Winter Express, Ostrava Station
The first time we crossed into Eastern Europe, it was on a train from Vienna to Prague. We had just completed a road trip across Switzerland, spent a few days soaking up the magnificent Austrian capital, and now it was time to check out a city known for its dreamy spires and pastel-coloured beauty.
Eight years later we are back in the Czech Republic, riding the rails between Český Těšín and the second city of Brno. It’s a three-hour journey with one transfer at Ostrava, an industrial centre that was once known as the “steel heart of the republic”.
We disembark from the first train, its painted exterior worn with age, and pull up the handles on our suitcases. Along the edge of the platform a trail of shoe prints lie etched into the snow. It’s a haphazard record of journeys past, and a reminder that the most fleeting moments can leave us all with the deepest impressions.
Some of my fondest travel memories took place on board a train. In Japan it was discovering that seats could be rotated a full 360 degrees inside a Shinkansen plying the mainline between Kagoshima and Fukuoka. And while travelling in England I learned the art of alighting from a First Great Western inter-city express. It involved rolling down the window, stretching out an arm and swinging it downwards – unlocking the handle from the outside.
Enroute to Brno, our second train seems unassuming at first glance. The ageing interior is sparse and utilitarian, but its sliding doors and cozy booths suggest something far more exciting. We squeeze our suitcases through the corridor and plunk down on the patterned blue seats, an entire compartment all to ourselves.
Once we leave Ostrava the scenery becomes a gentle blur of villages, rolling fields and rusting industrial sheds, all covered by a blanket of snow. And then it hits me. It is this combination – Communist-era train and winter landscape – that gives the experience more than a hint of Cold War mystique. Bond or no Bond, it could easily be straight out of GoldenEye.
Eventually we reach the Moravian lowlands, where darkness has fallen and the snow has all but disappeared. The train makes a wide turn minutes before pulling into Brno, giving us a glimpse of the city lights clustered around the outlines of two hills. One is crowned by a floodlit castle; the other, the twin spires of Brno’s neo-Gothic cathedral. As first impressions go, it is as memorable as the ride itself.