer? The fastest journeys aren’t always the most picturesque. Here is a compilation of ten of the routes which offer splendid views across the country, that should not be missed.

1. Pisa 🇮🇹 to Florence 🇮🇹 (the slower route)

Onboard Trenitalia’s Regionale | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️✖️

Journey LegViews
Pisa to LuccaRight Hand Side (recommended)
Lucca to FlorenceLeft Hand Side (recommended)
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Pisa Centrale to Firenze SMN via Lucca and Pistoia

Pisa to Florence is served by fast and frequent trains departing in each direction at least every half an hour with journey times that take anywhere between 51 minutes to 1 hour 21 minutes on the most direct route. However, departing four times a day, there are direct regional services with much less attractive journey times for the same end-to-end journey which most passengers probably avoid on this basis. Taking more than 2 hours, there is a route which offers a much more spectacular landscape to enjoy than the faster route that travels via Lucca and Pistoia offering green, mountainous terrain and picture perfect villages. A true investment of time.

2. Pisa 🇮🇹 to Genova 🇮🇹 via Cinque Terre (towards Côte d’Azur, France 🇫🇷)

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciabianca (ETR.460)| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Pisa to GenovaRight Hand Side – Mountains and Villages of the Cinque Terre
Left Hand Side – Ligurian Sea
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Pisa Centrale to Genova Piazza Principe via La Spezia

This route is a real treat for scenery lovers. Trains glide past (and some call at) the five fishing and wine-making villages of the famous Cinque Terre, now home to much tourism. Think lush green mountainsides and steep-drop rocky coves on the Ligurian Sea glistening in the sunshine. Idyllic.

Please be aware that there are a number of tunnels on this route especially after La Spezia Centrale, so it’s a case of ‘blink and you miss it’ scenery and quite tricky to take shots with the camera, but fantastic when you do snap up a glimmer of sea or lush mountainous terrain.

If you’re doing the whole route, InterCity and Frecciabianca trains operate and are recommended, these offer greater comfort but don’t call at the all five villages of the Cinque Terre. There are regional trains available too with an easy change of train required at La Spezia Centrale.

3. Naples 🇮🇹 to Siracusa 🇮🇹 via the west coast

Onboard Trenitalia’s InterCity Notte (Deluxe)| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Agropoli to Villa San GiovanniLeft Hand Side – Tyrrhenian Sea and Italian Villages (recommended)
Right Hand Side – Views of the Apennines and Countryside
Messina to SiracusaLeft Hand Side – Ionian Sea
Right Hand Side – Mount Etna
Recommendations based on a journey on the InterCity Notte from Milano Centrale to Sicily in the morning from Sapri and following the route to Sicily in daylight

Italy offers two impressive rail routes which spans the west and east coasts of the mainland from top to bottom. A particular scenic part of the west coast route (in addition to the Cinque Terre route mentioned above) is the leg south of Naples towards Villa San Giovanni – the town where passenger trains board a ferry to Sicily. This is a must-do trip in its own right. At the time of writing this is the only passenger train that boards a ferry as part of its scheduled journey in Europe.

Here is a link to a special trip report on the InterCity Notte from Milano Centrale to Siracusa which takes in the sights of this very route and the unique experience of boarding the ferry.

The route from Agropoli to Villa San Giovanni hugs the west coast and offers irresistible views to look at across the Tyrrhenian Sea as well as some moments of steep-sided mountains as well as towns and villages popping up en-route – all on the coast side of the train. Delightful.

After the ferry crossing and landing in Sicily, switch sides for more sea views – this time of the Ionian Sea. Alternatively stay put to marvel at the incredible active volcano of Mount Etna – that has a long history of destruction.

4. West-to-east: Naples 🇮🇹 to Foggia 🇮🇹

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciargento (ETR.485)| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Journey LegViews
Naples to CasertaRight Hand Side – Mount Vesuvius
Caserta to FoggiaLeft Hand Side – mountainside
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Naples to Termoli via Caserta, Ariano Irpino and Foggia

One of Italy’s jaw-dropping cross-country routes. On this journey you pass Mount Vesuvius in the distance on your right and then cut through the Apennine mountain range with beautiful views. The fastest journey times are as little as 2 hours 30 minutes with a change of train required from a regional train at Caserta and a Frecciargento train from there to Foggia, but important to check before travel as some journey times are considerably longer and involve a bus.

