Sink into a luxurious leather armchair, dine on fine cuisine, and rub elbows with royalty as Europe flashes by across your window. During the early 19th century up to the late 20th century, this is exactly what the passengers of the Orient Express sleeper train did as they travelled from Paris to Istanbul. Developed by Belgian tycoon Georges Nagelmackers, the Orient Express enjoyed great prestige during its heyday and remains embedded in popular culture today – in Agatha Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express, TV show Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and James Bond film From Russia with Love.
Here we map out some of the stops on this legendary train route.
• Budapest, Hungary. Water, water everywhere! Pouring out of the mouths of stone lions, bursting from thermal springs, and flowing through private baths. Budapest is “The City of Spas”, 118 in all. Hungary’s capital is famed for the Buda Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which has been devastated by battles through the centuries. It has been rebuilt splendidly today, and houses a number of museums and the Széchenyi Library.
• Niš, Serbia. The birthplace of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine had a rough start; it has fallen to many conquerors, from the Huns to the Hungarians, and has been rebuilt each time. Christened “The Gate between East and West”, what remains from its violent past are the ruins of a grand residence in Mediana; Cele Kula, a skull tower made from the bones of Serbian freedom-fighters; and an 18th century fortress with its walls, gates, armoury, prison, and Turkish bath still intact.
• Strasbourg, France. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Strasbourg houses the headquarters for a number of European institutions. The Notre-Dame Cathedral stands proud, its astronomical clock a marvel to see, as a parade of mechanical figures illustrate the stages of life when the clock strikes half past noon. The sick were once quarantined in Petite France Quarter, but today it draws tourists to its centuries-old French houses by the river Ill. In the German Quarter, the Egyptian House is another eye-catcher.
• Sofia, Bulgaria. The country’s capital, 7,000 year-old Sofia, is the centre of Bulgarian commerce and modernity. Nevertheless, it has a number of ancient sites which attract the crowds. The 14th-century Kremikovtsi Monastery for example, is astounding from the inside, with its murals of holy figures and scenes. There are a number of museums dedicated to Bulgarian history, archaeology, and ethnography as well.
• Bucharest, Romania. Glass skyscrapers, romantic fountains, glitzy hotels, stately statues, and verdant parks sit side-by-side in the capital of Romania. Once called “Paris of the East” for its exquisite architecture and lofty lifestyle, “Bucharest” is said to mean “joy”. Cantacuzino Palace was built by the prime minister, who wanted to have the most impressive house in the land. The Royal Palace and the Romanian Athenaeum are extraordinary as well.
• Stuttgart, Germany. It is a region so prolific with wine that in the 14th century, mortar was actually mixed with the potent stuff to build houses. It was even given freely in the 17th century. Try the “dignified” Riesling, “musky” Müller-Thurgau, and the high-quality Kerner. To truly partake in the native Stuttgart bacchanalia, grab a seat in a Besen inn, where the locals wine, dine, sing bawdy rhymes, tell stories, and make merry.
• Salzburg, Austria. Famous as the home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as well as the location of the classic musical film The Sound of Music, Salzburg is a postcard-perfect city. Just visit the domed Baroque Cathedral, with its angel-haloed main organ; the almost thousand year-old Hohensalzburg Fortress, with its Gothic décor; and the shopping avenue Getreidegasse, with its old-fashioned store signs. No wonder it was named 2008’s third most beautiful European city by Condé Nast Traveller.