All aboard: a mother-daughter getaway on the Golden Eagle Danube Express
A mother-daughter duo escape on the Golden Eagle Danube Express worthy of attracting the mysterious smile of Hercule Poirot
Posted on 10.31.21, 02:50 AM
Caught in the middle of an avalanche of snow, I tried to look out the frosty coach window to catch a glimpse of the mountainous landscape, partially hidden under white sheets of snow. All the travelers had gathered in the hallway of the dining room, where the silver cutlery was accompanied by glittering crystal. The majestic decor impeccably draped the cabin in rich red silks and velvets adorned with golden brocades. Everyone’s attention, however, was drawn to the one person taking center stage. Hercule Poirot. Yes, my mom and I were watching Agatha Christie’s murder on the Orient Express for the umpteenth time. But this time our interest was different. Not Poirot, but the Orient Express and the journey is made up of dreams and fantasies.
It seemed like an obvious choice for my mother’s 80th birthday – a train journey through Europe and in style, reminiscent of what we had so far only read in books or seen in movies. An experience of a lifetime. But there were a lot of questions. Was it doable? Does the Orient Express really exist in real life? Is a
80 years old to be able to undertake a journey through several countries? And that’s how it all started.
The Orient Express, a long-distance passenger train service, was launched in 1883, connecting Paris to Istanbul. Its magic and luxury became famous once Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot set foot there, taking us on a virtual tour of its hallways and cabins. However, with rising costs and increasing travel options, the original Orient Express did not last well beyond the century. Instead, the short-haul luxury train experiences in different parts of Europe began to replace it. The Venice-Simplon Orient Express, also the original shooting location of the murder mystery, was one of those heritage trains that continued to operate. However, travel is largely limited to Southern Europe, specifically between London and Venice. Danube Express, on the other hand, connected Budapest to Istanbul, traversing the enigma of the Eastern European countryside – Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and ultimately culminating in Turkey.
After researching several options and routes, the Danube Express was our preferred choice. From Vienna, we connected to Budapest on the Eurail to join the small group that had gathered to embark on this epic journey.
A luxury gastronomic experience
It was nothing less than a big party. I was seated in the dining car of our Orient Express, carefully reading the lunch menu card – our first meal on board. It is a three course meal including local specialties. The seating arrangement had been carefully planned. We took our seats with an Irish couple. Our conversation was sprinkled with appetizers and sherbets, and spiced up with exquisite tasting goulash and other meaty splendors. During our conversation, we found out that one of them was a surgeon and the other a housewife. John enthusiastically shared his culinary expertise and the challenges of managing three children, while Lisa was pressed for time between her busy schedules and was comforted by the fact that John was a master at food management. House. It made me smile quietly.
As we were still getting to know each other, Susannah, the train manager, tinkled the crystal with a silver spoon, calling for attention. In a neutral voice, she went through the rules manual and route for each day. And then there was a long pause as she consulted one of the other attendants on board. The following announcement caught us all by surprise: one of the guests was missing from the dinner table and not answering calls.
At that moment, the image of Hercule Poirot crossed my mind. But only for a brief moment. Maryanne soon entered the luxury sun-drenched dining car, nervous and flushed. Apparently she had slept too much, exhausted after a long journey from the southern shores of England. Fortunately, we resumed our conversations around a few more schnitzels, strudels and soufflés.
Each day has been meticulously planned and activities organized to give a taste of the local experience. The time of the nap was also taken into account. Our personal valet, Herman, kept time for us, other than running from race to race. The first “planned experience” took place in the Great Plains of Hungary – the “Puszta” horse show with Hungarian cowboys.
Amidst rolling green meadows, the blue, white and gold Danube Express cars stopped. Our valet gently motioned us to get on board, but I couldn’t find any station. Reading my thoughts, he put together a bespoke step stool for my mom. As we hopped onto the slopes, a group of young, beefy riders stopped to greet us. Dressed in traditional deep blue outfits and large floppy hats, the wranglers cracked their whips as they accompanied us in horse-drawn carriages.