5. Italy’s East Coast 🇮🇹

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciargento (ETR.700) | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Foggia to RiminiRight Hand Side – Adriatic Sea (recommended)
Left Hand Side – green fields, some hills
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Foggia to Bologna Centrale via Termoli and Rimini

Often favoured less compared to its west coast counterpart, Italy’s east coast should not be overlooked as it offers fantastic sea views of the Adriatic Sea for almost all of the journey from north to south. It is served by high speed, high comfort Frecciargento and Frecciabianca trains – ideal for relaxing in a large, comfortable seat, enjoying a glass of wine and getting lost in a good book.

6. Verona 🇮🇹 to Bolzano 🇮🇹 (towards Austria 🇦🇹) on the Brenner Railway

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa (ETR.500) and DB-ÖBB EuroCity | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Journey LegViews
Verona to BolzanoLeft Hand Side – mountains and most of the River Adige (recommended)
Right Hand Side – mountains
Recommendations based on a northbound journey from Verona Porta Nuova to Bolzano Boden

The advertising poster at Verona Porta Nuova station doesn’t need to try hard to sell this journey… simply stunning and my favourite Italian railway route to date. This route is the gateway from Italy to Austria and the excitement continues long past Bolzano, where it reaches the border of the two countries at the Brenner Pass. This is the steepest point on the Italian and Austrian standard gauge rail networks at an ear popping 1,371 metres.

Upon departure from Verona, the train soon becomes engulfed by spectacular mountain scenery on both sides. And if that wasn’t enough you can also be confident you are heading in the right direction as the route follows the River Adige for the entire journey to Bolzano.

Please find a link to a special video featuring this journey onboard the Frecciarossa 500 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

7. Milan 🇮🇹 to Domodossola 🇮🇹 (towards Switzerland 🇨🇭)

Onboard Trenitalia’s EuroCity (ETR.610) | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Milano to DomodossolaRight Hand Side – views of Lake Maggiore
Left Hand Side – mountains
Recommendations based on a northbound journey from Milano Centrale to Domodossola

One of two routes from Italy to Switzerland is this route via the border station of Domodossola. This is the most direct route across the border from Milan with trains travelling to the Swiss cities of Zurich and Geneva via the Simplon Tunnel and Brig. The full route is served by comfortable and modern looking pointy-nosed pendolino trains.

Soon after departure you’re spoiled for choice for views on both sides of the train, from views of Lake Maggiore on your right and mountains on your left of the Ossola Valley with views of the Italian Alps. Bring your own food and drink as the bar on the train doesn’t open until Switzerland.

8. Circumvesuviana 🇮🇹, Naples Circular around Mount Vesuvius

Onboard Ferrovia Circumvesuviana FE220 and ETR211 | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️✖️✖️✖️✖️

Journey LegViews
Barra to Barra (clockwise)Right Hand Side – views of Mount Vesuvius
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Napoli Garibaldi to Barra

Yes that’s right – this is one of two railways in Italy that travels around the full circumference of a volcano. An interesting, but a scary concept! This one is called the Circumvesuviana and with its metro style operation, it serves local communities around Mount Vesuvius.

The full route isn’t designed for tourists as such, but you can enjoy views of Mount Vesuvius by sitting on the right hand side when travelling clockwise and tie this in with a visit to Pompeii or Herculaneum, which both have nearby stations with a frequent service. You will need to change trains at Poggiomarino to complete the full circle.

Please be aware to complete the full circumference you can purchase a 180 minute ticket for €4,90, however if you break the journey to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum then separate tickets must be purchased – there is no ‘day’ ticket.

9. Circumetnea 🇮🇹, Catania Circular around Mount Etna

Onboard Ferrovia Circumetnea| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️

Journey LegViews
Catania to Giarre Riposto (clockwise)Left Hand Side – views from a-height (recommended)
Right Hand Side – views of Mount Etna
Giarre Riposto to Catania (southbound, clockwise)Left Hand Side – Ionian Sea
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Catania to Giarre Riposto on the Circumetnea and a mainline journey from Giarre Riposto to Catania.

