Travel Secrets #353
You are on a train, somewhere in Europe. Late night, armed guards barge in and throw you out. What would you do? Guhan Ramanan recalls his nightmare:
When on work in Budapest in 2007, the wife and I decided to take an overnight train to Venice, to start a much planned vacation in Italy. Apart from the economics, the train ride sounded exciting, since we wanted to experience an over-nighter as we criss crossed Europe – countries instead of the states we had experienced in Indian railways. We were mildly curious as to how the immigration would work as we crossed countries-but never worried as we had a Schengen visa.
Climbing aboard a very comfortable coach, we chatted up a couple of Canadian backpackers about the vagaries of life and travel when the train stopped as it reached the border of Hungary, around 10 PM. Armed guards entered the train and checked all our passports. One of them turned around menacingly and said we need to get out of the train. Now. As we looked puzzled, he ordered us off the train and sent it on its way.
As we tumbled out bag and baggage, gawking perplexed at the empty station, more armed guards with flashlights stared at us like we were criminals. With a flashlight firmly shining in my face, one of them explained that the train would be passing through Croatia for about 10 kilometers, and Croatia does not recognize Schengen visa. With an Indian passport, we needed to have a Croatian Transit visa, which we would have to get in Budapest. So, we could not take the train any further. And the next train back to Budapest was next morning! He helpfully added we could not sleep on the bench in the station.
Standing in a desolate train station practically in the middle of nowhere, with armed hostile guards for company, we were joined by a young Filipino girl, who had the same problem. More conversation in broken English later, the guards pointed us to a person who was leaving the train station, after dropping a friend. Said we could ask him for a ride to Nagykanizsa – the nearest town with a hotel about 40Km away.
As visions of an elaborate scam loomed large, we had little choice in the matter and went to speak to the gentleman, muttering all the prayers we knew! Luckily, he spoke excellent English and seemed happy to drop us in Nagykanizsa and said we could take a taxi the next morning to Ljubljana in Slovakia (about 250 KM) and catch the same train from there to Venice (except a day later). He drove us all the way to the only hotel (3 star no less) in town – would not take any money and said “Enjoy Hungary!” An oily-faced owner reluctantly admitted us in at 200 EUR/night. We probably the only occupants that night – and slept fitfully, as we wondered what to do next.
Oily Face offered to get us a 750 Euro taxi ride to Venice and said it was really cheap. With dawn and breakfast, came a little courage – we poked around to see if other options existed. All trains and buses from here went through Croatia and with no desire to get kicked out again, we decided to take a taxi from the stand (400 EUR) in the afternoon, to Ljubljana. Our rising geography knowledge was matched by rapidly disappearing Euros.
As we reached the Hungarian border in Pince, to cross into Slovakia on E653, our driver and passports disappeared for several hours for immigration clearance. We listened to all Hungarian music channels on the radio, ate sandwiches and just sat in the car – since we were asked not to leave the car, except in emergency. Conversation was now replaced by pure worry – would we make the connecting train at Ljubljana? We shuddered to think of alternatives.
Many hours later, a beaming immigration official handed us our passports back and asked us to have a good holiday in Venice and said “no worry- you catch train.” With those magical words, our cabbie drove like the wind and took us into the train station. In a classic DDLJ moment, we got into the train with seconds to spare – and looked back as the cabbie happily waved us on.
The rest of the trip across Italy was fun, but the unexpected trip to Nagykanizsa remains firmly etched in memory.
Footnote: Croatia accepts Schengen as of Jan 2013 – but if you want to see Nagykanizsa, try the train! 🙂
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