The Mail on Sunday

Vienna, Austria

Half way to the Orient: Vienna was the third of Mihir's city stops

It was only as I stood on the bleak platform at Strasbourg station and saw ‘22.20 Orient-Express’ on the yellow railway timetable that I began to believe it was still possible to catch the train immortalised by Graham Greene and Agatha Christie. Only days before setting off, I’d caught Michael Palin on TV, arriving at Istanbul station during his latest travel series and confidently declaring: ‘There is no Orient-Express.’

Mention of the train today evokes images of the 21st Century re-creation of a vanished world – women who look as if they have stepped out from pages of Thirties Vogue, boarding carriages that exude opulence but never actually get to the Orient, terminating instead in Venice.

The Orient-Express I was catching was not that train but rather a regular, scheduled service that still uses the fabled name. Unlike Christie’s Hercule Poirot, however, I could not just get on a train in London and find myself in Istanbul a few days later. To make it all the way from London by rail, I had to construct my own version of the journey.

As I waited for the Orient-Express that night, I had already taken two trains – and I had also realised that crossing Europe by rail would make me very aware of the Continent’s tortured history. After departing from London, I’d been delivered to Paris’s Gare du Nord by Eurostar and taken the short walk to Gare de l’Est for a pleasant TGV journey to Strasbourg. With a few hours to kill in the city that houses the European Parliament, I’d taken a tour in a taxi and been rewarded with a glimpse of how Europe’s past is still part of her present.

Budapest, Hungary The Hungarian capital

The French cabbie at the wheel told us how Germans had tried to conquer the city during the historic tussle between the two nations for Alsace-Lorraine. As we drove round the district called Petite France, I tried to lighten the mood by suggesting it looked like Petite Allemagne. The driver fairly shouted back ‘Non, non,’ then smiled and said the Germans now came as visitors.

When it arrived, the Orient-Express was so short that it did not reach the part of the platform where we had been directed to stand. We scrambled to board, pausing only to admire the words ‘Orient-Express’ on the side.

The train was Austrian and the conductor very welcoming as he took our passports so we would not be disturbed during the night. By the time we woke up the next morning, we had crossed the French and German borders and arrived in Austria. A very acceptable breakfast had also been delivered to our compartment.

All this called for a celebration but the station master in Vienna did not seem to know the Orient- Express existed. For him it was just the night sleeper from Strasbourg.

Vienna had other surprises. Nobody visiting the city can miss the Prater – a large park in the Leopoldstadt district that has become a landmark – or a Mozart concert. But little attention is paid to Leopoldsburg, in the Vienna Woods, where there is a church commemorating the historic event more than 300 years ago when the city prevented Europe becoming Islamic.

It was here on a September day in 1683 that a Christian coalition defeated Ottoman general Kara Mustafa. Following Ottoman custom, he was strangled and his head presented to the Sultan.

But modern Viennese find such history irrelevant and when I spoke to a local, I understood why. The Austrian walking in the Prater shrugged and said: ‘Turks are here in greater number than when they besieged the city in 1683.’

Our next hop on the journey to Istanbul – to Hungary’s divided capital Budapest – was our shortest at just three hours.

Traversing a continent: Mihir boards the Orient-Express service in Strasbourg.

Hungary may be part of Europe but it still feels different. Prices in the dining car were marked in florints, although they will take euros. Seven hundred and fifty florints sounded a lot for a glass of champagne but it’s actually a very acceptable £2.50, washing down a meal of gipsy roast pork chop with garlic for 1,975 forints (£6.50).

Budapest’s Keleti station, in the Pest part of the city, looked like the old St Pancras. We didn’t linger, however, but drove across the Danube to the city’s other half, Buda. Our hotel was in the Buda Hills and it was impossible to leave it without encountering Hungarian history.

A short walk north was the National Archive. The archivist was reluctant to let us look at documents but the building’s walls spoke of the siege of Budapest during the winter of 1945 and the 1956 revolution. South was the old palace of Hungarian kings, the walls pockmarked with bullet holes, further reminders of earlier troubles.

In between sat the evocative Matthias Church. Hungarians say their society has been rebuilt every century during the past 500 years, four times during the past century alone. This is where they come to proclaim their triumphs and mourn their defeats.

There is the defeat in 1541 at the hands of Sultan Suleyman. The Ottoman ruler converted the church into a mosque, had the painted walls whitewashed and the statue of the Virgin Mary walled up.

But Hungarian legend has it that the Virgin could not be silenced. One hundred and forty-five years later, a coalition led by the Pope was ready to assault Buda Castle. Just before the final battle, the gunpowder tower exploded and the wall covering the statue fell away – in front of praying Turks. That evening the Christians retook the castle.

In Pest we found modern echoes of this historic contest. St Stephen’s Basilica, dominating a central square, honours one of Hungary’s first rulers. As we got nearer, we saw tents pitched outside. Dervishes danced and Turkish food was being prepared for devotees about to break their Ramadan fast.

On the steps of St Stephen’s we met a mixed couple – a Turk married to a Hungarian woman who had converted to Islam. Here, surely, was co-existence in modern Europe.

But our illusion was shattered by a Belgian of Hungarian descent who, pointing to the Turkish tents, said angrily: ‘We allow Muslims to pitch their tents outside our church. Would these Muslims allow Christians to do so outside their mosques when you cannot even enter Saudi Arabia carrying a Bible?’

Petite France in Strasbourg

Petite France in Strasbourg. Image courtesy of Mail Online

Waving a copy of Ed Husain’s account of his journey away from Islamic fundamentalism, he said: ‘I would make all of them read this book, then they will understand.’

