via the Alps to the Adriatic – Vienna to Trieste

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Vienna is the most connected capital in Europe, at least in terms of rail connections. Weekly direct services to Minsk and Monaco have slipped from departure boards during the pandemic, but new services over the past few years have included direct trains to Paris, Amsterdam, Genoa, Split and Trieste.

Trieste, the main Adriatic port of the Habsburg empire, had good rail services to Vienna, but after the first world war, politics and geography conspired against it, leaving the city on a piece of land only weakly connected to the rest of Italy. For decades, Trieste was what the late Jan Morris described as “an allegory of uncertainty” and a railroad recession.

The end of the cold war and Slovenia’s later accession to the EU and the Schengen area brought a new life and opportunity to Trieste. Rail link to Ljubljana restored. Then a direct train from Vienna was added in June 2021. The daily Eurocity train from the Austrian capital takes just over nine hours.

Vienna skyline with river

The train leaves Vienna just after sunrise. Photo: Sergey Alimov/Getty Images

It’s a tremendous journey and well-suited for the dark days of January when slow travelers have to choose their route carefully. The sunrise in Vienna is around 7.40 am in mid-January, perfect for setting off at 7.58 am during the day. The route includes the famous Semmering railway, some stunning Styrian landscapes and Slovenian karst. If the train arrives in Trieste on time, as is usually the case, its arrival will coincide with twilight over the Adriatic. As the sun sets over Golfo di Trieste, the train makes a loop to Trieste Centrale station, passing Prosecco and the city’s north coast suburbs.

But it’s not just the final descent from the dry limestone karst into the sea that makes this trip so memorable. The attraction lies in the complexity of the landscapes and the political and social context of the journey. A must-have book for this trip is Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris.


Our Eurocity train to Trieste is named Emona, after the early Roman settlement in what is now Ljubljana. In 2023, this train usually has six carriages, three Slovenian and three Austrian, and only Austrians go to Trieste.

Emona ticks all the boxes for the ultimate rail journey. The stunning mountain scenery with a good mix of distant panoramas and close-ups can be viewed much better than on a very comfortable train gliding gracefully through the hills rather than speeding to its destination.

Slovenian ham platter

The food car offers Slovenian plates. prut (prosciutto). Photo: Alamy

The Slovenian offer includes a nice retro restaurant cart with basic breakfast items including scrambled eggs. prshut (cured ham) and endless coffee before its scheduled removal from the train in Ljubljana with two other Slovenian wagons.

on semmering

Semmering railway in summer.

Semmering railway in summer. Photo: Image Professionals/Alamy

The first part of the journey to Trieste follows the Semmering railway, which connects Vienna with Graz, Austria’s second city. Modern trains underestimate the steep slopes, but by the 1840s they posed a formidable engineering challenge.

Fueled by Habsburg imperial passion, the Semmering railway opened in 1854. In 1998 it entered the UNESCO list as “one of the greatest achievements of civil engineering in the pioneering phase of railway construction”.

In the villages around the line are magnificent turn-of-the-century villas built for wealthy Viennese who are now content to find the Alps within striking distance of the capital. Perhaps not surprisingly, these communities feature prominently in Europe’s literary and cultural imagination. fin-de-siècle Vienna. The intelligentsia used the Semmering district as a rural annex of the capital’s coffeehouses and saloons. Semmering was not an escape from Vienna; It was Vienna in the mountains. And Trieste was Vienna by the sea.

Descending the hills, following the Murz and Mur valleys, we go to Graz; here the restaurant cart becomes the haven for Styrian beer drinkers who are immensely proud of Graz’s progressive politics. The city’s communist mayor, Elke Kahr, has been presiding over civic affairs since late 2021.

Slovenian crossing

The village of Stanjel on the Slovenian Karst plateau.

The village of Stanjel on the Slovenian Karst plateau. Photo: Mauro Carli/Alamy

By noon, we are well into Slovenia, and after a stop in Ljubljana, our now discontinued train passes through a beautiful seasonally flooded marshland that looks great even on a dull day. The railroad gradually rises, replacing the valley landscapes with more challenging and limestone hills. On steamy days, lack of water to fill locomotives was a problem.

We stop at Gornje Ležeče, the center of an ambitious network of aqueducts that once supplied water to this barren land. The steam engines of the Austrian Southern Railway would stop here to haul it from a still standing reservoir in a roadside building. Today it is half covered with ivy and is a beautiful reminder of a Habsburg engineering feat.

At 16:00 we cross the Italian border and reach the first station in Italy. Villa Opicina is a shadow of its former self, but still carries some of the cold war mystery. Villa Opicina often plays a minor role in spy novels – sometimes under its old name, Poggioreale Campagna. Its name was changed to Villa Opicina in the 1960s. Ian Fleming wrote of James Bond’s arrival from Yugoslavia in From Russia with Love.

Sunset in the Bay of Trieste.

Sunset in the Bay of Trieste. Photo: Carol Barrington/Alamy

It is downhill from Villa Opicina to Trieste, the waters around it still haunted by the spirit of God as our train slowly turns towards the shore for its final departure to Trieste’s elegant Centrale station, passing Miramare Castle along the way. the late, great Jan Morris.

travel notes

The Eurocity EC151 train departs daily from Vienna at 07:58, stops in Ljubljana at 14:00 and arrives in Trieste at 17:16. At the stop in Ljubljana, the train number mysteriously changes to EC134. Singles to Trieste are available online at ÖBB Austrian Railways or Rail Europe, starting at €29.90. Interrail ticket holders have to pay a small surcharge of € 2.60 in second class and € 4.60 in first class.

The 17th edition of Nicky Gardner’s Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide is available from the Guardian Bookshop. He is associate editor of Hidden Europe magazine.

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