Get Off the Beaten Rail Path – Six Different Destinations in Central Europe
The Central European leg of a European interrailing adventure is a path well trodden. Berlin, Munich, Prague, Krakow, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, are always featured in some order. Even Warsaw inexplicably gets a look in on most travellers’ itineraries.
These are mostly excellent cities, and when organizing from afar, it is much easier to navigate using capital cities, famous destinations and transport hubs. However, once you get to your fourth or fifth city – with the possibility of many Western European ones past or to come – you may have had enough of huge metropolises, high prices, prescribed urban attractions, and an inevitable lack of interaction with the locals. Getting away from the capitals from time to time is often the best way to get a more authentic experience of a country and its people.
Getting around Central Europe is very easy by train and it can be relatively inexpensive if you have one of a number of rail passes. There are plenty of ways to mix and match to get what’s right for you, but here at two of the most popular possibilities. The first option is aEuropean East Pass from Rail Europe which offers five days of travelling in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia from $280USD for adults and $216USD for youths (25 and under). For Slovenia and Germany you must get an extra One Country Pass for each.
For youths (25 and under) the Eurail Select Pass might be your best bet as you can take advantage of unlimited travel in five bordering countries from around $400USD. If you want to get to all six countries mentioned here, the cheapest option would be to get the Eurail Select Pass and add the separate Slovenia Pass. The Slovenia Pass is the cheapest with prices from $76USD for adults and $51 for youths.
Here is a list of attractive alternatives that are worth at least a day of your time and should give your trip a little more variation.
Instead of Munich, visit Dresden
Munich certainly is a good-looking, green city, but unfortunately it’s more expensive than the rest of Germany and can get a little too touristy and crowded for comfort. On the other side of the spectrum, nestled conveniently in-between Berlin and Prague, is the more laidback city of Dresden.
Dresden has become a footnote in history as the city that was almost totally destroyed by the Allies during the Second World War, and as such it is uniformly overlooked as a tourist destination. But that shouldn’t be the be-all-and-end-all of this surprisingly beautiful and vibrant city. This fairly small city can be roughly split into two areas – the Neustadt and the Altstadt – with the River Elbe providing the boundary and a very charming place to relax and take in the attractive cityscape of the “Florence of the Elbe.”
In the compact area of the restored Altstadt there is a remarkable number of historical attractions that you will find yourself stumbling upon. In rebuilding Dresden, the Germans have somehow recaptured the mood of this historic city in a way the Poles have been unable to do in similar circumstances in Warsaw. Maybe that’s because of the elaborately painstaking way in which they went about it. A case in point is the Church of Our Lady at the heart of the Baroque Old Town, which was rebuilt by taking salvageable stones from the destroyed original and positioning them in exactly the same places in which they initially stood. A little anal but a lovely touch.
The Neustadt is the youthful and exciting part of town where a lot of the hostels and bars reside on a few tightly-packed streets. This close proximity allows for a relaxed mixture of bars, beer gardens, and nightclubs within a manageable stumbling distance from wherever you are staying. The people are generally more open and friendly than the introverted Pragites just to the South. The beer isn’t anything special, but the prices are very tourist friendly.
If you are using a Germany Rail Pass then it’s easy to get to Dresden from either Munich or Berlin. From Berlin you have a choice of over 10 trains a day, which normally take around 2.5 hours. At 5-6 hours, the journey from Munich is longer but just as frequent. Alternatively, if you have one of the multi-country passes, you can choose to travel from Prague, which is only about 2 hours and 15 minutes away.
Instead of Salzburg, visit Zell am See
It’s tough to recommend an alternative to Salzburg, but what do most people want they go to Austria? They want mountains, adventure, and beautiful scenery. Whereas Salzburg offers some of this, it is still very much known for its urban delights. But Zell-am-See, which is ninety minutes or so to the south, is a city that’s more in touch with nature.
Zell-am-See is great for those who want to tackle nature or for those who just want to be amongst it. This renowned resort is a stone’s throw from a pristine lake, and the area is famous for showcasing over thirty peaks and eighty ski runs. A mixture of geographical features means that Zell-am-See is excellent for active people throughout the year – obviously there is skiing in the winter (best between December and late-April), but also watersports on the lake and hiking in the mountains during the warmer months. You can’t really say you have been to Austria unless you have embraced its spectacular natural attractions, and Zell-am-See is just the place in which to do just that.
Zell am See is easily accessible from Salzburg with a train connecting the two cities every hour. Making a train reservation is recommended at any time of the year, especially during the weekends.
Instead of Warsaw, visit Wroclaw
Being a capital city, Warsaw is often on travellers’ itineraries, but in truth there is not a huge amount to recommend about this Jekyll and Hyde city. A much better option, located in the southwest of Poland, a couple of hours from Krakow and Prague, is the lively university city of Wroclaw.
Aesthetically, Wroclaw is a pleasant enough city with charming, if not spectacular, squares consisting of multi-colour houses, an abundance of impressive red-brick churches scattered around, and plenty of picturesque parks to relax by the numerous canals and waterways. It’s gained a rather generous moniker of “The Venice of Poland,” which even the locals refute. It is in the friendly atmosphere and the energetic nightlife however, where the city excels.
