Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Mysteries of the Schlafwagen and Liegewagen, revealed!

When we planned our Easter trip, out of sheer curiosity we decided to book some of the fancier options in overnight train travel: the Schlafwagen (sleeping car) on our way to Budapest, and the Liegewagen (lying-down car?) on our way back from Wien (Vienna).

We picked up the train to Budapest shortly before midnight in Muenchen, after a three-hour journey from Heidelberg on a regular train. We found the car marked on our tickets, and found a man at the door taking them. For a regular train, you just hop on and get your ticket checked at your seat later. The train appeared to belong to the Hungarian rail system, and so did the employee taking our ticket. He was gruff and spoke pretty minimal German. He stared at our German ticket for a very long time before waving us on to the train. He kept the ticket with him! This was the first time we'd seen this, too. We were halfway in when we realized that without it, we didn't know what room we had, so we had to ask. After a very long pause and more staring at the ticket, he told us we had 12.

The Schlafwagen contains private sleeping compartments with their own sinks, like having your own very tiny hotel room. The toilet is shared down at the end of the car, though. (I wish I'd taken photos of that! It was very clean, but somehow sort of icky anyway.) Each room can have up to three beds, but for ours they had configured it with just two beds. In this photo, you can see the bottom bunk is out, the middle one is folded up against the wall, and the top bunk is barely visible above the window.

We'd brought snacks and beverages with us, and discovered they'd left some drinks for us, too. Behind the mirror above the sink were towels, soaps, some really old dried-up wet-naps, a box of orange juice, and a bottle of mineral water with a plastic cup. I guess they gave us the water because, as the sticker below the cabinet shows, the water from the sink isn't potable.

The privacy of the Schlafwagen is pretty nice. We put on our jammies and I put my hair up in its hideous bedtime 'do. Damon took the top bunk. To do this we had to hang the ladder in front of the door, which made me feel a little trapped in. The train bumped along at what felt like very high speed toward Austria. I find that I can only feel the bumpiness more when lying down. Also, being on the train is exciting, with a constant curiosity about where we are now and what's outside. And I'd be waking up in a new country! Of course, in the dark, there isn't much to see. It didn't kill off the excitement, though. I wrote four lines in my notepad before getting in bed. The last one was, "I don't know how we're gonna SLEEP..."

Damon slept pretty well. I woke up pretty much constantly, though I did sleep here and there. I crawled over to the window at Salzburg and Wien to see where we were. The train seemed to stop for ages at these places. I think they were adding and removing cars - I know that at least part of our train went to Zagreb instead of Budapest.

Around 8am, we were both awake and moving around. I got dressed and stumbled down the hall to the bathroom. Most or maybe even all of the other doors were still closed. The train attendant seemed strangely thrilled to see me. I guess it gave him something to do. I had barely returned to the room when he arrived to clear away all our linens and pull a transformation trick on our car, turning it into two seats and a little table! Then he brought us the breakfast pictured here. Not so appetizing, but more than I thought we were going to get (which was nothing). He returned our ticket to us and said we would have to show it upon alighting in Budapest, then he busied himself with the other passengers, who had all simultaneously woken up around 8:30.

All in all, the Schlafwagen was pretty alright.

On our way home, we tried the Liegewagen from Wien to Karlsruhe, which is not far south of Heidelberg. We picked it up at the Wien Westbahnhof around 8:30pm.

The Liegewagen is basically a regular train compartment that can hold up to 6, only it has bench-like beds in it instead of seats. Our compartment was completely booked, with three beds on each side and about a foot between them in the middle - just wide enough for the ladder. The beds were so close together one couldn't even sit up in them. Four of us boarded in Wien, and it was very awkward at first. It was too early to sleep, but there wasn't anything else to do. We laid uncomfortably on the beds, reading. I think one of the guys in the compartment was a train aficionado, judging by his reading selection (train magazine) and history of having taken this particular train many times.

A woman came by to take our tickets and passports, which she held overnight. At first, she wouldn't accept our ticket because she couldn't find a mystical reference number on it. It appeared we were in a car belonging to the Deutsche Bahn, but maybe it belonged to the Austrian rail system. Clearly she couldn't have been a DB employee if she didn't know how to find the reference number on a DB ticket. She argued with us for awhile about it and finally figured it out. Then she brought by sheets, blankets, and minuscule pillows. We had to put them on ourselves, which was a challenge to do on the top bunk while sitting on it.

