From Istanbul to Budapest, via Bulgaria and Transylvania, Ian Cowie watches the passage of ambition and history.
Imagine a train journey through time, crossing cultural, political and religious conflicts spanning not just centuries but millenniums. You don't need to be Doctor Who to take this trip; all you need is a ticket on the Danube Express.
Eight carriages will transport you and 41 fellow travellers between Istanbul and Budapest, winding from the Bosporus on the shores of Asia, through the Carpathian Mountains and across the wide Hungarian plains.
The Balkans have been a battleground for thousands of years, where Muslims and Christians, patriots, Nazis, Communists and capitalists clashed. Much of this dramatic past is still visible - for good or ill - day and night from the windows of the sleeping cabins or the restaurant and lounge car, complete with its piano.
It is a curious experience, to say the least, to watch the derelict factories that litter the Romanian rust belt slide by as you drink and dine to the cheerful tunes of Cole Porter.
Bulgaria, with Romania, became a member of the European Union in January 2007. There are still laden, horse-drawn carts on its country tracks and children playing by streams and ditches choked with plastic bags. There is nothing picturesque about post-Soviet rural poverty.
There is extraordinary beauty in many other aspects of the passing scenery. Sunflowers stretch as far as the eye can see and they are replaced by orchards of walnut and cherries. There is the majesty of the river that gives this train its name and several delightful surprises, even for fairly experienced travellers.
For example, I confess I had never heard of Veliko Turnovo. Reading that this was once the mediaeval capital of Bulgaria gave me little idea of what to expect: a perfectly preserved walled city perched above the ravines of the meandering Yantra River. Chapels and churches endowed by crusaders, coming or going to the Holy Land, are scattered around Tsarevets Castle.
One of the good things about the Danube Express, unlike better-known trains that travel this region, is the ability to disembark and walk about. We wander around Veliko Turnovo and enjoy the former capital of a European country where the exploitation of holidaymakers has barely begun.
There are plenty of shops pitching for the trade of the passing traveller but very little plastic tat. Most shops sell local ceramics, such as brightly enamelled jugs and plates or woodwork, brasswork and paintings of local scenes.
More sinister are streetside stalls selling Nazi daggers, compasses and other kit left behind by a defeated army fleeing one of the bloodiest theatres of World War II. The decades of communism that followed seem to have protected this place from commercialisation, even after the Iron Curtain collapsed.
Veliko Turnovo is well worth going out of your way to visit if you seek something different. Which is just what the Danube Express founder, Howard Trinder, had in mind when he set about converting and refurbishing former Hungarian and East German rolling stock.
"This is a way to experience parts of eastern Europe that you would not otherwise see; to visit unusual destinations, some of which are almost unknown," Trinder says. "This is a hotel train where you can get out and go sightseeing. It is also unlike its competitors in that each of the new compartments in our deluxe sleeping cars have airconditioning, an en suite shower and lavatory and side-by-side beds rather than bunk beds.
"We also decided to be different from those trains [that] expect their customers to dress in black tie and the like for dinner. It's your holiday and it's your choice about what to wear."
That makes lots of sense given the amount of walking we do before, after and during the train trip. First, we enjoy a couple of days in Turkey's capital. Istanbul was the wealthiest city in Europe for most of the Middle Ages. Today, it remains by far its biggest metropolis, if you count the portion of the population that lives in Asia, because this city spans two continents.
Successive generations - pagans, Christians, Muslims and Jews - have built some of the most spectacular places of worship on the planet here. Hagia Sophia, at first a church, then a mosque and now a museum, was the largest cathedral in the world for more than a millennium.
Sheer size is by no means its only remarkable feature. Brilliantly enamelled tiles show the extraordinary artistry in ceramics, which remain a major local industry. Other fine examples of this craft can be enjoyed at the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace. Bring binoculars.
On the street, Balkan tobacco, black coffee and sweat mingle on the breeze off the Bosporus, a choppy strip of water ploughed by ships of all sizes travelling between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea.
We have a fine view of these shipping lanes to port as our train pulls out of Sirkeci station and heads towards southern Bulgaria. First stop, after the border, is Kazanlak, which used to supply rip-off Kalashnikov rifles to Third World regimes seeking a cheaper option to the licensed Russian originals. Today, it is seeking to reinvent itself as a centre of the rose-oil trade.
When we visit a nearby Thracian tomb, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, we are the only people here, apart from the security staff. There are a few more visitors at the Shipka Memorial Church, a haunting monument to a spectacularly bloody battle, where even corpses were pressed into use as weapons.
