One and Done: Train to Croatia in a Sleeper Car

 

One of the very few aspects of this trip we did plan in advance was a bucket list item: A week of sailing among the islands on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. We booked it around the schedules of friends from the US who could join us. Therefore, the first month of our European itinerary was geared toward getting us to Split, Croatia, by August 19.

After carving the sailing dates in stone, we had discovered that it’s not all that easy to get to Split from Budapest economically, and the sailing was already going to be a huge splurge. Our best option was the overnight sleeper, which would at least make the 14-hour trip go faster and be kind of a cool thing to do. Or so we thought.

After our exhilarating Segway tour as a last hurrah in Budapest, we scurried to the train station for a 6 pm departure, only to wait for a very delayed train. Trains in Europe usually run like clockwork, so this should have been a hint of what was to come.

Because it only ran once a week and would get us to Split just in time to catch the boat, we could not miss this train. We watched the departures board like hawks, waiting to see our train number come up to find out which track to board on. The kids were troopers while we waited in the heat, spent our last few Hungarian forints on some really bad train station food, and tried to figure out where we should be waiting. Weighed down by four heavy suitcases, four heavy day packs, lots of extra water and some snacks for the long ride, it was like turning an aircraft carrier to get our stuff from one side of the crowded station to another. We would need time. Yet once that train info came up, we’d have very little time to get to the right platform and board.

The train finally came about 90 minutes late. If you recall our reaction to the Czech Airlines Soviet-era prop plane, you can predict our reaction when we first laid eyes on the Hungarian Soviet-era sleeper train.

MAV-Start Sleeper Car - I think
We failed to take a picture, and this is the closest I could find. Ours looked more retro than this. (photo credit)

My first thought was, “Thank God the kids have had a very active day and will crash.” My second thought was, “Did I remember to put the sleep aid somewhere accessible?” Because we adults would be needing it. That much was clear.

My husband and I had both taken overnight trains in our younger, backpacking days under even more austere circumstances, but that was then and this was now.

I’m sure there are some rather elegant sleeper cars throughout Europe, but this wasn’t one of them…

We got on board, and took inventory. Earnest attendant to help us figure out what was what? Check.

Two compartments not next to each other? Check. {wait, what??}

NO air conditioning in a heat wave? Check. {Hold on. Come again?} [We had to verify that one with the attendant, who made his own displeasure about it clear while literally wiping his brow.]

NO electrical outlets? Check. {Oh, it just keeps getting better.}

Surprisingly, the girls wanted to bunk together, even though they were several compartments away. It was a nice show of independence that we only allowed because the doors locked from the inside and our research said they would be secure. Plus, the attendant would be on watch all night and was a doting dad who had his own young daughter along for the ride. [Do beware on your own trips. There are many stories about things going missing while people sleep in their “secure” compartments.]

I’m not sure what makes the sleeper different from couchettes, except that you are given a sheet and pillow and there are a max of three beds per compartment. Like a couchette, the beds fold down from the wall. We did have the luxury of a little table that converted into a sink with a medicine cabinet containing glasses, towels, soap and bottled water. It was nice to be able to freshen up in the morning.

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Failed to get a “before” shot, so this is in the morning after a night of sleep.

All was going pretty well for awhile, as the day turned to dusk and then dark. With all of the windows down in both the compartments and hallway, there was a nice cross breeze, so the heat was bearable.

However, after dark, we noticed an odd phenomenon and then realized what was happening. Every time we stopped at a station (which was often), the mosquitoes outside were attracted to the lights in the hall and compartments. It was a mosquito flash mob, and I am not exaggerating. They would zoom through the open windows to fill our compartments and come along for the ride once we left the station. It was like the lights were disco balls and the ceiling of our compartments the mosquito dance floors. Cue the electronic dance music. I almost started looking around for the red velvet rope and limos and wished for a mosquito bouncer.

Sleeping car hallway - rail website credit
Mosquito entry portals are on the right.

Mortified at the idea of our sleeping in a den of hungry mosquitoes, I brought this to the attention of the attendant who looked at me like I was crazy and exclaimed, as he would to an observant three-year-old, “Yes, we have mosquitoes in this country!” It was as if I had just said, “Wow, look! Indoor plumbing!” Yeah, duh.

Well, in all fairness, what was I expecting him to do? Hunt them all down for us? Close all of the windows, so we could suffocate to death?

