Heading to Innsbruck from Milano by travelling through Switzerland on the stunning Albula and Bernina railways.
There is much to be admired about Milano Centrale station, but a factor in its favour which is less obvious than its splendid architecture, is that it evidently is a magnet for hoteliers offering reasonably priced, quality accommodation in the neighborhood around a station.
Something which can be rarer than might be expected when travelling by train through Europe.
Despite only having to negotiate a 10 minute walk from the hotel to the station, I’d checked out half an hour before departure, allowing plenty of time, I’d thought, to pick up something for breakfast and a coffee; but I ended up dashing for the train and making it with seconds to spare.
I am not a morning person, so another tick for using a rail pass in my particular box is the time saved of not having to buy tickets at a station prior to jumping on board an early departure..
Because reservations are typically not mandatory when using a rail pass, the more common scenario at a station is simply hopping on a train prior to boarding, so that time I didn’t have to spend arranging my place on the train, could now be dedicated to obtaining breakfast.
But trading extra time in bed, for more time accessing a station, is a scenario which had tripped me more than once before; heading off in the opposite direction on the Bruxelles metro, a tram route being diverted in Prague; and these are just two scenarios which caused carefully made plans to be abandoned in a rush for a train.
Though on this occasion all I had to manage was a 10 min walk, what could go wrong? Well I couldn’t work out how to buy a coffee.
I’d read up on how to travel well and wanted to take in authentic local travel experiences, so I walked passed anything that looked like a fast food outlet and instead headed for the charms of the main coffee bar at Milano Centrale, with its fabulously retro aura.
I selected a sandwich first and took it to the counter, where I could see other customers having their paninis toasted and there I stood and waited and waited; it was becoming more arduous than being at the bar in a Soho pub on a Friday.
I started waving the sandwich around and was on the verge of throwing at the nearest baristar, when a fellow customer realised that I was being an idiot and patiently explained that you didn’t pay for what you ordered on the way out, but on the way in and I’d entered by the wrong door.
The system was to tell the cash-desk what you wanted to eat and drink, pay for it and then receive a receipt which you took to the counters where food and drink is prepared.
So by picking up a sandwich first, I wasn’t following the rules.
My Italian was and regretfully still isn’t good enough to understand that what the counter staff had been saying to me, which wasn’t, “go away, you fool”, but “where is your receipt”?
Amidst all these fun and games, my rather obsessive attention to detail when it comes to departure times, meant that I knew the clock was running down on when the train would soon be leaving.
Three minutes to go and I was about to give up and run for it, despite now possessing the all-important receipt, but then my Americano was placed before me.
Not in a cardboard cup with a lid for taking on to the train, but in a china cup with a saucer and some dainty biscuits; my mum would have approved.
I glanced up at the departure board and the orange light beside my train was flashing, a convenient system at Italian stations which basically tells passengers to run for it, because you’ve got two minutes.
In Britain if you attempt to even sip a coffee purchased anywhere at the station within 10 minutes of receiving it, you’ll end up in the nearest casualty unit, but a woman next to me blithely picked up her beverage and downed it in one.
So I too risked a sip and discovered the sensible notion of serving a hot drink at an ambient temperature for immediate consumption; and promptly gulped it down.
Three things elevated my mood, I’d played the coffee ordering game and won, I’d made the train and thirdly I couldn’t help noticing that the trains heading back to Milano were packed with commuters, which at the time was my usual scenario on a Tuesday morning.
However, on this particular day, I’d be making one of the world’s most beautiful railway journeys; Milano → Tirano → Pontresina → Samedan → Chur → Sargans or Buchs → Innsbruck.
Having to make connections in Tirano, Pontresima, Samedan, Chur and Sargans or Buchs sounds fairly tortuous at face value, particularly when travelling with luggage, but trust me the connections are as simple as be; and the stunning views make it worth the effort!
The part of the journey from Milano to Chur via Tirano is one that I’ve since repeated, because one trip wasn’t enough, hence the tease of a more detailed description being saved for another day.
But what those repeated journeys showcased is how travelling the exact same route can offer wildly different travel experiences, not solely because of the weather can both influence how far you can see and impact on the landscape with snow falls, but also how the experience of the staff and service on the train can vary too.
What I hadn’t factored in when planning my journey, hopping along the fabulous Bernina and Albula Railways, was that the guaranteed connections between trains of around five minutes, didn’t leave any time to pick up any food and drink between connections.
No catering is available on the Rhaetian Railway’s regular trains, so by the time I was changing into the train on to Innsbruck at Sargans station I was feeling ravenous.
A situation not helped by the manager of the station’s café closing up for the day as I walked towards the door!
My final journey on this particular day was on a Railjet train from Switzerland to Austria; and I’ve since been fortunate to make multiple other journeys on these trains which are the pride of OBB, the Austrian national rail operator.
As a result I’ve concluded that travelling first class on a Railjet epitomises all that can be wonderful about contemporary European train travel, but I’ve also learned not to be unduly influenced by first impressions when making a rail journey.
One of the most quirky aspects of European express train travel is the variations in how catering is offered, particularly in First Class, where it can vary from a complimentary three course dinner being included with the price of a ticket, to nothing at all.
Travel on a Railjet and the same menu is available throughout the train and nothing is complimentary.
In First Class you can order items to be fetched to you in your seat(s), or anyone can take a seat in the restaurant, or place an order at the bar and then either consume your items there, or take them with you back to your seat.
After the train departed from the next station at Buchs, I wanted give all my attention to photographing the stunning views of the Arlberg Pass.
So going to the bar before the train arrived there was the optimum choice, rather than waiting for the attendant to come through the train and take my order.
When I got there a young man and a young woman were doing a brisk trade and when it came to my turn to be served, I took a leading role in the following scene;
Me: I’d like the Wiener Sausages with the bread and mustard please
Young Man: Sorry, but we don’t have any hot food available.
Me: But the sausages are served hot?
Young Man: Yes
Me: But the man you two served two minutes ago is eating them now, just over there.
Young Man: Maybe he was happy to have them cold?
Me: It doesn’t look like it, I can see from here.
Young Man: (blank stare)
Me: Fine, I’ll have a sandwich.
Young Man: I’ll see what we have
By this time the train has arrived in Buchs station, a minute or so elapsed, and then I saw that that both of the counter staff had jumped off the train to have a cigarette on the platform.
Young Man on his return: We have this sandwich or this sandwich.
Next Customer: Two Weiner please
Young Woman: Just give me two minutes and I’ll bring them over.
Me: Now that my order won’t stop you from having that cigarette, I’d still like those sausages, if you’d be so kind.
Young Man: Just give me two minutes and I’ll bring them over.
A tad churlish of me to include this vignette within my recollections, as 99% of the train staff I’ve encountered have been exemplary.
But the core reason for featuring is that if I’d only ever made that one journey by a Railjet, I may have surmised that the customer service on Austrian trains is questionable.
However, I now know with absolute confidence that this somewhat shoddy experience, was very much the exception rather than the rule.
I wanted to share my passion for train travel and explain how anyone can take the fantastic journeys I have taken.
This is one of more than 100 train travel guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make. As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.
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