Stops all stations

Inspired by the Orient Express, Alice Russell embarks on a 4000-kilometre train journey from London to Istanbul.

Our journey along a train route whose name suggests comfort, luxury and murder begins with the absence of all three. On a damp London morning we close the door on our basement lodgings and walk unmolested through empty streets to the nearest Tube station.

Destination: Istanbul via, more or less, the path once travelled by the Orient Express.

For the lightbulb-going-on moment for a trip that will take us across Europe, from its western edge to the border with Asia, we must go back a year, to the day my husband emails me, without comment, a web address for the Venice-Simplon Orient Express. I find images of gorgeous restored carriages and place names that evoke thoughts of travel at its most romantic.

Is he really suggesting we do this? I am touched. Then I look at the price. I realise he is touched.

This train runs occasionally from Paris to Istanbul – only once this year, leaving on a Friday and arriving on Wednesday, and costs more than $10,000 a person. This is beyond our budget and, on reflection, not especially appealing if you want to see anything of the countries you pass through. But the vision of this glorious journey holds the kernel of an idea.

The Orient Express, on further investigation, was never one train. Not so much a train as a train route, it linked Paris and Istanbul, with connections to London, running originally through Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. As a direct service over the full distance, the Orient Express hasn't run for more than 30 years. Its heyday was in the 1930s.

But there is nothing to stop us retracing its path on regular trains and spending time in places along the way.

Orient Express travellers took three nights to get from Paris to Istanbul – even faster than the current model – but as we leave London on the first of many train journeys, we have nearly 40 days to play with.

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We go to Paris the old-fashioned way – by train and ferry and train again. Next morning, we sit in the sunny wheelhouse of the Bateau Johanna, our Parisian "hotel" moored on the Seine, watching the passing river traffic and aware of a tremendous sense of good fortune. For a few days, we delve strenuously into Parisian life, making a point of dining at Le Train Bleu, the sumptuous restaurant in the Gare de Lyon whose awe-inspiring decor harks back to the grand days of rail travel.

Strasbourg is a two-hour trip on a crowded TGV full of briefcase-wielding business passengers who ignore the farmland and villages whizzing by. After the big cities, Strasbourg seems quiet, which is no bad thing, and it proves a good place for walking: also no bad thing, as the local cuisine suggests a population that must surely count reaching 40 without a triple bypass operation a rare achievement.

If we were Orient Express purists, our next trip would take us east to Munich. But it would also take us there just in time for the pie-eyed carousers and inflated prices of the Oktoberfest, so we turn south through Germany instead, almost as far as Switzerland. We spend the night in Lindau, pretty as a postcard, on an island in Lake Constance.

Next morning we push on to the east, into Austria through the gorgeous Tyrolean landscape; high peaks capped by snow loom alongside and a friendly Swiss woman in the next seat points out the places where she spent her childhood holidays.

At Innsbruck we turn south, going through the Alps via the Brenner Pass before changing to a local train that takes us across Trentino-Alto Adige, the most northern part of Italy. The Dolomites jut up to the south, craggy and beautiful in the late afternoon sun.

If these past few days have been a diversion, we are about to compound it. After a day in the village of San Candido, we head further south. My travelling companion has a thing about the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, so there's no choice but to go to his home town of Ljubljana. The Slovenian capital lives up to its promise, with a pleasantly seedy appeal and an enthusiastic embrace of cafe culture.

You could spend a lot of time thinking deeply over beer beside the Ljubljanica River but there are thousands of kilometres ahead of us yet and it's time to get back to the Orient Express path.

We survive a six-hour run north in a train crowded with students who sprawl beyond the limitations of their seats and eat constantly, and then we step off into Vienna.

Days follow filled with art, cakes, palaces, river trips and ferris-wheel rides, punctuated by the blandishments of dozens of Mozart impersonators, before we turn our faces firmly east to Hungary. After three enervating hours in a crowded compartment with the temperature kept at crematory levels by a fierce woman with one hand on her laptop and the other on the door, we arrive in Budapest and fairly leap into the airy Keleti station.

We spend three days in an apartment quite possibly smaller than an Orient Express carriage and pass idle hours drinking tokay in the famous old Gerbeaud cafe on Vorosmarty Square.