The second railway in Italy that circles a volcano is around Mount Etna in Sicily. This impressive narrow gauge railway, the Ferrovia Circumetnea, is one of those journeys where you’re rewarded for your patience, as the most scenic part of the journey is along the routes most northern point. You can travel clockwise or anti-clockwise on this route, but best to check times in advance as there is a change of train required at Randazzo and limited journey opportunities for travelling the full circle. There is also a required journey on the mainline from Riposto to Catania (separate ticket required), which also has scenic views of the Ionian Sea.

Few people use the route to travel the full circle, but if you do it’s probably the best €10,30 you will spend for 4 hours and 30 minutes of travel. I found it to be mainly locals travelling from A to B on the first section of the Ferrovia Circumetnea from Catania to Randazzo and I was the only customer travelling for the Randazzo to Riposto leg, the most scenic part. A fantastic experience.

10. Tirano 🇮🇹 to St Moritz 🇨🇭

It would be rude to exclude this spectacular railway journey across the Swiss Alps, the route designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This route is the more touristy route taking longer in journey time but with delightful scenery to match. Pictures will be coming soon (once I’ve been on the journey to take them!).

Have I missed any scenic railway routes in Italy? Let me know your recommendations!

This article was first published in January 2021.

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U.K. 🇬🇧 to Istanbul, Türkiye 🇹🇷 Exclusively by Train 🚆 – 2,100 miles, 12 days, 12 trains

I embarked on a voyage with my Mam to travel exclusively from York, England to Istanbul, Turkey by train – that’s right, over 2,100 miles without leaving the ground once!

In total this would mean 52 hours being spent on 12 different trains (albeit inclusive of a few days ‘off-piste’ to visit beautiful Split, Croatia.. who said there were rules?!). This would be nicely spread out across 2 weeks which meant for a journey of pure relaxation and excitement. Much more interesting than flying!

Here is the itinerary and that all important route map…

JourneyTrainDuration
Leg 1York 🇬🇧 to London 🇬🇧LNER Azuma1h59
Leg 2London 🇬🇧 to Paris 🇫🇷Eurostar e3202h16
Leg 3Paris 🇫🇷 to Munich 🇩🇪TGV EuroDuplex5h41
Leg 4Munich 🇩🇪 to Villach 🇦🇹ÖBB RailJet4h56
Leg 5Villach 🇦🇹 to Zagreb 🇭🇷EuroCity Mimara4h00
DetourZagreb 🇭🇷 to Split 🇭🇷Sleeper train7h16
DetourSplit 🇭🇷 to Zagreb 🇭🇷ICN6h13
Leg 6Zagreb 🇭🇷 to Belgrade 🇷🇸Regional6h39
Leg 7Belgrade 🇷🇸 to Nis 🇷🇸Regional4h43
Leg 8Nis 🇷🇸 to Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸Regional3h35
Leg 9Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 to Sofia 🇧🇬Regional2h12
Leg 10Sofia 🇧🇬 to Istanbul 🇹🇷Sleeper train8h00

The grand plan was to spend 2 or 3 days in any one city and then spend a day travelling. We did however take two time-effective and very comfortable sleeper trains.

Day 1

Leg 1 – York 🇬🇧 to London King’s Cross 🇬🇧(1 hour, 59 mins)

We kicked things off with travelling by the new LNER Azuma train from York to the heart of the capital London King’s Cross in just under 2 hours.

Day 3

Leg 2 – 11:31 London St Pancras 🇬🇧 to Paris Nord 🇫🇷 (2 hours, 16 mins)

After a day exploring London we really kicked our European adventure off by travelling ‘sous la manche’ from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord on the high-speed Eurostar service.

We then had one hour in Paris before leaving on our next train to Munich. We allowed an hour between trains in Paris to give time to the 10 minute walk from Paris Gare du Nord to Paris Gare de L’Est and any minimal delay on Eurostar. Thankfully we were running to time. However we had the knowledge that if we missed the connection we would be covered by the self explanatory Hop On The Next Available Train (HOTNAT) agreement between Railteam members.