So we swatted all of them – about 60 per compartment. Then we slathered on bug spray (yuck), kept the windows and doors closed, and turned off the compartment lights whenever we approached a station. Really fits the romantic image of spending the night on a train, eh?

Mercifully, the temps cooled as the night wore on, and it was bearable to close the windows.

The kids finally settled in – they were having a ball. It was a bit like being in a very noisy, moving RV. They love cozy spaces and slept well. Thank God.

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The beds were actually quite comfortable, so I slept pretty well. My poor husband, on the other hand, hardly got a wink. The next morning he looked like one of those crazy-eyed cartoons with the spiral eyeballs.

We were supposed to arrive at 7:50 a.m. I woke up just shortly before that and nearly had a panic attack, thinking we would miss our stop. Well those fears were unfounded. In fact, 8:50 came and went. 9:50 came and went. Now we were starting to sweat it a bit, because we were due for a boat orientation at 1:00. The train finally arrived around 10:30. The good news is that we were able to sleep in a bit, clean up, organize and catch some of the scenery.

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Scenery on the way to Split, Croatia: Ancient piled-stone walls and farms, with hills in the background

When we arrived at the station, we thought we had gotten off in the wrong place. Split, Croatia on the Dalmatian Coast is a thriving, bustling tourist destination, right? Millions of visitors, right? This is a picture of the train station as taken from the sidewalk. All of it. A cinderblock wall, roof and metal gate. That’s it. There isn’t even a bathroom. For that you have to walk down the sidewalk to a pay facility.

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The train station in Split. All of it.

We had to laugh out loud – it was such a shock. This is a city of 200,000 people plus gazillions of tourists. We’ve been in tiny hamlets with bigger train stations. Clearly the infrastructure spending hasn’t kept up with growth in tourism. The crazy part is that when you stepped under the gate of the “unstation,” it was wall-to-wall people. This place was hoppin’!

 

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Wall-to-wall people, eateries and tourist shops on the sidewalk outside the Split train station. Busy place!

 

 

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A glamorous brunch of mediocre sandwiches upon arrival in Split while we figure out how to get to our chartered boat about an hour north of Split.

After an Uber guilt trip from the taxi drivers, we negotiated a flat rate for the one-hour drive to our harbor and were off and running on our absolutely dreamy week of boating and island hopping on the Dalmatian Coast.

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Clear skies as we pass one of many mussel farms on the one-hour journey from Split to Marina Agana, departure point for our week on the water.

As for the sleeper car experience? Ohhhhh, yeah. We are one and done – at least on the old-fashioned cars. It was an interesting thing to do – once.

Next Up: Exploring Croatia on a Sailboat: Yes, We Have Died and Gone to Heaven

6 thoughts on “One and Done: Train to Croatia in a Sleeper Car

  1. Kimberly and I were last in Croatia in 2008. We were very impressed with Dubrovnik, Hvar and Brac. Years ago as a student, I had a similar experience, when I traveled by train from Salzburg to Athens on one of those sleeper cars. At that time, we traveled through the former republic of Yugoslavia and parts of Romania and other eastern block countries. In June 2018, Kimberly and Iwill be chartering a Moorings 47′ cat at Marina Agana in conjunction with the SFYC Commodore’s Cruise. We are looking forward to our one week charter back through some of the islands we visited previously. After our sail, we are planning on catching Eurail up to northern Croatia (Rovinj) and on to Slovenia (Lake Bled) by car, before finishing up in Venice. Any suggestions in regard to Rovinj, Slovenia or the train travel in that region would be greatly appreciated. In any event, we are looking forward to hearing about your charter!

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  2. You have an amazing way to put a positive tone into the retelling of a nightmare. Mosquitos all night long? I would have needed a straightjacket by the morning! Well written Theresa, and we love seeing all the pictures!

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  3. Theresa, each and every time I find myself thinking 2 things: OMG! Andy and I would not have survived. Well, I would have have and the kids would have but Andy…not so much! And second thought is always:! You, my dear friend, are such a gifted and talented writer!! You are so witty, and sarcastic in just the right amount , and you have bared your soul for our enjoyment. I can’t thank you enough. We didn’t get to travel with you on your journey but we have all been blessed by you sharing the journey with us!! I love each episode and dose of you I get!! Much love!! XOXO

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