The cab driver deposited our luggage on the sidewalk in front of the Gare de l’Est train station in Paris where the uniformed porters didn’t blink at the two huge suitcases, the carry-on bag, the hanging garment bag, and several shopping bags. We followed the two pillbox-hatted young men through the station crowd, beneath the sign announcing: Train spécial – VSOE Istanbul, onto the carpeted area on the platform cordoned off by a red silk rope where we showed our papers.
We had carefully selected our attire to match that in Murder on the Orient Express, the film set in 1932. My wife, Arlette, wore a black dress with cream lace on short sleeves, waist, and hem, the brim of her Eggcup hat pulled jauntily down to the right; myself in a double-breasted suit and straw Fedora. I had dreamt about this trip since I first learned that the vintage train–the cars all built in the 1920s–ran once a year from Paris to Istanbul. The private luxury train operated since 1982, but finally in 2008 we were about to make that famous trip.
While the bags we needed were transferred to our cabin, and everything else to the baggage wagon, we were ushered across the street for a snack at a bistro. Returning, we met a smiling line of train staff–train manager, maître D, master chef, head waiter, and head cabin steward. The steward for our car, a cheerful Scotsman named Jamie, showed Arlette, clutching the nosegay I had given her, to our cabin with its tiny wash basin, shaded lamp on the shelf beneath the window, and information about the trip on the pull-up table. The fleur-de-lis, Arlette’s favorite motif, embossed on the water bottles made her feel like it all had been prepared especially for her. The soft brocade on the seats was set off by the rich sheen of exotic wood walls. This well-appointed and well-apportioned little space belonged to a bygone era and effortlessly transported us to the golden age of rail travel.
As the train departed Paris we unpacked our suitcases and arranged our things. Jamie delivered afternoon tea, an assortment of éclairs, breads, and other delicacies intricately arranged to fit the little tray. Later, he told us with scarcely veiled disgust that the company changed the arrangement on the tray every few months, for no reason that he could discern.
Like a few other couples, we had two connected cabins. The other couples went to the extra expense so that both could sleep on a bottom bunk. We had intended to share the trip with good friends from France, but the husband died of brain cancer after we had made the reservations, so we used the extra cabin as a walk-in closet.
As eight o’clock approached, the hour we had selected for dinner, Arlette donned her elegant gold lamé evening gown and I my dinner jacket. The information we had received prior to the trip politely stated that passengers inappropriately attired would be served dinner in their cabins. Most contemporary dinner jackets are off-white, but in keeping with the 1930s image, mine was pure white.
We made our way down the corridor and through two elegant dining cars, each with its own kitchen, to our table in the third dining car. All the food, from morning pastries to elaborate deserts, was prepared on board. Fresh flowers stood in a silver vase in the middle of the snow-white table, gleaming sets of silver knives and forks bracketed the crisply folded napkin, and a row of cut-crystal glasses finished the presentation. The glowing overhead lamps reflected on rich wood walls delicately inlaid with bouquets of flowers in various shades of wood. We sat and leisurely enjoyed the food and wines, our first evening of a for-real fantasy trip.
The last couple to finish dining, we retired to the bar car for an after dinner drink. There the piano player entertained us, his only audience except for the bartender. He played whenever anyone was in the car, apparently on 24-hour duty. When we returned to our cabin we found the beds made down and a gift, some chocolates and an opened, folding lace fan, on the bottom berth. Each night on the train we found a memento waiting after dinner.
Arlette rose the next morning before five o’clock and wandered the train from end to end wearing a red kimono, another nod to Murder on the Orient Express. The stewards were lighting the boilers that provided the hot water, and in cold weather, heat for each car. At the end of each passenger car was a grand washroom and toilet with a bouquet of flowers and golden faucets and basin, but no shower. Every second night we disembarked to fine hotels along the route; no doubt it was thought that no modern luxury travelers would spend six days and five nights on a train with no shower.