Leg 3 – 15:55 Paris Est 🇫🇷 to Munich Hbf 🇩🇪 (5 hours, 41 mins)

Our next train was the double-decker TGV for 770 km direct from Paris Est to Muenchen Hauptbahnhof (translated as Munich Main station). Upon entering Germany it was apparent that the train didn’t require customers to have a seat reservation as in France, so we timed our visit to the bar badly having to navigate our way around standing customers through four carriages as the train travelled between Strasbourg and Stuttgart.

When we arrived at the bar we treated ourselves to the in-house TGV chef menu by Michel Sarran. I had the ’Poulet Grillé’ and ’Comme une Charlotte aux Fraises‘ for dessert, both of which were very tasty however I was disspointed at the lack of chicken with the main course. The bar had also run out of white wine so I had to opt for rose and bought an extra one… why not!

We arrived into Munich Hauphtbahnhof on time ready for a full day of sightseeing the next day. Although the weather was wet, we did a walking tour to learn about Munich’s fascinating history and take in the sights of the glockenspeil in the main square, the Residenz and visit the Hofbraeuhaus.

Day 4

After a day exploring Munich, and what beautiful city it was, we were eagerly awaiting the next leg of the journey. Today would see us travel some 850 km through four different countries and on three different trains with our final destination being Split in Croatia.

Leg 4 – 07:47 Munich Hbf 🇩🇪 to Villach Hbf 🇦🇹 (4 hours, 56 mins)

First up, we had planned for an afternoon in Austria’s seventh-largest city, Villach.

The train was due to depart at 08:17 originally as marked on our reservations, however it’s just as well we checked the Deustche Bahn app the night before. Due to engineering work, our train was scheduled to depart half an hour earlier than scheduled! A lesson learned here is definitely to check your train before you travel.

Luckily we were in for a absolute treat with this journey so it was well worth the extra early start.

The smart Austrian RailJet train was our chariot for this leg. It boasts 3 classes of travel from Economy to First Class and even Business Class. It also has a sit-in restaurant called DoN’s Bistro which is available for all customers to use!

Mid journey we were peckish, so consequently headed to said restaurant for a spot of lunch. We were transiting through Austria and so chicken schnitzel and potatoes felt an appropriate choice. We also shared a bottle of very nice white wine while enjoying the spectacular scenery.

My Mam tried to flog Alex, who was looking after us in the bar, a £1 coin instead of a €1. He commented how much he liked Elizabeth, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to accept GBP so we did more digging for Euros.

As marked in the menu the Viennese-style chicken breast with parsley potatoes (Wiener Schnitzel von der Hendlbrust) main course cost €11.20 each while the large, high quality ‘Riesling’ bottle of wine cost €10.20. There was wine on the menu for €3.80 for a small bottle as well however this was the only one Alex had left on this trip.

While eating, we enjoyed the most scenic leg of the trip with lush green fields and steep mountain sides, especially in the run up to Bad Hofgastein during and after. Simply stunning.

Leg 5 – 16:53 Villach Hbf 🇦🇹 to Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 (4 hours)

After a relaxing 4 hours in Villach, where we explored 3 churches, had a long walk by the river and found a café serving Sachertorte (hurrah indeed!) we headed to the main station to board our next train. This was the cross-border EuroCity service to direct to Zagreb.

The train had come from Frankfurt and the it divided into two parts at Villach with one portion for Klagenfurt and the rear three coaches for Zagreb, the latter of which we joined.

This train was immensely popular, especially with interrailers. All three carriages were full upon departure from Villach, however 1.5 hours into the journey the vast majority of customers disembarked. The train was then only around half full for the rest of the journey to Zagreb.

We watched the sunset as we travelled towards the Slovenian-Croatian border. The mountains were dominating the landscape more and more as we travelled south so less of a view to enjoy from the train.

As the train was approaching the Slovenian-Croatian border, it stopped at a place called Dobova where our Slovenian conductor left the train for the authorities to conduct passport checks. It was now pitch black outside.

The station had an eerie feel to it as if this small village had history. The border police were searching the train on the adjacent platform, the Serbian carriages departing for Ljubljana, before moving onto our train so we sat waiting.

