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Europe by train: the alternative Orient Express

Travelling by train on the traditional route from Paris to Turkey isn't just about sterling silver and tuxedos. It doesn't need to be murder, either

The Louvre, Paris (Moyan Brenn)

This wasn’t your usual railway café; in fact, it was more like a palace ballroom. The ceiling of Le Train Bleu – former station buffet, now a handsomely refurbished restaurant in Paris’s Gare de Lyon – boasted of far-flung places, vast paintings of Marseille and Monaco daubed between the gilt mouldings and chandeliers. Its generous proportions echoed with the chink of china and the creak of well-aged floorboards, and through the stately arched windows the trains lined up at their platforms.

Sadly, the Orient Express was not one of them. The legendary carriages that once chugged travellers from West to East no longer pull out of this terminus, though Le Train Bleu’s dining rooms don’t seem to have noticed, still dishing up the kind of grandeur you’d expect before embarking on one of the world’s most illustrious journeys. 

Today’s more pedestrian, eastbound trains leave from Paris’s Gare de I’Est, but as we supped lurid-blue cocktails in this formidable setting, it seemed the fitting place to toast the start of our pan-Europe odyssey.

The Orient Express most people picture now is the outrageously expensive Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE), which eases high-rolling tourists from London to Italy in plush wagons-lits. But this is a replica – it isn’t the service that, from 1883, used to transport the wealthy from Paris to Istanbul via Strasbourg, Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade.

There is no longer a direct scheduled Paris-Istanbul service, but a descendant of the original OE still exists today in truncated form, now running overnight between Strasbourg and Vienna only. We saw the evidence on the sign in the window as we hopped on board – there it was, in workmanlike letters: ‘Orient Express’.

Paris to Strasbourg to Vienna

My boyfriend and I hankered after some old 1883 style as we squashed into one of the modern OE’s six-berth couchettes. We were far from the world of Hercule Poirot elegance but we were on our way to the Orient, nonetheless.

Our budget not stretching to the VSOE, we were retracing the ultimate trans-Europe journey all the way to Istanbul using an InterRail pass: glam, no; good value, yes. We’d already swept through Paris (raising a glass in Le Train Bleu) and whizzed from there to the lacy pink cathedral and winstubs (traditional wine bars) of Strasbourg. Now we were on the OE itself; next stop: Vienna – where I was hoping to capture the essence of belle époque overlanding (without the expenditure).

To say I woke the next morning would imply a sleep I didn’t really manage. The train was hot, rocking and rumbling – and yet there was a romance to it, as the green slopes of Austria (France and Germany now distant ticks on the map) segued into the city outskirts; we pulled into Vienna exactly on time.

It’s unlikely my fin-de-siècle OE predecessors would have checked into a hostel, and they probably wouldn’t have demeaned themselves by shopping in the market (“send the maid, darling”), but we made our own way to the vast Naschmarkt, a bounty of bakeries, butcheries and cheeseries, augmented – it being Saturday – by the curio-packed weekly flea stalls. In a nod to our direction of travel we picnicked on hummus and falafel from the market before escaping the baroque grandeur of the centre for something different.

Vienna is the world’s largest wine-growing city: 7 sq km of vineyards lie in its environs. Hopping off the bus in Kahlenberg, just to the north, we were soon walking past neat ranks of vines, the tower blocks and palaces of the city scattered towards the horizon. OK, an OE-er would probably be trotting around town in a well-polished Fiaker (horse-drawn carriage) but it was lovely out here, rambling among the deer-grazed hillsides.

Lovelier still was sampling the wares. We stopped at Heurigen Hirt, a rustic wine cabin oozing that peculiarly Teutonic Gemütlichkeit – a cosiness born of the stove’s meaty smells, the flicker of candles, the cushion-softened wooden chairs and our fruity Rheinrieslings (a bargain at €1.50 a glass).

