What a crazy notion it now seems, as the Covid cases continue to rise and local lockdowns come into force thanks to our brand new three-tier system, that I was able to hop from train to train on a journey that took me from London to Rijeka in northern Croatia in just under 24 hours.
But hop I did, on an adventure that was near seamless in execution. It was my first time out of the country in 2020 – the first time in almost a year – and I felt a sharp thrill of exhilaration that could not be quenched by having to wear a mask the entire time during Indian summer temperatures of 34 degrees, or by spending the night attempting to sleep across three seats on the overnight service to Croatia (the berths were somehow fully booked).
Light-filled carriages; spacious, comfy chairs; decent wifi; rural views: there’s a lot to be said for taking the train rather than the plane. It was all so conducive to getting things done that I even managed to squeeze in a full day’s work on the outbound journey, across three trains that shuttled me all the way to Munich, before switching off for the day, grabbing a plate of cheese-slathered kasespatzle and boarding my final connection, the Nightjet sleeper train.
It covers a distance of around 400km, reaching Rijeka via Austria and Slovenia, and pulled into Croatia’s third city, and one of the two 2020 European Capitals of Culture, for 9.30am the day after I’d set off.
It felt more than surreal to be exploring the attractive, sun-filled streets of this vibrant port city when I’d been wheeling my suitcase down grey London streets to reach St Pancras station the morning before. Marvelling at the mix of architectural styles – Italian, Austrian, Yugoslavian – it was as if I’d travelled back to a simpler time, before the words “coronavirus” and “Covid” defined our existence.
You have to feel for Rijeka, and its European Capital of Culture sibling, Galway. There was so much build-up to this year – the scheme typically picks destinations that have flown under the radar when it comes to attracting holidaymakers – and the city, so often overshadowed by tourism darlings Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik, was champing at the bit for its moment in the spotlight.
The pandemic even made a mockery of Rijeka’s 2020 tagline: Port of Diversity. The city has long attracted citizens from all over the world, and has changed hands so many times, ruled by just about anyone and everyone in its long and turbulent history, that it has an inbuilt propensity to welcome outsiders with a tolerance that feels particularly refreshing in these close-minded times. Instead, in a year in which it hoped to attract more visitors than ever, the city had to adapt: much of the rich cultural programme went ahead, but only to be enjoyed by Rijekans themselves.
It made me feel particularly privileged to be making the most of my time there as an interloper, visiting key exhibitions The Sea is Glowing (exploring the invisible economics linked to the sea) and Fiume Fantastika (interpreting the city’s modern history and urbanisation), both housed in a trendy waterside warehouse, and sneaking a peek at the Sugar Palace, an old sugar refinery that’s soon to open as the City Museum of Rijeka.
The good news is that legacy projects like the latter will be there for the long haul. Once 2020 is over, once travel restrictions ease, once coronavirus is a distant memory (please God), there will still be plenty of reasons to flock to this gritty yet charming spot on the Adriatic Coast. Aside from, of course, its excellent connectivity for flight-free travellers.
There was just time for me to immerse myself in the otherworldly turquoise of the sea – well, it would be rude not to – before I caught the return sleeper service back to Munich. This time I spent the day there, my first visit to this Bavarian gem, and I filled it with jaunts to Marienplatz (to catch the famed glockenspiel show), Englischer Garten (to watch crazy people use the ice-cold Eisbach as their own private river rapid ride) and the 16th-century Hofbräuhaus beer hall (to eat too many pretzels and drink too many steins).
After a night spent in the wonderfully comfortable and conveniently placed NH Collection Hotel opposite the main train station, I settled myself into another day of easy rail travel back to Paris. There was little to do except relax, admire the handsome pastoral views and try to cram in a few extra Duo Lingo French lessons that would prove pointless (I’ve yet to meet a Parisian who doesn’t reply to my botched francais in perfect English).
Perhaps knowing deep down it might be my last hurrah in the French capital for who knows how long, I dressed in red, slapped on the war paint and threw myself into the part of “enigmatic, impossibly chic foreigner who drinks gin cocktails alone opposite the Louvre as the sun sets”. I ate steak and drank red wine. I walked along the Seine. I explored the Picasso Museum and wandered the shady paths of the Père Lachaise Cemetery. And at the end of it all I poured myself into bed at Sinner, a so-sexy-it-hurts new hotel in the Marais neighbourhood, where I politely ignored the complimentary lube in the bathroom and opted instead to fall into the deepest of sleeps.
If it all sounds too good to be true, it was. I was brought clattering back down to earth with a last-minute cancellation of my Eurostar, necessitating an extra night in a hostel. But even that just meant another evening in Paris; another few hours to make memories that will hopefully help keep me going over the next few months of zero travel prospects.
Interrailing during a pandemic: turns out it’s much more enjoyable than it sounds.
A five-day Interrail pass (five days within one month) costs from €212 for those aged 27-years-old or under, or from €282 for an adult pass.
Rijeka’s three-star Hotel Continental offers comfortable rooms close to the city centre; doubles from £89.
NH Collection München Bavaria is a four-star hotel adjacent to Munich Hauptbahnhof, the city’s main train station; doubles from £84.
Sinner is a recently opened five-star boutique hotel in Paris’s trendy Marais district; deluxe rooms from €550.
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