Tracing the Orient Express

Thirty years after the Orient Express made its final journey from London to Istanbul, hits Paris, Vienna and Sofia to follows in its footsteps

Monmartre, Paris

Monmartre, Paris. Photo: Adam Sloan

Thirty years after the Orient Express made its final journey from London to Istanbul, Adam Sloan hits Paris, Vienna and Sofia to follows in its footsteps.

It had a reputation as the epitome of luxury travel. Man and wife would wear tuxedos to dine on board while the train snaked its way through Europe. London to Istanbul was the classic route of the Orient Express and the one I would be re-tracing, 30 years after the last ‘Direct’ Orient-Express went out of commission.

My journey started in the less than glamorous airport-style departure lounge of Waterloo station, where I waited for the Eurostar to speed me in two and a half hours from London to Paris. It would be very different from the heyday of the Orient Express when the trains used to queue up at the docks and impatient passengers would have to wait for their luxury car to be shunted onto a ferry and across the channel. For the modern traveller though, Eurostar definitely provides the most efficient, relaxed and stylish way to travel between two of the world’s greatest cities. It is a smooth and comfortable journey that drops passengers right in the heart of Paris’s bustling Monmartre district.

Leo shared my sleeping compartment. He had left university at 21 to join the circus

There is very little about Paris that I do not love. The endless number of cafes that line the boulevards, the chequered history and the pride of its inhabitants. I even feel a small comfort in partaking in the regular battle of wills with the aggressive souvenir sellers that line the route up to the Basilique du Sacré-Coer.

This time I only had about 24 hours in Paris, so I made sure that I crammed in as many of my favourite things to do there as possible. This generally involved strolling around Monmartre in the day and the Latin Quarter at night (with frequent rest stops for coffee or red wine). Monmartre epitomises everything I love about Paris. It is bohemian and multicultural, while at the same time just being insatiably French. After a leisurely stroll along the Seine, I made my way to the Gare de l’Est to meet the train that would take me overnight from Paris to Vienna, and then on to Budapest.

The Paris to Vienna leg is actually the only part of the journey that is still officially dubbed ‘The Orient Express’, and this is only evident to one who looks very closely at the paper sign on the inside window of the carriage doors.

Men playing chess, Budapest Keleti train station, Budapest, Hungary (March 2007)

Men playing chess, Budapest Keleti train station. Photo: Adam Sloan

There was just one other person sharing my sleeping compartment: Leo Silberstein from Australia. Leo was a playwright, director, actor and clown who had left university at 21 and ran off to join the circus. Now in his 40s, as soon as he walked into our compartment he struck me as an ‘artsy’ type, wearing a light-coloured shirt with a red jumper draped over his shoulders and wild auburn hair. Originally from the USA, he left after studying Political Science in Pennsylvania because he felt his country was turning into a fascist state. “I went back a few years ago, to San Diego,” he told me, “which is the testing ground for the future police-state. You see all these people in uniforms and you just know it is happening.” With an interesting life-story, Leo proved fantastic company for the 15-hour journey.

We arrived in Vienna in just enough time for me to race around to buy a ticket and catch my connecting train onto Budapest. This was another modern Eurocity-Express making its way between the two capital cities in little under three hours.

First impressions of Budapest were almost overwhelmingly positive. The central Keleti train station is ornate and grand and gives off the impression that many great journeys would have had their origins there. Budapest is actually three cities straddling the Danube River. Residential suburban Obuda to the northwest, medieval hilly Buda to the west and commercial Pest to the east. Nine bridges cross the Danube linking Buda with Pest.

My hostel was up a dark staircase just off Radacay Utca, one of the city’s major pedestrianised streets. ‘Maxim Hostel’ was small and homely, mostly because it was essentially just somebody’s apartment with a few extra beds thrown in one of the rooms. It takes quite a while chatting to people before you can work out whether they work there, are a guest, or own the place. But it was quiet and relaxed, exactly what I was after.

“I travel with no passport,” Nicolajic said. “If Polizia catch me, I go to jail.”

Unfortunately though, the quietness seemed to extend all across Budapest for the three days I was there. Despite rampant hoards of tour groups stomping up and around the medieval Castle Hill, I found the rest of the city to be almost eerily quiet. The Lonely Planet describes the street I was staying on as “crammed with cafes, bars and eateries.” This was partially true, although it fails to mention that all of them happen to be near empty.

