The train is already waiting on the platform when I arrive at the Munich Hauptbahnhof on chilly November Monday morning. Today I’m taking the Österreichische Bundesbahnen (ÖBB) Railjet to Italy — a relatively new addition to the Austrian rail network.
The dark grays and maroon colors with a brighter streak of red through the center of the wagons catch my eye. It’s built more like an Amtrak or some of the other, slower regional trains I’ve seen around Central Europe.
I’m not at all disappointed to see that it’s not like the sleek, high-speed lines I’ve ridden before. The high-speed ICE I took to Munich, the TGV in France, the Italian Freccia with the sleek nose, or even the king of kings, Japan’s legendary Shinkansen bullet train all come to mind. I’ve seen the maps. I know the terrain we’re dealing with — the Austrian Alps.
The fact that I’ll be arriving in Verona, Italy after just 10 hours of train travel from Düsseldorf is impressive enough to me, considering I grew up and lived most of my adult life without a feasible train option. Add to that the engineering feat of getting passengers housed comfortably in tons of metal across some of the world’s most unforgiving terrain and you quickly realize there are zero reasons to complain.
Through The Austrian Alps
I eagerly hop on board and happen upon a cabin full of compartments with three seats on each side facing one another and a sliding door that leads to the hallway between wagons. Despite the substantial train travel I’ve done in the past year since moving to Europe, I’ve never done any serious time in the luxurious quiet of a compartment, so I find one with no reservations, toss my blue duffel bag in, and slide my camera bag underneath a seat. I whip open my laptop, as I’m never more productive in my writing than when on a train, and find to my surprise there’s Internet. I log on with ease and am led to a map where I can see the status of my train, like a rail addition of chutes and ladders. Our train icon sat still at zero kilometers per hour.
Not for long.
The internet goes out as soon as we leave the station, but I’m not bothered in the least. I do some writing for, let’s say, 30 minutes or so before the Austrian Alps are visible in the distance. A wave rushes over me, like a bad Sci-Fi effect from the early 90s, and I’m converted into a tourist. My camera is out, waiting to get the best snap between the trees of the passing scenery. It takes me longer than I care to admit to put the camera down and just enjoy the moment.
Trains bring me a kind of joy only matched by a serious hike, hearing a good story, and drinking a tasty, local beer. Simply being on a train, being with that community of fellow train travelers who decided not to drive or fly, reading their Kindles, their books, their magazines, whispering to their significant others on the phone — it brings me palpable bliss.
That’s par for the course for me. Now I can admit that the 10,000 – 20,000 kilometers (5,000-plus of which alone were on The Germany Travel Show over 16 days) I must’ve ridden in the past year has made me grow accustomed to regular train travel. Don’t get me wrong. I still love it and I’m still incredibly impressed by it each and every time, but I no longer need to always stare out the window like an anxious puppy itching to chase the proverbial squirrel. I can read, work, listen to podcasts, or even take a nap. Not so on the Railjet.
Seeing this scenery — the towering, snow-capped mountains with fall-colored trees racing down the sides — and knowing I’d soon be in a tangibly different culture with a vastly different language took me back to my first train rides through Switzerland. I could hardly stop looking out the window or wipe that dumb grin off my face like a schoolboy who just heard his crush likes him back.
Suffice it to say, this route quickly ranks high up there in personal train journeys.
The Brenner Pass
As the five-hour journey continues, we pause for 15 minutes before the Brenner Pass. Evidence exists that the Brenner Pass has been in use since the most recent Ice Age. Fast forward a bit, and you get to the Holy Roman Empire and the High Middle Ages when it was the crucial “Via Imperil” — an imperial road connecting the Kingdom of Germany and used for Otto the Great’s March of Verona, which captured today’s northern Italy for the empire. (My intentions for traveling into Verona from Germany, of course, vary substantially.)
The Austrian Empire can actually take credit for building the first railway at the Brenner Pass. Completed in stages between 1853 and 1867, making it the first trans-Alpine railway without a major tunnel (crossing at a higher elevation than today). Humans being humans, the line was used to efficiently move soldiers to more efficiently kill other soldiers.
