To Istanbul, by train

For Hercule Poirot it was a snowdrift that disrupted his journey, bringing the Simplon Orient Express to a halt between Vincovi and Brod. For me it was an arson attack at Gare de l’Est. No one was injured, but the fire destroyed about 50 cables, disrupting services. And so, at 11.45pm, when I should have been asleep in a bunk on a Nightjet train sweeping east towards Germany, I was shivering on a replacement TGV to Strasbourg, eyeing a student watching porn on his phone. Those lucky enough to bag a seat were face down on tray tables, hoods over their heads, while others sat on suitcases, sharing earphones and muttering the kinds of words Monsieur Poirot would not have found agréable.

That afternoon I’d arrived on the Eurostar from London, the first leg of my voyage by train to Istanbul. No stranger to epic railway journeys, I was keen to retrace the route of the Orient Express 140 years after its inaugural run, at a time when Europe’s sleeper trains are seeing a renaissance owing to the rise of the slow-travel movement, climate change and private companies proposing grand plans to revive old routes in style. Could the reality of modern trans-European rail travel live up to the romantic, nostalgia-laden image?

Pulling into the din of Gare du Nord, I’d had half a day to beeline to a favourite brasserie then stroll around the burnt-out beauty of Notre-Dame, the air sweet with the warm smell of caramelised almonds and crêpes being flipped by men in fingerless gloves. It was the perfect Parisian afternoon: couples sat on benches munching macarons, whippets in couture coats quivered at the feet of owners brushing cheeks with friends.

Perfect, until I arrived at Gare de l’Est to discover the 7pm Nightjet to Vienna was no longer departing from Paris, but five and a half hours later from Strasbourg. Not a total disaster, the delay gave me time to slink off for confit de canard and a showing of Tár, but when we eventually boarded at 10pm, the wind flecked with ice and limp toddlers slung over shoulders, I remembered how much of night-train travel involves killing time: keeping warm in cafés or lingering in hotel lobbies avoiding eye contact with the staff. So much for the romance of the rails.

Woman sits on a train
Monisha Rajesh on the Eurostar © Marc Sethi

Orient Express poster
A poster from 1888 advertising the Orient Express © Getty Images

A man with a suitcase boards a train
A passenger boards the Orient Express c1950 in Yugoslavia © Getty Images

­Launched in 1883 by Georges Nagelmackers, the Express d’Orient was a regular passenger service, rather than a single luxury train, and for the first six years the journey from Paris to Istanbul was made using a combination of trains and ferries, with numerous sets of rolling stock. Trains departed Paris for Vienna before passing through Budapest and Bucharest to the southern Romanian city of Giurgiu. From there, a ferry crossed the Danube to Ruse in Bulgaria before passengers transferred to another train to Varna on the Black Sea coast, a steamer tying up the journey to Istanbul. Then in 1889 the line was completed, and that June the first direct train departed Paris taking passengers to Istanbul’s Sirkeci station on a trip that would last three nights.

The passing of years hasn’t made the journey quicker. It was now Sunday night. If all went to plan I’d be in Istanbul on Friday morning — not the fastest route possible (which still takes four nights), but a leisurely one with time to dine, unwind and wander around each city.

On board the Nightjet at Strasbourg, I opened the door to my single cabin (which had cost €273) and was taken aback by the tatty carpet and chipped paint. But at least we were departing and I rattle-proofed the cabin, removing coat hangers and turning down the volume for announcements — the button coming off in my hand. A look online showed the slick cabin I’d expected was part of the new fleet of Nightjets that won’t launch until this autumn. Hearing the sound of a bag unzipping, and a sniff from next door, I pressed in earplugs and dozed off as the train followed the bends of the Rhine.

GM250313_23X Wkd map Train Trip London to Istanbul

The next morning I woke to footsteps thudding up the corridor and scrambled to the end of my berth, shoving up the blind in time to see Salzburg Mülln-Altstadt station slip from view. As we rumbled over the Salzach river, lampposts casting pools of light along its banks, I felt a familiar thrill. This was the kind of moment that makes a journey: the moment when most passengers were still asleep and the outside world yawned and stretched awake, the skies cracking open, first light glowing peach.

Austria’s Lower Alps looked magnificent, their scalps turning pink in the sun. Farms flitted past the window along with families of deer, then snow-heavy forests packed with pencil-thin trees. Over a breakfast of coffee and a salami roll (served to my compartment and included in the ticket price), I watched curtains draw open and lights flick on, catching the eye of commuters clearing snow from their cars.

A train travelling through a snowy landscape
A Nightjet sleeper train travelling through the Alps © Harald Eisenberger

A tiny headache was worming around one eye: I’d slept like an actual baby, waking every few hours, cold then hot then thirsty, but as we drew into Vienna the tiredness was vanquished by a fierce sense of liberation. Within 20 minutes of stepping on to the platform I was in front of Klimt’s The Kiss, gasping at the sight of my favourite painting in all its gold-leafed glory.

I resisted the urge to rush around the city’s every highlight, instead treating myself to strudel and spent the rainy afternoon reading in Demel, a classic Viennese coffee house.

