A fairytale train journey through the Danube

Maggie Shipstead 27 October 2021

Ride along, vicariously, on a luxury trip through the former Ottoman Empire on the famous Danube Express 

Trains take you behind the façade of a place and show you fleeting, random glimpses of ordinary life, sometimes beautiful, sometimes gritty. Travelling from Istanbul to Budapest on a luxurious private train called the Golden Eagle Danube Express in 2019, I looked out on storybook medieval villages and gloomy Communist housing blocks; smoke-stacked industrial suburbs and endless fields of sunflowers. Bystanders took videos of our cream-and-blue carriages, which were restored in the style of a glamorous fin de siècle sleeper train.

Sometimes the train’s throwback elegance made me feel like a visitor from another era; sometimes the scenery gave me a sense of travelling through another time. Once, somewhere in Romania, beside a highway humming with boxy Cold War-era Trabants and the latest German luxury cars, I glimpsed a man driving a horse cart down a dirt lane. 

For four days, the train carried me and my 17 fellow passengers across a thousand miles, through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. And here’s what blew my mind: every scene we saw, every inch of railroad we clacked across, fell inside the boundaries of what was once the Ottoman Empire. For more than 600 years, sultans ruled a vast multinational, multilingual territory, and our itinerary took us from its heart to its northern edge. 

A waiter aboard the Danube Express

Every day the train stopped for walking tours, and the Ottomans popped up constantly in the guides’ narration. The reconstructed fortress we visited in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria? A bulwark against the Ottoman Turks until 1393, when they burned it down and took over. Budapest’s public baths? An Ottoman legacy. The defensive towers in the 12th-century Transylvanian citadel of Sighisoara? One guess who they were built to defend against.

"Where else could the trip begin, but Istanbul?"

Where else could the trip begin, but Istanbul? Everyone describes the city—the Ottoman capital from 1453 until the empire’s dismantling in 1922—as amazing. But, for some reason, I’d never felt an urge to go. As soon as my car from the airport crested a hill, though, and the labyrinthine metropolis unfolded below, minarets needling up like cactus spines and the Bosporus strait reflecting a purple-pink dusk, I got it. 
First there’s its sheer size: Istanbul is home to more than 15 million people.

It’s a grand jumble of tiled roofs, expansive waterfront promenades, and maze upon maze of narrow, Byzantine alleys. Then there’s its thrilling geography, spanning Europe and Asia with the Bosporus in between, a location with strategic and commercial advantages so irresistible that it has been continuously inhabited for almost 3,000 years. Fortifications, monuments, and archaeological finds crop up pretty much every time someone puts a shovel in the earth.

After a night in a hotel, my fellow Danube Express passengers and I set out on foot for a guided tour. The Ottoman Empire’s essential qualities of immensity, longevity, and complexity were driven home by our first stop, Topkapi Palace. This was the sultans’ dwelling place from the mid 15th to mid 19th century and their seat of power over a gigantic swath of territory that stretched from present-day Algeria to Iraq, and Croatia to Saudi Arabia.

Nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, Peleș Castle was built near the end of Romania's royal era 

Topkapi’s structures are long, low and decoratively understated—at least when you consider the sultans’ extreme wealth. They surround gardens now plain but once paradisiacal, abounding with tulips and roses, peacocks and gazelles. The guide then led us to the harem, where the sultan lived with his family, female servants, and, notoriously, a fluctuating population of female concubines. Only a small fraction of its more than 300 rooms are open to the public, but I still felt disoriented and claustrophobic as we walked through multiple tiled chambers and twisting corridors.

At one point we emerged into an open courtyard where latticed windows looked out across the water toward the city, at a wider but unreachable world. After Topkapi, we visited three other big attractions: Hagia Sophia, a hulking sixth-century Byzantine church-turned mosque; the Blue Mosque, a mass of domes and minarets; and the Grand Bazaar, an immense covered market that felt like a video game in which, instead of enemies, men offering deals on rugs popped out from all directions.

All these places were compelling and important, but they were also crowded, and the day was hot. By the time we boarded the train in the early evening, the health app on my phone said I’d walked seven miles.
I revelled in my glassed-in shower stall as the Danube Express slid out of Sirkeci station. In my roomy, wood-paneled cabin, I could sit by one picture window and drink a cappuccino, or recline beside another on a pillow-strewn sofa, which an attendant converted to a fluffy bed each night.

"All these places were compelling and important, but they were also crowded, and the day was hot"

The next carriage was the bar car, where white-gloved waiters circulated with drinks. A man played jazz standards on a keyboard. The dining car was next, a vision of white linens and gleaming, elaborate place settings. As I dined on Parma ham draped over cantaloupe, I thought of Hercule Poirot and the Orient Express. Indeed, the Danube Express invokes a kind of nostalgia for nostalgia, recalling an era of elegant travel so bygone that the vast majority of us only know it secondhand from period pieces.

The breathtakingly steep town of Veliko Tarnavo, Bulgaria

I had imagined the trip might attract die-hard train buffs, and though a handful of our well-travelled group had already taken the swanky Trans-Siberian Express, most seemed drawn less by the train itself and more by the ease of our cruise-like itinerary. Being conveyed from place to place without having to repack or carry bags is no small asset in places such as rural Romania, where infrastructure is on the rudimentary side.

