Why did we do it? There are quicker and easier ways to get from Edinburgh to Istanbul. You can fly direct from Edinburgh to Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in just about four and a half hours. But where’s the romance and adventure in that?
Maybe we wanted both adventure and romance for our 40th wedding anniversary treat. But that’s probably an excuse. The trip was really an impulse inspired by Ray reading the travels of Patrick Leigh Fermor who walked to what was then Constantinople between December 1933 and January 1935. The clincher came when Ray discovered The Man in Seat 61 who told us how to do the journey by train. Or to be more precise, eight trains and two buses
Perhaps you also know him? The Man in Seat 61 is a railway guru who can guide you round the world by train and ferry and, what’s more, his website reconstructs the route of the (real) Orient Express. That’s the one that ran from 1883 to 2009, he explains, and not to be confused with the very expensive luxury Venice Simplon Orient Express.
Our DIY Orient Express took four days and three nights (not counting a three day break in Vienna) to cover roughly 2,400 miles across Europe via London, Paris, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. Plus some uncharted parts of Bulgaria in the middle of the night on a long and sometimes achingly weary last leg of the journey.
But what a journey! By the time we rolled through the sunrise into Istanbul we fancied we had felt, seen, sniffed and heard the changing nationalities as we crossed seven borders (eight if you count Berwick on Tweed) to arrive at the very edge of Asia. That’s a thrill you never find in the air conditioned confines of an airplane. Each train took us to a different city, with different languages on station platforms, different smells from street food stalls, different features on the faces of people passing by.
Supper on the sleeper from Paris, breakfast in Munich, lunch in Vienna. Instead of peering through clouds at a patchwork of land far below, we moved through fields and villages, passing churches and palaces, slowing down as we reached the graffiti zones of city suburbs (perhaps graffiti is the one common feature of all train journeys).
We marvelled at vast wind farms sprawling across the Hungarian plans, disembarked in Budapest for lunch, boarded the night train to Bucharest and when we rolled up the blinds next morning we were in an enchanted forest.
“Quality of trains decreases as journey progresses…” one Orient Express veteran had tweeted as we caught up with the wider world via wifi in Vienna. Indeed, we had taken the advice of The Man in Seat 61 and packed a picnic for the night. But nothing prepared us for the magic of the Transylvanian forest. I confess to being a mod-con traveller – a true explorer would not toss and turn in crisp white sheets worrying about the state of the WC down the corridor. I wouldn’t have been so fussy (though I’m glad to say the WC served us well) if I had known what a treat we were in for come daylight: miles and miles of wild forest, dark green conifers, light spring green birches, beeches and oaks, sunlight bouncing off tin roofs of woodland villages, mist swirling round the mysterious pointed tops of the Carpathian mountains.
That early morning journey across Romania was one of the highlights of the trip. The ancient rolling stock which took us out of Bucharest into Bulgaria was another unexpected delight – like suddenly being transported back to the 1970s.
The most challenging part was the final lap from deepest Bulgaria which currently includes two coach transfers because of work on the line. Again The Man had us prepared for disruption but we were not expecting the bus to dump us in the dark at Dmitrovgrad, a station still under construction, to wait for a train which threatened not to come. We were in good company, young backpackers (we must have been at least twice the age of most of them) from Germany, Bulgaria, Iceland, Japan, seasoned travellers making jokes and sharing hopes that we wouldn’t be spending the whole night together.
When the train came the guard was not best pleased to be woken by a horde of midnight adventurers seeking pillows and blankets for the sleeping cars. He gets his revenge when we are woken twice for border checks – out of Bulgaria, into Turkey – and brusquely hurried off the train at 6.10 for the final bus trip into Istanbul.
But in the end it was all worth it. We have just one regret, it would have been even better to arrive at Sirkeci station by train all the way from Bucharest. On our last day in Istanbul we walked through the station (currently closed to international trains for work on the Marmary tunnel) and discovered we might even have had breakfast in the Orient Express restaurant. Next time perhaps.
PS: I have posted a slightly different version of the trip on Walking Heads blog Why fly when you can take the Orient Express?