The story wasn’t much different during the day either. Dust blew heavily around Pest on a relatively bright day, but shops were empty, I had reams of personal space walking about the main avenues and even the traffic was relatively light. Feeling slightly disconcerted by this, I bought myself a ticket on the nightly through sleeping car to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.

Alexandr Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria

Alexandr Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo: Adam Sloan.

It was a little difficult at this point to determine which route to take, as political changes in Europe during the early 20th century meant that the Orient Express was frequently diverted along a number of different routes. The one I was taking was the 1885 route that went from Budapest to Belgrade, through Sofia and on to Istanbul.

The train didn’t leave until close to midnight, so after spending my last Florins on another bowl of goulash and a beer I decided that I didn’t particularly feel like wandering round the city on my own late at night and so I resolved to spend some quality time with my book, watching the world go by in Keleti station.

I was to have company, however, as relatively soon after sitting down I was joined by Nicolajic. The most disturbing thing about my three hours spent with Nicolajic was his tendency to leap behind my backpack whenever a Hungarian policeman came into sight. “I travel with no passport, no visa,” he told me. “If Polizia catch me, I get thrown in jail.”

Nicolajic was 28 and from Serbia; he was tall and unkempt, with short dark hair, and wore a leather jacket and faded blue jeans. He told me he was on his way home to carry out some “business” after being deported from Italy, having initially swum across the Italy-Slovenia border, undetected, with his girlfriend. “Serbia wont give me a passport because I have been in prison,” he said solemnly. “So I will go home, carry out my business and then try and make my way back into Italy.”

Nicolajic joined the Serbian army for four years when he was 18, serving in Kosovo around the time of the NATO assault in 1998. “Kosovo is a beautiful place,” he told me, “But they don’t like Serbs there.” He didn’t speak a great deal of English, which allowed our relatively short conversation to stretch over a relatively long period of time. “Tito was good, but then he went bad. Milosovic too was good, but then he also went bad.”

After leaving the army at 22, Nicolajic married his first wife and ended up having a child, but then he spent the next few years in and out of prison and lost touch with them both. “I try to go back to see my daughter, but my ex-wife says I am not allowed to see her… so I pack my bags and leave the country. Serbia is shit.”

The train eventually turned up and we parted ways. I wondered how he was going to fair getting across the Hungary-Serbia border without a passport.

His warning rang in my head: “Don’t ever be anywhere on your own – they will probably rob you.”

My carriage was the only one on the train that was going all the way through to Bulgaria and was actually pretty much empty. I was shown by the attendant to a two-person sleeping compartment of which I was the only occupant for the next 19 hours to Sofia. The warning that the owner of Maxim Hostel gave me as I left rang in my head as I sat down: “These trains in central Europe are dangerous, especially those passing through Romania or Serbia. Don’t ever be anywhere on your own – they will probably rob you.”

We crossed the border with Serbia at about one in the morning. The Hungarian border guard that boarded my carriage was a short, irate man with a square face, which he insisted on putting barely an inch from mine as he was examining my passport. Never breaking eye contact with me, even when checking my passport with a UV lamp, he then dashed out of the compartment and off the train. Just as I was starting to think what I was going to say to the British consulate, he returned and took up his previous position in front of my face. I went to take my passport out of his hand and he pulled it away. Pausing for about a further ten seconds he then threw it on the floor and stormed off.

The journey across the Serbian countryside was pretty spectacular. We spent most of the day passing around green hills and through small villages. I felt that it was a shame that I was not going to be stopping to explore what looks like a beautiful country which, since the chaos of the 90s, has been largely left out by tourists, but my time was running out and I wanted to spend some time in Sofia before making my way on to Istanbul.

“Give me your money,” he said as he grabbed the loose change out of my hand

The train entered Sofia through grim suburbs of derelict factories and communist-era apartment blocks. A mothballed power station sat menacingly next to the train station. I arrived in the darkness at around seven in the evening and promptly got lost trying to find my hostel. I was pleased, though, to see the city bustling with people walking in every direction. The roads were congested and I had to keep conscious control over my backpack to avoid it hitting random passers by.

