All the Adventure, a Fraction of the Cost: The D.I.Y. Orient Express


All the Adventure, a Fraction of the Cost: The D.I.Y. Orient Express

Mention the Orient Express to most people, and you’re likely to conjure up visions of the private five-star luxury train — Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express — whose meticulously restored coaches feature every conceivable Belle Epoque bell and whistle: acres of mirror-finish mahogany, sophisticated silver service, a pianist taking after-dinner requests at the lounge car’s baby grand.

That train primarily runs overnight excursions between Paris and Venice. For two travelers sharing a sleeper, prices start at 3,530 British pounds, or around $4,500 per person — but once a year, the V.S.O.E. takes five nights to retrace the classic route from Paris to Istanbul. For a solo traveler, the cost of admission is £35,000 — and that’s for the smallest cabin.

Thanks to Europe’s ongoing night train renaissance, though, it’s now possible for the first time in years to travel from Paris to Istanbul by regularly scheduled sleepers, with just two planned changes of trains, in Vienna and Bucharest. And not only can you book this D.I.Y. Orient Express online, you can reserve private sleeping compartments for the entire trip for less than $1,000.

It was a trip I had always wanted to take. And so, one balmy evening last July, I found myself under the soaring glass canopy of the Gare de l’Est in Paris — from which the first Orient Express departed 140 years earlier — with tickets in my pocket for a trip 2,000 miles east to the shores of the Bosporus, on an unbroken ribbon of rail.

Sure, there’d be no pianist in the lounge car — nor a piano, nor a lounge car. And the trip takes at least four days, with two lengthy layovers. But not even a surprise downgrade to third class (that would come later) could have lessened my excitement when “Wien” flashed onto the digital departure board. I didn’t even wait for a track announcement; I spotted the rake of blue sleeper cars across the station and lit out for Track 5 and the far edge of Europe.

The Austrian Railways (ÖBB) Nightjet train to Vienna left with little fanfare: just a blast of the whistle and we were off.

The sun was streaming into my compartment as we picked up speed through the outskirts of Paris, and there was a laid-back camaraderie on the train as everyone settled in for the 15-hour journey ahead. In the corridor, I met a music student on his way back to school in Vienna and an Austrian couple heading home to Linz, a reminder that overland travel in Europe is a fact of life rather than a novelty or an exercise in nostalgia.

That said, this train does have a claim to the Orient Express name. Between Belmond’s V.S.O.E. and Accor’s ultra-luxe rival launching next year, it’s easy to forget that the real Orient Express trundled on for decades after its interwar heyday: Following its final Paris-Istanbul run in 1977, the train was cut back to Paris-Bucharest, then Paris-Budapest, then Paris-Vienna, before fading from the timetable altogether in 2009. Since then, ÖBB has led the charge of reviving Europe’s night trains, adding Paris to its expanding Nightjet sleeper network in 2021.

For this trip, I’d sprung for the top-of-the-line single deluxe sleeper with an en-suite toilet and, sensationally, a shower.

“Breakfast will be around 8 o’clock,” said our sleeping-car attendant, Melanie, stopping by to take my order. The scenery had opened up, and our train was blasting through the French countryside as I tucked into the Algerian mhadjeb wrap I’d bought at Paris’s Belleville street market. (While the Nightjet does have a room service dinner menu, it lacks a communal restaurant car.)

An unplanned stop at Châlons-en-Champagne gave me a chance to talk to some fellow overlanders, as we stretched our legs on the platform waiting for a freight train to pass. One young man, grounded from flying by an ear condition, had come by train and ferry all the way from Ireland; a couple from London, grounded by Daisy the cockapoo, were en route to Croatia.

We stood marveling at the fiery sunset until the whistle called us back onboard, and after the wobbly thrill of showering on a speeding train, I climbed into bed, catching a glimpse of the Big Dipper before the electric whine of the Nightjet lulled me to sleep.

