The Orient Express for Dummies

Today finds me in the charming Bulgarian city of Veliko Tărnovo. I’ve barely begun my overland journey from Istanbul to Paris and already the questions are flying on Facebook. “The two most common queries: “Are you ever coming home?” and something along the lines of, “Holy crap, Mike, the Orient Express? Did you win the lottery?”  

It’s questions like that last one that remind me of the many misconceptions surrounding international travel. First of all, backpacker style travel in much of the world is cheaper than settling down in a city like Toronto, so no, I didn’t win the lottery and you don’t have to strike it rich to do what I am currently doing.

Actually it’s with tongue in cheek that I use the term “dummies” in the title of this post as I too once believed that a white dinner jacket, a box of expensive cigars and a taste for brandy would be required to ride a train between Istanbul and Paris.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Before I touch on what the “Orient Express” means today, let’s turn to Wikipedia for some historical context:

“The Orient Express was the name of a long-distance passenger train service created in 1883 by Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL). The route and rolling stock of the Orient Express changed many times. Several routes in the past concurrently used the Orient Express name, or slight variants there of. Although the original Orient Express was simply a normal international railway service, the name has become synonymous with intrigue and luxury travel.”

Source: Wikipedia 

The cities most often associated with the Orient Express are Paris and Constantinople (Istanbul), but when it debuted on June 5, 1883, the first Express d’Orient was a regularly scheduled train running between Paris and Vienna. By October of 1883 the route had been extended to Giurgiu, Romania where passengers switched to a ferry to cross the Danube to Ruse, Bulgaria. From there they took another train to Varna and finally a second ferry from Varna to Constantinople. By 1889 the entire route could be completed by train.

This service lasted the better part of a century, albeit with considerable tweaking of the route, schedule and rolling stock.  

In 1977 the Vienna to Istanbul leg was dropped. Thirty years later there were some more tweaks and by 2009 the whole thing had been scrapped–a victim of “high speed trains and cut-rate airfare” according to several sources. That’s right, no regularly scheduled through train known as the Orient Express has existed since 2009. 

There is still a luxury train, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express which is operated by Express Hotels Ltd., but it is not a “regularly scheduled” train and I’m not sure that I’d enjoy it even if I could afford it.  For one thing, you cannot simply hop off to explore a city and jump on another train a few days later.

But train travel between Turkey (Kapikule) and Paris is still possible, it’s just not one continuous train. No, that would be too easy and who likes stress-free travel?  To cover this route by rail in 2017 one must purchase a number of tickets on a number of interconnected railways. This is what I will be doing over the next 4-6 weeks with stopovers in places like Veliko Tărnovo, Bucharest, Brasov, Sighisoara, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich and Strasbourg.  

Yesterday I had breakfast with two experienced travellers who claimed that the ancient city of Plovdiv (Bulgaria) is worth a look. It’s one of the oldest cities in Europe and excavations on the Main Street are exposing new artifacts from the Roman Empire every day.  And then I read a Facebook comment by my friend Arlyn Levy who mentioned that her grandfather was from Sofia, Bulgaria. Well, that decided that. Sofia is now on the list, too.

So I went back to the girl who runs the hostel and asked how one would get to Plovdiv. She told me that a luxury bus makes the trip from Veliko Tărnovo several times each day and it’s actually a very relaxing trip. When I asked if there was a train, she replied: “Well, technically you can get there by train, but they’re old clunkers and you have to change trains a few times. The stations are dumps, there’s no meal service and the people riding the trains are just weird. Go by bus, it’s at least four hours faster and much, much, much nicer. 

So of course you know which option I chose.  I’m heading to the train station within the hour.

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