First class single from Haslemere to Split 

The statue of an early female Inter-Railer looks on as a local train from Chur arrives at Thusis

Having foolishly missed out in my student days, last year’s 50th anniversary half-price offer was enough to tempt me to finally embark on some Inter-Rail adventures, buying a two month first class pass for just €429 (£377.17) and then being faced with the question of where in the whole of Europe I should head for?

After endless scrutiny of my newly-acquired European Rail Timetable I decided to make three single journeys from my home in Haslemere to destinations in Central and Eastern Europe – before flying home each time – that would give me the chance to visit many new places and travel on some of the most scenic stretches of line across Europe.

A Glacier Express service departs Brig for Chur and St. Moritz

First up on 13 April 2023 was a six-day journey from Haslemere to the charming coastal city of Split in Croatia that would take me via Paris and Zürich before spending three nights in the Swiss resort of Chur, from where I aimed to travel the entire network of the famous metre-gauge Rhätische Bahn (RhB), before continuing on to Zagreb and Split. 

When it comes to finding suitable places to stay, my aim is to keep to a reasonable budget, and using always look for places that are close to the railway station. Arriving in a strange town or city when you are tired and it is sometimes late at night can be a daunting experience, so having an easy walk to your accommodation is one of the critical ingredients in any trip I am planning, though one I failed in Zagreb. 

Thursday, 13 April dawns and I join what were, for many years, my fellow commuters on the 07.02 from Haslemere to Waterloo. Unlike them, however, I am not headed to an office in the City or the West End, but bound for Zurich, with a trip to Paris Gare du Nord in Eurostar’s Standard Premier Class, followed by an expensive TGV trip to Zürich. 

My first ever Inter-Rail trip gets off to a shaky start, when there is major disruption due to a huge signal failure at Waterloo that has knocked out 14 of the station’s 27 platforms. But after my delayed train halts at Wimbledon and the doors are opened I can escape and transfer to a Thameslink train that gets me to St. Pancras in good time for the 10.26 train to Paris.

Lunch is served on the Glacier Express

Inter-Rail first class pass holders can travel on Eurostar for a reservation fee of €40 that buys a seat in Standard Premier Class. This is a significant step up from standard class, and gets you a light two-course lunch with water and wine – a second small bottle being offered if you ask politely!

Like the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras, where nobody apart from me seems to be travelling light, Gare du Nord in Paris is hopelessly overcrowded, so once I have figured out how to buy a €2.10 ticket it is a relief to take a two-stop trip to Gare de Lyon on a busy southbound Line D RER train.

On today’s Glacier Express menu – chicken fricassee with herb sauce

Gare de Lyon is a light and spacious place where I have a wait of about two hours before my TGV Lyria departs for Zurich. Having seen that there is no catering offered to first class passengers, despite my having paid more than £60 in reservation fees for the journey, I head out in search of food and drink for the four hour journey (16.19-20.26).

This is an area full of bars and restaurants but not much food retailing. Eventually though I find a small Franprix convenience store, where I get food and what appears to be the only bottle of red wine in its sizeable selection that has a screw top – my limited packing means I have not brought a corkscrew.

The four-hour run from Paris to Zürich takes me via Dijon, Mulhouse and Basel and is fairly unremarkable and happily punctual, with one highlight being to see the digital speed display showing that we reached a top speed of 194 mph (311 kph) on the section of high speed line east of Dijon.

One of the great features of the mobile Inter-Rail pass is that plans can be changed at a moment’s notice. After a comfortable night at a place called The Henry not far from the main station, I arrived at Zürich Hauptbahnhof rather early on 14 April for my planned 08.02 departure for Bern, so keen to avoid a tight connection there I switched my booking to the previous 07.32 service.

A train for Arosa climbs away from Chur station on the street-running section of the line

Heading south from Bern on another hour-long inter-city journey to Brig, the snow-covered Alps come into view shortly before a stop at Thun, and the magnificent scenery that will be a feature of my travels over the next three days. After passing through the 21½-mile long Lötschberg Base Tunnel there is a first sight of the metre-gauge RhB as we arrive in Visp and then run parallel to the narrow gauge line to Brig. 

