AFOE’s trip on the Orient Express

How did we not blog this earlier? The Orient Express has made its last trip. In fact, this is one of those events that has happened and re-happened; the last train that actually made the trip from Paris to Istanbul/Sirkeci did it in 1977, and most people will now associate the name with the luxury London-Venice cruise train that Sea Containers set up in the 1980s. But the one we’re talking about is the one that actually had the title attached to the path in the railways’ working timetables.

By the finish, it only did Paris-Budapest and then only Paris-Vienna, which is fine but hardly the Orient. (Seat61 informs me that the through Paris-Budapest and Paris-Bucharest cars were dropped in June, 2001.) To do the full route, you had to make a connection in Budapest, which could be harder than you think as that city has almost as many conflicting major railway stations as London. Also, trains from the West frequently arrived at the Southern Station there, just as the late Orient Express used the Westbahnhof in Vienna.

I took the train in 2002, taking advantage of a rare moment of reduced poverty to visit my partner and her dad in Paris; Paul Theroux, who did the full Paris-Istanbul trek in 1974, remarked that it was indeed murder on the Orient Express. I wouldn’t be quite so harsh, although had you asked me on the outward trip I might have been. Showing up in good time at the station, I found the train, a gaggle of Hungarian rolling stock, lurking in a dark corner and immediately went to look for things to eat, drink, and read during the trip – it didn’t look promising. I had a bunk in a couchette; on the way there, I noticed the route card on the end of the carriage read “EN-262: Orient-Express” and cheered up somewhat. (In fact, I’ve still got the route card. The Austrian Federal Railway can sue me.)

Actually, that version of the Orient Express was hitched to the evening Vienna-Salzburg as far as Salzburg, so there was in fact a dining car and it made reasonable speed. The problems began when I tried to sleep; there was actually a cello in the compartment, and Americans kept getting on and off the train at every intermediate stop in Germany. Outside, in the corridor, there was a Balkanish type who wanted me to share his first-class sleeper. It was not a good night; after it was over, somewhere in the Champagne, a long announcement was made in French about all the good things that were available for breakfast from the steward. Then, the voice repeated this message in German. This is the exact text of the translation:

Paris. Ende station.

And good morning to you too. Then, of course, the sinister long mobilisation-grade platforms of the Gare de l’Est, and enough coffee to get alert enough to poodlefake her dad.

On the reverse trip, things were more spartan, there being no food except for sausages from the steward and Austrian lager, so I spent the evening eating käsekrainer for their nutritional value and drinking beer with various people who all turned out to know people I knew at Vienna University and to be interested to find out what had happened with the demo that weekend (a riot, as it happened – it was a good weekend to be out of town). Eventually, the steward opened a empty compartment for the corridor party to move into. I recall someone carrying a copy of a book called Das Schwarzbuch der Menschheit, which struck me as impressively even-handed but rather depressing – hey, even plants have tried to kill the world. Sleeping Car Guy was on the train, but he didn’t recognise me, or perhaps he did and kept his trap shut.

I even got a wink or two of sleep, and we pulled into the Westbahnhof in good time and a small rainstorm. Good times.

The reason why the service is being withdrawn is optimistic; the high-speed trains now go so far and so fast that you can get from London to Vienna in a day by rail (although, rather you than me – it leaves at 0827 and arrives at 2322 with connections in Brussels and Frankfurt, a long day’s train ride by anyone’s standards). And, of course, if they have power sockets, WLAN, and a rail to hang your jacket on, like the business sections on Swiss trains, you’ll be able to conspire just as much if not more.

Thinking about it, the experience wasn’t something that foretold the future, but rather a hangover from the recent past. Sleeping Car Guy, like the huge, filthy Südbahnhof in Vienna with its parallel network of long distance buses into the Balkans, was a leftover of immediate post-Cold War Europe – something of the spirit I tried to convey in this post. Like our Transition and Accession category, though, that’s now done.

3 thoughts on “AFOE’s trip on the Orient Express

  1. I wouldn’t say Transition and Accession are /quite/ done; Serbia, Kosovo, Moldova, et seq. I took an overnight train from Bucharest to Chisinau last year that was pretty much exactly as you describe. Even had something stolen!

    The upscale version of the Sudbahnhof is Terminal A in Vienna airport, aka the “crappy little countries to the east and south of us” terminal. All flights for the Balkans and the Caucasus depart from here. It’s clean, but there are something like 20 seats total for half a dozen gates; if you want to sit, you must pass through the individual security checkpoints at each gate. The implicit message really does seem to be “hurry up and get out of here, disreputable foreigners”.

    Doug M.

  2. Thanks for your article. For me, it was an aftermath of the past. I took a lot of times this train between Munich and Paris. It was year 1989, the year of the fall of the Iron Curtain. Trains had a mixture of Austrian,Ungarian,German and French wagons. Travelling custom officers were often complaining about Romanian hiding under those wagons.

    If you look to db.de (or dbfrance.fr), you will see that it’s still possible to go from Paris to Istanbul in 48 h. With maybe a lot of changes: München,Pullach,Beograd or Stuttgart,München,Budapest,Sofia. The eastern part (i.e. East from Budapest or Belgrad) seems to be slower and slower. Probably a need to massive investments, if the European Union wants to act in this matter.

    For the future, the new TGV-ICE line (from Paris to Stuttgart or Frankfurt) brings some progress. But this is true that we don’t have high-speed sleeping wagons yet. Probably the short-term model would be high-speed (TGV-ICE-Eurostar) up to Munich (München), and renewed night trains (EN) south-east of München.

    Sorry, for the lack of German announcements of the French network. The personnel of French train catering companies isn’t familiar with German (on contrary to Air France cabin crew for same routes). I could give at least 5 or 6 reasons why, but this is probably not the point here. I work sometimes for one of the catering company involved, and I can ask if English or German language can be improved.

  3. Hi,

    Thanks for the great article it has given me some great ideas for my next trip.

    I am looking to travel across Europe by train as I think it will be alot greener as it will hopefully enhance my experience. I have been using http://www.raileurope.co.uk as I found them pretty good

    xx

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