We watched as the torch was shone in a search for something in the toilet as you can see in the photo below. They then evicted a gentleman from the train.

We stood for around 40 minutes then our Croatian Railways’ conductor joined the train and we departed for Zagreb.

Upon arrival into Zagreb we had a couple of hours to find a hot drink and stock up on supplies before our next departure, the domestic Croatian Railways’ night train from Zagreb to Split.

22:56 Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 to Split 🇭🇷 (7 hours, 49 mins)

Our train was ready to board approximately 20 minutes before departure. In the meantime we sat at the station watching the train being prepared. There were staff walking on the tracks to access carriages with various manoeuvres and uncoupling of cars taking place, others were sat in the station platform bar drinking and enjoying a cigarette.

The train consisted of a motorail coach at the front followed by one sleeping car (1, 2, 3-berth cabins), two couchette cars (6-berth cabins) and four 2nd Class seated compartment cars. There are no catering facilities so luckily we brought our own drinks and snacks.

We had reservations in the sleeping car which was very comfortable, although the beds were quite short. On this train, in the sleeping car, despite three beds being made up the cabin is reserved exclusively for your booking. There are two toilets at the end of the carriage.

We arrived into Split station on time, refreshed and ready to sightsee whilst looking for coffee due to the 06:42 arrival!

We had a good couple of days exploring and relaxing in Split, especially enjoying its Roman old town. This was beautiful and a great place to get lost in the winding streets, not knowing which monument you’re going to bump into next from Diocletian’s Palace to the Cathedral of Saint Domnius and a number of restaurants serving high quality cuisine. Just outside the old town was a enticing fruit and vegetable market.

We also had time for an afternoon visit to Hvar with frequent ferries direct from Split with Jadrolinija and Kapetan Luka ferry companies. Fares were priced as one-way journeys around 40 kn / £4.63 each way depending on the departure time.

Hvar was quite similar to Split in size and feel and was easily walkable from the port. Hvar also had an impressive Spanish fortress dominating the skyline. To walk to the fortress, this involved a large number of steps.

After three days enjoying Split and Hvar we were due to travel to Zagreb on the one direct train per day leaving at 08:33 the next morning. Well, we weren’t officially due to travel since our compulsory reservation bought in the UK in advance was actually dated for April…

This meant an impromptu trip to the station was in order at 21:45 to be issued with a new reservation. The booking office clerk laughed at the error and issued us with a new reservation and actually at a fraction of the cost of the original.

While we were at the station I couldn’t help but notice the sleeper train about to leave for Zagreb and a shunting type of locomotive on the front. Apparently this is normal for the front of the sleeper for the first part of the journey out of Split to Ogulin. It has a sole purpose of climbing the steep mountain from the port town up to Ogulin then the locomotive is changed.

Day 7

08:33 Split 🇭🇷 to Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 (6 hours, 13 mins)

We arrived at Split station on time to catch our one daytime train option to the capital. Much to our surprise the train waiting to take us had only two carriages! As expected the train was relatively busy upon leaving, but we found that roughly 90% of customers travelled the entire route to Zagreb!

With two of us sitting at a table of four, we were convinced we were going to have to share with some other travellers at some point in the journey. Another surprise… At the 15 stations en route no more than 4 people joined at any one station! Most stations had no customers, so we never had to share our table with anyone.

There wasn’t much demand for travel at intermediate stations and there was nobody sitting in the 1st Class at any time in the journey. Not even the train conductor sat in there. She set up camp in 2nd Class placed her HŽPP branded antimacassar onto a seat of her choosing after departure. She mustn’t have wanted any customers to sit in her seat!

The train didn’t have any catering facilities, though there was what looked like a shop in the centre of the train albeit closed for us. I was informed on Twitter that this is supposed to be used as a ‘coffee point’ where the conductor can give you free coffee, but we were not offered this unfortunately.

The ICN train travelled through some beautiful mountainous terrain. The trains tilt around the corners to allow for a faster journey time which is a strange sensation.

