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Long weekend: The Danube Express

Step back in time on an enchanting journey aboard the Danube Express, from the extraordinary beauty of Budapest to the ancient capital of Istanbul

Long weekend: The Danube Express

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Shortly after 9am in a balmy Budapest, a long, elegant train glides into Nyugati Station. From the instant the first head turns to watch its sleek, navy and cream livery come to a halt, it’s clear this is no ordinary train. And it’s clear this will be no ordinary train journey.

I’ve been anticipating this moment, along with fewer than 50 fellow passengers, from the comfort of the station’s royal waiting room. Forget graffiti-tagged benches and hot, cramped holding rooms. This lounge was built for Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife. Travellers awaiting the Danube Express recline in velvet armchairs, admiring ornate plasterwork and a sea of gilded mirrors as flutes of Champagne float past on trays.

Then the doors open, sunlight streams in, and the train is revealed.

“You’ve got about 11 minutes to take photos,” Mike Wells, the tour manager, tells me. It’s my first taste of the precision that will titillate trainspotters throughout the four-day journey from Budapest to Istanbul. I admire his punctuality. Wells smiles: “It’s a train, so it runs on time. Or should do!”

Attendants in navy waistcoats welcome us on board, holding the brass handles of the carriage doors. By the dining car stands a beaming chef with a big hat and bigger belly.

Mr Wells is proved right 11 minutes later. Just as I’m settling into my deluxe compartment, the Danube Express moves noiselessly from the station. Life on the platform slides past — a magazine vendor, a man leaning on his brush. Budapest’s stately architecture segues gently into leafy suburbs. A boy shoots a picture on his camera phone. This is the sensation I’ve been searching for. In an era of budget airlines and baggage charges, great railway journeys like this one, the Orient-Express or El Transcantábrico have a greater hold on the imagination than ever. When I mentioned the forthcoming trip to friends, their eyes glazed over with visions of Agatha Christie. In our century of cattle class, there’s something irresistible about the notion of a journey that is an end in itself. I was finally travelling not to make good time, but to have a good time.

The man to thank for all of this is Howard Trinder, an entrepreneur and enthusiast who worked for British Rail for years before founding Great Rail Journeys. After selling that business for a healthy sum, Trinder went about designing his vision of a high-end hotel-on-wheels, taking former postal carriages from the old Hungarian government fleet and turning them into the Danube Express, the only private train in Eastern Europe with en suite bathrooms.

Mr Trinder is plainly invested in, and besotted with, his baby. He and Mrs Trinder regularly accompany their clients, and have even been spotted polishing the cutlery.

Beyond the carriage

My deluxe compartment is a step back in time to the 1950s. It’s panelled in coffee-coloured Hungarian beech. Its furniture takes the form of smartly-upholstered armchairs by day, and an L-shaped sleeping configuration by night — “It’s best if couples sleep feet-to-feet,” I’m told, somewhat unromantically. It has a private shower, air-con and a vase sprouting with fresh flowers. There’s no wi-fi, which I find frustrating, and a strange absence of scatter cushions makes daytime reclining rather difficult, but the air of easygoing elegance is otherwise impeccable.

There isn’t much time to develop cabin fever, either — several excursions are arranged over the course of the journey, beginning with a trip to Tanyacsárda Lajosmizse, a horse ranch on the Great Hungarian Plain. Shortly after Budapest, horsemen in traditional garb appear alongside the train, cracking whips. Disembarking, we follow them in a convoy of horse-drawn carriages, taking in a thrilling show of bareback riding skills with a shot of apricot brandy.

Other excursions include the Shipka Memorial Church; a coach tour of Veliko Tarnovo — the old medieval capital of Bulgaria, where a beautiful tapestry of frescoes reveals itself inside the 13th-century Church of Saints Peter and Paul; and the Romanian town of Sighisoara. The latter’s creaking old clock tower and cobbled streets are certainly of interest, but a passing glance at the souvenir stalls is all it takes to reveal the star attraction: Vlad the Impaler.

You can’t dodge Dracula in Transylvania. Vlad campaigned against the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s and is said to have been a key inspiration for Bram Stoker’s famous novel. His Romanian surname, ‘Dracul’, means dragon, and it wasn’t for his peace-loving nature that the Wallachian prince was known as ‘The Impaler’.

As an excursion to the lovely Carpathian town of Brasov reveals, however, Stoker’s ties with Transylvania were tenuous at best. In fact, the author of Dracula (1897) never set foot in Romania.

Not only that, but Bran Castle, perched magisterially on a rocky plinth overlooking the pass between Wallachia and Transylvania, never housed a vampire. You’ll find everything from fake-fangs to fridge magnets in the souvenir village at its base, but our tour guide is quite open (and funny) about the make-believe nature of it all. A ‘secret’ staircase connecting the first and third floors is more likely to have been used by Queen Maria, who actually did live here, than the blood-quaffing count, who did not.