Yeah, I got the top bunk. They were numbered so I had no choice. I never thought I was claustrophobic, until all the lights were out and everyone was trying to sleep, and I felt like I was lying in a coffin. It was dark as anything and I would have had to climb a long ladder to get down, most likely waking everyone up. The ceiling was just inches from my face, the room was locked and the lock was hard to turn. The air was hot and smelly - Mief to the max. There was no rail or anything so I thought I might roll out of bed (to Damon's amusement I have actually done this before). The bed was too short for me, and I'm only 5 foot 5. I am quite certain that I slept no better than I would have on a red eye in coach, and definitely would have slept better in a train seat. Damon, however, slept just fine in the middle bed. Perhaps that spot is the best. (The train aficionado specifically booked the middle one on the other side.)

At around 4:30am we were to arrive in Karlsruhe. Four of us had to get up, get all our stuff together, and get out of the car while causing minimal disruption to the other two occupants, who were continuing on to points west. Actually, there's no way they could have slept through it, because the ditz who collected our tickets and passports the previous night came to wake everybody up. By that point I had bailed and was standing outside our compartment in the teeny tiny hallway. She asked me my compartment and spot and I answered her, and she tried to find my passport to return it to me. I got a kick out of it as she went through all the German passports first trying to find mine. I could have told her I was from the US, but if she couldn't tell from my pathetic German, she could just deal with it. Then she opened the door to our compartment and shouted, "KARLSRUHE!" Yeah, the others definitely didn't sleep through that.

The train was delayed getting in to Karlsruhe so we spent a bit of time standing around the doors waiting. I've never been so eager to get off a train. I could smell cigarette smoke hanging in the air, despite a no smoking sign. The employee office was right there so I imagine that was the source. Classy, train employees.

At this point I noticed that our train was called the Orient Express. I thought it was pretty funny ("Yeah right, the Orient Express! How exotic!") and took a photo. Later I checked out Wikipedia, though, and discovered that the train we were on really is the modern, much shorter, incarnation of the Orient Express. It goes from Wien to Amsterdam, though at Karlsruhe it meets up with a train from Strasbourg as well, and via Strasbourg is still pretty connected to Paris. Apparently it is still possible to ride the entire route of the old Orient Express by taking four different trains. It takes 60 hours. Not in a Liegewagen, say I.


  1. Sounds nasty, if you ask me. You have just convinced me to never take an overnight train unless its the absolute only choice!

  2. November 2005 we took an overnight train from Nuremberg to Berlin and it was pretty sweet. We had Liegewagen (not Schlafwagen) tickets, but they were arranged perpendicular to the standard — on these cars, the length of the bed is parallel to the length of car. I found out later that DB only has that configuration on routes to Berlin from Nuremberg or Hamburg...at least, back in 2005.

    I didn't sleep much at all on that but it was still worth it to do it and know that I could again if necessary.

  3. Very interesting. I've never used a Schlafwagen before, but have been in a Liegewagen a couple times. It seems the older you get the more annoying it gets to share the compartment with people you don't know. Once I was with a school class, so it didn't matter being so crowded together. The other time we were only 4, so we had the middle beds up to have more space. The really weird thing was that coming back to Austria from Poland, the customs officer didn't realize that there is another person on one of the top-bunks, so he didn't get his passport stamped. I wonder if they gave him a hard time when he wanted to leave Austria again..

  4. Adam: Hehehe, well most people do not consider it anyway so I hope I haven't done too much damage. :)

    Cliff: So in the Liegewagen you were in, were there only 3 beds per compartment?

    Bek: We originally all got in the wrong compartment and it had only four beds, like the situation you mention. It was much better and everyone could sit up. Having six was just too many, and there was no alternative to laying there if you couldn't sleep!

  5. C N H: Well, there weren't really compartments. Our group of four travelers had two stacks of beds along the left and ride sides of the train car with an aisle running between them. We had some kind of light-blocking curtains (they may have been zippered à la pop-up camper) to isolate us from each other or the conductors moving through the car overnight.

    This was the way the whole train car was set up (and probably the rest of the cars as well, but I don't know for sure).


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