The Orient Express. The very name conjures glamour and intrigue. Black tie donned counts wearing monocles. Countesses with cigarette holders and gold-capped front teeth. Servants and trunks. Finery and frippery. Decadence and dosh. But we were not on the real Orient Express. We were hurtling across Europe on a budget; travelling from Paris to Istanbul – hoping for some of the luxury at a fraction of the cost.
Lunch at L’Ardoise Gourmande around the corner from the Gare de l’Est got us off to a good start. Almost. We arrived ten minutes before service, and as we stepped over the threshold, the waitress snapped ‘We’re not open yet’. ‘We’re not ready’, she replied brusquely, to our polite ‘May we wait inside?’; so we sat at one of the pavement tables and fried to a frazzle in the heat. Once this hiccup was over, it was excellent – and chocolate mousse always makes me feel indulgent. I could now face the six-hour journey to Munich.
In Munich we kept going – straight on to the night train to Budapest. We found our private compartment. Unfortunately a rather large lady had found it before us, and was now spreading her ample hind quarters over the bottom bunk. She gathered her belongings and left, talking all the while on her phone, and we squeezed ourselves and our rucksacks into her empty space. It was tight, but there was a basin, and bottled water and even biscuits for breakfast. And suddenly an attendant was at our elbow, asking if we wanted tea or coffee in the morning. This was beginning to look good! We pulled the blind and imagined slumber fuelled by the rhythmic rocking of the train. But I got excited too quickly – in reality it was hot, noisy and a constant series of stops and starts. We slept hardly at all; but at 09.30 after 1,500 km’s and 17 hours we’d arrived in Budapest. The edge of the East.
Three days later we were back in the saddle – boarding another night train to Sibiu in Romania. Classical Keleti Station again fired my romantic dreams of train travel. I would’ve loved a dining car, where we could check out fellow passengers and imagine spies and intrigue, but it was not to be, so we made do with the Baross Restaurant near platform number six. In once grand surroundings, we ate goulash and fried mushrooms, but the grumpy waiters tried to short change us. Again we rattled off into the night. After a few hours, there were knocks and cries of ‘border police’. Inscrutable. They glanced back and forth between us and our passports. All was in order, and the door rattled shut to give us a few hours more sleep.
Sibiu was a small, sleepy station, but then anywhere is probably sleepy at 07.00 on a Sunday morning. We dumped our packs and headed into town. We had six hours to kill before our train left for Sighisoara. There was only one thought on our mind – coffee. Starbucks was due to open at 08.00 – the girl was already wiping down the tables – and that was the only place due to open. Normally, I’d give Starbucks a wide berth – but needs must. And it did the trick – we got a second wind, and walked around cute, colourful little Sibiu and even climbed up St Mary’s Church tower.
Next we travelled on smaller, local and regional trains – to Sighisoara, and then on to Brasov. This is what train travel is all about. A steady staging of scenery. Men gathering hay with a horse and cart. Hills and woods and red-roofed houses. Cracked and blighted stations, and station masters with red peaked caps wielding paddles. Now we had a sense of fellow passengers, but there was no intrigue. Just an old lady snoring, her cross-word puzzle cast aside. I helped her with her luggage and she returned the favour by barking out that we were approaching Brasov.
From Brasov we travelled on to Bucharest and at last there was a dining car – of sorts. Tables with tablecloths, glasses arranged in rows proudly sporting napkins and waiter service – but there was only crisps, beer and soft drinks on offer. Still no matter, I got wildly excited and we sat next to big picture windows and watched the Carpathians roll by.
And before we knew it we were boarding the Bosfor Express; a misnomer if ever there was one. Seven and a half hours and 150 km later we arrived in Veliko Tarnovo. We’d stopped at the Romanian border. We had stopped for even longer at the Bulgarian border and inexplicably we stopped again for another hour at Gorna Oryakhovista. But the Turkish guard was very jolly. Handing us water and juice and two packets of salty crackers he said ‘If you want tea and coffee – come to me. This is free – tea and coffee Euro 1’. There was only one other couple in the train carriage, so the guard took two compartments. In one, his bed neatly made on the right-hand side, and a picnic spread out on the left; and in the other his gas stove, and frying pan filled with veggies, butter melting in the heat.
Three days later we got back on the Bosfor Express for our final journey – overnight to Istanbul. Maybe we were getting our train legs, for this journey went by in a flash – in spite of having to get off at 3am for border control on the Turkish side. Istanbul Halkali Station was a building site. Not realising until the last minute that this was our station, we gathered our bags in a rush, and popped into Istanbul like corks out of a bottle – there was no time to think.
Our faux Orient Express trip had ended – not with a bang but with a whimper.
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