And then, once again, we decide to vary the Orient Express model, less radically this time, in order to see something of Romania. First stop: Timisoara, not far beyond the border and considered one of Romania's more appealing towns. Some grim places we pass, of communist-era concrete apartment blocks, suggest the bar is not raised overly high.

Timisoara is where the 1989 Romanian revolution began. At the station next morning we'd be happy to fire the first shot in some kind of railway revolution. Our train smells, dirty curtains dangle and cigarette butts roll around the floor of our non-smoking, first-class carriage.

But the engines work and we leave on time. Sitting gingerly on sticky seats, we look out at horse-drawn carts among the modern cars and trucks. Women in black peasant skirts dig vegetables in the fields and men wield pitchforks. We pass villages with unpaved streets and pigs and chooks in backyards. And then come the grifters, boarding at one station, leaving further down the track, trying to sell hopelessly unappealing goods: sad stuffed toys, tatty magazines. They disappear as we head into the Transylvanian hills and farms and villages give way to forest and mist.

Sibiu, in the heart of Transylvania, has a beautifully preserved historic centre, with interconnecting squares. Our hotel, on the other hand, has the bleakest breakfast room (and breakfast) seen since the glory days of the Soviet Union. And our stay is tinged with apprehension at the prospect of the trip to Bucharest, another six or so hours on a Romanian train. On the day, we find our seats and are joined by another couple, their clothing and farewells through the window giving them away as Romanian.

As we set off, the man catches my eye. "You speak English?""Yes.""Where are you from?""Australia.""Australia! We're Canadians." They emigrated 20 years ago. When another Romanian couple boards later, our new friends become interpreters; stories flow and bottles of home-distilled spirits appear for comparative sampling. It's our best train trip.

Bucharest is a blur of building works and psychotic traffic. And then, too soon, we are boarding the Bosfor Express for our last train trip, the first sleeper. Orient Express glamour? Hardly. It's basic and more or less clean. Though it's officially an 18-hour run, there is no dining car.

Lolling happily on our bunks, consuming our supplies, we roll steadily out of Romania and through the open, empty Bulgarian countryside. We reach the Turkish border about 4am, joining other befuddled passengers leaving the train to buy visas; then the train carries us on through the dawn.

At last, signs of a city. On we go into Istanbul, the ancient metropolis of 12 million people that straddles two continents. Blocks of flats give way to wooden houses on narrow streets; to our right, boats rock gently on the Sea of Marmara. And then, just as the Orient Express did, the Bosfor pulls into Sirkeci station. After nearly five weeks, 10 countries, about 4000 kilometres of track and not a single murder, it's our last arrival.

Or nearly the last. Our journey is finished, we have travelled right across Europe from west to east. But there is one more trip to make and on a cool afternoon, after a day of mosques and palaces and mosaics, we board a ferry at the Eminonu docks.

There is nothing romantic about this trip; it's a routine commuter run. But the body of water over which it takes us is the Bosphorus and when we reach Kadikoy on the other side and walk off the boat, we put our feet on Asian soil.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

We planned all our rail trips but booked only two: Paris-Strasbourg (for good deals on advance purchases, see voyages-sncf.com) and the Bucharest-Istanbul sleeper (we did this in London, by phone through Deutsche Bahn UK, www.bahn.co.uk, and received tickets the next day). We found second-class travel more than adequate as far as Budapest and first-class travel barely adequate thereafter. Buying point-to-point tickets proved considerably cheaper than Eurail passes. All up, train travel cost us about $1000 each.

Essential: a rail map of Europe, the online European timetable at bahn.de and the information available on seat61.com.

Staying there

To avoid wasting limited time hotel-hunting, we booked accommodation for all stops. Our best finds were: B&B on a boat in Paris (www.bateau.johanna.free.fr); Gutenberg Hotel, Strasbourg (hotel-gutenberg.com), apartment in Budapest (small, excellent location, cheap, apartmentbudapest.hu), Pension Sacher in Vienna (central, generously equipped apartment, www.pension-sacher.at), Slamic B&B near Ljubljana's old city (www.slamic.si), Rembrandt Hotel, Bucharest (www.rembrandt.ro).

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