Magazine article Geographical

The Rail Thing: Susannah Jowitt Takes the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul, Getting More Than a Taste for Gastronomic Food, Heady Culture and Breathtaking Scenery along the Way. (Great Train Journey)

Magazine article Geographical

The Rail Thing: Susannah Jowitt Takes the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul, Getting More Than a Taste for Gastronomic Food, Heady Culture and Breathtaking Scenery along the Way. (Great Train Journey)

Article excerpt

THE TROUBLE IS," SIGHS MY FELLOW traveller sitting opposite me in the lounge car, "that there's just no time to get bored." Anyone in love with long-distance rail journeys knows that getting bored is one of the great joys of train travel. We who disdain the Jet Set, we who proudly count ourselves in the Clickety-Clack Set, we positively revel in the feeling of endless horizons rattling interminably by.

But boredom is just not possible on this particular journey of the Orient Express. We're aboard the annual recreation of the inaugural trip of 1883 -- which takes four nights to barrel through nine countries from Paris (with stopovers at Budapest and Bucharest), to arrive at the eastern-most tip of Europe, where Istanbul straddles two continents. We will be travelling from the familiar to the exotic, via the largely unknown plains of post-Iron Curtain Eastern Europe -- but surely there would be time for some blank-eyed staring out of the window?

Well, no. For this is "the Train of Kings, the King of Trains" -- a train the length of the Eiffel Tower, with a staff of 40 and a passenger list of 126, all of whom are about to be spoilt in a manner to which I could easily become accustomed. This is the train that has inspired six films, 19 books, and one piece of music, with a history far stranger than fiction.

Tucked into these snug cabins has been everyone from reigning monarchs to surreptitious spies. Captain Karp, a Cold War CIA agent treated himself to one last journey on the Orient-Express, after he was warned that his life was in jeopardy unless he flew out of Austria immediately. It turned out to be his last ride anywhere -- Russian agents murdered him in his cabin and dumped his body in a Salzburg tunnel.

With so much history and fantasy, there is as much inward-gazing as scenery-staring. This is a train by day, but another world by night, when the scenery outside dims and your horizons recede to a tiny world of flickering lights and reflections of black tie and jewel-coloured velvet dresses in the rich shiny wood of the recurring marquetry panels. As we roll farther into Eastern Europe, bouncing on the less-than-carefully tended tracks, everything shifts and sways: the flowers in the dining car tremble, the fringes on the lamps shiver; and in the bar car, the wickedly strong martinis shake and stir themselves.

But by day, it seems an altogether more pedestrian train. Most cabin doors are left open to reveal couples sitting, knitting, reading or just staring, as they lean back on lacy anti-macassars. The passengers are a similar mix of the glitzy and the ordinary. Back in its Edwardian heyday, the Orient Express attracted a jewel-studded assortment of European ministers and luminaries. On this trip, 40 per cent are American. The rest are a pick-`n'-mix of Euristocracy, old money and nouveau riche, all rubbing shoulders and sharing cocktails with normal folk like us for whom this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

This dichotomy continues outside the train. We are travelling through a handful of the most impressive historical cities in Europe, once hidden behind the Iron Curtain, now on glorious display for Western tourists. Yet except for the stopovers in Budapest and Bucharest for much-wanted showers and sightseeing tours, or for our breakfast high in the mountains of Transylvania, we approach other cities such as Vienna, by the tradesman's entrance. By rail, any city would appear to be a scruffy collection of industrial scrapyards and shanty towns. And once we get off the train and file into coaches, we suddenly lose the exclusive lustre of luxury.

Even from a coach window, however, Budapest does not disappoint, from the disembarkation to a gloriously opulent waiting room fit for an Emperor -- as it was indeed designed to be. The city is now the cognoscenti's Prague -- the same heady mix of medieval intimacy and Austro-Hungarian baroque on either side of a river, but without the fast food restaurants and often suffocating crowds of the Czech capital. …

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