This (photo)essay first appeared at Where Is Your Toothbrush?
Most travelers love traveling by train, particularly around Europe. The railway’s ubiquity and popularity in Central Europe stems from its history: from 1840’s on, the Austro-Hungarian rulers built one of the world’s densest railway networks to accelerate economic and cultural integration across the Empire. There are plenty of other reasons to love train travel, and I have mine: my father worked for the railway, so not only did I grow up traveling by train, it’s in my DNA.
Train stations, where the magic of the railway begins and ends, get much less ink. Let me fix this with a confession: I love trainstationspotting, especially around Central Europe.
Trainstationspotting: The rituals
The railway station in my home town Košice was my gateway to the world, a portal with its own rules and rituals.
I would pass the smokers outside and thread through onrushing arrivals within (people exiting always seemed to outnumber those entering). I would linger beneath the departures notice board to hear the split flaps rotate when information changed. I’d wait for the station’s jingle, the first 12 notes of the song “On the Košice Tower” to mark the beginning of an announcement. Each train station in Slovakia used to have its own jingle: in my country I traveled between folk songs.
Ticket in hand, I’d browse the deli and newsstand displays for supplies (a paper or a magazine, a bottle of water, and a snack). If I had extra time I’d rotate the cylinders inside the schedule box, wondering where else I could go.
Then I’d enter a tunnel-like underpass, walk to my platform, and ascend toward the light to find my train.
Soon the train would siphon me away like a syringe drawing blood, the station an exit wound on my memory.
Trainstationspotting: The classification
Most people only hang around railway stations when waiting to depart or for someone to arrive, or when seeing someone off. But railway stations say a lot about their city.
Each of the major Budapest train stations (Keleti, Nyugati, and Déli, named after the cardinal direction they serve) is a terminus. You disembark and cross the train station toward the city lights. The train you arrived on remains in the station, empty and motionless. It has nowhere else to go, for a while anyway, and neither do you. Budapest is, indeed, a destination. Arriving into a terminus city feels more definitive, more final, as does departing from it.
Perhaps it is this finality that lends the buildings of Keleti, Nyugati, and many other terminus railway stations the license to beauty.
By contrast, most major Slovak railway stations are pass-through: trains stop there on their way between termini. On the EuroCity train route between Prague and Budapest, Bratislava Main Train Station is a pass-through station. Tracks branch out into platforms like a delta, passengers spill into the city, and the train rambles on. The train is gone but you are here.
To this day, most travelers pass through Slovakia on their way to Budapest or Prague or Berlin. Cities with en-route stations feel more temporary, transitional, sojourns between termini, like life itself.
In such cities, the train station as a gateway to the city is more like a side door.
The pass-through train station works also a metaphor for Central Europe itself: this is the region between Germany and Russia which Great Powers have traversed throughout history the same way travelers pass through railway stations.
A privileged few of Slovakia’s train stations are junctions. A major stop on the track from Košice to Bratislava, Poprad is also the terminus of the slow train line to Plaveč, and, upstairs, of the Tatra Electric Railway.
In Štrba, too, the terminus of the cog railway to Štrbské Pleso, in the High Tatra Mountains, is up the stairs from the station serving trains between Poprad and Liptovský Mikuláš.
But whereas the Poprad station is a soulless 1980’s monstrosity, inside the Štrba station vintage train and winter sports paraphernalia transport you back in time.
Compounding the station’s retro feel outside is the relief of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic’s coat of arms. The sight of it adds another terminus to this railway junction: the nostalgia line to my childhood in that long-ago country.
Thanks to train stations, I return whence I came; thanks to train stations, I depart whence I shall some day return.