Upon arriving at every station, even stations where the train didn’t stop, we found there was a Station Master awaiting the train’s arrival ensuring it safely departs. This railway pride was lovely to see, especially as we were travelling through many remote areas in the Croatian countryside. I don’t expect their jobs to be stressful in the slightest.

We arrived in Zagreb’s Glavni kolodvor station on time. The afternoon arrival enabled us to make the most of sightseeing and we particularly enjoyed exploring the Old Town up the mountain accessible by foot or by the funicular railway.

There was a wedding taking place in the Old Town, and what an amazing place and weather for it! We were in time to see the official photographs being taken with the bride and groom and their guests.

Day 8

Leg 6 – 11:03 Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 to Belgrade Centar 🇷🇸 (6 hours, 39 mins)

Next up was our train direct to the Serbian capital. There is one day train per day from Zagreb to Belgrade and the train consisted of just three carriages, two 2nd Class Serbian carriages and one 1st Class Croatian car. The latter car was detached within Croatia at Vinkovci however, so only 2nd Class was available for customers travelling to Serbia.

The Serbian carriages weren’t too inviting especially from the outside. They were drowned in grafitti. Inside the colour scheme is bland however the seats are very comfortable with decent legroom on offer.

The train actually starts in Zurich and runs direct to Belgrade as a EuroNight service. However, to travel from Zurich to Belgrade you must change cars since there is no through coach travelling the entire way. The Serbian day carriages are attached to the train at Villach and the night train carriages from Zurich are detached in Zagreb.

Mid-journey, I noticed that there was a steady stream of passengers moving themselves and their luggage into the next coach. Interested to find out what was happening, I went for a walk and discovered that one of the 2nd Class carriages was a declassified 1st Class coach and there was plenty of room for us to sit and enjoy it.. what a winner I said! In the carriage, there were more comfortable, larger seats and more leg and arm space than 2nd Class. Plus there was carpet instead of lino floor.

Without hesitation we moved our bags and enjoyed the second half of our journey even more. The scenery was mainly countryside and flat landscape, but pleasant enough.

There is no catering car so bringing your own picnic is recommended. Zagreb Glavni kolodvor station has an underpass beneath the station accessible by escalator in the square, at the front of the station. This features a supermarket and a number of bakeries with delicious pre-made sandwiches. Upon entering Serbia however, at Å id station, there was a very welcome arrival onto the train… a vendor with his cool box of drinks!

Six hours is a long time for no drinks to be available so unsurprisingly many people took advantage of his good selection of Serbian beer, canned soft drinks and strong coffee to keep them going for the remaining 2 hours while transiting through Serbia.

I saw him get off the train at the following station which concerned me as I hadn’t been able to ask him for a drink yet. Behold, he got off the train to hand strong coffee to the train drivers up front as I captured in the photo below. I’m sure they were in awe of his arrival as well!

He soon got back on the train and I was able to put in my order for a can of lovely Serbian Lav beer. Much nicer than the name suggests in English!

For payment he accepted both Serbian Dinars and Euros, which was a great way to use up our change from Germany and Austria.

The arrival into Belgrade was quite something with a view of the Ada Bridge whilst crossing Railway Bridge across the Sava river.

Our arrival into Belgrade was into the new Beograd Centar station, 2.7km from the centre of Belgrade. That evening following a visit to the excellent Zavicaj restaurant we went to see the sad state of affairs at the old Belgrade Main Station which has been closed to trains since June 2018. Following from my visit 4 months ago in June 2019 (see my blog post here from then) the old platforms have now been completed dug out.

Belgrade is a friendly city full of history. Its position on the confluence of the Sava and the Danube rivers has made it an important location for trading historically and today makes a lovely view from the old fortress.

Day 10

Leg 7 – Belgrade Centar 🇷🇸 to Nis 🇷🇸 (4 hours, 43 mins)

In the summer one direct train departs Belgrade Topcider station at 09:12 for Sofia arriving at 20:30, however we were travelling a day after the summer schedule had finished. This meant we had to be up for a planning challenge!

In order to get to Sofia the next day we would have had to either travel from Belgrade to Niš at 06:10 in the morning, with a risky 21 minute connection at Niš or travel the night before and stay over in Niš so we opted for the latter.

