As late July approached my plans to undertake this long dreamed of journey finally sat comfortably in place. Tickets and hotels were booked – the various train segments and reservations, one flight, stays in the corresponding nights in cities along the way homewards – all accompanied by carefully selected reading for the journey. But my nervousness was not reduced by the careful planning. I still harboured not inconsiderable disbelief that I would actually travel on this journey, or even that I would arrive in Istanbul.
The various components would see me travel from Edinburgh, a relatively short flight to Istanbul, stay a few nights there, and then begin my journey back. Firstly I would catch the night train to Bucharest, through Turkey, Bulgaria and southern Romania. After a few nights in Bucharest, I would board the afternoon and overnight train through Transylvania, Hungary and Austria into Vienna, to catch the day train the following day all the way through the Alps down to Venice. After a couple of nights in Venice, I would board my next train for a 36 hour journey through the Italian, Austrian and Swiss Alps, Liechtenstein and France before crossing the channel and heading London-wards. A couple of nights in London then, before the East Coast Train up to Edinburgh.
But indeed, the days did pass smartly, and grandmother’s suitcase started to accumulate the necessities of comfortable clothes and books, in its little corner of the bedroom in preparation for the flight to Istanbul and the homecoming journey.
It was early afternoon four Thursdays ago, when the lock was snapped shut, and grandmother’s suitcase was howfed down the Edinburgh stairwell, up the cobbled street and onto the tram for the Airport. I swiped my travel card, for the very last time. Part of this journey would see me transition to the Voldemort age which, in addition to not being permitted to speak out loud, magically provides free travel on Scottish buses and trams. I checked in for my flight, nervously instructing grandmother’s suitcase to go straight to Istanbul, unlike its mysterious adventures at Christmas where it took its own holidays, and refused to accompany me.
The flight to Istanbul was uneventful, if late, and arrival at an almost deserted airport made for a smooth arrival. To my relief, grandmother’s suitcase had decided to catch the same flight and we were happily reunited.
It was well after midnight when I arrived at my first destination, the renowned Pera Palas. This hotel is an icon of quirkiness and eccentricity, built in 1892 for passengers disembarking from the Orient Express. This was intentionally selected to set the tone of my rail journey back to Edinburgh, all the way by train over the two weeks of my return journey along the route of the Orient Express. The Pera Palas was rich in character and history, and is featured in the Lonely Planet as a sight rather than a hotel. It has a distinguished literary pedigree. Agatha Christie reputedly wrote “Murder on the Orient Express” in room 411. The main character of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” stayed there as did the protagonists of Graham Green’s “Travels with my Aunt”. The place was steeped in literary and other history.
Once I had checked in, the night porter took great pride in showing me the drawing room and lounge areas before taking me into the glorious elevator instructing me to sit on the velvet bench as the metal cage took us up to my room.
To my delight there was a little balcony, and even at that late hour, the views over the Golden Horn with the illuminated mosques took my breath away.
The Pera Palas is a wonderful institution with a museum, libraries, photographs and the celebrated Agatha Christie Room as well as little display cases dotted around with original Orient Express tickets, and memorabilia as well as many original fittings. The perfect setting to prepare for a memorable train journey.
I planned to stay four nights in Istanbul, exploring and absorbing this magical city, nestled on the cusp of Asia and Europe. While exploring the city, I was accompanied by Orhan Pamuk’s glorious book “The Museum of Innocence” gifted by a friend with the recommendation that I visit the museum itself while I was there. Reading the book, and visiting the museum brought an expected depth to my experience of Istanbul. As well as Pamuk’s sizeable work, I had also brought Paul Theroux’s “The Ghost of the Orient Star” where he recounted the journey he had made by train across Europe, Asia and back on the Trans Siberian in 2006. In this he retraced the very journey he had taken himself thirty years earlier (told in “The Great Railway Bazaar”). These books were the perfect travel companions, grounding me in the right frame of mind for the forthcoming rail journeys, evoking the spirit of the Orient Express and also giving me the sense of being absorbed in Pamuk’s Istanbul life. Both books (one fiction, one non- fiction) had references to and descriptions of the Pera Palas, and on the Saturday evening there was a wedding reception, which could easily have been the very one described in Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence.
The days passed too quickly and in no time, grandmother’s suitcase was being packed carefully for the first train, and the start of my journey by rail all the way back to Edinburgh.
My first challenge was to get the right train, from the correct station. Traditionally the train would arrive in and leave from Istanbul’s Sirkeci Station. However, this station in central Istanbul, has been under major renovation for some time, with a completion date of at least two years hence. Long distance trains are currently leaving from the little known Halkali Station out in the suburbs. I had to somehow get myself to this station.
