On a Friday evening in late June, a fourcarriage train pulled out of Budapest Keleti station bound for Pula in Croatia. Hungarian compasses are evidently different from those in the rest of Europe. The Hungarian word keleti simply means ‘east’. Yet this grand railway terminus, presided over by statues of engineers George Stephenson and James Watt, is actually the place to board the night trains bound for such conspicuously western destinations as Zürich and Munich. And, as of last month, also the new service to Pula.
A new train debuts in the timetables and well might one think that this is hardly a matter deserving of special comment. Yet this new service evokes a little European history, and the route it takes says much about modern Europe.
Pula has recast itself a dozen times through history. In the 1960s and 1970s, it became one of the most popular holiday spots on the Yugoslav coast. It had a particular appeal for folk from Belgrade, a city far from the sea and one noted for its summer heat. Holidays in Pula were a chance to swap dusty streets for Adriatic breezes. And the train that ran nightly in the summer months from Belgrade to Pula was called the Istra. It was an elevenhour journey.
Pula no longer pulls quite the same crowds from Belgrade. No longer are there any direct trains from Serbia to any of the Croatian coastal resorts. And thus the wheel of history turns fullcircle. Hungarians step in and fill the gap and, in so doing, the new twice-weekly link from the Hungarian capital to the coast of Istria recalls the travel patterns of a hundred years ago when Pula featured regularly on the departure boards in Budapest. In the heyday of the Habsburg Empire, Pula was a favourite destination for the K&K monarchy — and all their hangers-on.