Dear fellow travellers
We drifted slowly through wintry forests, past unkempt meadows and villages full of scrawny desolation. We crossed the River Odra (Oder in German) four times. And four times I gazed down at the river's wine-dark waters from the train, watching the waters swirling under bridges, swirling through history. We stopped on a level crossing, inconveniencing no-one, for cars there were none. But that was a fine moment, sunshine tussling with midday mist and for once getting the upper hand. A woman was arranging flowers at a roadside shrine. Two worlds: hers a litany of Polish devotion, mine a ride on the slow train to Wroclaw, the city that was until 1945 called Breslau. But why the slow train? Surely Berlin to Wroclaw is a pretty major route.
Let us cast back to the autumn of 1917. I cannot imagine that was really the most auspicious time to make a long journey by train across central Europe. Yet, despite the ravages of war, the morning train from Berlin made a fast dash to Breslau, reaching the Silesian city in just over four hours. This particular train was by all accounts pretty distinguished. It carried a restaurant car and an impressive array of through carriages, among them sleeping cars bound for Constantinople. Twenty years later, trains were speeding from Berlin to Breslau in less than three hours, not bad for a run of over 300 kilometres.
How the world has changed. Breslau has slipped from our collective consciousness and found new life as one of Poland's most dynamic and engaging cities. And last week, I set out to see how the modern rail service from Berlin to Wroclaw stacks up against its forbears. In 1917, passengers had a choice of ten direct trains each day on the route. Today there is just one, a convenient morning departure from Berlin. It is bound eventually for Kraków, and takes its name from the celebrated Kraków hill called the Wawel.
The EuroCity Wawel sounds rather grand, does it not? A premium express, you might think. And it is indeed one of the few remaining day trains in central Europe where a supplement is payable. So I stood on a Berlin railway platform, clutching my ticket and seat reservation, waiting for the EuroCity Wawel to make its grand entrance and expecting a stately suite of carriages.
Think again. On my journey last week, the train offered a choice of just two carriages: one first class and one second. No hint of a restaurant car. Though in a mischievous move the train staff had carefully left copies of a Polish restaurant car menu on tables and seats in the second class carriage. The menu promoted such delicacies as Wloski duet (Italian duo), salmon in lemon sauce and a fine choice of salads. It even invited passengers to enquire of the waiters for advice on the vegetarian dish of the day and other specials.
The current timetable allows a generous 6 hours 28 minutes for this crack international express to reach Wroclaw. In fact we arrived 12 minutes late, though for no apparent reason. The Wawel thus averaged precisely 50 kilometres per hour for the 334-km journey from Berlin.
The journey had a tempo of a sedate pilgrimage. The timetable showed only one scheduled stop in Poland prior to Wroclaw, and that was a one-minute pause at Zielona Góra. Not a glimpse of the town's famous vineyard. Yes, they do make wine in western Poland.
But we stopped much more than the timetable suggested. We had a leisurely sojourn at Rzepin, where we traded in our German locomotive for a Polish one. Three policemen boarded the train there. They settled down for a quiet sleep in the nicely warm first-class carriage, populated otherwise only by three railway staff (conspicuously not preparing salmon in lemon sauce) and three passengers. By contrast there were thirty of us in the unheated second-class carriage, by no means full, so plenty of space to spread out in our communal frigidity. Perhaps the Polish police know something of the dodgy characters who travel first class on this route. Or were they merely there in case the chilly hordes from second class attempted to storm the superior accommodation for a little warmth?
Who knows. There are many mysteries in the world of travel. Not least is the mystery of the train to Wroclaw which takes so much longer today than it did in 1917.
(editor, hidden europe magazine)