During the night we had rumbled slowly past Switzerland toward Hungary. Because of the age of the vintage cars, the train never exceeds about 45 mile per hour. Because it is a private train, the engine is changed at each border crossing with separate arrangements with each national rail service. That morning the tour coordinator asked our language preference for the tours. Discovering that there were two busses of English and Americans, one bus of French, and five Germans, we chose the latter group. Throughout the trip we toured with the Germans and ate with the French, an imminently agreeable arrangement.
A brass band celebrated our arrival in Budapest, a phenomenon we learned to expect. We were transported to the Hilton Budapest Hotel on the hill above the Danube River. That evening we walked down Fortuna Street to the banquet hall of the Academy Club, once the seat of parliament but now a building of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. About half way I recognized a little restaurant, the Pest-Buda Bistro, where my first wife and I spent a wonderful evening in 1974 dining and listening to jazz played on a baby grand piano by a wizened fellow. That was at the height of the Communist era, a time of solemn, careful expression throughout the East Block. Budapest was then the only place that regularly had flowers on restaurant tables.
At dinner we joined the French speakers who commandeered a couple of the round tables. Rollicking violin music filled the hall – of course, this was Hungary so Hungarian dances were a necessity. The grand space was lit by soft lights in sconces on square gilded pillars supporting balconies on all four walls. The food was good, but not to the standard on the train. All meals during the trip were included in the fare, as was wine at meals when not on board, so we didn’t have to worry about changing money for each stop. Wine and drinks consumed on board, however, were extra.
The next morning we visited Gellért Hill, a magnificent park rising more than 500 feet above the Danube. The Hapsburgs built a citadel there with gun ports aimed at both Buda Castle and the river, and the Statue of Liberty, a woman holding a palm branch toward the sky, commemorates the liberation from Nazi rule. We then admired the architecture of the complex housing the Hungarian National Library, and especially a huge relief on one end of a building with a fierce nomadic king and his horse, with a weeping maiden at the bottom to the side. The story was that they were in love but could never marry because of their different stations in life.
Our tour ended near the Square of Heroes with its imposing semicircle of nude men on the colonnade with lunch at the world-famous Gundel Restaurant. Constructed in 1894, it operated as Wampetics Restaurant until 1910, when Károly Gundel and his son Janos turned it into a luxurious and internationally famous restaurant. It was nationalized in 1945 and all it stood for was demolished by the socialist government. It was renovated and reopened in its previous style in 1992. When our guide told us about movie stars and other famous people who had eaten at the restaurant I responded, “Well, now the important people are here.” After a glass of champagne we enjoyed a light lunch while entertained by the musicians that seemed to be a necessity for any meal not on board the train. The violinist accompanied us afterwards and wandered up and down the corridors on the train that evening playing spirited tunes.
Another marching band saluted us with music in midmorning the next day when we stopped at Sinaia, a picturesque town in the Carpathian Mountains. When they played a waltz, I grabbed Arlette’s hand and “cut the rug” on the asphalt, to a smattering of applause from the locals and travelers alike. Jamie told us he saw a clip of our dance on state television that night, but we were unable to look for it until later in Budapest where Rumanian broadcasts were blocked.
The town was named after the Sinaia Monastery which was founded in 1695 and still operates with 13 orthodox Christian monks. But the real reason for the stop was to visit Peleş Castle, a palatial Alpine villa constructed by King Carol I of Romania between 1975 and 1914 at a cost of at least $120 million in current dollars. Between 300 and 400 workers and artists worked on the construction. It has over 170 rooms, each decorated with themes based on function or style. It contains one of the finest collections of art in Eastern and Central Europe, and its collection of arms and armor contains over 4000 pieces. Every bit of wall was filled with some artifact, no nook or cranny spared. It became too much, over the top. I could not imagine living among all this stuff.
The Castle was normally closed to the public but opened especially for passengers on the Orient Express. The courtyard has the timber framing typical of European alpine architecture while the interior is mostly Baroque with heavy carved woods and exquisite fabrics. According to our guide, the intricate rugs displayed in one room had been hooked by blind children. We were told that photographs inside the Castle were forbidden, and were amused when one of the staff snapped photographs of the visitors almost nonstop. More than a decade after the Berlin Wall was demolished the habits of the East Block still prevailed.
