03 January 2011
Journey to Istanbul
Guest relations hostess Paula Pavlou's adventures on her recent Venice Simplon-Orient-Express journey from Paris to Istanbul.
Friday – Goodbye Paris
The red carpet is rolled out as the gleaming navy carriages of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express sit alongside the platform at Paris's Gare de l'Est. Stewards line up in their blue and gold uniforms and escort the 95 guests, from 18 countries, to their cabins. At the wave of a green flag the train sets off: its annual journey to Istanbul is underway.
Passengers are settling in to their new, glamorous surroundings as afternoon tea is served. Train Manager Bruno Janssens and I make our way along the corridors, and introduce ourselves to every one. The train rolls on through eastern France and into Germany. Guests take their seats in the three dining cars for an evening that gets off to a great start with seabass with caviar, followed by similarly memorable dishes. We move on to the Bar Car,
where the buzz of conversation includes the first of what will be many compliments for Chef Christian Bodiguel's cooking. Later, guests return to their cabins to find the seats transformed into beds, ready for a night's sleep on the move.
Saturday – Through Austria and on into Hungary
Dawn breaks, window blinds are raised and hot croissants and coffee are served in guests' cabins, heralding a leisurely morning on board. As I walk along the train, I see many ladies in glamorous dressing gowns through open doors. We take in the passing scenery as the train travels through Austria and on towards Hungary. Lunch is delicate monkfish flavoured with saffron followed by a pineapple, pistachio and coconut dessert.
Late that afternoon, much to passengers' surprise and delight, we are greeted at Budapest Nyugati station by an impressive brass band. We leave the train to spend the next night in the Hungarian capital. Our hotel is positioned on Castle Hill in Buda: everyone comments on the fantastic Danube river views.
We walk to the splendid Academy of Sciences, a former palace, for an evening of Hungarian dining. After aperitifs in the garden, gypsy musicians lead us into the beautiful ballroom for a grand dinner. Guests mingle and chat as they enjoy this spectacular occasion.
Sunday – Budapest and crossing the Romanian border
Our day begins with a walking tour of the Castle District in Buda, Gellert Hill and over the Elizabeth Bridge to Heroes' Square. Fortunately the sun is with us! I head to Gundel Restaurant ready to greet the guests as they arrive for lunch. We chat over aperitifs on the terrace, before moving to the majestic Queen Elizabeth room for another Hungarian feast - including the famous Gundel pancake, served with rum and chocolate sauce.
Our afternoon tour of Pest includes a stop at the magnificent St Stephen's Basilica. Next comes a late-afternoon cruise along the Danube River, with a reviving glass of bubbly.
Returning to Nyugati Station, it feels wonderfully exciting to see the VSOE at the platform, welcoming us 'home'. Musicians play as we enter the Royal Salon and then step on board for our onward journey. While there is plenty to talk about, the main topic seems to be that night's eagerly anticipated dinner. The pan-fried trout with buttered nettles and Bresse chicken with black truffles certainly live up to expectations. Today, most guests retire to bed straight after dinner - especially as clocks go forward an hour when we cross into Romania that night. On my way back to my cabin I see our crew giving interviews to the local TV stations and talking to members of the public who have been waiting at the border for the grand arrival of the Orient-Express.
Monday – A fairytale castle and Bucharest
It's an early and chilly start today as we arrive at the Carpathian mountain town of Sinaia to a welcome from a military band. Local residents crowd the station, trying to get a glimpse of the train. When the very first Orient Express arrived here on its inaugural journey in 1883 it could hardly have created more of a stir. A special police escort accompanies us to Peles Castle, normally closed on Mondays but open today exclusively for us. With its fairy-tale turrets spiking the forested mountains, it is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in Europe. We explore the decorative interior - every surface covered in wood carvings, stained glass and chandeliers - and then stroll through the sculpture gardens outside.
After brunch on board, we complete the short journey to Bucharest. As the train pulls into the station, we disembark to a frenzy of TV cameras, microphones and crowds of people - all eager to see the legendary train. Many of our guests stop to be interviewed and photographed, and spot themselves later on the local news. Our arrival makes headlines in all the media. Escaping the chaos, guests head off to Revolution Square, Parliament House and the orthodox Metropolitan church.
This evening is a glamorous affair in the elegant belle epoque ballroom Le Diplomate, a national monument. We dine on a menu of traditional Romanian dishes, serenaded by singers and fast-paced fiddlers. Some of the guests take to the dance floor and the party continues on into the early hours in the hotel bar.
Tuesday – Bulgaria and the Black Sea
After breakfast we return to the station: a traditional animal puppet show is staged in the Presidential Salon, with dancing and music that draws in local commuters as well as our guests. Everyone settles back on board as the train travels south across the Danube and into Bulgaria. Fields of dried sunflowers stretch into the distance, traversed by farmers in donkey carts. We then head east to Varna on the Black Sea.
Guests are received by Bulgarian couples in national dress who offer the traditional welcome of bread and salt. We then set off for Euxinograd Palace, where Gregorian singers perform, and walk through its beautiful gardens and park, with breathtaking views of the Black Sea. Al fresco refreshments are served, including the famous wine bottled on the estate. We return to the centre of Varna to visit the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin, where priests chant ancient canticles dating from the Byzantine period.
A beautiful sunset lights up the carriages with brilliant oranges, reds and pinks as we re-board the train for our final night on board. The restaurant cars are buzzing with chatter, chinking cutlery and the music of a strolling Bulgarian accordionist. The Bar Car then comes into its own and the pianist (who seems to have been playing day and night since we left Paris!) accompanies the hardcore well into the wee hours…
Wednesday – A taste of Turkey
At around 08.30 we reach the border crossing at Kapikule, where local food supplies are loaded. Guests wake up to a folklore dance show performed on the platform by Turkish children. Lunch today is a highlight: a special Turkish menu designed by Christian Bodiguel together with the Executive Chef from the Kempinski Ciragan Palace Hotel in Istanbul.
We arrive at Sirkeci station to a fantastic Turkish welcome ceremony on the platform by a loud Janissary band. Crew members line up along a red carpet to wish passengers goodbye. Turkish tea is served in the salon while luggage is unloaded, and, one by one, guests set off on the next stage of their adventure.
At the end of a fascinating, unique and - yes - tiring, journey across seven countries and cultures, it's time for all the crew, myself included, to change out of uniform and relax with a well-earned beer at the bar on the station platform. It is named, appropriately enough, the Orient-Express.