Not Quite the Orient Express

We strolled along the platform at Sofia, past the modern, sleek, comfortable looking train, where passengers were already relaxing with a glass of wine. In the distance was a smaller, distinctly older cluster of carriages.
Vanessa stopped half-way along the considerable length of Platform 1; her mouth formed a perfect inverted smile. "I'm not going in that. It cannot be ours." True, the graffiti covered train was not the most inviting receptacle for a night's journey across Bulgaria to the East; in fact it looked like it would have been considered a relic during the Cold War years. Carol and I continued. A surly looking man with the gray-lined skin of a Bulgarian smoker confirmed this was indeed our mobile hotel room for the night. Vanessa was still a forlorn figure in the middle of the platform, suitcase clasped in one hand. "It's ours," we called and climbed aboard.

I leaned out of the window as Vanessa trudged up the platform. "It's OK inside!"
"Sort of,"sotte voce as I pulled my head back in.

Two carriages and an engine that looked just about robust enough to get us to Istanbul. The heating was on full blast, without an individual working thermostat - we opened the window, left our door ajar and hoped that the cooler outside air would circulate within. Three bunks, a wash basin that doubled as a table and a rack at the top of the carriage to store our cases. The one toilet was at the end of the carriage. This explained why we had not been able to purchase First Class tickets. We were not sure we were even Second Class. The other carriage was not a sleeper - standard seating - they must have been Third Class.

Others boarded but rather than the talkative people I have met on sleeper trains before these all entered their compartments, shut the doors and were not seen until we needed to disembark. As the train pulled away from the station we stood in the corridor to watch, and opened the windows to allow more air in. With the engine more than idling the heat was being pumped into the carriage at a considerable rate and we were beginning to experience a Turkish bath before we had got anywhere near that particular country. The conductor was not pleased with our audacious moves and closed the windows. We opened them again. He closed them, we opened them. He relented; we all smoked.

So why hadn't our train turned out to be the Orient Express I envisaged, resplendent dark blue and gold carriages with a carriage conductor dressed in a smart uniform with shiny brass buttons? Simply, because it doesn't exist. Well, at the time of our travels the 'real' Orient Express was still running (it made its last journey in December 2009 from Strasbourg to Vienna), but nowhere near the Balkans and not the one from my multiple readings of Christie's Murder on the Orient Express

It all comes down to names. Agatha Christie's version was the Simplon Orient Express, one of the Wagon-Lits company trains that had Orient Express as part of their names. That train did run to and from Istanbul via Paris, Milan, Venice, Trieste, Zagreb, Belgrade and Sofia but it ceased running on a daily basis in 1962 being replaced with a twice-weekly sleeping car from Paris to Istanbul. In its heyday the passengers would have been sleeping in wood-panelled compartments, with one or two beds on one side of the room, the washbasin on the other. We had the washbasin, and we had the beds (plus one) but either the panelling had been used as fuel during the winter or the formica walls were original. 

We drank most of our brandy and wine. We had a party in our tiny compartment, just the three of us giggling and talking until the drink took its toll and we started to drop off. Vanessa was not to be moved from the bottom bunk. Carol did not fancy being at the very top. I clambered up. The tallest person on the shortest bunk. The person with the hottest blood trapped in the pockets of hot air that had risen to the top of the compartment. I asked for the window to be open. The ordinarily soothing clack of train on track became the soundtrack of a mad percussionist. I watched the Bulgarian night slip past the window - and so did Vanessa and Carol. We closed the window; I nearly suffocated. We continued the raising and lowering of the window until, as we neared the border with Turkey we slipped into a form of slumber.

As dreams started to form behind my eyes the train slowed and the conductor banged on the doors - we were at the Turkish border.

Carol and Ness putting a brave face on.

This is an extract from my forthcoming book Crossing the Bosporus, available in 2013.

We travelled to Bulgaria and Istanbul, Turkey in March 2009.

Thanks to the superb The Man in Seat 61 website for the Orient Express history.

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