Our guide described how Communist officials damaged some of the statues in the courtyard as they partied shortly after Ceaușescu took power. Learning that Ceaușescu was considering using the Castle as a summer residence, the locals pointed to dry rot in some of the timbers, warning that people working inside frequently died of a mysterious illness. They were pleased when Ceaușescu closed the Castle during the later years of the Communist regime.
When we got off the train in Bucharest there was, for the first time, no musical group; some of the passengers expressed light-hearted dismay and wondered what happened. We boarded busses for a tour of the sights. The tour seemed to stay on two streets, a long tree-lined Bulevardul Unirii with dozens of fountains in the median strip that had been constructed to be the Champs-Elysées of Eastern Europe, and a street perpendicular to it whose virtue seemed to be that there were roundabouts at both ends making it easy for the busses. After what seemed like a long ride we were deposited at the end of Bulevardul Unirii (previously called Victory of Socialism Boulevard) in front of the Palace of the Parliament. The Palace, designed to be the seat of political and administrative power, epitomizes Ceaușescu’s pretentious vision for Romania. The second largest building in the world, after the Pentagon, it measures 890 feet by 790 feet, 282 feet high, and 302 feet underground. It has 1,100 rooms, 2 underground parking garages and is 12 stories tall, with four underground levels currently available for the general public and in use, and another four in different stages of completion. Part of a mega-construction project in the 1980s that demolished much of Bucharest’s historic district, including 19 Orthodox Christian churches, six Jewish synagogues, three Protestant churches, and 30,000 residences, the Palace faces the Centrul Civic, an area along the Bulevardul Unirii of typical Soviet concrete construction with almost no commercial space.
The Soviet architecture of the Centrul Civic embodied rigid regimentation, row after row of identical windows stacked between equidistant columns seemingly marching in step. One of the passengers from the train was an Englishman who had been involved in a program providing humanitarian aid in Romania starting in the mid-1990s. When he first arrived, there were cattle and hogs in the traffic roundabouts, and ascending the bare concrete stairs in the buildings – there were no elevators – involved fighting through chickens and the occasional goat. Ceaușescu “modernized” Romania’s economy by gathering up farmers and their families, razing their homes, and informing them that they had a job at some factory and that they now lived at such-and-such address. Naturally the peasants took with them what they could of their possessions, especially farm animals because they promised a little income on the side. The fellow said it was extremely difficult to get locals involved in volunteer work and he finally gave up after a decade because he could find no one who would participate unless they were paid.
That night there was a dinner dance at the Athénée Palace Hotel, one of Bucharest’s most prestigious venues; built in 1914, it has been the site of numerous international negotiations. Arlette and I hung back a bit as we entered the grand ballroom, and found ourselves at a table for two separated from other tables by at least 30 feet. A small orchestra played during appetizers and Arlette and I took a turn around the dance floor, the only ones to do so. The orchestra was followed by an operatic duet and later the woman sang a variety of songs. She gestured for us, even came to our table and sang, but I refused to return to the dance floor because I thought it was interrupting the program. I was wrong. Later the dance floor was filled as the music turned to rock and more modern tunes.
The next morning, at the train station when we prepared to board, we were treated with the music we had missed on arrival. The musicians – violin, clarinet, bass, and pan flute – accompanied a dance group in traditional costumes: men wearing white tunics reaching to mid-thigh, colorful woven belts across their chests waists, white leggings with dark red tassels above what looked like ballet slippers laced on with leather straps. Fedora hats seemed inconsistent with the rest of the costume despite their colorful decorations. One dancer wore a bear suit and another – whose shoes revealed a female – completely covered by a beautifully crafted blanket and a mask with long pointed lips that constantly flapped. They were apparently portraying a folktale in which grandma chases away a fearsome bear. The performance was probably held at the morning departure rather than the arrival the previous afternoon so we would not suffer nightmares.