But it was a couple of hot chocolates that made us feel like the belle époque was still alive and well. After the following day’s city wandering – trying to dodge the prowling caped-and-wigged ‘Mozarts’ peddling classical concerts in the cathedral square – we found refuge in Café Sperl. Opened in 1880, it’s a veritable time capsule, all elegant lamps and worn brocade booths. 

Our drinks arrived on polished silver trays while a pianist tinkled in the corner. Erstwhile haunt of poets and artists, Hitler used to wax political here; now people like me eat generous slabs of cake and tap on laptops amid the smoky fug.

Vienna to Budapest

We’d merely skimmed confidently elegant Vienna, but that was the nature – and the adventure – of the trip: the constant motion, the discovery of the new, the relentless progress from West to East. Vienna to Budapest was less than three hours by train but a greater leap in atmosphere – we’d reached the start of the East.

Budapest’s halcyon days were at the turn of the 20th century, reflected in its overriding architectural style. From the food-filled atrium of the Nagycsarnok market to the less obvious details – a tile here, a lintel there – almost every building has an Art Nouveau touch. 

Our hotel, the Gellért, became the city’s first four-star in 1918 and has been pampering the elite ever since. While the Gellért’s glory may have faded (explaining how we could afford to stay there), the namesake baths attached are as stylish as ever. The bonus of staying at the hotel is free admission to the baths and a secret entrance...

Before breakfast we were in our cossies and bathrobes, padding barefoot down the corridors to the old service lift, where an attendant scraped back the iron doors and lowered us, semi-clad, to the baths. 

And what baths – we breaststroked under the carved columns and curved glass ceiling of the pool before stewing in the ornately tiled thermal baths where I could feel the Magyar minerals sorting out my ailments. In the earlier OE-ers’ day this would have been the preserve of the rich; Communism let the plebs in and the baths are now open to all.

But we couldn’t soak all day. Budapest offered castles to nose into, calorific chunks of cake to eat and a flashback Statue Park to wander – where the Communist icons of a country embracing a democratic future live out their wind-whipped retirement. However, if there’s one place a true OE-er can’t miss, it’s the resplendent neo-classical State Opera House – and we had tickets for that evening.

We ascended the grand staircase, outshone by those who’d dressed up in full ballgown and tux regalia. It was only fitting – the auditorium was an acoustic-perfect curve of gilt boxes and red velvet. We took our seats and the orchestra fluttered into the overture of Wagner’s Parsifal. Heavy German opera, with Hungarian surtitles, wouldn’t have been my first choice. But as one of the most beautiful – and cheapest – opera houses in the world, it was the perfect place to live the high life on a low budget.

Budapest to Belgrade

It was quite a leap from such glamour to the dark chill of Budapest’s Keleti train station for the 23:25 to Belgrade. The train was supremely comfortable, but that didn’t aid sleep much – the border officials saw to that, rapping loudly on the door to see us out of Hungary and into Serbia in the wee hours. I finally gave up trying when the sun peeked through the window, and watched the reel of green farms flying by.

We pulled into Belgrade and were immediately hit by the Easterness of it – particularly the aromas: car fumes, alien foods, thick cigarette smoke (no ban here) and a street smell redolent of Asia.

We started at historic ‘?’ Café with coffee, thick and black, which powered us through Belgrade – a truly whistlestop 24 hours. We explored the fortifications of Kalemegdan Park, the Orthodox Cathedral and as many of the many cafés and bars as we could manage in our time-slot, where coffee was cheap, beer cheaper and Gypsy musicians optional.

Our most important task was shopping – the following day a 24-hour train journey, with no dining car, beckoned. So we combed the markets for food, comparing stacks of tomatoes, deliberating over salami and calculating how many pastries it was permissible to buy when exercise would be limited to walking to the toilet and back.

We settled on bread, cheese and wine – what more could we need?

Belgrade to Istanbul

At 08:40 we were pulling out of Belgrade station, chugging towards our journey’s end. Over the following 24 hours we did a lot of window-gazing and card-playing. And eating, in that way you do on trains – slicing things with penknives and using an awful lot of wet wipes. Our smiling guard Andrei stuck his head round the door: “You like football?”