Next morning I woke in Bulgaria. Outside the window, wispy fog and the green Balkan Mountains had replaced Istanbul’s sprawl. In the night, the train had click-clacked northwest across the shifting frontiers of former empires, fought over for centuries but today all but forgotten. 

A little after 9am, we reached our first stop, the medieval fortress city of Veliko Tarnovo, which was stacked so steeply uphill from the winding Yantra River that a local joke, our guide said, is that directions are given in terms of up and down, not right and left. We checked out an equestrian monument to the rulers of the Asen dynasty, who had overthrown the Byzantines in 1186, and then the Tsarevets fortress, which had failed to stop the Turks.

In a nearby village, Arbanasi, we visited the 16th-century Church of the Nativity, a low stone structure that looked like a meeting hall for hobbits. The inside, densely painted with saints in red, gold, and green, gave me the giddy feeling of some holy kaleidoscope. 

As we reboarded the Danube Express that evening, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be spending much time on the train. I’d imagined leisurely hours reading in my cabin, but soon learned that on journeys like these, nighttime and early morning are when the distances are covered. Daytime was for walking tours, which were always interesting and, since our visit coincided with the tail end of a heatwave, always characterised by the search for shade. 

How’s this for a sightseeing marathon? The next day we disembarked at 7:45am in the Transylvanian alpine town of Sinaia to visit Peles Castle, reboarded for a quick trip to the city of Brasov, took a bus to Bran Castle for dinner, and returned to the train after 11pm, at which point I collapsed into bed. Half a dozen passengers, all decades my senior, adjourned to the bar car for a nightcap. Heroes.
Castles in modern times present a quandary.

They are impractical dwellings and no longer serve defensive purposes, but letting them decay would be a shame. So admission must be charged and curiosity cultivated. Peles¸ Castle was built mostly in the 1870s as a summer palace for Carol I, who became Romania’s ruling prince in 1866 and, following its formal recognition as a country, its first king in 1881, which honestly seems a little late to kickstart a monarchy.

Drawing on tenuous historical and literary connections, Bran Castle in Transylvania has rebranded itself as Dracula's Castle

Nestled in the Southern Carpathian Mountains, Peles¸ is a 160-room fantasia done in a catch-all style known as neo-Renaissance. From the outside, it looks like an over-the-top Bavarian hunting lodge, timbered and spired; inside, it’s a showcase of embellishment, with once-futuristic features like a cinema and a central vacuum system. Final touches were added in 1914, a mere 33 years before the Communists would seize all royal property. Touring Peles¸’s public rooms, I felt an odd melancholy for its builders, who had been oblivious to the looming end of their gilded era.

"Bran Castle, too, excites the imagination, but more for marketing reasons than for anything related to historical fact"

Bran Castle, too, excites the imagination, but more for marketing reasons than for anything related to historical fact. Built in the second half of the 14th century as a fortress to defend against invaders, including, yes, the Ottoman Turks, Bran is now known as Dracula’s Castle, a tourist-trappy label reinforced by the stalls, clustered at its foot like a feudal village, selling plastic fangs and glow-in-the-dark wolf T-shirts. 

In the 1970s, enterprising travel companies promoted the castle based on a tenuous connection to Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century Wallachian prince with a predilection for skewering his Ottoman enemies on stakes. He is widely believed to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s fictional vampire, and so the leap to undead monster as the face of Bran was made. Disappointingly, Stoker never came to Transylvania, and there is also no concrete evidence that he based his bloodthirsty count on Vlad the Impaler.

Bran is one of those attractions that transcend cheesiness. Perched on a rocky bluff, it’s arresting and genuinely spooky-looking. Inside are appealing, whitewashed living spaces. Squeezing up a narrow stone staircase, we emerged into a high room where a long table was waiting. French doors opened onto a balcony overlooking the castle’s towers and courtyard: the setting for a private dinner. A string quartet played while we dined and chatted about travel, as tour mates tend to do.

Budapest

On the last day, I woke to find that Romanian cornfields had given way to the Great Hungarian Plain, a vast expanse of grassland that occupies the eastern half of Hungary. We stopped for one last excursion, which involved sampling the local schnapps and watching a traditional horse show. In Budapest, we disembarked the Danube Express for the last time. 

That evening I sat beside the river while barges passed and young women sat chatting on the embankment. Like Istanbul, Budapest is an ancient city. The Romans, the Huns, the Visigoths, the Magyars, the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, the Nazis, the Soviets—they all had a hand in shaping it. The city’s spires darkened to silhouettes, and it struck me how crazy it is, really, how touching, that the human belief in the permanence of cities and borders and ways of life persists despite ever-accumulating evidence to the contrary. 

Someday, travellers might take trips designed to spark a sense of nostalgia for our era. Someday—and this is certain—it will be the humans of today who will be the ancient ones.

From Travel + Leisure (December 11, 2019), Copyright 2019, by Maggie Shipstead

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