Here the narrow gauge station stands in front of the main station and as I photograph an earlier Glacier Express it is interesting to see how the Swiss have a far more laid back approach to trackside safety that we do in the UK. Instead of lights and bells to keep pedestrians away from a departing service, the train simply inches out of the station and onto the totally open Bahnhofplatz without even a blast of the horn to alert nearby pedestrians. Somehow it doesn’t seem to be a problem.

A RhB 3-car EMU backs onto its its train for Tirano at St. Moritz

Next for what promises to be a highlight of this trip and 97½-mile (156km) four-hour journey through the Alps on the famous Glacier Express, which is also my major extravagance, with the supplement and a two-course lunch costing CHF 81 (about £72.00) and a half litre of some very pleasant South African white wine adding a further CHF 34 (£31.20) to the bill.

The Glacier Express is a quite remarkable journey that takes you steadily up to the ski resort of Andermatt after passing through the Furka Tunnel, where cars are waiting for the car transporter train. Passing a westbound express at the highest point on the line, Oberallpass (2,033m/6,670ft) we then begin a slow descent to my destination and the lowest point in the route at Chur (585m/1,919ft).

Arriving in Switzerland’s oldest town I get plan of the centre from the tourist office which confirms that my hotel in the old town is less than ten minutes’ walk away, but having decided to travel the branch line to Arosa I see that the first stop on this line – Chur Altstadt – is literally round the corner from Hotel Franziskaner.

Looking at my Rail Map of Europe I see that the entire RhB network is regarded as among Europe’s most scenic lines and, after the Glacier Express experience the hour long 1150m (3,773ft) ascent to the ski resort of Arosa is another gem, with one highlight being the enormous concrete span of the Langwieser Viaduct.

Connecting services at Pontresina – smart timekeeping is a feature of the RhB

After two days of travelling it is nice to have three days in one place and the Hotel Franziskaner is ideally placed at the heart of Chur’s old town and a less than ten minute walk to the railway station, from where I plan to spend the weekend (15/16 April) touring the rest of the RhB.

My weekend tour begins aboard the 07.58 departure for St. Moritz which in contrast to the Glacier Express is very lightly loaded, with luxurious first class coaches that have spotlessly clean panoramic windows from which to appreciate the magnificent scenery.

The old town in Chur is rather charming

Half an hour into my southbound journey we depart the town of Thusis and for the next 122.3kms (76½ miles) until I reach Tirano in Italy at 13.00 I am travelling over what is only the third stretch of railway in the world to have UNESCO world heritage status. It is a journey of 55 tunnels and 196 bridges, most notable of all being the curving Landwasser Viaduct that features in all the RhB publicity material.

After a leisurely change of trains at the famous ski resort of St. Moritz (1,775m/5,823ft) there is still a mountain to climb on the remarkable Bernina Line, as the train heads up to the highest point on the RhB system at Ospizio Bernina (2.253m/7,392ft) before a series of amazing spirals brings you down to Tirano, just over the Italian border and at an altitude of a mere 429m (1,407ft).

A regional train bound for Disentis departs Chur – with the bus station above the railway

Returning after a short lunch stop at Tirano my tour of the RhB takes me as far as the junction station of Pontresina, just east of St. Moritz, from where I made a smartly timed connection into a service heading north-east and downhill to the terminus of Scuol-Tarasp (1,285m/3,593ft).

The Art Pavilion is one of many elegant features of Zagreb city centre

After time there to buy a can of beer my return to Chur took me through another major feature of the RhB network. This is the 11.9 mile long Vereina Tunnel, which only opened in 1999 and besides the hourly regional trains like the one I caught is also used by half-hourly car-carrying shuttle trains running between the stations at Sagliains and Klosters Selfranga.

My third and final day of touring the RhB was on a rather damp Sunday (16 April 2023) when I planned a rather shorter circular tour than the previous day’s epic, travelling south to visit the splendid RhB railway museum at Bergün on the Albula Line to St. Moritz before returning via that famous haunt of the rich and powerful, Davos, and then taking a walk around the old town in Chur.

After a brief beer stop in Davos a landmark moment for me came when I reached Klosters Platz at 14.28 and could claim to have covered the entire 385km (239 mile) RhB network in almost exactly three days – so after some sightseeing in Chur and one more night in the Hotel Franziskaner it was time to press on and a full day’s journey through Austria and on to Zagreb.