My hostel was similar to that which I had stayed in Budapest. Down a seedy alleyway (this one was actually opposite a sex shop), up a dark set of stairs and into a random apartment with a few extra bunk beds thrown in.

Blue Mosque at Sunset, Istanbul (March 2007)

Blue Mosque at Sunset, Istanbul. Photo: Adam Sloan

Sofia certainly did not disappoint; I found it to be an invigorating place. Furthermore, I am an icon geek. It is probably a good thing for me to travel alone when I am in Eastern Europe, as I am sure that any prospective companion would quickly get fed up with the amount of Orthodox churches I would drag them in and out of so I could admire all the icons. Well, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in central Sofia has to be the most spectacular building I have ever set foot in. It is a relatively modern church, built in the early 20th century, adorned with icons painted by the finest artists from all over Eastern Europe. Inside its grandeur becomes almost overwhelming, the light is low and there is an incredible amount of open space. I spent rather a large amount of time on my first day in Sofia treading slowly around the cathedral, admiring the artwork and the peaceful atmosphere of the inside.

Another thing I liked about Sofia is that they haven’t removed a lot of the statues from the communist era. You are still able to see huge, glorious workers and soldiers with raised fists and revolutionary expressions. I also enjoyed watching the old men in flat caps sit and play chess at lighting speeds in the city parks.

After a few days in Sofia it was time to take the final leg of my journey to Istanbul. I had been pre-warned that there was nowhere on the train to buy food for the 15 hour journey so I made sure I saved just enough Bulgarian Lev in change to buy myself a sandwich and a drink when I got to the station. While queuing at the kiosk, a short man with olive skin and ominous looking tattoos on his face came up and stood next to me. “American?” No. “German?” No. “Swiss?” No. “Give me your money,” he said as he grabbed the loose change out of my hand and then, to add insult to injury, stood in front of me in the queue at the kiosk. I hung around, bemused, just long enough to see him actually buy the exact sandwich I had my eye on before I thought it a good idea to vacate the area and make my way to the platform.

You can still see the communist statues of workers with raised fists and revolutionary expressions

Hungry and annoyed I eventually did manage to fine my train and leave Sofia. Despite my less than glamorous exit, I still absolutely loved the city.

Istanbul is home to 12 million people and is the only city in the world to straddle two continents, Europe and Asia. The size of the city is immediately apparent as you approach on the train. As we started entering the outskirts, I began to pack my bag and organise my things, but it ended up being over an hour until we actually reached the station in Sultanahmet, the old city and heart of European Istanbul. The train glided along the Bosphorus, the narrow strip of water dividing the city in two, on its approach into Sirkeci station and I was then met by a maelstrom of taxi drivers and accommodation touts.

I almost couldn’t believe I was here. Having first boarded the Eurostar at Waterloo and taken the continuous stretch of track along the route of the Orient Express, I wondered what it would have been like for the original passengers of the Orient Express arriving in Istanbul, many of whom would have been carrying on towards Persia and Mesopotamia. I sat in front of the glorious Blue Mosque, the real symbolic icon of Istanbul known around the world, just in time to hear the call to prayer ring across the city. The mesmerising sounds coming out of the Blue Mosque were then followed by many more from all the other surrounding mosques, as a wall of beautiful noise rings across this great metropolis.

I bought a kebab and a cup of sweet apple tea and just sat outside for hours gazing between the Blue Mosque and the equally fascinating Hagia-Sofia (originally an Orthodox church, then a mosque and now a museum), which sits on the hill opposite. Here was the bridge between Europe and Asia just waiting to be crossed. I realised, however, that my time was up and as much as my desire was telling me to cross that bridge and press on, I knew that I would have to wait for another time.

2 comments

  1. Nice piece, Adam! Perhaps you’d not realised that you rode the Orient Express from Paris just before it eventually disappears. The very last OE from Paris is today – thus marking the end of over a century of railway history. We described in yesterday’s Hidden Europe Magazine’s e-news (see http://www.hiddeneurope.co.uk).

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  2. Hi Nicky and Susanne. I’d heard it was ending but I didn’t realise it was so soon! I’m definately glad I took it when I did then as I guess now there will not be another opportunity…

    Cheers!
    Adam

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