I had been told that a bus shuttle ran from Sirkeci to Halkali but getting timings or information about this bus proved to be impossible. Eventually I was told that the bus did not run, as the metro suburban train ran to Halkali. With my bags, arthritic hands and difficulty with stairs, I was not too comfortable with the prospect of howfing grandmother’s suitcase on the metro, so I decided to take a taxi which I was promised would take less than an hour and not be expensive, less than 90 Turkish Lira.
Of course, I was nervous. That is the appeal of such travel. The sense of achievement when you navigate the complexities of unusual travel is more than worth the anxiety. Usually.
My first concern was that the taxi driver would try and take me to the airport, as this would be the normal destination for a departing passenger. I was worried that be would not believe that I really was trying to get the night train to Bucharest. As we passed more and more signs to the airport, I realised that the moment to clarify my destination had passed, and that if I did turn up at the airport the time to raise this would be then. Eventually though, we turned off the main highway, and I was relieved to see a sign for Halkali. I was less reassured when after a few minutes, the taxi driver slowed down, rolled down his window and asked a fellow driver where the “train istaysion” was. This happened several times, as the clocked and meter ticked on, and we headed onwards, with no sign of a train line or station at all.
Finally, the driver spotted a train line in the distance, but in the opposite direction. More directions and a ticking off from a policeman, heading down a very welcome exit route and round a roundabout more than once and we drove past a building that seemed to house train platforms and an escalator. Another few wrong turns later, and both myself and the taxi driver were satisfied that this indeed was the train station, just hiding up an escalator, and I was confident enough to thank my taxi driver and head into this strange building.
Grandmother’s suitcase and I trundled up the escalator to an empty concourse. Clutching my ticket, I headed to find the details of the train’s departure from the information board. There wasn’t one. No departure or arrival information, no information desk, no signs, no clues. Nothing. Only a little ticket office, where I turned to for help and information. I handed my ticket through the window and asked about the Bucharest train. “Ah, Sofia”, responded the railway staff. “No, no, Bucharest”’ I responded. “You go Platform 4 at 9 o’clock”, he responded.
Much relieved, I dragged Grandmother’s suitcase along to the stairways leading to the platforms. All were blocked off by those tape barricades that exist only in airports and railway stations. Peering down the stairs, I realised that not one of the platforms had numbers. Each platform did have a waiting room at the top of the stairs, but absolutely no clue as to the identity of platform or destinations served. As it was not long after 8.30 and my train was not due to actually depart until 9.40, I was comfortable to just wait patiently in one of the waiting areas. Another woman joined me in the waiting room and in broken English we chatted. She was heading in the opposite direction, past Ankara I gathered, at 10 pm. The fact that she had arrived so far in advance of her own train both reassured and troubled me!
She disappeared after a bit, and I took Grandmother’s suitcase to have another look around and see if I could gather any more clues, and also any snacks and water in addition to what I had brought. I could see a few more people now, and overheard one man asking about the Bucharest train. Perfect! I immediately locked onto his path and followed him into another waiting room. By now it was almost 9 pm, and there were probably a dozen folk in the waiting room. Perched on the edge of my seat, and ready to move I kept the fellow Bucharest passenger in my sights at all times. My search for sustenance was completely futile. There was not a single shop, stall or sign of nearby. Just as well I had packed a stock of snacks and enough water. I was fairly sure that there was no catering on the train so wanted to be prepared.
One of the station staff came into the room soon after 9 pm, and announced something in Turkish. I asked another passenger who did not get up to follow the station man, if that was the Sofia train. “No”, he responded but couldn’t remember which train it was. “Bucharest?” I asked hopefully? “Yes, yes!!” he replied. I joined the small line of passengers down to one of the platforms and a rather short train consider it was to take 22 hours, cross 3 countries and arrive in Bucharest. My ticket said that I was in wagon 479 and that was the first carriage as I reached the train. Reassuring except that on the side of the train was the insistent sign –
Istanbul – Sofya Ekspress “Istanbul (Halkali – Kapikule – Svilengrad – Sofia”.
I walked along to the next carriage, which had a different number so I returned to the one with the matching number of my reservation and attempted to drag myself and grandmother’s suitcase up the steep steps. The conductor was at the top, and helped me with myself and my baggage to clamber properly on board. He took both my ticket and reservation, along with grandmother’s suitcase, and led me to the second compartment where a large man was dragging his own and his wife’s luggage into the compartment. “Your berth”, the conductor told me, pointing to the bottom bunk on one side. I breathed out in relief. I had been silently dreading finding out which berth I would be in, knowing that there was precisely a 50% chance of being on a top bunk and trying not to consider the antics that would entail getting in and out of bed however often that needed to happen.
The couple managed to stow their bags, and settled in the seat opposite me. And to my relief they told me that they were were Romanian and also travelling to Bucharest.
I sat down and relaxed. I now knew that I was safely aboard the Night Train to Bucharest.
To be continued …