Originally published 7 January 1994, International Herald Tribune
I knew for certain that I was on the right train when a man charged into my compartment and, before I had even had time to sit down, began tugging the window wide open. It is my experience that it is next to impossible to take a train in central Europe without, at the very best, a heated discussion and, at the very worst, an acrimonious argument about whether the window should be open or closed.
Until this trip I had always sided with the window openers against the closers, people I believed lived in overheated, overfurnished apartments and complained constantly about nonexistent drafts. But on the day I was traveling from Berlin to Warsaw, it was below zero and there was snow on the ground. With the window open, there would be a winter gale blowing through the compartment.
I decided this was not something to argue about, picked up my bags, and moved to another compartment where the window was closed for the seven-hour trip.
Personal tastes about windows aside, train travel in central Europe has become a lot more comfortable and a lot less time consuming since Eurocity trains started on the major routes last year. The new EC trains are faster, make far fewer stops and switch engines quickly at the border crossings where there used to be long waits. The tickets cost about 20 percent more than for a milk-run train.
The Varsovia, outfitted with glass luggage racks, pink and gray upholstery and matching carpets, left East Berlin’s old-fashioned Hauptbahnhof at 8:01 A.M., speeding past grayish urban sprawl and straight through the many S-Bahn stops leading out of the city.
Most of the 80-kilometer (50-mile) route to the Oder River and the Polish border is cut through evergreen and birch forest and it is only in Poland that it becomes clear the train is traveling across the North European Plain with hardly a hill in sight all the way to Warsaw. When pressed, even the locals will admit that this dry, mostly agricultural countryside is an acquired taste.
The passengers are a mix of prosperous- looking German businessmen and Polish shoppers returning from bargain hunting in Berlin. Most people have brought their own food to save money or because they’re wary about the meals served in the dining car. The prices are low by Western standards, but 5.20 Deutsche marks ($3) for scrambled eggs, ham, toast, butter and jam appears less of a bargain when the butter turns out to be rancid.
Because of the lack of customers, the dining car is not, as it is on some trains, a good place to strike up a conversation. According to horror stories making the rounds, however, lack of company is not necessarily a bad thing. One traveler befriended by strangers on this route woke up bruised and penniless by the train tracks and later came to the conclusion that his newfound drinking buddies had slipped something into his drink and dumped him from the train.
B ERLIN to Prague with a stop in Dresden, is a shorter but prettier trip than the one to Warsaw. The two- hour leg to Dresden is by far the most crowded; late arrivals may have to sit on their suitcases in the aisles. Escape to the dining car was not an option when all the places were taken by people without other seats.
After the familiar and drab Berlin suburbs, the train passed through the more cheerful towns and farm country of Saxony. Entering the Saxon capital of Dresden, I caught little more than a glimpse of the old city, where the government has embarked on an ambitious program to restore and rebuild monuments destroyed by World War II bombing.
As we moved further away from Dresden and into an area known as Sachsische Schweiz, the views more than made up for the bitter double-strength instant coffee in the dining car. The area gets its name from the dramatic sandstone cliffs rising several hundred meters on either side of the Elbe. The chalet-style and timber-frame houses help make it possible to forget temporarily just what a polluted river the Elbe is.
But then comes the Czech border, and almost immediately the effects of years of neglect and pollution are more evident. Approaching Prague at the end of the four- and-a-half-hour journey is something of a letdown since the Eurocity trains from Berlin stop short of the city center at Holesovice station in a northern industrial suburb.
On the return trip, made mostly in the dark on one of the winter’s longest days, I headed directly to the restaurant car and ordered a Pilsener Urquell and a Hungarian salami plate. The more exotic items on the menu such as duck and rabbit pate were unavailable.
I could only be grateful on this journey that the staff outnumbered the customers and that in my compartment I was on my own – there would definitely not be any disputes about the windows.