Jhe resort of Hrádek nad Nisou has seen better days. There is a hint of old Habsburg style, but the ticket office is closed and the buffet is crossed out and closed. Breakfast has to wait. Fortunately, I already have a ticket. A cheap ticket indeed, a rover valid for a whole month that allows second-class travel throughout Germany, and even to and from selected locations in each of Germany’s nine bordering countries. Including Hradek nad Nisou. And the price ? Only €9 for a whole month of travel. This is a time-limited summer offer, subsidized by the German government, which remains valid throughout July and August.
On the platform of this remote Czech train station, I ponder the possibilities. Switzerland in a day? Luxembourg or Denmark perhaps? I opt for something more docile: a train journey through a region historically known as Lusatia, following the Oder-Neisse line from Bohemia to the Baltic. The Oder-Neisse line is not a railway, but rather an artifact of 20th century politics. This line on the map, hammered out at the Potsdam conference in 1945, defined the new eastern border of post-war Germany. It divided the communities straddling the new border and wreaked havoc on the railroads.
With the merging of borders and the free movement offered by Schengen, the railways along the Oder-Neisse line were reconnected over the years, a process that continues today. A new passenger train running east from the German town of Guben on the Neisse River to Poland started last month.
I hop on a train in Hrádek, now determined to have a breakfast stop in Zittau, just 10 minutes away. It’s a nice ride on an almost empty train. Along the way we have a wonderful view of the water meadows of the Neisse Valley with, to the south, stormy showers and rays of sunshine dancing over the Zittau mountains.
Few rail journeys in Europe offer such sublime opportunities for crossing borders with ease as the Neisse Valley Railway. I stop for scrambled eggs and coffee in Zittau, having already glided from the Czech Republic to Germany, passing through some Polish territory along the way. The British may have given up many rights with Brexit, but fortunately the freedom to move unimpeded and unhindered across Schengen borders has not been curtailed.
It’s time to reflect on Germany’s summer gift to travellers. The bargain price is making 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 great opportunity to try slower but scenic routes. It’s certainly a boost for leisure travel, and the widespread overcrowding predicted by some experts hasn’t happened. But there were pinch points, particularly on sunny weekends when crowds flocked to the mountains and the coast. Suddenly, Germany’s benevolent attitude towards carrying bikes on trains has turned into a liability, with crowds of cyclists struggling to load their bikes into the limited space available.
What has been promoted primarily as a domestic ticket also offers a wealth of cross-border opportunities. With a €9 ticket in hand, you can travel at no additional cost to selected stations in each of the nine countries that share a common border with Germany. So those with an appetite for slow travel can travel from Belgium to Austria, or from the Baltic coast of Poland to Lorraine in France.
A glass of Sekt, ma’am?
Encouraged by breakfast and a brisk walk around beautiful Zittau, I head back to the big city train station to ponder the departure signs. It is a geographical curiosity that trains from Zittau to anywhere else in Germany must always pass through Polish or Czech territory en route. I stick to the Neisse Valley Railway, which travels north along a deeply incised valley, gliding through quiet forests with splendid views of the river. The railway criss-crosses the German-Polish border three times between Zittau and Krzewina Zgorzelecka, where the station enjoys a serene setting on the banks of the Neisse. I stop for a few hours for a border 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 obvious disappointment at not having made a sale, he tells me to watch out for beavers in the river below.
Then it’s back on the train at noon. It’s a smart green and yellow single car where the train manager checks my ticket and asks if she can bring me a cold beer, sparkling wine or sandwiches – all for the price of just €2 . Really civilized! In this rural area, accommodation and food are often very good value for money.
Soon the train is back in Germany and heading 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 culture. I take an hour break in Görlitz and stroll through the beautiful city center before crossing the Neisse on a footbridge to explore the Polish side of the divided city.
From Görlitz it’s back on another one-car train and north to the next stop in Forst, where 100 years ago around 15,000 people were employed in the textile industry. It is not for nothing that Forst has been nicknamed the German Manchester. By 1989, the number of workers had fallen to 1,900. Within a year of German unification, all factories in this former part of the German Democratic Republic had closed. Forst has slipped into sleepy oblivion and this town on the Neisse is today an abandoned place.
The section of the Neisse railway from Forst to Guben closed in 1995, so I return west via Cottbus (Chóśebuz in Sorbian), then find the Neisse near Guben, where the red brick station building evokes a Prussian design. North of Guben, the Neisse makes lazy loops over a wide floodplain. We pass nests of storks and patient herons. Then in Neuzelle, we reach the point where the Neisse finally joins the Oder, the latter river now marking the German-Polish border towards the Baltic coast.
A journey that began in humble surroundings in Hrádek nad Nisou ends in the grandeur of summer evenings in Neuzelle, where a striking Baroque abbey stands proudly on a cliff above water meadows. It is an idyllic scene. I watch the evening train go by to Frankfurt an der Oder and settle into a restaurant near the walls of this former Cistercian monastery for a supper of local trout – just one of the simple pleasures of traveling through this little-known part of Europe, which deserves to be so much better known.
The monthly subscription offer is valid until the end of August. A pass for July or August costs €9. Buy both for €18. The ticket allows unlimited travel on regional and local transport for one calendar month. Purchase online on the DB site. You can also follow the exact route Nicky took with regular 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 his book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide is available from the Guardian Bookstore. She is co-editor-in-chief of Hidden Europe magazine