Back on the train, we pass deserted stations and a military compound filled with dusty tanks that look as though they haven't moved in a long time. Conical haystacks, raised off the ground on short stilts, are another oddity of rural Romania.
We stop at Brasov, where grim Soviet architecture gives way to open fields on higher ground and the 14th-century Bran Castle guards the pass between Transylvania and Moldavia. There is some dispute about what - if anything - Dracula had to do with these bijoux towers. Vlad Tepes, a local bad boy upon whom the Dracula myth seems to have been founded, was born nearby in Sighisoara. But such historical niceties matter little now, amid the bottles of vampire sauvignon, rubber masks and Gothic capes.
On board the train, 14 splendid Hungarian staff - one for every three passengers - adhere to old-fashioned service with a smile. They stow our beds while we have breakfast in the restaurant car each morning, so our wood-panelled cabins can serve as sitting rooms during the day, before assembling them out again while we eat dinner.
After arriving at Budapest's Nyugati station, we go to the Children's Railway: 11 kilometres of narrow-gauge track across the Buda Hills, run by a part-time team of 800 school-age volunteers.
Our guide, Andrea, explains that it was set up to help large numbers of orphans after the war and has kept running since. She adds, "See, not everything the Russians did was bad."
Much was bad, though, as demonstrated by the only museum I have visited with a bouncer on the door. The House of Terror was the headquarters of the Communists' secret police after they kicked the Nazi torturers out of it in 1945. You start on the second floor and work your way down to the basement, acutely aware that the awful things described - and often photographed - happened right where you stand.
The central theme seems to be the evil equivalence of these political extremes. You can see why the curators are careful about who enters. History in Hungary and the Balkans is not as distant, or as safe, as it seems in western Europe; they're still making it.
Turkish Airlines has a fare to Istanbul from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2240 low-season return, including tax. Fly Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong (about 9hr), then Turkish to Istanbul (12hr 10min). From Budapest, fly back to Istanbul (1hr 50min), then home the same way; see turkishairlines.com. Australians are issued a visa on arrival in Turkey for $US20 ($19) for a stay of up to three months.
A four-day Transylvanian West journey aboard the Danube Express between Istanbul and Budapest via Bulgaria and Transylvania costs from £2790 ($4230) a person, twin share, for departures from May-September next year. The cost includes all meals on board, wine, beer and soft drinks, scheduled sightseeing in Kazanlak, Veliko Turnovo, Sighisoara and Brasov and transfers and porterage. The journey can also be done in reverse. Phone +44 (0) 1462 441 400; see danube -express.com.
While on board
Venison ragout with pumpkin puree and wild mushroom rice for our first dinner set the standard at a high level, which goose leg with mashed potato and braised red cabbage managed to maintain, followed by raspberry chocolate mousse cake to end. Wine is from the Szeremley wine house and beer from the Hungarian brewery Dreher.
You can be as sociable or as solitary as you like in the dining and lounge carriages. There is no need to share a table, although you would have to be an incurious soul not to want to know a little more about your fellow travellers and we were delighted to find they included a witty Paris-based lawyer, a charming art expert from the Tate Modern and some knowledgeable, but rather reserved, rail buffs from the US.
Staying in Istanbul
The Hotel Polatdemir is a short walk from the Grand Bazaar and 15 minutes' walk from the Blue Mosque. The hotel has a contemporary design with reasonably sized rooms and great bathrooms. Rooms cost from £88; see polatdemirhotel.com.
The Larespark Hotel is a modern 164-room hotel with a spa, fitness centre and indoor pool in Taksim, a short distance from main attractions. Rooms cost from £134; see laresparktaksim.com. This hotel can also be booked as part of the Danube Express package.
Hotel Arcadia in Sultanahmet, opposite the Hagia Sophia, has stunning views from its restaurant terrace. Rooms cost from £123 a night; see hotelarcadiaistanbul.com.
Staying in Budapest
Housed in a late 19th-century building, Brody House is a hip members' club, with rooms open to non-members from £44 a night; see brodyhouse.com.
Hotel Palazzo Zichy is a contemporary boutique-style hotel in a historic building on the Pest side of the city. It costs from £87 a night; see hotel-palazzo-zichy.hu.
Further reading Last Call for the Dining Car: The Telegraph Book of Great Railway Journeys, edited by Michael Kerr (Aurum); The Danube: A Cultural History, by Andrew Beattie (Aurum).
- Telegraph, London