We’ve now traveled by sleeper coach train through every major west European country except Spain (including our own version of the Orient Express), and it’s uncanny how the experience has reflected the culture of the train’s country of origin. The French coach was dignified and correct, if a bit prim. The Italian was a wonderfully stylish mess. The German was dour and efficient, with the Austrian just a little less of both.
The Hungarian and Romanian suffered from the tattered Balkan version of a Stalinist hangover. The Turk yearned for an ancient empire—with ancient, mostly broken-down, Victorian facilities to match. The Bulgarians came off faintly sinister and intimidating. The Brits were just so British—with a Scottish accent and a bacon sandwich on the way to Edinburgh.
The most intimidating station might have been Budapest Keleti—only because we alit in the middle of the night on a dirty, rock-strewn path with surging crowds and not a single civic light to point the way. The Ceaușescu government might have tried its joyless Stalinist best to overwhelm the masses with București Gara de Nord, but by then we were used to Eastern Europe and took it in stride.
The nastiest border crossing had to be Bulgaria’s Giurgiu Nord, where the guards yanked a passenger off the train for a faulty visa. The young man sank to his knees in the rainy mud and begged until they forgave him (a little tip for the underpaid civil servant, maybe?) and let him slink back onboard.
The most disappointing station proved to be Istanbul—if only because the tracks outside of town had been ripped up, and we all had to transfer to buses. Not exactly how you expected to arrive on the Golden Horn in one of the most glamorous cities on earth.
By far the best—and zaniest—experience occurred on our very first night together on a sleeper, back in 1992 on Glinda’s first trip to the Continent. It was New Year’s Eve, en route from Paris to Rome on an Italian train, but we were too jetlagged to check out any celebrations and fell asleep. Just after 12:30 AM, we awoke and, with nothing better to do, set off to wander the corridors.
In the dining car, we found a wild employee’s party, with the staff and engineers guzzling champagne by the bottle and wolfing down a buffet with all manner of delicacies. To our surprise, they welcomed us in, handed us a pair of bottles, then pointed at the food and ignored us. We were midway through stuffing ourselves full of shrimp, oysters, and foie gras, when the train screeched to a halt after running into a stray cow on the tracks. The engineers stumbled drunkenly off the train, shouting, gesticulating, and clearing away the unfortunate animal, then clambered aboard and went back to their jobs. All in an Italian night’s work.
In an era of jet travel, when fifty Euros and an hour will get you anywhere in Europe, we don’t know how much longer the European sleeper coach experience will be available. All of the trains we traveled still fill the cars, but the luxury is a relative matter, and it’s really all about nostalgia and the throbbing melody of the rails. Who knows how much longer people like us (and a smattering of adventurous Japanese tourists) will be around to foot the bill?
One thing is for sure—we will never travel by train without checking out The Man in Seat Sixty-One. Mark Smith is a gold mine of information for train travelers worldwide, and we have consulted him for years.