With over 120,000 students enrolled in the numerous universities and colleges, the youthful feeling of Wroclaw is very evident, and there is a staggering number of drinking establishments to cater for the droves of thirsty scholars. Within a compact area you can find beer cellars, microbreweries, the pre-requisite English and Irish bars, traditional pubs, and lots of clubs to suit almost every musical taste.
Although Friday and Saturday are indeed great nights to go out, Thursday is the student night of choice, and hence the ideal time to meet the generally friendly, outgoing students who love to practice their English. Furthermore, with a predominantly student clientele and a resistance to mass-tourism so far, the prices offer good value for money and the crowds lack any huge groups of foreigners roaming the streets.
Wroclaw is about an equal journey time-wise from Warsaw, Krakow and Prague, making this a flexible destination to visit. Trains from Warsaw and Prague (many of which change at Dresden) leave about 10 times a day and take between 5 and 7 hours. Krakow has around 6 connections per day.
Instead of Kutna Hora or Plzen, visit Český Krumlov
Virtually unheard of outside of Central Europe – but generally revered inside – this romantic medieval town in the South of the Czech Republic is a little gem that allows you to combine beautiful architecture with action on the River Vlatava.
Part of the fun of Český Krumlov is getting lost in the myriad of cobblestone streets that make up the 750-year-old UNESCO World Heritage centre. In the wonderfully preserved Old Town you will find yourself surrounded by Baroque architecture with not a single angular modernist structure to ruin things (in the centre, anyway) and the highlight of the town is the Castle Complex with a garden, exhibitions, and a tower that offers excellent panoramic views.
The town is also the canoeing and rafting centre of the region, and the Czechs love to get themselves down there and out on the water. Nearly every hostel offers a watersports excursion, ranging from traditional rafting and canoeing to tubing and pub crawls down the river. Spring and Autumn are probably the best times to visit as the weather is still fairly pleasant but the claustrophobic crowds have gone.
Český Krumlov is best reached from Prague, as trains, which take 3 hours 40 minutes and change at České Budějovice, leave every 2 hours. Seat reservations are certainly recommended from Spring to Autumn as the Czechs love this place.
Instead of Bratislava, visit Esztergom-Štúrovo
To get a taste of both Slovakia and Hungary in one go, the alternative twin destination of Esztergom- Štúrovo is very handy. A few hours north of Budapest (or a scenic five-hour journey by pleasure boat), two distinctively different towns simultaneously straddle the Hungary-Slovakia border and the River Danube. In this border-country, you are given the unique opportunity to freely wander across the Mária Valéria Bridge between two countries that drink different beer, have different culinary specialities, and obviously speak different languages. It’s also a fairly new experience as the ease of this journey has only been possible for just over ten years due to a turbulent Twentieth Century between the two countries.
The existence of the river as the natural boundary has mainly done away with the usual seedy areas that accompany border crossings, and in its place are two dissimilar destinations to visit. Štúrovo is the less impressive of the two settlements but still boasts the huge Vadas thermal baths which put this place on the map as a renowned spa town and offer the ideal place in which to relax.
The focal point of the Hungarian side of the river is the Esztergom Basilica, the largest church in Hungary. Set against a backdrop of beautiful mountain scenery, this 71 metre high Classical building, complete with a massive dome, dominates the skyline for miles around. The historical centre of the city is pretty quiet and generally gives off a very calm and relaxing vibe, which makes a nice counterpoint to the other bustling cities surrounding it.
Esztergom and Štúrovo are incredibly well connected to their respective capital cities. Budapest Nyugati supplies Esztergom with 25 trains a day and Štúrovo has 12 trains daily from Bratislava. The journey time is about 90 minutes from either starting point.
Instead of Ljubljana visit Lake Bled
In a compact little country where you can visit lakes, mountains, and the sea easily within two hours of Ljubljana, there is not much point hanging round Slovenia’s pleasant but rather unremarkable capital city.
Most Slovenians love the outdoors, so perhaps you should join them. The most convenient, not to mention spectacular, place to explore the natural attractions on offer is Lake Bled. The nearby town of Bled – four kilometres from the lake – is situated on the Ljubljana-Salzburg train line where trains pass by from both ends at regular intervals. There are also plenty of inexpensive hostels and pensions to make this little jaunt off the beaten path pretty untaxing to organise.
Whether relaxing in the vicinity of the lake or being a little adventurous, then the area offers a lot. Within hiking distance of the water is the imposing Bled Castle overlooking the lake, Vintar Gorge and its many waterfalls, and a couple of surrounding peaks that offer commanding views of the countryside. Closer to the lake is a summer toboggan track, or you can get on the water and row over to Bled Island. It’s also possible to enjoy a spot of fishing. In the Spring and Summer, Lake Bled is packed with locals, and it’s very likely that you’ll get caught up in a watersports gala that will inevitably offer an explosion of life and colour and a true festival feel.
All in all, it’s a place where you can be surrounded by local people and idyllic scenery doing something wholesome. How many times can you say you do that whilst city hopping?
If you are using the Slovenia Rail Pass, it’s easiest, quickest and most pleasing to the eye to get to Bled from Ljubljana. Trains leave every hour to Bled Lesce and take less than an hour. Alternatively, you can start from Salzburg and take one of five trains a day or a night train with a journey time of around 4 hours. A €2, 30 minute bus ride connects the railway station to the lake.