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Cruising the rails in five-star luxury
A czikos rider, descendant of the ancient Huns / Picture: Peter Lynch

The 1920s and 30s were the heyday of luxury cruise liners, which plied the Atlantic with the rich and famous and came to embody the quintessence of exclusive luxury travel. Even today cruising retains some of that cachet, although most ships are now so vast they're akin to floating cities.

Today's inheritors of that exclusive, elegant travel scene are not the mega-cruise ships but a new class of luxury private trains. These non-scheduled trains are not cheap but the best have all the perks of a five-star hotel with the added advantage of breezing through fascinating countries and arriving at exotic destinations with the maximum style and comfort. "Cruising-the-rails" vacations are booming and are available in many parts of the world. My latest journey was aboard the luxury Danube Express travelling from Budapest to Istanbul.

Bypassing the general station entrance, Danube Express passengers enter Budapest's Nyugati station through the private entrance that Emperor Franz Joseph had built for his empress. Champagne glass in hand I ogle with the other 40 passengers at the baroque royal waiting room, which is lit by chandeliers and has more mirrors than a fashion store.

It is just a few steps to our grandly restored hotel-on-wheels - with its eight sleeping carriages plus restaurant and lounge bar. My deluxe compartment is a spacious wood-panelled cabin, beautifully finished with three armchairs for day use and converting to twin beds at night. The smart ensuite is a decent size; fresh flowers and a dedicated steward for room service add that touch of quality.

After a light lunch of fresh prawns and chicory with turkey and spinach roulade, the train makes its first stop near the village of Lajosmizse. Bareback horse riders (csikos), wearing wide-brimmed black hats and long blue pleated tunics, welcome us with 5m bullwhips cracking like gunfire.

The csikos are descended from Attila the Hun's horde that swept out of the grasslands of Hungary and plundered much of Europe in the 5th century AD. Horse carriages trot us rather more sedately through the countryside to a stud farm where csikos of the Great Hungarian Plain put on an impressive display of horsemanship, culminating in the Puszta Five, where horsemen ride five horses simultaneously.

Further down the track we stop at Kecskemet, a small town with an Art Nouveau heritage. The town is in the middle of a noisy palinka festival and all its inhabitants seem to be out celebrating. Who would have thought that palinka, a fruit brandy, could come in so many varieties and all with a "once is enough" flavour?

Passengers are back aboard by 6pm and gather in the bar for complimentary pre-dinner drinks as the train continues across the Hungarian Plain towards Romania.

Dinner is a smart silver-service affair; always a four-course gourmet event, but without the stuffy dress code of some trains. The first night's menu includes salad with fried goat's cheese and venison with red wine sauce and dauphinoise potatoes. Apple and cherry strudel is followed by a generous cheese board, all washed down with a fabulous Topkapi wine - Furmint.

After-dinner drinks flow freely in the lounge bar to the accompaniment of our versatile pianist. We flash through the inky black landscape, our lights illuminating occasional houses - the momentary snatch of piano and laughter must have seemed eccentric and surreal to any watchers in the night.

Next morning I wake in the lush, rolling Romanian countryside, where every house has a vast kitchen garden. This is Transylvania and during breakfast we arrive at Sighisoara, UNESCO-listed as one of the world's best-preserved medieval towns. Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula) is Sighisoara's most famous son, but here he's considered a hero rather than a bloodthirsty maniac.

Built in the 12th century by Saxon merchants, Sighisoara became a major trading town between Vienna and Istanbul. It was subsequently fortified as a defence against marauding Ottoman Turks who regularly slaughtered, robbed and took women and children into slavery.

In one infamous battle, Vlad impaled the hundreds of Turks he captured and displayed them as a warning against further attacks. A gruesome act against barbaric invaders and one that was surprisingly ineffective, as the Turks subsequently conquered all of Romania.

Entering Sighisoara through the 10m-deep gated archway you instantly know you're entering a medieval town. With no modern blemishes, it's atmospheric and beautiful, full of 16th-century buildings - a central citadel, fighting turrets, burgher houses, ornate churches and cobbled streets winding between them. The clock tower provides amazing views and its working figurines include an angel at 6am signifying the start of the working day and at 6pm a candle-bearing angel marking the end of the working day.

We're back on the train for lunch as it carries on to Brasov, an attractive city full of pavement cafes in grand Baroque and Renaissance style. We take the obligatory 30-minute bus ride into the Carpathian Mountains to visit the 14th-century Bran Castle.

Marketed as Dracula's castle, it certainly looks the part - although Bram Stoker never visited Romania nor did Vlad live in the castle. Our guide surreptitiously tells us there had been no mention of Dracula in connection with the castle before the iconic Christopher Lee film in 1963; afterwards visitors kept asking, "Is this Dracula's castle?" and eventually locals started saying, "It could be". After that, tourism started to boom.

Regardless of the truth, Bran castle is a major tourist draw and visitors run the gauntlet of market stalls selling all manner of Dracula trinkets. But once inside the grounds, it's a grand medieval castle.

Later that night the train begins climbing through the Carpathian Mountains, twisting and turning on its way into Bulgaria and the old medieval capital, Veliko Tarnovo.

The last stop before Istanbul is Kazanlak in the Valley of the Thracian Kings, where hundreds of burial mounds have been discovered along with gold masks and jewellery dating to 3000BC.

The valley is also known as the Valley of Roses because tens of thousands of damascena roses are grown here for their oil.

Approximately 1300 rose blooms produce 1g of rose oil, which is three times more valuable than gold. The June Rose Festival, when 2000 people descend on the blooming rose fields, would be quite a sight. Picking has to be done by hand in the early morning to capture the best oil, but afterwards there's dancing, partying and naturally a Rose Queen festival.

Our train stops at the Turkish border around midnight and we have to get off and buy visas on the station platform. For Australian passport-holders, a three-month visa is about $60. The immigration process is informal but make sure you have the right money because they don't give change.

Dawn breaks over the Bosphorus as our train rolls into Sirkeci station, right in the heart of Istanbul. Seagulls are screeching and the scent of sea air wafts on the breeze as we sit down to our last breakfast.

FACT FILE

Railbookers has a five-night Danube Express package from Budapest to Istanbul from $5199 per person in a two-berth ensuite compartment for three nights, all meals on board, all excursions plus two nights in four-star hotels with breakfast at either end of the trip. Upgrades to five-star Kempinski Hotels are available. 1300 938 534 or railbookers.com.au.