Wife Linda and I took the trip from August 24 – Sept 1, 2016. Some observations for whatever interest anyone on this list of friends might have.
The original “Orient Express” connected the English Channel with the Black Sea in the 1920’s, an era where trains were “the” modes of travel. With its connecting trains, it passed over the railway systems of thirteen different countries of the continent of Europe. Even then, it was expensive travel and those doing so insured that it was a class act. Black tie and female finery for dinner and each car the lap of luxury. The genre was immortalized by Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) and the film of the same name in 1974.
Automobiles and super highways made it pretty obsolete and the original trains fell into disrepair in numerous train graveyards across Europe, to be resurrected in the 1980’s to their former glory by entrepreneurs. There are several routes now, the centerpiece being the Paris to Istanbul route, 5 days and five nights. The cars are truly opulent now (see photos) and the former glory has been maintained.
First, some observations on some of the characters we met.
Seven middle-aged women that lived on the same block for 33 years somewhere in Connecticut. They got married there, had their kids there and now they’re in their late 50s. They could have been the models for “Desperate Housewives” (2004-2012). There were originally eight of them and they all had vowed to make this trip together at some time in their old age. Then one died unexpectedly and left the money to make the trip to the remaining seven in her will. So the seven went together as a group, did all the activities together. I watched them and saw a veil of sadness within them, an occasional tear.
There was a gaggle of very Arabic women, complete with headdresses. Must have been about ten of them, maybe more and they were pretty much together on some of the end cars. One of them stood out from the rest. Some of the guys called her the Queen Bee. She had a different kind of hair-containing appliance, exposing her neck and face. She was tall, had the cheekbones and complexion of a drop-dead beauty (see photo).
So when we got into a hotel and some WiFi we “think” we found her. Best evidence is she’s “Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned” the second wife of the former ruling Emir of Qatar. He has three wives. My guess is that none of them assemble in the same room at the same time but they manage some contact as the Emir as 24 children, six by this woman. He appears to be retired since 2013.
She’s incredibly well educated and has had her fingers in many world social, political and cultural pies. Said to be one of the best-dressed women in the world. She’s been seen hanging out with numerous world leaders. They all stayed to themselves and I suspect some of them were bodyguards. My wife ended up tangling with one of them after wandering around getting told that one of the bathrooms was “private”. Wrong thing to tell a woman that (she opined loudly) has been thrown out of worse places by better people. Snake eyes all around.
This lady apparently got the train in trouble when we tried to pass into Turkey. The Turks are famously neurotic about who gets into their country and demanded to eyeball each and every passenger and their travel documents including mandatory visas. A weak variation on the theme of “Midnight Express” (1978). According to our porter, the train was held up for a while as the Turks decided how much they liked the former Emir’s politics, but since he was no longer in power, they relented and we ultimately went on our way.
So, what was the experience like?
First of all, it was expensive, very expensive and the adventure we had anticipated wasn’t quite what we got. This was billed as a nostalgic trip back in time to experience what it was like to make this trip the way it was in 1920. To a certain extent, it was that, but with some caveats.
The temperature on arrival in Paris was 95 degrees F and it stayed that way for most of the trip but the train was beautiful. The modules are tiny, barely room to sit and the heat was oppressive, including in the evening. Luggage must fit on an overhead rack like on aircraft. A cabinet opens for a washbasin and mirror. There are no shower or bath facilities. No WiFi. There is no air conditioning except in the bar car and the dining cars. Open window suffices. Every other day we were all shuttled to five star hotels in various Eastern European cities for showers and to get away from the tiny train accommodation.
Dinner was black tie and females gussied up to the max, including lots of bling. Food was world class excellent, with a named chef in residence on the train, the kitchen running 24/7 to feed a hundred passengers. He came out every night and accepted lots of praise. French, of course.
Two adults getting dressed for dinner in such a tiny space is fraught with unintended humor and physically exhausting, each literally reaching around the other. During the day there was not much to do but gawk out the window at the rarely changing landscape. At night, after dinner, the porter converted out tiny module for sleeping, two fold out trays about 6 feet long and maybe 2.5 feet wide. It was so hot that the window had to be open and it was VERY noisy thought the night, bright lights and trains proceeding the opposite direction 6 feet away at over 100 mph about every half hour. It sounded like a full-on Guns ‘n Roses concert all night long.
The highlights of the trip were dinner and the every-other-night hotel to get a shower and sleep in a real bed quietly. Yes, it was an adventure but one I’m pretty happy not to repeat. It’s a been-there-done-that trip with lots of photos to remember it by. Happy to have had the opportunity to do it, but much more of the world to see.
If you’re interested in this trip look deeply into it and talk to me before deciding. Maybe I’ll comment on our wondering around Paris and especially one of my top five favorite cities in the world, Istanbul. A city no one should die before visiting. Maybe next Sunday. I have a ton of photos.
I give the trip 3 of 5 clickity-clacks for the overall noise and discomfort experience, definitely 4 of 5 for the adventure quotient.