Austrian ambitions to maintain Venetia and Lombardy ultimately failed. A brief, but bright chapter came at the end of World War I with Italy and Austria agreeing to share control of the pass, but you don’t need to be a historian to guess that things took a dark turn in 1940. Hitler and Mussolini met here to celebrate their Pact of Steel, essentially the start of the German-Italian alliance of World War II. Meant to last a decade, the pact fell apart with the removal of Italy’s fascist government in 1943. By 1945, it was merely part of the ratlines system used by fleeing Nazis at the end of the war.
Now it’s 70-plus years later and we’re all friends now with who knows how many nationalities on board, peacefully sharing this air, this space, and journey into Italy. It’s a nice thought that distracts me in the moment from everything else in the world.
Through the Brenner Pass and firmly in Italian territory, but the neat-and-boxy German aesthetic still reigns supreme. As we’ve covered, there’s quite a bit of Germanic history here and it’s not uncommon to find bilingual German and Italian speakers in Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol region. The next major stops come with Italian and German signage. Bolzen/Bolzano. Trento/Trentino.
Even when we pull into Verona Porta Nuova, my stop, I still don’t feel like I’m in Italy. That opinion changes drastically once I hop on the bus right outside the station for about 10 minutes and get dropped off at the center of this UNESCO city.
Back To Munich
I’m doubly fortunate, because I return to Munich on a positively gloomy day, giving me an entirely different view of the region. The mountains, still with their fall colors, seem ghostly in a way that fascinates me to the point that I start mentally planning a trip to Innsbruck, Bolzano, and Trento. I’m also pleased to have another busy but quiet passenger sharing the compartment with me. She first found me, asking if I knew how to read her ticket in German. She was looking for her seat. I took one quick glance and noticed no seat reservation (you have to pay extra for the courtesy) and I expertly translate “Klasse 2” to “Second Class” and I inform her she’s in the right spot. She thanks me, to which I respond, “Prego.”
Look at me polyglot-ing.
A number of the compartments do have tickets on the doors, noting that you have to move if someone comes in with a corresponding reservation. She says she’ll take her chances and move if someone comes. I meanwhile continue down the carriage and find two compartments with no qualifications and invite her back. To my surprise, she opts to join me rather than have her own. A moment passes and I decide I like this strategy. Surely if two people appear to be quiet and engaged in their work, it would somehow ward off potential noisy people.
(This forcefield did not extend outside of our compartment as I later woke from a nap to hear kids noisily banging against the seats as their mother desperately told them to shh.)
After some reading and note-taking, I trot up to the restaurant wagon for a coffee. I’m saddened to see it mostly empty and decide to come back for a bite — Indian yellow curry with vegetables and rice. Dining on a train is a surefire way to right any cranky mood I might be in.
I do realize that late November is hardly tourist season, perhaps accounting for the small crowd and an empty dining wagon, but I’m also a firm believer in supporting enterprises that you enjoy with your wallet and not just words. Besides, I’m currently battling that insatiable hunger one feels a night after drinking, so curry sounds like a fantastic idea. Plus it’s another opportunity to interact with the absolutely delightful woman working the restaurant wagon. I assume she’s Austrian based on the fact that this is an Austrian train line and her German is just that much more difficult for me to understand. The phlegm she summoned earlier to pronounce “eighty” or “ACHT-zig” for my €2.80 coffee made me smile.
“Is there something else I can get you?” she asks with a bright smile that has me believing she truly enjoys her job.
I place my order, decline a drink, and she bounces back to the kitchen, her blonde ponytail swaying from side-to-side with each step. I return to the final pages of my book, Italian Ways by Tim Parks — a book dedicated to the subject of Italian train travel with the author based in Verona. It’s been a treat to read this throughout the trip, but the food arrives before I can finish. Indeed, it proves to be an immediate band-aid to the strange gurgling brought on by the previous night’s foolish mixture of IPA craft beer, local Valpolicella wine, and whiskey.
I spend the rest of the journey back in my compartment, allowing myself to doze off occasionally. When we pull back into the Munich Hauptbahnhof, the final stop, I don’t bother looking back at the train.
Something tells me it’s hardly my final ride on the ÖBB Railjet.
On that note, check out some of the best places to visit and things to do in Verona off the beaten path. Heading to Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, language tips, and how to ride the train.
All photos courtesy of the ÖBB