Of course, one shouldn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. The real Dracula may never have been found, but neither has his body, so the undead could be the undoing of us yet. ‘We are in Transylvania,’ as Stoker wrote. ‘And Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things…’

Onboard elegance

Thankfully, that’s not the case back on the Danube Express, where passengers meet at 7pm to mingle over pre-dinner drinks in the lounge car. These little moments in motion — whether listening to my iPod as I stare out the picture window in my compartment, or picking over fresh strawberries with fellow travellers, are my favourite parts of the journey. We watch the sun set over swathes of sunflowers. We pass rivers coursing through the Carpathians. We clock storks nesting atop tall lampposts in rural Romania.

You can’t beat washing off the 35C heat with a shower in your own private, air-conditioned chamber after a day’s excursion. The same can be said for ordering a cold drink from your carriage attendant, or tucking into a plate of chilled fresh fruit and warm bread for breakfast.

There’s no questioning the elegance of the dining car either, with its charming table lamps and sparkling silverware, and the meals are all cooked from scratch. A turkey roulade with spinach stands out, as does a gorgeous goulash soup, lightly garnished with paprika. This is a fine way to eat, the dishes served up as we chatted about great rail scenes from North by NorthwestThe Darjeeling Limited and, of course, Murder on the Orient Express.

Something worth mentioning is the border crossings. A lot of effort goes into making these as seamless as possible, and there’s a romance to passing between countries under cloak of darkness, but we did have to disembark at the Turkish border to purchase visas at 11.30pm. Yet this does not detract from the sheer prestige and elegance of the trip and by the third night, I’m drifting to sleep easily, used to the hypnotic throb of the tracks, the lurching rhythm. On the final morning, I awake as the Danube Express trundles to a halt where Europe and Asia meet. It’s the final stop, and Istanbul is my oyster.

The Perfect Day
8am: Breakfast on board. Fresh bacon and eggs are just the ticket.
11.30am: Join an escorted excursion to Sighisoara. The historic centre of this Transylvanian Saxon town is a World Heritage Site… and the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler.
12.30pm: Eat lunch in the elegant 1950s dining car, as the train gets underway again.
2pm: Disembark to visit Brasov. Dracula’s castle was not home to a blood-quaffing count, as it turns out, but to Maria, the one-time Queen consort of Romania.
5pm: Take a shower in the only en suite bathrooms on a private train in Europe.
7.30pm: Dinner and drinks in the dining carriage.
Must try: Every locality has its firewater, and Hungary’s Kecskemét is no exception. Distilled from apricots, its palate-stripping brandy (barackpálinka) will put hairs on your chest… whatever your sex.

Traditions: “I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool,” writes Bram Stoker in Dracula (1897). “If so, my stay may be very interesting.”

ESSENTIALS The Danube Express

Getting there
The Danube Express offers add-on flights from Heathrow to Budapest with British Airways. Other options are EasyJet (Luton and Gatwick to Budapest), Ryanair (Manchester, Stansted, Bristol and Birmingham to Budapest and Wizz Air (Luton to Budapest) www.ba.com www.easyjet.com www.ryanair.com www.wizzair.com
Average flight time: 2h30m (London-Budapest).

Getting around
Excursions are organised by coach, foot and taxi, and airport transfers, at an extra cost, can be arranged in Budapest and Istanbul.

When to go
Winters can be harsh and summers can be very hot, especially on the Great Hungarian Plain. The Danube Express offers journeys in May, June and September on the Transylvanian East and West routes. Avoid the peak summer months.

Need to know
Currency: Hungarian Forint (Ft). £1 = 355 Ft; Romanian Leu (LEU). £1 = 5.72 LEU; Bulgarian Lev. £1 = 2.49 lev;
Turkish Lira (YTL). £1 = 2.82YTL.
International Dial Code: 00 36 (Hungary); 00 40 (Romania); 00 359 (Bulgaria); 00 90 (Turkey).
Visas: UK citizens do not need holiday visas for Hungary, Romania or Bulgaria. A £10 tourist visa can be purchased at the Turkish border .
Time Difference: GMT+1 (Hungary); GMT+2 (Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey).

Places mentioned
Brasov: www.brasovtravelguide.ro/en
Tanyacsárda Lajosmizse: www.tanyacsarda.hu/en
Bran Castle: www.bran-castle.com
Veliko Tarnovo: www.velikoturnovo.info

More info
www.Seat61.com
Thomas Cook — Europe by Rail. RRP: £14.99. 25% discount for Danube Express customers.
Insight Guides: Istanbul Smart Guide. RRP: £6.99.

How to do it
The Danube Express offers six routes in Central and Eastern Europe. The four-day Transylvanian East journey retails from £2,790 per person, and includes three nights on the Danube Express, all meals, wine, beer and soft drinks, escorted trips, transfers and the services of a tour manager. Flights are excluded, but Danube Express can arrange add-on packages for air or rail travel to the UK, airport transfers, and a choice of accommodation. www.danube-express.com 

Published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)