Friday afternoon; I have my ticket from the sour-faced woman in Vinohrady station; I’m waiting on the broken platform with a view of vineyards in spring bloom; there’s a groan and a clank and a sound a bit like what I imagine a minotaur sounds like when it despairs because it got lost in the labyrinth and… yes, in hobbles the train east.
I’ve done this journey a dozen or more times in spring sunshine and winter snow alike but the feeling of elation – of getting on a train and heading cross-country, east from Bratislava – never ceases to enrich the senses.
That is partly, of course, because I’m going somewhere; somewhere exciting; where is not important right now. But it is mostly because trains in Slovakia – and in Central Europe generally – are experiences in themselves. They are that essential first stage of the journey – getting there would just not be as fun without them.
I dodge the beggar and the skinheads and the businessmen and the giggling students and the group of babky (old grandmothers) and make for the front carriage. The rest of the train is full (even the aisle outside the compartments decked out in brown and green is chock-a-block). So I head to the restaurant car, brown and green colour scheme persisting; colours that in any other context would look outdated but on this groaning old train, with the Carpathians rising out of the window, seem just natural.
There’s the other usual suspects too. Outside, the middle-of-nowhere stations (the Vrútky’s of this world) where the station masters hurry out of their offices smoothing their uniforms and donning their hats whilst the train passes before returning to their afternoon nap, tea or slivovitz. And within – fake flowers that look almost dead even though they were never alive. Mirrors – why???? – high up on each compartment wall as if passengers really like to stand up on tiptoe and arrange their hair in the 2-inch wide strip of glass. A serious middle-aged waiter with a pencil moustache dishing out cold Czech beer (Kozel seems a favourite). A menu which appears to have a myriad options but which when you break it down does eggs, admittedly in several different forms, wiener schnitzel, goulash , pancakes and fried cheese – all with a “vegetable garnish” of grated carrot and cabbage.
After a studied sampling of all possibilities over the last year or so I now always go for the fried cheese (the risk of an upset stomach afterwards is minimal and, in any case, this battered piece of stodgy goodness is in fact a Slovak staple – you’re eating a proper piece of Slovak culture if you eat this). Rubbery, battered and with well-seasoned potatoes on the side with that cabbage salad. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the option of the battered Hermelin – one step deeper into the Czech-Slovak cultural immersion as the batter is thicker and Hermelin is the Czech Republic’s very own take on camambert. Ah! As Europe rolls passed the window.
Because thats the thing. Your average Slovakian place-to-place train is also often a trans-European train. That pencil-moustached waiter has some words of German and Hungarian up his sleeve, most likely, because the train could be going across three, four, five country borders. There’s something internationally titillating about that. And even a little bit grand.
Sit back, feast, down a froth-topped Kozel and wait for some of Europe’s greatest mountains to rise up before you, without moving a muscle (other than those you need to chew and swallow).
Cue Kraftwerk for the soundtrack.