My Globetrotter trip was originally much more streamlined – the proposal was simple: retrace the route of the Orient Express, the mythical ribbon of rail that whisked royalty, spies, writers and movie stars to the exotic streets of old Stamboul. I envisioned a purely rail-based route, from London to Istanbul via France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Romania. However, things became complicated when Russia invaded Ukraine in the spring. With international tensions rising, I realized that my original route through Hungary and Romania had me speeding within miles of the Ukrainian border, a potential warzone where who-knew-what was about to go down. I immediately decided that for safety reasons, I made a rule to avoid any country with a Ukrainian border. Therefore it seemed my Orient Express pilgrimage was dead in the water.
But then I had an idea. Perhaps the war made retracing the original route infeasible. However, I recalled that, over the century of the railway’s operation, “Orient Express” became a blanket term for the railway’s transcontinental routes, even ones that didn’t follow the original route. Maybe then, as long as I ended up in the spiritual terminus of the line – Istanbul- a circumvention would be forgivable? I sprung upon my mental knowledge of rail routes and formulated a plan. Yes, this could work! I would follow the Orient Express route, and after that push eastward as far as possible by rail. When I ran out of track in the Balkans- I suspected due to the destruction following the breakup of Yugoslavia – I would fly to Athens, where a ship would send me to Istanbul. It was different from my plan, but if I could pull it off, not only would I still cross half of Europe by rail and reach the goal of Istanbul, but I would see the ruins of Athens and dramatically enter Turkey by sea, using a combination of trains, planes, cars, and ships. I would still complete my Orient Express pilgrimage, as well as pay homage to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles!
London, UK to Salzburg, Austria
The first day of my voyage was dedicated to the Orient Express. For the entire day, I would be riding a total of four trains across half of Europe- an incredible experience. I knew when my Eurostar train chugged out of London’s St. Pancras Station the adventure was beginning.
The eastbound passengers of the Orient Express had to cross the English Channel by ferry, but modern convenience allowed the Eurostar to speed directly through the Channel Tunnel without missing a beat, and emerged in the north of France. Two hours after departing London, I could see the Sacre-Coeur Basilica through the right-side window as we pulled into Paris. I stepped off the train at Gare du Nord, walked ten minutes, and hopped onto another train at Gare de L’Est to continue my journey. I couldn’t help but think about how in 1883, at this same station, the Orient Express made its maiden voyage.
The TGV train whizzed through eastern France, and crossed the Rhine River into Germany. This river had been the object of centuries of conflict between the two nations, resulting in much bloodshed, but today the train passed through without even a check for passport control. The ride terminated in Stuttgart, where I transferred to a rundown commuter train to Munich. There, under the shadow of the Mercedes-Benz Headquarters, I switched to the final train of the day to Salzburg. For the next three days, I would be exploring Salzburg and recuperating from a full day of travel.
Salzburg, Austria, and Berchtesgaden, Germany
Salzburg was a fascinating place to visit. The town is halved by a crystalline glacial river, and some of the oldest buildings in town are carved into the rocky cliffside atop which the city’s fortress sits. I had lunch one day in Austria’s oldest restaurant – founded in 803 AD! In addition I visited an 18th-century coffeehouse frequented by Mozart and their family when they wanted exotic commodities like ice cream and coffee.
Speaking of Salzburg’s most famous son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthplace is now a museum, where I walked into the room where the pianist was born. Numerous artifacts were on display, including Mozart’s childhood violin as well as items used by Mozart’s family when they traveled. Mozart spent about a third of his lifetime on the road for concerts!
I took a day trip across the German border into Bavaria, where I visited the infamous Eagle’s Nest. This mountaintop chalet was the private conference center of Adolf Hitler, where he met with diplomats and Nazi officers, and Eva Braun held tea parties. The entire valley below was a restricted zone, as seen from the sweeping vistas from the Nest. The spectacular views, accessible by an elevator sliced into the solid rock, stretch from the Austrian border to the Bavarian Lake District. The vista was breathtaking- and not just because of the altitude!
Salzburg, Austria to Zagreb, Croatia
It was time to travel as far east as possible, from Salzburg to the capital of Croatia. And the seven hour train ride that would take me there turned out to be quite the adventure! I left Salzburg in the afternoon, the train whizzing through the alpine passes alongside blue glacial rivers and snow capped peaks. The imposing Werfen Castle overlooked the valley as we sped southward. I was excited to reach the city of Zagreb and to watch the scenery pass by way of Slovenia. A group of Irish backpackers settled into the cabin with me, and we crammed in the compartment like a pack of sardines.
But as we left the town of Villach in southern Austria something went awry. We accelerated through forested woodlands when the train suddenly stopped, idled, then inched backward onto another track, and on my live GPS app we seemed to be making a U-turn! The train halted on a deserted platform in a suburban rail yard and everybody filtered out.
The news was dismaying: a rainstorm caused a tree to collapse right in front of us, and knocked out the electric power cables that ran above the train! We were stranded in Austria at dusk, at an abandoned station, and with no knowledge of when the obstacle would be cleared! The other passengers, mostly Slovenian commuters and holidaymakers with schedules to keep, were incensed. There was no way to get food or water because the deserted station lacked restaurants and vending machines, our train had no dining car, and any expedition to grab food away from the station was fraught with risk, as at any moment the track could be cleared and the train would leave without us! Hour by hour passed by, and although we were just outside of a city it felt like the ends of the earth. I was worried I would miss my flight the next day.
