Friday 22 November 2019
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businessinsider - 14 days ago

I traveled by rail across Europe for under $500. Not only was it cheaper than some flights, it was the adventure of a lifetime.

Planes may be the most popular way to travel, but taking trains across Europe is a great way to explore the continent. I recently spent eight days taking trains from Istanbul to London before starting a new job with Insider. Although countless routes are possible, I decided to retrace the one taken by the legendary Orient Express, taking several stops along the way. The total cost of the trains was still less than most flights, and many of them were more luxurious than I thought they d be. Visit Insider s homepage for more stories. Not all those who wander are lost. So says a line in a letter from the wizard Gandalf to Frodo Baggins in the first book of J.R.R. Tolkien s The Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy. The implication is that every journey no matter how strange it may seem to some people has meaning. For me, the decision to travel by train all the way across Europe, from Istanbul to London, was not because I was setting out to destroy a magic rather, I was beginning a new chapter in my life leaving my job and nice apartment near the canopy of Dubai s glittering forest of skyscrapers for a new role with Insider in London. In decades past, trains were the quickest way to get across Europe. But that was a long time ago intercontinental rail journeys haven t been hugely popular since airplane travel went more mainstream. And yet, taking the train or in this case, several trains was precisely what I wanted to do. Not only did it turn into every bit the adventure I hoped it would be (and then some), but it was also, I found, less expensive than some airline tickets. Here s what the once-in-a-lifetime journey was like and how you can do it, too.I d always been fascinated by trains, old things, and adventure stories. So it only made sense to travel along much of the original route of the Orient Express. I wanted to retrace much of the route of the famed Orient Express because, simply, when many people think of adventures by train, that s what they think of. Originally, the Orient Express went from London to Istanbul through the Alps and, of course, in the reverse direction. In short, the Orient Express was perhaps the world s most luxurious train in its heyday about a century ago. Royalty, celebrities, politicians, businesspeople, and writers beloved and not so beloved traveled on it it wasn t just an ultra-luxe way to get from point A to point B, but a way to do so in style and to see and be seen. The Orient Express is even still running today: it mostly travels between London and Venice.

However, I used a modern tool to plan my trip: the internet. The one flight ticket I needed (from Dubai to Istanbul) was easy to buy direct through Turkish Airlines website I chose them because they seemed to have the most generous baggage allowance, which I needed since I was bringing all of my life s possessions with me. For the trains themselves, a helpful resource was a website called The Man in Seat Sixty-One. Founded by former rail industry manager Mark Smith, the easy-to-navigate website is basically the go-to for information about traveling by train. Detailed information about timings, connections, estimated prices, and even plenty of first-person reviews (along with photos of what to expect) made figuring out which route to take far less daunting than I feared it might be. In fact, it was so easy, I was able to plan my entire route in advance down to what trains I needed to board at exactly what times and what platforms at stations I needed to be on.

I was able to book most trains and hotels in advance online — but not all of them. It was easy to book connections in Western Europe direct from the websites of rail companies, such as the final leg to London underneath the English Channel on the Eurostar from Paris. But the Eastern European legs of the trip Istanbul to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, Sofia to Belgrade in Serbia, and Belgrade to Zagreb, Croatia needed to be booked in person at the train stations. Though I was worried I wouldn t have time to do so if I had tight connections, it helped that I was able to still look up online what trains I needed to get on and when. I printed out an old-fashioned itinerary I crossed off as I went along. And it turned out I needn t have worried: not once on my intercontinental expedition did I miss a train.

The journey began with a flight from Dubai to Istanbul that cost more than all my train tickets combined. The early-morning Turkish Airlines flight from Dubai to Istanbul s sprawling new airport was comfortable enough, at least considering it cost 582.41 ($643). The inflight movie was the 2017 Kenneth Branagh film version of Murder on the Orient Express. I thought it fitting considering what I was doing though I hoped there would be no murders, or anything even close, on my trip.

Not only did I retrace much of the route of the Orient Express, I stayed at many of the same hotels throughout my journey, starting in Istanbul. Staying at the legendary Pera Palace Hotel in the same room where Agatha Christie is said to have written Murder on the Orient Express was a taste of the luxury some well-heeled train travelers were able to experience in the past. In fact, I made a deliberate point of staying in hotels along the way that had been used by Orient Express passengers when it still regularly traveled across Europe. Almost as an extended version of live-action roleplaying, and to further feel like I d taken a step back in time, I even dressed up in clothes I thought people a century ago would ve worn. Perhaps thankfully, no one I encountered commented on my attire or said it was weird.

I quickly fell in love with Istanbul ... The sounds of the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer weaved through the narrow streets and alleys among the scents of exotic spices, jasmine, slowly roasting meats and fresh fruit, pushed along by a fresh sea breeze. There were squawking seagulls circling above meowing cats jumping up on seemingly every street to rub their furry heads on the legs of passers-by. Turkish, German, Arabic, Russian, French, English were among the languages being spoken by visitors, vendors, and written on signs. Honking cars competing with the sounds of wind chimes. The feel of old stone contrasted with the plushness of the Pera Palace s red velvet furniture. I also loved the architecture: the grand Ottoman palaces, the postcard-perfect Beyoğlu district, the stunning Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with their towering minarets piercing the sky, and the energy of the bustling and seemingly never-ending Grand Bazaar walking the streets of Istanbul felt magical, like a beautiful dream I hoped would never end.