This journey begins with a short trip north on a Zürich-bound inter-city train to a place called Sargans, from where I have to make a lengthy two hour 40 minute trip on a rail replacement bus to a town in Austria called Ötztal, from where it is an Austrian Eurocity express to Graz and another on from there to Zagreb, where I am due to arrive at 22.25, 14 hours after leaving Chur.

Crowds of young people wait to board a tram at Zagreb’s main railway station

The coach journey is comfortable and gets us to Ötztal 20 minutes ahead of schedule, having followed a route that took me through Liechtenstein for the first time ever and then eastwards on the A12 motorway, through an endless number of tunnels, including the 8.7 mile (14km) Arlberg Road Tunnel, the longest in Austria.

From here to Graz is a six hour journey on EC163, which is temporarily starting its journey at Ötztal due to the engineering works. With such a lengthy journey it is a great pleasure to find the train’s one first class coach has huge panoramic windows and is situated next to the very inviting restaurant car.

The bustling and elegant resort of Split

Train EC163 takes you eastwards across Austria along one of many routes highlighted on my European Rail Map as among the continent’s most scenic, passing through a number of familiar sounding places, including Innsbruck, Jenbach – home of the famous Zillertalbahn narrow gauge railway – Kitzbuhel and Zell am See.

It looks like I will be having both lunch and dinner today courtesy of the OBB on board service, so for my first taste of what’s on offer I opt for the rather tasty Organic paprika chicken with pasta (€12.90) washed down with a bottle of 5.2% Gösser Märzen beer (€4.20). This is a civilised way to start the week, with yet more remarkable scenery to savour at the same time.

The heart of Split’s Old Town

Ending my rather arduous day’s travelling aboard slightly delayed train EC159 from Graz (18.39) to Zagreb (22.25) I once again pay a visit to the restaurant – no linen tablecloths in this one – and I order a very good Wiener Schnitzel (€13.00) along with a 25cl bottle of the OBB house red (€4.40). Not a bad way to finish the day.

My initial impression of Zagreb was somewhat coloured by an expensive taxi ride to my apartment and hassle figuring out how to open the key box to get in, but after a good night’s sleep my view of the place was transformed by a walk around the attractive and historic upper town area and an amazing and bustling indoor food market.

Zagreb is one of only three cities in the world to retain gas-powered lamps in some of its upper town streets. Two hours before sunset a team of lamp lighters goes out to light more than 200 gas lamps, which stand on cast iron pillars or are mounted on shop and cafe frontages, as seen above.

For an easy way to see more of the city it is well worth having a ride or two on the city’s metre-gauge trams. These cover a dense network of city streets, and once you have got a free network map from one of the tourist information points, tickets from newsagent kiosks cost a very reasonable €0.53 for a journey of up to 30 minutes.

More of the amazing architectural survivals in Split’s Old Town

After prudently discovering that cans of beer in Croatia only cost a quarter of their price in Switzerland I board the final train of my first Inter-Rail adventure, where it is disappointing to find that, rather than a comfortable inter-city train for the six hour, 423km (264 mile) trip from Zagreb to Split, the one daily journey on this route is formed of spartan two-car diesel multiple unit.

Arriving in Split half an hour late I once again have some hassle in getting to my apartment as the 4G signal on my phone seems not to work and the lady host has changed the address of my booking. But a good night’s sleep one again cures the problem and I am able to spend a fascinating morning waking around the UNESCO world heritage listed Old Town.

Study in still life: at the heart of the bustling city all that is needed are some trains

While the railway station in Split stands unused all day long, the adjacent bus terminal does brisk business to a huge variety of destinations and it is from here that I begin my afternoon return with a 40-minute ride on the Airport Shuttle bus (€8.66) then return to Gatwick on an easyJet flight (no checked bags) that has cost me just £28.56.

After a delayed landing at Gatwick I return to Haslemere via Guildford and arrive on schedule at 21.49, less than five hours after taking off from Split Airport. It has been an exhausting few days that leaves me full of admiration for those Inter-Railers who spend week after week travelling the wonderful railways of Europe.

If you enjoyed this account then do return to after 13 May when I hope to be posting a feature on my next Inter-Rail rail trip – to Serbia and Montenegro.

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