The next morning in Vienna, I stepped out of the train and into a July heat wave, which melted away most of my grand ambitions for the 10-hour Viennese layover the journey requires. Catching a tram to the city center, I decided, in the spirit of the trip, to stay on until the end of the line in leafy Nussdorf, a ride of about 40 minutes, where the stately old terminal now houses a restaurant; its back garden beckoned me to fully embrace “slow travel” and linger over a long lunch with a book and some ice-cold white wine.

I was back at the station by 7 p.m., armed with a schnitzel sandwich for dinner — I had read there’d be no dining car on this train, either (nor the next one, for that matter). Eventually, after an hour delay (they’d been looking for a driver), the night train to Bucharest barreled in, its sky-blue sleeping cars, emblazoned with VAGON DE DORMIT and the logo of CFR Calatori, the passenger division of Romanian Railways, giving it an exotic air of having come from far away.

The Dacia Express takes more than 18 hours to travel from Vienna to Bucharest, where it arrives in the afternoon; for anyone catching the last leg of a D.I.Y. Orient Express trip, the 10:50 a.m. Istanbul train, this means spending a night in a Bucharest hotel. Taking advantage of the fact that the Dacia passes through Transylvania, I opted to further break up my trip with two nights in the preserved medieval citadel of Sighisoara, about six hours up the line from Romania’s capital.

It’s luck of the draw if you’ll land a sleeper with an en suite bathroom on the Dacia, which like most night trains has shared toilets and showers at the end of each car; mine had only a wash basin, but my compartment was clean, cool and spacious. It felt great to be on the move again, and as we hurtled toward Hungary I poked my head through the open door of my neighbors’ compartment and asked cheerily where they were going.

“Istanbul!” answered Sabine Mader, 57, traveling with her son Josef, 17, on a rail adventure from Berlin. “At least, we are trying to! We hope to get tickets as soon as we arrive in Bucharest.”

The direct Bucharest-Istanbul service, reintroduced in 2022, is in fact a single Turkish Railways couchette car (a notch below a proper sleeper, with padded bunks rather than real beds) carried relay-race style by three connecting Romanian, Bulgarian and Turkish trains. Called the Bosporus Express, it’s a multinational effort that can be elusive in online timetables (and requires picking up a physical ticket), but it can be reserved online, news which delighted my neighbors.

With tickets secured through Josef’s phone, Sabine opened a bottle of sparkling wine to toast our success. Sitting in their compartment swapping stories felt like the Platonic ideal of night train travel, and the Dacia had more in store: a stop at Budapest’s breathtaking Keleti station, bathed in yellow lamplight, followed by the sleeper train ritual of middle-of-the-night passport checks in one’s pajamas.

The next morning, I hopped off in Sighisoara for some medieval R & R, catching the Dacia again two days later for the dramatic daytime ride through the Carpathian Mountains — past Saxon fortified churches and donkey carts waiting patiently at grade crossings — and finally into Bucharest’s bustling Gara di Nord, where I picked up my ticket for the next train to Istanbul.

“Where’s the Turkish car?”

I stared, slack-jawed, at Train 461. The Turkish couchette car was nowhere in sight. In its place was a forlorn-looking two-car Romanian train — the one the couchette car should have been attached to — and a vague explanation from a Romanian conductor that yes, the Turkish car was “broken,” so yes, this was today’s train to Istanbul.

My heart sank.

I climbed onboard, and before my disappointment could turn to panic (the two cars were “sitters,” not sleepers, and Istanbul was a 19-hour ride away), a whistle blew and I flopped into a seat next to three young men speaking quietly to each other in French.

“Istanbul, right?” I asked anxiously.

“Yes, we hope!” Our train had just lurched forward, so this was mildly reassuring.

Eliaz Bourez, Adrien Godefroy and Yann Berthier, all 24 and traveling across Europe on Interrail passes, were riding the rails to Istanbul because it’s “as far as you can go,” said Mr. Godefroy. “And we’ve been dreaming about this train the whole trip.”