Serbia had played Ukraine – and lost – the night before; England had lost to France, so we had common ground. But while we shared losses on the pitch, to Andrei the similarities ended there. “A British passport – that’s good,” he said. “With British passport you can travel, country to country, no problem.”

We told him about our cross-Europe odyssey, which would take us through seven countries in total. He smiled wistfully. “With Serbian passport you can go only to Montenegro and, I don’t know, Burkina Faso!”

We may have had the documentation to travel but I wasn’t sure we had the means. The train was craaawling along at the pace of a light jog; it was fortunate that the scenery was the most eyecatching so far – red-tiled roofs, distant peaks, blossom-clad trees. I saw a cyclist overtake us. In this fashion, we inched towards Bulgaria.

Here the border officials had attended stereotype school; our passports were examined by a series of rotund, gruff, grey-uniformed men who allowed us to pass through in a manner that suggested they’d rather we didn’t. The Turkish border was another matter: at 2am we were awoken by an apologetic Andrei who explained we needed to get off and go to the station office.

It was an odd pocket of early-hours sociability at Kapikule – a mix of nationalities and queueing etiquette. Bleary travellers trouped off the train, queued at the passport office, realised they needed to first buy a visa, queued at the visa desk, trouped back to the passport office, then finally hopped back on the train. A small shop sold cigarettes, which almost everyone was smoking, and the train slumbered in the darkness, huffing occasionally as if to say: take your time, I could do with a break.

I actually slept well despite this intrusion, woken by light peeping round the blind, alerting me to the fact that if I would only let it into the cabin it would reward me with the outskirts of Istanbul and the shimmer of the Sea of Marmara.

What would those old-time OE-ers have seen when they drew their blinds? Not the modern blocks and building sites of a city of nearly ten million people. But as we plunged deeper into the city, and the panorama became more interesting, I realised they would have gazed at the same sea, the same wooden-fronted Ottoman houses and the same sky-piercing minarets.

Arrival in Istanbul

Train is the best way to enter Istanbul. The track makes a regal sweep around the coast – the very edge of Europe – before turning inland along the Golden Horn. Just one hour late, we pulled into Sirkeci Station – as the original OE-ers would have done a century ago. 

The station has been modernised, but the original, peeling façade still exists, its Orientalist design facing the clamour of the waterside. The Spice Bazaar, men fishing on the Galata Bridge or hurrying past with trays of tulip tea glasses, the scent of greasy döner meat and fried fish – you’re thrust into a district that has, for centuries, been the trading and transport hub of ‘Constantinople’.

We ditched our bags and hit Sultanahmet, where the 1,500-year-old Haghia Sofia and multi-domed Blue Mosque loom. Their interiors are magisterial, the now-secular Haghia Sofia imposing despite its scaffolding; the Blue Mosque’s tiled walls shone as visitors ogled, each clutching a carrier bag containing their shoes.

On our final evening we rebelled against Orient Express opulence and found a low-key restaurant full of locals smoking nargileh (hubbly-bubbly pipes), engrossed in backgammon and the football match on the radio. We toasted the end of our ten-day journey with Turkish wine and our softly spoken waiter enquired if we wanted more. He didn’t look Turkish; in fact, he looked like Cliff Richard.

“I’m Uzbek,” Cliff explained. “I came to Istanbul to make money. I’ve not been home for three years.”

We’d come from the affluent West to see the exotic East, but we’d only hit the tip of the iceberg, the edge of the continent. Now we were turning for home – a flight that would take an uninterestingly convenient 3.5 hours. I felt I was cheating – both the OE ethos and the rest of Asia, lying just across the Bosphorus.

The journey to Istanbul by train no longer involves mahogany-walled cabins or cocktails in the dining car. But it still throws up an always fascinating, always changing slice of a Europe finding its way into a new century.

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