The burly young men dressed in fancy Hungarian riding gear, rode with ease alongside us – guiding us away from the tracks into the rolling plains, then settled us into a shady grove to witness the traditional performance of the ” Csikos “. A combination of equestrian skills, horse acrobatics, authentic gypsy music, and a selection of cowboy games followed to entertain the seated audience. It sounded like a lot of fun, until one of the wranglers pointed to me and invited me to compete with him to crack the whip. From what I understood, this was part of their tradition, and the winners were given a bottle of Hungarian wine to complement the country lunch of the day.
Bedtime and border crossing
After dinner, as usual, we gathered in the lounge car, to exchange travel reports and listen to Alan at the piano. While I sipped and nibbled on after-dinner delicacies and listened to Bob and Martha’s travel stories to Antarctica, Herman had ample time to get our day cabin ready for bedtime.
Upon returning to our cabin later that evening, I was amazed at how skillfully he had converted the daytime seats by the window into two double beds. Snuggled up under the plush blankets, it took a while for me to get used to the pace of the train, before I fell asleep.
There was a scream, then a scuffle, followed by hasty footsteps. Someone was knocking on our cabin door. It was midnight, I was in the Orient Express and I heard Poirot’s persistent voice outside the door. The hits got louder and now I was wide awake. It wasn’t a dream, it was real.
I opened our door with apprehension, there were two beefy guards asking for our documents. We were entering Romania and it was the Romanian officials who asked for our passport and visa papers. They escorted me to the border checkpoint so that my papers, as well as those of my mother, could be stamped. What was unsettling the first time soon became a routine. Every night, around midnight, the train stopped at a border post, and officials diligently interrogated me and went through our papers. Later, I learned that the rigor of the controls was dictated by the nationality of the passengers. It was obvious that we were entering Eastern Europe.
Rendezvous with Transylvania
Transylvania is Bram Stoker’s country of Dracula, and, unsurprisingly, our plan for the day was to visit Dracula’s lair – Bran Castle. The castle was perched on a rock with its spiers reaching up to the blue sky and its vibrant red tile roof breaking the monotony of the verdant landscape. My interest in Vlad the Impaler was renewed as I walked through the castle’s many secret rooms, corridors and stairs, trying to separate fact from fiction.
Although the fortress is a far cry from Dracula’s stories, Romania’s Transylvania region exudes a different charm. Brasov, a picturesque town surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, with its medieval structures and Gothic stylization, is apparently caught in a time warp. In stark contrast, Sighisoara is a quaint little town, with cobbled streets and brightly colored houses, and a ubiquitous clock tower that kept watch. It was a sunny and bright afternoon, after a walking tour we enjoyed sipping our melting ice cream, sitting in the Old Town Square of this quaint town.
City walks and window viewing
The landscape ranged from lush green plains, rural fields and wooded hills to snow-capped mountains and river valleys. Looking out of the tall windows, I could see the Balkan Mountain series covered in snow and standing at attention in their dark chocolate uniform. It was a slow climb as we approached the scenic Shipka Pass at 3,820 feet in Bulgaria. We had all of our cameras ready, ready to capture the best shot. But as the coach turned around the corner following the winding tracks, I was more concerned with keeping my balance.
Later in the day, during our city walks, we learned about the historical importance of the Shipka Pass and the long and bitter battles that took place here between the Russians and the Ottomans in Turkey. The Russian influence was marked in the monuments, memorials and churches of the towns where we stopped – VelikoTarnovo and Kazanlak – the latter was home to the intricately designed Shipka Church.
The four-day train trip ended in Istanbul, where we had the option to extend our stay. The magic of the Grand Bazaar, the mystery of Hagia Sophia and the grandeur of Topkapi Palace were like the perfect ending to the trip.
Memories of the Orient Express journey have long been dear to our hearts. My mother never tires of talking about the places visited, the people I met, the stories told and the delicacies tasted at the age of 90. And the Golden Eagle Danube Express continues to deliver a luxury experience on wheels, having added many other new routes to its repertoire.