“With the plate on the side saying ‘Istanbul!’” jumped in Mr. Berthier, framing it with his hands. “But where is it? I was so ready to take that photo!”

We were all a little nervous about what lay ahead, a question the entire train car was soon pondering in a scene that would have made Agatha Christie proud. We reasoned we would have to catch the three successive trains that normally haul the couchette car to Istanbul, but one question loomed large: whether the Turkish sleeper from Sofia, our final train, would have beds for us for the overnight leg of our odyssey.

Mr. Bourez shrugged hopefully. “We have to roll with it.”

And we did. Six hours, two passport checks, and one locomotive swap later, after rolling through sunflower fields and clattering across the enormous “Friendship Bridge” over the mighty Danube, we reached the Bulgarian junction town of Gorna Oryahovitsa, where we said goodbye to our first train and apprehensively eyed our next ride.

Baking in the 90-degree heat two platforms over, the Gorna-Dimitrovgrad train’s two graffitied coaches made our Romanian railcar look like the V.S.O.E. Its wide-open windows confirmed our worst fears — no air conditioning — as we hoisted ourselves onboard. I slumped into a stuffy sitting compartment with Jan Géhant, another young Interrailer, and our French friends.

“How long are we on this one?” Mr. Géhant, 19, wondered aloud. The group turned toward me; I had studied the timetable.

“Five hours.”

They groaned. “But,” I added, “it should be a scenic ride.”

It was magnificent. As we climbed slowly into the mountains along the snaking single-track line, the jointed rail clack-clacking beneath us, a staggering panorama unfolded, each S-turn revealing a more spectacular gorge or lushly green peak than the last.

I drank in the deliciously cool air and considered my luck. Had it been a normal day on the Bosporus Express, ensconced in a private air-conditioned couchette, I couldn’t have stuck my head out the window like a golden retriever, or flung open the manual doors at every remote alpine halt to wave to the uniformed stationmasters. I might have missed the invigorating chill of each tunnel lit up by sparks flying off our locomotive, or the elation of joining in a Beatles singalong in the next car up, or the joy of a picnic with new friends as we descended the mountain pass and rumbled on into the night.

And we certainly wouldn’t have arrived in the humid purgatory of Dimitrovgrad euphoric to find that the sleeper from Sofia, just by luck, had exactly enough spare beds for everyone. Bunking with Mr. Géhant in an immaculately clean two-bed compartment, I spotted the Turkish crescent on the window and broke into a huge grin.

It was almost midnight, but we were all high-fiving in the corridor, ecstatic. Spirits stayed high even through the everybody-off-the-train Kapikule border crossing, and I woke the next morning to our train racing past distant minarets under a piercing blue sky.

A few hours later, we reached the suburban station of Halkali, the current end of the line for international trains to Istanbul. There, I caught the Marmaray — the world’s only intercontinental commuter train — for the short ride to its last stop in Europe, in a tunnel built 200 feet below Sirkeci station, the historic terminus of the Orient Express.

Six days after leaving Paris, I was in Istanbul. The trip had stayed true to the myth of the train that inspired it: comfortable, convivial and a genuine adventure.

For planning a train trip across Europe (or anywhere), Mark Smith’s website The Man In Seat 61 is an indispensable resource. Check for the latest timetables and booking instructions.

I paid 371 euros, about $398, on the Nightjet and €253 on the Dacia, for top-end, private sleeping compartments; choosing a shared sleeper or couchette cuts the cost considerably. Both trains run year-round and can be booked through ÖBB, while the summer-only Bosporus Express can be reserved through CFR (I paid about 1,093 Romanian lei, or $242 to buy out an entire four-berth couchette, though Turkish Railways had other plans).

In Istanbul, until the classic line to Sirkeci reopens to international trains, buy a reloadable Istanbulkart at Halkali to ride the Marmaray. For maximum historical accuracy, continue to the Pera Palace hotel (rooms from about €263), built in 1892 to host passengers of the Orient Express.

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