The original Orient Express started running in 1881 from Paris to Istanbul via the northern, Romanian route (Paris-München-Wien-Budapest-București-Istanbul). After World War I, the southern route substituted Belgrade-Sofia for București to bypass the worst of the Balkan political mayhem. After growing up with Agatha Christie (Murder On the Orient Express), Graham Greene (Stamboul Train), and Ian Fleming (From Russia With Love), we pegged either hyper-romantic route at the top of our bucket list.
Today, the original services are long gone, but you can retrace their steps with individual trains booked along the way. We added another variant to the original route, starting in Bruxelles and changing in Köln for Wien. With a few days off in Romania to search for Vlad the Impaler, this meant six days of travel with four nights on sleeper trains.
Each country manages its own leg of the route. The quality runs from Spartan cleanliness (Germany-Austria) to decrepit elegance (Hungary-Romania) to something else (Bulgaria-Turkey). Our favorite was the Romanian train, the Ister, even though we were advised to bring our own toilet paper and food in case they forgot to hitch up the saloon car. And then there was the minor inconvenience of the bunk that collapsed outside Budapest… And the accidentally canceled reservation in București… And the traveler with the expired passport we watched begging the Bulgarians to let him back on the train… And…
Don’t even think about taking this journey without consulting the British train expert, The Man in Seat 61. There are simply too many variables and mishaps awaiting you, and he does a beautiful job of covering them all. Even then, be prepared for a shock or two. For us, it was being dropped in the middle of the night into the ex-Communist Eastern European mob scene of Budapest-Keleti train station. In the light of the next day, of course, we couldn’t recall what all the fuss had been about.