To kill time we passengers chatted. I conversed with a Slovenian girl heading home who giggled at my attempt to pronounce her country’s capital, Ljubljana. Several of the Irish boys took a gamble, crossing the track to reach a McDonald’s. A businessman and I considered the viability of summoning a taxi to cross the border into Slovenia, but the cost was prohibitive! But then, after dark settled on the Alps, the train began to chug on. After four hours, the ordeal was over, and now that it was done it felt less like a hindrance and more like an experience. A seven hour journey had stretched into a twelve-and-a-half hour odyssey, but I wasn’t complaining. I sprawled out on a couch, woken from sleep by border control, and my passport was graced with stamps from Slovenia and Croatia. I saw some passengers disembark in the capital and let Slovenia whiz by in the darkness.
Zagreb, Croatia, and Athens, Greece
I had only a few hours in Zagreb, but was happy to explore the city. The Croatian language was incomprehensible to me but it was fun to sound the words out. I walked the old town’s elevated streets, crossed the humming university district, and eventually made my way to St. Mark’s Church. The city’s landmark, this beautiful church features a quilt-like shingle roof with various colors, as well as the city’s coat of arms. It reminded me of a tastefully decadent gingerbread house!
From Zagreb, the train segment was over, but my Orient trip was far from done. I boarded a tiny plane on the aptly named Aegean Airlines, and within two hours it had touched down and I entered Greece for the first time!
Athens reminded me of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, with hilly terrain punctuated with scrubland atop sunny seas. I checked into my budget accommodations, and from the rooftop patio I could see the Acropolis beckoning on the horizon. One would think that Athens is overrun with tourists, but if you play your cards right you can feel like you’ve stepped into antiquity.
My stay was filled with activities and sightseeing. I visited a total of six museums, including the Byzantine museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art, and the Greek war museum. I toured the National Archaeological Museum, with its huge statue of Zeus and the Mask of Agamemnon. I sat in on a worship service in an ornate and serene Greek Orthodox church with its gilded icons and chandeliers. I saw Roman public toilets at the Roman Forum and admired stray cats lounging on mosaics at Hadrian’s Library. I went off the beaten track at Karameikos Cemetery, which I had all to myself and I could walk among ancient Greek statues, gravestones, and the foundations of walls that protected Athens during the Peloponnesian War.
On the day we were set to reach Istanbul, I woke up early to watch the ship sail through the Dardanelles. On either side of us was a continent: Europe on the west, Asia on the east. Hulking cargo ships passed the hilly farmland flanking the waterway. The ship blared its horn as we sailed beneath the newly-opened Canakkale Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world, painted red and white like the Turkish flag.
I watched on deck as we crossed the Sea of Marmara, and eventually I saw it from the sea- the way Istanbul is meant to be approached. The first thing I noticed was the intensification of ship traffic, and skyscrapers in the far distance. The shorelines raced to each other, faltering at the Bosporus. As we neared, I peered through a pair of borrowed binoculars and saw the Hagia Sofia, its Byzantine edifice flanked with four minarets. I had trouble realizing that I was actually here.
The ship whisked up the Bosporus Strait, ferries sputtering in the wake and seagulls gliding above. To the right, on the Asian side, I could see the Maiden’s Tower, and beyond that the Haydarpasha Station- an architectural icon built by German engineering as part of the German-Turkish plan to build a railway from Berlin to Baghdad before WWI. On the right was the Golden Horn, gleaming as civilians fished from the bridges. In the evening light, you could see the Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque with its six minarets.
It was time for the climax, and I set out into the city to make a loop to my point of pilgrimage. Taking a car, I watched the scenery go by, starting with the Roman walls that lined the western edge of the city. The Theodosian Walls have stood for a millennia and a half, weathering countless sieges and attacks, only falling after the advent of gunpowder artillery. It’s insane to think that these Roman walls have weathered the centuries, while nowadays our concrete buildings crack and decay within decades. We rode past Yenikapi, the recently excavated ruins of an old Byzantine harbor, and saw the Suleiman Mosque. I saw Sirkeci Station, the terminus of the Orient Express, and I knew my goal was near.
We crossed back into the Galata district, to the north of the old city. Under the shadow of the 14th century Galata Tower, I walked into the Pera Palace Hotel and crossed my finish line. In this elegant Oriental hotel, passengers from the Orient Express stayed after their continent-wide train journey. And it was in this very building where Agatha Christie is said to had written Murder On The Orient Express. Amid the luxurious lobby and lounge was a wooden and cast iron elevator, installed in 1892. And the piece de resistance was a sedan chair used by the hotel to shuttle Orient Express passengers from Sirkeci Station to the Pera Palace Hotel. Among these artifacts from a historic legacy of rails gone by, I completed a transcontinental odyssey – to museums, historic sites, natural beauty, and most importantly the thrill of the rails experienced by centuries of travelers.