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September 20, 2016

Final Preparations for the Orient Express

Next week I am getting back on the rails and heading for Istanbul, a journey I last completed in the 1980’s. Not surprisingly I have been doing some packing, much reading of Seat 61 (it feels like I have been cramming train times and numbers for some sort of European Interail qualification), and a bit of reflection on what I got out of Interrail all those years ago – and what I want to get out of this trip.

First the bad news. Interrail isn’t as simple as it used to be. I would expect it to be more expensive, but it’s also now more complicated than it used to be. The need for reservations and supplements seems now to undermine the freedom that it once gave me. Interrailler’s also seem on occasions to be second class citizens, with limited open reservations on some trains. It used to be great to be able to hop on any train and sort it out with the conductor in the old days, but I’m not convinced that is going to work any more. Add to this that I’m keen for a proper bed on the night trains, and a supplement and reservation is needed for any night trains anyway. The price of these at short notice seems the same with or without an Interrail ticket on some of the trains I need to use. To cut a long story short, I’m going to buy my tickets one by one, as I go along. This will be probably be slightly more expensive, but it gives me ultimate flexibility. I will pay more for those last minute tickets, but it seems like the way to go to feel “free”. Interrail is just not the deal it once was. My 2nd class £150 “all you can eat” for a month student ticket in 1987 now costs £489 (as an over 26 year old) before adding on the reservation supplements, which will be several hundred pounds with the sleepers, and of course the Eurostar, which also isn’t included.

There are some other challenges too. The territorial and political landscape of Europe is quite different in some places to how it looked 30 years ago. Last time I went to Istanbul I travelled through Yugoslavia and on to Greece, crossing from Thessaloniki into Turkey. I had to totally avoid countries behind the Iron Curtain, such as Bulgaria and Hungary. These days there is no longer a rail link between Greece and Turkey, but on the plus side, Eastern Europe is mainly visa free. It’s not an easy time to be travelling in some of these parts, and I have considered my security carefully. There are of course risks, but to me they are acceptable.

I have packed my train kit up this week. I’m trying to carry far less than I normally do for the Siberian winter. I have just a single big bag, and if my scales are right, it only weighs 13kg. Add to this my mobile office – a shoulder camera bag, and its the most “alpinist” I have ever been on my rail adventures so far. In case you were wondering, the Iban shield is staying at home, it just lives in my hallway!
I was thinking over breakfast yesterday about my experiences from all that time ago, and what advice my 21 year old self would now give my 49 year old self getting back on the rails of Southern Europe. As a student I might have had little money, but I also had few worries and no real perception of possible dangers or what might go wrong. Young people might not have great life experience, but they are mainly positive and optimistic. Taking chances and being unorganised are all part of the Interrail spirit of adventure. These days I tend to over plan (is there such a thing?) and work through endless scenarios of disaster before setting off. So I think my student self would probably tell me to “chill out”, relax, and have fun. Being a happy Interrailer is all about living in the moment and not worrying about the past or the future. My 49 year old self would probably encourage my younger self to engage better with local people, avoid McDonalds at all costs, and to try and speak a few words of local lingo.

I know the route I’m planning to take now, at least as far as Istanbul. After some research on the original route of the Orient Express, I realise that there are several routes, and none can be achieved exactly in the modern world as they were in the last century. I’m going to travel from Paris to Munich, Munich to Budapest, Budapest to Bucharest, then try my luck at the train and bus routing from Bucharest to Istanbul. The engineering works on the railway lines in and out of Turkey have made train travel all the way impossible for several years now. I had been waiting for this to be fixed, but my impatience has got the better of me – I’m going for it,  train or no train for the last leg from the Turkish border into Istanbul. I’m planning to exit Turkey via Sofia, and then decide if I’m going south to Greece, or north to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The interweb has of course made planning such a journey much easier than it was in the 1980’s. I won’t carry a printed timetable with me this trip. A combination of Seat 61, and the DB navigator app give me almost all that is needed. Just add TripAdvisor for some ideas on accommodation and what to see, and I have nearly all that I need. You would think it would be easier to book tickets too, but I have found this quite hard so far, in the end buying some of my tickets over the phone. Many can only be purchased cost effectively at the station in the local country. I had the most luck with Voyages SNCF.

I shall update as the journey progresses. Its not too late to join in!