After we left Bucharest Jamie presented Arlette with the nicest mementos from the entire trip: a dark blue velvet tubular case embossed with gold lettering reading “Romanian Dream, Venice-Simplon-ORIENT EXPRESS, 2008” and a small red cloth sack in the colors that had decorated the dance troupe’s costumes. The case contained a small bottle of Buciium Rameros, a double distilled apple brandy, and the sack two crystal schnapps glasses, all three works of art. A mouth-blown apple and leaf emerged outward from the bottle, an apple and leaf rose into each glass from the bottom. These delicate examples of master craftsmanship became precious reminders of the trip.
That morning the train stopped at the border crossing into Bulgaria. A policeman stood videotaping the entire train as it slowly pulled away from the station, leaving us wondering if he was performing his official duties or merely capturing the once-a-year passage of a classic old train for his personal use.
Our next stop was Varna, the largest town on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast and the main port for both naval and commercial shipping. We were met by a young couple in costume and offered bread and salt, the traditional Bulgarian greeting. Busses took us to Balchick for drinks at the Quiet Nook Palace, constructed in 1926 as a summer residence for Queen Maria. My reaction to this seaside retreat was nearly the opposite of Peleş Castle’s over-the-top opulence. The rooms were nicely decorated, but it was easy to imagine actually living in this villa. The grounds include formal gardens inviting a stroll down to the shore as well as a botanical collection with over 3000 different species of plants. We enjoyed some excellent local wines and light snacks. An a cappella singing group entertained us before we boarded the busses again.
The 19th century Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin, a Byzantine cross-domed church of impressive size, is one of the most popular symbols of Varna. The detailed stone work in the exterior pulled eyes skyward to the onion domes of the second largest Orthodox Church in Bulgaria. A special mass, commissioned for the Orient Express passengers, was chanted in the magnificent interior by six priests, five of whom had come in from outlying churches for the event. I doubt if any of us could understand the Latin, but we were given an English translation.
Then the Cathedral priest spoke to the assembly. Stating that he was simply a man of the cloth with no knowledge of politics, he then proceeded to spend ten minutes complaining about the inadequate response of European Union countries to Russia’s unilateral withdrawing from the Ukrainian-Russian intergovernmental agreement a few months earlier. The tense standoff between the two countries threatened energy supplies to Western Europe because Russia reduced the amount of gas flowing to Ukraine, and from there to the West. As a simple man of the cloth he strongly asserted the importance of support from the West for the struggling countries in Eastern Europe.
The final dinner aboard the Orient Express was more celebratory than most. Our French dining partners filled half of one of the dining cars, and we were seated with a French couple who had become friends. Phillipe had given up a judgeship to take over a fabric manufacturing plant in order to keep the jobs from being moved out of France. This trip, he said, was his first vacation in 20 years. On that last evening they also celebrated his wife’s 60th birthday. A movie producer and his wife seated across the aisle from us were enjoying an especially good bottle of wine, and he generously gave us a taste. It was impressive; perhaps the best wine I ever tried. Swept up in the festivity, I ordered another bottle despite the cost and he and I provided a glass to all the French diners. Later the Maître D treated us not to one round of schnapps, but two.
The arrival in Istanbul featured a red carpet leading to a tall red Turkish flag beside a lively band clad in red robes over thigh-length tan tunics and wearing tall round hats that plumped out over white headbands; the reed pipes, horns, cymbals, and drums an undeniable introduction to the Orient. Travelers from other trains pressed in to see what the hullabaloo was about and snap a photo while we hurried to the room where our passports briefly examined and the baggage was being sorted.
We clambered into the van, our baggage stacked behind us, for the drive to Swissôtel The Bosphorus where we had booked a room overlooking the harbor and the Bosphorus seaway. I had told the reservation that the trip commemorated our thirtieth wedding anniversary, and when we got to our room we found a bottle of champagne and chocolates together with a card reading, “Congratulations! Thank you for letting us help start your life together.” There was no reason to expect good wishes for marriage and anniversaries to be different, and after all, we were starting the rest of our life together.