For the third leg, the 19-hour Dacia to Bucharest, I’d reserved a six-person couchette, far more convivial, and at €110, a lot cheaper than the previous night. It was also more comfortable than the Nightjet, with velvety berths, new carpets and crisp sheets.

Places are assigned by gender and my compartment turned out to be only half-full — I was sharing with two Romanian women, Elena and Inga, who struck up an instant friendship, chatting to me in a mix of German and English that functioned well enough for us to share crisps and nod in approval at photos of each other’s kids as the train thumped quietly south. I slept deeply on what was a smooth ride, waking briefly at 2am and 4am for passport checks on both sides of the Hungarian border.

People at a train station
Passengers wait for a train at Gara de Nord in Bucharest © Alamy

Inga had gone when I surfaced and Elena hopped off soon after, leaving me to roll through the wintry wilderness of Romania’s Sibiu County. For hours we clanked past fields and villages populated with spirited geese, dogs barking at the train. On we pushed, through fortified towns with views of the Carpathian Mountains, blizzards blurring their peaks. At peace, I touched my head to the glass, meditating on the green Prahova river bubbling its way through the snow, icicles trimming the cliffs above.

On the approach to Bucharest I found Charles, a researcher on sustainability, wearing a T-shirt saying Green Against the Machine. He’d been on the same Nightjet from Paris and was taking the train to Bucharest to demonstrate that it was possible to avoid flying. He talked me through Romanian politics, pointed out popular ski resorts, sent restaurant recommendations on Instagram, and by the time I’d reached my hotel had tagged me into a post about his journey. In one respect I was sorry that social media was stripping the anonymity of long-haul rail travel, but in another I thrived off starting strange little friendships based on nothing more than a love of trains.

No sleepers travelled to Sofia, so I boarded the slowest train I’ve ever known, one with windows shattered like a jigsaw puzzle, inching in a straight line through mud flats and marshes sparkling with snow. As we clattered on to the bridge over the Danube, the “welcome to Bulgaria” text messages beeped around the carriage.

I found myself among other passengers all heading to Sofia — a Turkish construction worker, a self-confessed “drifter” from the US, a French drummer and a Ukrainian student among the mix — and as we joined the connection at Ruse our group gravitated naturally towards one another, squeezing into two compartments in comfortable silence, guarding each other’s luggage, swapping books and drifting into a harmony unique to trains. Outside green meadows rolled in the sun, unchanging for hours until the evening drew in and the Iskar river flashed alongside like a silver belt winding in the darkness to Sofia.

In some ways the final train was the one I was nervous about, as it involved dragging luggage on to the platform at 2:30am for scans and passport stamps at Kapikule on the Turkish border. I boarded the seven-hour Sofya-Istanbul Ekspresi at 11pm in the middle of a snowstorm, huge flakes swooping at the windows.

Sunrise over water
Dawn breaks over Lake Küçükçekmece as the Sofya-Istanbul Ekspresi approaches its destination © Monisha Rajesh

From time to time I’d peek round the blind as towns flashed by, cupping my hands to the glass to take in the glow of TVs in darkened apartments, kitchens hung with pans, balconies lined with plants and laundry. It was undeniably romantic, thundering through the night watching curtains being drawn, hair being brushed loose, late dinners being eaten, and holding the gaze of smokers in the dark. I was sharing a two-person cabin with a friend who’d joined in Sofia and we slept deeply — even the border crossing turned out to be painless, with everyone back on board within an hour.

Something stirred me awake at dawn and I scrabbled to the window in time to see an indigo sky splintered into shards over Lake Küçükçekmece. As though on fire, the lagoon was holding a reflection of the sunrise and I stilled my breath . . . as Istanbul emerged, the outlines of domes and minarets silhouetted against softening skies.

With a creak and a jolt we stopped. Five nights and 3,930km after leaving London, I’d finally reached my destination. The train tickets cost a total of £584 and although I could have taken a direct flight and arrived in four hours for a fifth of the price, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Jubilant, I pulled on my bag and wandered up the platform at Halkali station as the day’s second call to prayer sounded out across the rooftops.

City view over water
Morning in Istanbul © Getty Images
Grand old room with red furniture
The Kubbeli Saloon Tea Lounge at the Pera Palace hotel

But the journey wasn’t quite over. Nagelmackers knew that passengers disembarking from the Orient Express would need somewhere to stay in Istanbul, and in 1895 he opened the Pera Palace hotel, which has played host to Ernest Hemingway, Mata Hari, Greta Garbo, and Alfred Hitchcock. It’s the sort of place where you feel part of a secret club, passing through revolving doors, concealed from the street by heavy velvet curtains. The lift smelt of oud cologne, and I arrived outside my room, number 411, perfectly able to picture the hotel in its heyday.

Kept in a vintage style, with dark drapes and a wooden bed, this particular suite was a homage to its longest resident, a frequent traveller on the train. Her collected works were locked into a case, her thoughtful image looked down from the wall, and on the desk sat an Underwood typewriter where it’s believed she wrote her most famous work, Murder on the Orient Express.

Monisha Rajesh is the author of ‘Around the World in 80 Trains’, published by Bloomsbury


Monisha Rajesh stayed at the Pera Palace as a guest of Cox & Kings (, which offers a Paris-to-Istanbul train trip and two-nights at the Pera Palace from £1,799 per person

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