I doubt if many young Hungarians would find the book of much interest. The ones I met seemed to find even the country’s struggles against communism a bit too distant. It took a visit to 60 Andrassy Boulevard to make me realise what the past means in Hungary.

What is now known as the House of Terror is set in one of the city’s most picturesque streets. Hungary was an ally of Hitler during the Second World War and this was the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis. After 1945 and the Soviet takeover, it became the home of the notorious communist terror organisations, the AVO and its successor the AVH.

Unlike some former USSR satellites that cover up their Nazi past, concentrating only on the Soviet horrors, Hungary does not try to rewrite history. The result is a museum that gives a flavour of life under both regimes. The basement cells have been preserved to show where prisoners were kept during their interrogation – without blankets, and fed a daily ration of a cup of bean soup and 5oz of bread.

In many ways, the most chilling place in the museum is the ‘Room of the Soviet Advisers’. It looks like a Fifties office: mahogany desks, comfortable chairs, filing cabinets and telephones. But it was from here that the Soviets controlled the country, with files on Hungarians and advice on how to conduct political show trials.

Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. Image courtesy of Mail Online

The midnight Dacia Express, to take us on the 12-hour journey overnight to Bucharest, was late arriving from Vienna. Wolfgang, the Austrian sleeping car attendant, could not have been more helpful. But, as he took us to our compartment, he pointed to the lock on the door – a gesture that suggested this was a very new EU world we were entering. Next morning, when we went off to breakfast, Wolfgang locked our compartment.

The menu in the restaurant car promised much but delivered only ham omelette and toast. In a way, it reflected the Romanian countryside we glimpsed from the train. Much of it was bleak and rural, children on horse-drawn carts, decrepit houses, unpaved roads, large rubbish tips at the edges of small, dismal villages.

The picture changed as we went through Transylvania, and Pedro, the Romanian conductor, suddenly found his tongue and began talking about this being Dracula country. But when I mentioned it had once belonged to Hungary – the two nations have fought over it – Pedro’s good humour vanished.

Our train pulled into Bucharest an hour and a half late and at the station we had to fight off taxi drivers wanting to take our bags. The one who succeeded agreed to take euros (Romania still has its own currency) and was keen to prove he had been a witness to history. As he drove past an avenue he explained it was named to commemorate a victory over the Turks. He had, of course, also been in the city in 1989 when Nicolae Ceausescu fell.

Two decades after communism’s collapse, Bucharest is still a work in progress, with parts looking more like an up-and-coming Asian city than the capital of a newly arrived EU state. Many of the dimly lit streets have potholes, overhead cables are almost a street decoration and pavement booksellers and down-and-outs crowd the main thoroughfares.

Bucharest advertises itself as the great Latin outpost that kept Europe free from Turks but, as we got to the station to catch the train to Istanbul, there seemed to be no end of people waiting to leave for Turkey. As our taxi driver bade us goodbye, he warned: ‘Watch your bags!’ As he spoke, we were approached by beggars who attended us during our time at the busy station.

None of this could dim my excitement as I boarded the train. This was not only the last leg of the journey but the timing seemed perfect. It was lunchtime and we would get to Istanbul by morning – there was lunch, dinner and possibly breakfast in the dining car to savour.

Sadly, once on board I discovered there was no dining car, nor would any food be available during the 19-hour journey. I rushed back into the station to get what food I could, having to change money for the first time since leaving Waterloo – all the stallholders wanted their own currency. The supplies I got were hardly a banquet and I was saddled with Romanian currency I could do little with. The Istanbul Express is not designed for anything but sleeping. It was just gone 1pm, but our beds were made and we could not convert them to seats as the key to lock them in the daytime position had been lost.

Ottoman ruler Sultan Suleyman. Picture coutesy of Mail Online

Ottoman ruler Sultan Suleyman. Image courtesy of Mail Online

Just before the train departed, we began to hear dire warnings about what Turkey held for us from a passenger in the next compartment. He said he was a Jewish professor. ‘Have you,’ he asked, ‘seen Midnight Express? This is what this train journey is like.’ Of the Turkish border, Kapikule, he said: ‘They will force you out of the train, inspect you. It’s horrible.’

Alarmed, I asked Lorenzo, the Romanian sleeping car attendant, about it. He exclaimed ‘Turkey!’ and spread his arms as if to say anything is possible. He did blame the Turks for the lack of a restaurant car. He said there had been one until about a year ago but it served pork, forbidden to Muslims, so it was stopped.

Our route lay over Romanian and Bulgarian borders. So, through the night, there were knocks on the door to check papers but, with both countries playing important football matches, talk of the people’s game lightened the mood.

At Kapikule, just after 2am, we dressed hurriedly and got off the train with trepidation. It was cold and the station was bleak. Our papers were checked at two counters and we paid for our Turkish visas. But it was hardly the ordeal we’d been led to expect. The next morning our ‘professor’ revealed himself to be a Turkish journalist having a little joke.

The approach to Istanbul could not have been more delightful with the Sea of Marmara sparkling on our right. Just before we reached the station, Lorenzo pointed to a castle where a Romanian king had been beheaded following his capture by the Turks.

In the city, our first sight was of a waiter sweeping round a table at a restaurant called The Orient Express. The taxi driver haggled furiously and a wedding reception for a local politician’s daughter blocked the entrance to our hotel.

At last, we were in Asia – ten days, and six trains, after leaving London.


European Rail (020 7619 1083, can arrange rail travel, accommodation and tailor-made packages throughout Europe. A one-way ticket from London to Istanbul via Strasbourg, Vienna and Bucharest costs from £367 including overnight sleeper.


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