It was our good friend Nicky who gave us the idea. ‘If you’re already taking the night train to Vienna,’ she said, ‘then might I suggest you book tickets to Graz? The price will be the same and you’ll get to spend the morning following the Semmering Railway through the mountains. You can always have lunch in Graz and then catch a train back to Vienna in the afternoon…’
It sounded like a plan. The night train from Berlin was due in to Vienna at 7am. By staying on board to Graz, we had the possibility of a lazy morning eating breakfast in our compartment rather than a bleary eyed stumble onto the platform. In one journey, we’d get to combine our love of the night train (which we have written about here before) with a trip along one of the most famous stretches of railway in the Alps. Indeed, the Semmering Railway was the first to be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, “one of the great feats of civil engineering during the pioneering phase of railway building.”
That we knew of the Semmering Railway at all was also thanks to Nicky. Alongside Susanne Kries, Nicky Gardner is the editor of both hidden europe magazine and Europe by Rail, the definitive guidebook for independent travellers. One of the routes in Europe by Rail takes in the Semmering Railway, and its history as a UNESCO World Heritage Site was told by one of hidden europe’s regular email newsletters. So it had been on the list for a while, and as we set out from Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof on a sticky Saturday evening, it was hard to know which part of the journey we were looking forward to more.
We travelled through the night via Poland and the Czech Republic, crossing the Oder in the gloaming before heading south through the darkness. Somehow we missed the stop in Vienna, sleeping through the kerfuffle outside our compartment door as most of the travellers on our carriage departed into the hustle and bustle of the Austrian capital. By the time we emerged from our slumber, somewhere around Wiener Neustadt, there were only a few of us left.
At this point, the landscape outside our window was distinctly flat, but soon the first lumps and bumps began to appear, as wooded hills rose either side of the train tracks. The Semmering Railway begins at Gloggnitz and crosses the pass to Mürzzuschlag. In Gloggnitz we could see the workers busying themselves at the opening to the new tunnel that will eventually displace this route for most freight and long-distance passenger traffic, but for now the tunnel remained just a hole in the hillside as we passed by and began the long, sweeping assent up towards the village of Semmering.
If you look down the train through the windows, especially on the stretch between Gloggnitz and Semmering, you can catch a glimpse of the engineering marvel that is the Semmering Railway. The train curves around atop beautiful brick viaducts before plunging into dark tunnels. All the while you are being lifted up and over the mountains – an altitude difference of 460 metres over the 41 kilometres between Gloggnitz and Mürzzuschlag.
Altogether we passed through 14 tunnels and across 16 viaducts, more than a hundred small bridges. We saw rocky outcrops and precariously perched buildings, farmhouses with balconies in bloom and the grand old hotels that attracted the great and good of Viennese society once the railway was opened in 1854. At Semmering the train stopped for a moment, alongside an old carriage of the Südbahn which once connected Vienna to Trieste and the Adriatic coast, back when it was still part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
As we ate our bread rolls and sipped our coffee, we were reminded of what an achievement such projects were and that, however modern the Austrian Railways Nightjet carriages will become, for as long as they cross the Semmering they will still hold within them some of the romance of all that railway history.
From Semmering it wasn’t long before we reached Mürzzuschlag. We continued south, following the Mürz until it met the Mur, the railway following the route the rivers had long carved out of the landscape until we reached Graz. It had been a memorable morning, and as we climbed down onto the platform, there remained some excitement in the knowledge that, in a few days’ time, we’d get to do it all over again in the other direction.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton