Rail route of the month: from Bohemia towards the Baltic coast

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The station at Hrádek nad Nisou has seen better days. There’s a hint of former Habsburg style, but the ticket office is closed and the buffet is barred and shuttered. Breakfast must wait. Happily, I already have a ticket. A bargain ticket indeed, a rover valid for an entire month that allows second-class travel throughout Germany, and even to and from selected places in each of the nine countries bordering Germany. Including Hrádek nad Nisou. And the price? Just €9 for an entire month’s travel. It’s a time-limited summer offer, subsidised by the German government, which remains valid throughout July and August.

On the platform at that remote Czech station, I ponder the possibilities. Switzerland in a day? Luxembourg or Denmark perhaps? I opt for something tamer: a journey by train through a region known historically as Lusatia, following the Oder-Neisse line from Bohemia towards the Baltic. The Oder-Neisse line is not a railway, but rather an artefact of 20th-century politics. This line on the map, hammered out at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, defined Germany’s new postwar eastern border. It split communities straddling the new frontier and played havoc with the railways.

With the melting of borders and the free movement afforded by Schengen, the railways along the Oder-Neisse line have over the years been reconnected, a process that continues today. A new passenger train running east from the German town of Guben over the Neisse River into Poland started just last month.

Görlitz
The ‘handsome town centre’ of Görlitz, by the Neisse River. Photograph: zwawol/Getty Images/iStockphoto

I hop on a train in Hrádek, now intent on a breakfast stop in Zittau, just 10 minutes away. It is a fine ride on a near-empty train. Along the way, we have glorious views of the Neisse Valley water meadows with, away to the south, thundery showers and shafts of sunshine dancing over the Zittau mountains.

Frictionless frontiers

Few rail journeys in Europe offer such sublime opportunities for easy border-hopping as the Neisse Valley railway. I stop for scrambled eggs and coffee in Zittau, having already slipped from the Czech Republic into Germany, crossing a slither of Polish territory along the way. Britons may have ceded many rights with Brexit, but happily the freedom to roam without let or hindrance over frontiers within Schengen hasn’t been curbed.

It is a moment to ponder Germany’s summer gift to travellers. The bargain price catches the headlines. It’s not just trains, as the ticket is also valid on buses, trams, the metro and many ferries. As premium fast trains are excluded, this is a fine chance to try slower but scenic routes. It is certainly a boost to leisure travel, and the widespread overcrowding predicted by some pundits has not come to pass. But there have been pinch points, particularly on sunny weekends when crowds have flocked to the mountains and the coast. Suddenly, Germany’s benign attitude towards taking bikes on trains has morphed into a liability, with crowds of cyclists struggling to load their bikes into the limited space available.

The market place in Zittau
The market place in Zittau in Upper Lusatia. Photograph: Peter Probst/Alamy

What has been promoted as essentially a national ticket also offers a wealth of cross-border opportunities. With a €9 ticket to hand you can travel without additional charge to selected railway stations in each of the nine countries sharing a common border with Germany. So those with an appetite for slow travel can travel from Belgium to Austria, or from Poland’s Baltic coast to Lorraine in France.

A glass of Sekt, madam?

Encouraged by breakfast and a brisk walk around beautiful Zittau, I return to the town’s grand station to ponder the departure boards. It’s a geographical curiosity that trains from Zittau to anywhere else in Germany always have to cross Polish or Czech territory along the way. I stick to the Neisse Valley railway, which tracks north along a deeply incised valley, sliding through quiet forests with splendid views of the river. The railway crisscrosses the German-Polish border thrice between Zittau and Krzewina Zgorzelecka, where the station enjoys a serene setting by the Neisse. I stop for a couple of hours for a border-hopping walk, using a footbridge over the river to explore the German village of Ostritz on the west bank of the river. A man on the Polish side of the bridge sells cheap cigarettes. Despite his evident disappointment at not clinching a sale, he tells me to look out for beavers in the river below.

The Zittau mountains
The Zittau mountains, near the Polish-German border. Photograph: Torsten Mitschke/Getty Images

Then it’s back on the train at midday. It’s a smart green-and-yellow railcar, just a single carriage, where the train manager checks my ticket and asks if she might bring me a cold beer, sparkling wine or sandwiches – all priced at just €2. Truly civilised! In this rural region, accommodation and food are often very good value.

Economic change

Soon the train is back in Germany again and running north through territory where Sorbian is still a living language. Bilingual station signs are a reminder that eastern Germany has an autochthonous Slavic minority with its own distinctive culture. I pause for an hour in Görlitz and stroll through the handsome town centre before crossing the Neisse on a footbridge to explore the Polish side of the divided town.

From Görlitz it’s back on another one-carriage train and north to the next stop at Forst, where 100 years ago about 15,000 people were employed in the textile industry. It is not for nothing that Forst was called the German Manchester. By 1989 the number of workers had shrunk to 1,900. Within a year of German unification, all the mills in this erstwhile part of the German Democratic Republic had closed. Forst slipped into sleepy oblivion and this town on the Neisse is today a forlorn spot.

The train approaches Neuzelle
The train approaches its destination, Neuzelle. Photograph: Hidden Europe

The stretch of the Neisse railway from Forst down to Guben closed in 1995, so I loop back west via Cottbus (Chóśebuz in Sorbian) and then regain the Neisse near Guben, where the red-brick station building tells of a Prussian design. North of Guben the Neisse makes lazy loops over a wide floodplain. We pass storks’ nests and patient herons. Then at Neuzelle, we reach the point where the Neisse finally joins the Oder, the latter river now marking the German-Polish border down towards the Baltic coast.

A journey that started in humble surroundings at Hrádek nad Nisou ends in summer-evening grandeur in Neuzelle, where a striking baroque abbey stands proud on a bluff above the water meadows. It is an idyllic scene. I watch the evening train to Frankfurt-an-der-Oder rattle by and settle down in a restaurant by the walls of this old Cistercian monastery for a supper of local trout – just one of the simple pleasures of travel through this unsung part of Europe, which deserves to be so much better known.

Travel notes
The monthly pass offer runs until the end of August. A pass for either July or August is €9. Buy both for €18. The ticket permits unlimited travel on regional and local transport for one calendar month. Purchase online on the DB website. You can also follow the exact route taken by Nicky with ordinary tickets. The fare from Hrádek to Neuzelle via Zittau and Forst is €44.80.

Nicky Gardner is a Berlin-based writer. The 17th edition of her book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide is available from the Guardian Bookshop. She is co-editor of Hidden Europe magazine