A FRIEND recently offered to drive me from Spišská Nová Ves to Bratislava. Thinking of the money I'd save on a train ticket, I gladly accepted.
But no more than five minutes into the ride, regret set in. As we flew down ice-covered highways, dodging Škodas and passing delivery trucks at obscene speeds, I ached for the calm of a train. In Žilina, I begged out of the car and finished my journey by rail.
I'm with President Schuster, who after surviving a car crash outside Nitra two weeks ago swore off driving in Slovakia during the winter. Car travel is just too dicey.
Trains in Slovakia may be a bit dirtier and a tad less classy than trains in western Europe, but they are the safest and most agreeable way to travel in this country. Anyone who has ever driven in Slovakia knows this to be true; anyone who has ever stood on a packed bus for over three hours from Bojnice to Bratislava would also agree.
To begin with, it's cheap. The most frequented line in the country, the Bratislava-Košice route, costs Sk450 ($9.75), a meagre sum by western standards. Moreover, with connections to nearly every city, town and village throughout the country, it is convenient.
For all you need to know about Slovak trains, check out www.zsr.sk, where you can find out when your desired train is leaving, from where, how much it will cost, whether you have to switch trains at any point, and how long the journey will take. On the home page, go to the box in the upper right-hand corner and type in the city you'll be leaving from (odkiaľ), your destination (kam), whether you want to go through a certain city on the way (cez), departure time (čas) and date (dátum). After pressing 'vyhľadať spojenie', a selection of choices will appear.
Once at the station, tickets can be purchased under the window reading KVC (Komplexné Vybavenie Cestujúcich). Simply state your destination. If applicable, the teller may ask you if you'd prefer a fast train (rýchlik) or slow train (osobný). Take the rýchlik. It costs a few more crowns, but the osobný stops at every station on the line and can take hours longer than the rýchlik.
Beware of crowded trains, especially on Friday and Sunday evenings when swarms of university students travel to or from school. On those lines, it can be nearly impossible to find a seat in the regular cars. To assure a seat, buy a miestenka (seat reservation). Or bypass the crowds altogether by sitting in first class, where plenty of personal space is a virtual guarantee. Tickets naturally cost more: when I travel between Spišská Nová Ves and Bratislava a normal ticket is Sk376 ($7.83), while going first class costs Sk564 ($11.75).
First class cars will have a large '1' painted on the side next to the entrance. To find out where first class is before boarding, check the diagram in the station depicting the car layout of each of the country's rýchlik trains. This also shows where smoking cars are to be found or avoided.
One problem with train travel in Slovakia is the confusing practice of conductors stopping just before the station, often out of view of the large white-on-blue sign announcing the name of the city or town. For this reason, be sure to note your expected time of arrival, especially when travelling to a city you've never been to before. Further complicating the matter, windows covered in grime or graffiti often obstruct views.
Most fast trains have a restaurant car, although eating there is not recommended. The soup is instant (i.e. watery and tasteless) and the fried cheese and potatoes are practically indigestible. A cup of tea, coffee or bottled beer is a better option.
Another warning: use train toilets at your own risk. Even in smoking cars thick with tobacco fumes, the smell of these holes cannot be avoided. If you simply have no choice, good luck and make sure you bring your own toilet paper.
Finally, in my experience Slovak trains are quite punctual, although people often complain otherwise. In case your train is late, a station attendant will make an unintelligible announcement over the crackling loud speakers announcing the delay. The key word is meškanie, meaning late.
Now that all the details are worked out, it's time to sit back and enjoy as some of the loveliest landscape in Europe flies by your window. Some highlights: the Čiernohorská železnička line, from Čierny Balog to Hronec near Brezno in central Slovakia, which runs through lush forests on an antiquated coal train.
The Bratislava-Košice line has its own share of amazing views, starting with the Beckov castle ruins (on the right when travelling from Bratislava) just before Trenčín. Some 15 minutes after Žilina, the regal ruins of Strečno castle hover high above the River Váh, another breathtaking scene. And of course, there are the High Tatras rearing up from the Liptov plain the train sails across. From Liptovský Mikuláš to Poprad, the stunning mountains are in full view for well over an hour.
Foreign Affairs is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners navigate the thrills and spills of life
The next Foreign Affairs will appear on stands February 11, Vol. 8, No. 5.