We decided to walk to Beograd Centar station from the centre of Belgrade. At first this was a nice walk through some leafy suburbs but we were soon faced with a series of motorways and we got confused.

We asked a series of very pleasant locals “where is Beograd Centar station please?” and not one of them knew where it was. The most common response was “I never use the train”. As a last resort we managed to find our location on Google Maps and which way we had to go. We had minutes to spare before our train was due to leave.

We soon realised that if we didn’t find a taxi we would miss the train. Luckily by the roundabout for the motorway there was a series of five taxis. We asked them one by one and four of them weren’t able to take us nor knew where the station was. Luckily our last driver did know and we made the train with 3 minutes to spare. Unbelievable.

We found the train and behold there were only 3 customers travelling on the smart, modern Serbian train. This departed at 17:30 on a Monday but wasn’t anything like a ‘peak’ time service in the vast majority of cities with a railway!

“Why oh why did Serbian Railways decide to build a centre station 2.7km from the centre of Belgrade?” was going through our lips several times as we caught our breath. We calmed down and we were then able to enjoy the journey to NiÅ¡.

Unusually as darkness fell we were faced with police conducting an ID check. This was very unusual for a domestic service not leaving Serbia, but nevertheless we showed our passports.

We arrived into Niš on time and we were faced with its brutalist check-in hall built just after World War II.

Day 11

We had an early start in Niš so we made the most of being somewhere new and fitted in a walk before the next leg of our journey. Niš was delightful and has its own fortress which is worth a look.

Leg 8 – 11:10 Nis 🇷🇸 to Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 (3 hours, 35 mins)

We arrived back to Niš railway station for our next leg. There were no departure boards so we had to look at a printed timetable on the wall to find which platform we needed for the departure to Dimitrovgrad.

The train was a regional type and stopped 25 times during its journey. The scenery was breathtaking, especially the mountains following Ostrovica station. As at each station en route from Split to Zagreb in Croatia, on this route every station had a Station Master seeing the train through.

The train passengers were a mix of locals and tourists. On the train I had met a fellow traveller, Peter from Cambridge, who had travelled a similar route as us but a day later! He was talking at the European Association of Japanese Resource Specialists conference in Sofia so it was lovely to share the last leg of his journey from Dimitrovgrad to Sofia with him.

Leg 9 – 15:35 Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 to Sofia 🇧🇬 (2 hours, 25 mins)

At the border at Dimitrovgrad in Serbia (not to be confused with Dimitrovgrad in Bulgaria) our train pulled into the one platform at the station. We disembarked the train and then 15 minutes later, the same train departed on a service back to Niš.

A few moments later a train arrived from the sidings – this was our international train to Sofia. It had only one carriage!

The train was very hot upon boarding as it had clearly been sat in the sun for hours and the windows were closed. Naturally myself, my Mam, Peter and our new train friend Alejandro from Spain soon opened every single window to help cool the carriage down.

This was our first train without air conditioning and thankfully the last, but luckily when the train set off it cooled down inside the carriage. There were curtains on the windows which helped to shield the sun, but once the train got up some speed they started to blow around uncontrollably so I had to open them again!

The train departed Dimitrovgrad, set off promptly but then stopped in some sidings. Bulgarian passport control was about to take place which was the method of taking them away, holding them for 30 minutes and handing them back out again before setting off. The train jumped one hour forward in time.

The train guard had a unusual dispatching device which was nothing more than a cardboard pole.

We arrived on time into Sofia which was a huge station with extremely long platforms. As we disembarked we noticed that this carriage had been used for the direct summer only service from Belgrade Topčider to/from Sofia as displayed on the carriage door. Even though we had 3 train changes, we concluded that we would have preferred to travel in the modern, air conditioned Serbian carriages for the trip from Belgrade to Dimitrovgrad at least.

Sofia was a great place to spend a day. There were many beautiful churches, gardens and palaces to explore.

Day 12

Leg 10 – 21:45 Sofia 🇧🇬 to Istanbul Halkali (for Sirecki) 🇹🇷 (8 hours)

Time for the final train of our trip with 400 miles to go on the cross-border sleeper train from Sofia to Istanbul.

We arrived at our train to find five carriages going to Türkiye, four of which were modern Turkish Railways’ sleeper cars and there was one Bulgarian Railways’ couchette car which didn’t nearly look so new and inviting. We were glad we had booked a sleeper.

Once onboard the sleeper we were impressed with the size of the rooms onboard. It was left up to us to put the beds out but these were easy enough to set up. There were two members of staff in the sleeping cars but they were looking after four coaches of people.

The sleeper cars came with their luxuries. The large cabins came complete with their own fridge which was stocked with free bottled water, orange juice and cheese crackers! There was a choice between a western-style and squat toilet onboard in each carriage. The western-style toilet, which also had toilet paper available, even had a bidet fitted to the toilet bowl. I can’t vouch for its success though as I didn’t use it!

As the train crossed out of the EU and into Turkey, we were in for a night of disturbances. This was the negative associated with the sleeper train. The train reaches the first border point in Bulgaria at Svilengrad at approximately 01:30, however on this occasion it was running two hours late. The EU Bulgarian police check passports on the train, taking them away and then returning them upon leaving Svilengrad.

The train then continues across the border to Kapikule where you must disembark the train with your luggage, walk under the tracks and queue up at passport control. After the passports are checked you then queue up to have your bags scanned.

The authorities don’t start the bag check until after the last person has had their passport checked. This resulted in being outside for a while, in fact one hour which was quite surreal at that time of the night. There were wild cats roaming around the platforms which did provide some entertainment until one cat started bullying another one. This caused some upset among passengers.

Due to engineering work the sleeper train terminated in Halkali instead of Sirkeci which is 23km from the centre of Istanbul. We were still able to finish our journey by rail however by using the Marmaray Metro direct from Halkali to Istanbul Sirkeci.

It was lovely to finish our trip at this beautiful station which is where the Orient Express finished its journey from Paris from 1883-1977. The station has its own museum which is full of old Turkish Railways’ merchandise and machinery and free to enter.

Whilst in Istanbul we visited the Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Grand Bazaar. All of these attractions are in walking distance to each other. We also had a boat ride along the Bosporus crossing between Europe and Asia.

I used Rail Staff FIP facilities to make this journey. Most of the trains accepted FIP Free Coupons and only required a nominal fee for a reservation. My Mam used an Interrail pass and we travelled in 2nd/Standard Class for every train.

Tickets

For both of us, with our passes, the following services required supplements to be paid:

  • flat fares for Eurostar between London and Paris
  • the cross-border TGV between Paris and Munich
  • the overnight sleeper from Zagreb to Split for private 2-berth sleeper cabin
  • the overnight sleeper from Sofia to Istanbul for private 2-berth sleeper cabin
Train No.Journey LegFIP Facilities UsedFIP Reservation Fees (inc. supplement where required)Global Interrail Pass Reservation Fees (inc. supplement where required)
ES9022London to ParisReduced Rate Card / Staff Travel Card£34.50£26.50
TGV9577Paris to MunichReduced Rate Card – no free coupons accepted on cross border TGV€15.00€13.00
RJ111Munich to Villach – reservationFIP Free Coupons (DB, ÖBB)€4.50 €4.50
EC213Villach to ZagrebFIP Free Coupons (ÖBB, HŽ)€4.50€4.50
D821Zagreb to Split sleeperFIP Free Coupon (HŽ)€25.00€25.00
IC520Split to ZagrebFIP Free Coupon (HŽ)€4.50€4.50
EN/D 415Zagreb to BelgradeFIP Free Coupons (HŽ, ŽS)€4.50€4.50
793Belgrade to NisFIP Free Coupon (HŽ)Free – reservations not possibleFree – reservations not possible
5903Nis to DimitrovgradFIP Free Coupon (ŽS)Free – reservations not possibleFree – reservations not possible
7991Dimitrovgrad to SofiaFIP Free Coupon (ŽS, BDŽ)Free – reservations not possibleFree – reservations not possible
493/
12501
Sofia to Istanbul sleeperFIP Free Coupon (BDŽ) & full fare for leg in Turkey (TCDD)€15.25€15.25

This article was first published in November 2019 and updated in December 2019.