... But adventure was calling. Such serenity as I experienced in Istanbul seemed like a good sign for the start of my adventure. But I was ready to have an adventure not just hang out at a fancy hotel like the Pera Palace for a week and then jump on a train to London. What would be the point of that?

After a couple days in Istanbul, I boarded my first train. It was far more luxurious than I was expecting — especially since it cost under $40. In service since 1916, the Balkan Express once went from Istanbul to Berlin. Today it goes from Istanbul to Sofia, the capital of neighboring Bulgaria, and on to Belgrade during the summer months. Though not as legendary as the Orient Express, I found the train to be the most comfortable I d ever been in: not only did I have a spacious cabin all to myself that had its own sink, dresser with drawers, and mini-fridge stocked with orange juice, bottled water and Turkish crackers in green foil wrapping, but the soft, fold-down bed even had a thick wool blanket in a retro plaid pattern to go on top of the already warm duvet and clean sheets. The train ride was also surprisingly quiet and smooth. The trip to Sofia would be the only overnight train I d take, but I had one of the best sleeps I ve ever had that evening and certainly the best I d ever had on a train. Even more incredible was the price: the ticket for the private compartment from Istanbul to Sofia cost only 221 Turkish lira, or about $38.40, when I bought it at the international ticket counter (which fortunately had lots of English signs and English-speaking staff) at Istanbul s Sirkeci railway station the station the Orient Express began and ended journeys at.

I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria just after dawn. I was now knee-deep in adventure. The sun was still climbing in the sky when we screeched to a halt in Sofia. The half-full station seemed like a holdover from the Cold War all Soviet brutalist architecture and gray, hulking co apparently, this adventure also involved time travel back to the 1970s, if the station and the surrounding area was anything to go by.

To save money on food throughout my trip, I stocked up on supplies from hotel breakfast buffets. The Sofia Hotel Balkan was great for that. Literally next door to Bulgaria s presidential palace, staying at the Sofia Hotel Balkan also felt like being in a palace opulent chandeliers and marble and gold leaf melded together in a lush landscape of a simple railway hostel a short taxi ride from Sofia s main train station (not that there s anything wrong with staying in such places) this was not. Staff were not only friendly, but very understanding, or at least tolerant: I m sure they saw me loading my backpack with fresh and dried fruit and granola bars and other snacks at the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, but they didn t say anything. On almost all of the trains, food prices seemed expensive (on the Eurostar from Paris to London, for example, a simple latte was 2.70, or almost $3.50, while a double espresso was 3.20, or more than $4.10), so I was glad to be able to save money by bringing fresh snacks. I was also glad I was able to fill my thermos up with coffee from the breakfast buffets at some of the again, I was not told off once.

Next up was a train from Sofia to Belgrade, Serbia. A day and night in Sofia a city I found to be strangely quiet, at least around the Sofia Hotel Balkan and presidential palace and it was time to hop onto the next train. Unlike the Balkan Express from Istanbul, this would be a day trip: slowly chugging out of Sofia as the city still seemed to be waking up, we were due to be in the Serbian capital of Belgrade by nightfall.

It was eye-opening to see how different Eastern and Western Europe remain. The Iron Curtain may have fallen nearly 30 years ago, but it was still obvious to me that Eastern Europe had a ways to go still before reaching the same level of development as Western and Central Europe. From heavily cracked concrete train platforms, to peeling paint at stations, to most of the trains themselves plastered with graffiti, to smaller things like railroad track signaling being done by people in comically large red hats waving signs instead of being done automatically by a machine, the differences from what I d seen when traveling by train before in Western Europe were eye-opening.

As I was moving for a new job, I carried all my life s possessions with me ... The UK would be the sixth country I d lived in within the past nine years, so I was getting used to packing everything up into just two suitcases and a backpack and embarking into the unknown. But this was the first time I d arrive in a new place by anything other than a plane and I was concerned about lugging my luggage, which combined weighed about 77 pounds, around with me for more than a week. I had also closed my bank account meaning I was also carrying my life s savings with me in an envelope stuffed with cash.

... But there was no need to worry about being robbed. Rather than being robbed, on almost every train I took, people of all ages, genders, and nationalities helped me load and unload my luggage. At some stations people even helped wheel my suitcases to the platform for my next train. They were seemingly minor things, but they gave me hope that, contrary to what some philosophers might seem to believe, humans are inherently good and moral or at least willing to step in and help when they see a person struggling with something.

Some of the trains were very empty, especially the leg from Sofia to Belgrade. I was surprised, since the ticket cost only $23. The ticket from Sofia to the Serbian capital of Belgrade a distance of about 250 miles (400 kilometers) cost just 20.60 ($23). And yet hardly anyone seemed to be on the train in fact, at one point I was the only person in the second-class carriage.

Though I enjoyed the tradition of the train, I was glad some of them had modern conveniences like plugs for phone chargers. Not all of the trains had them (far from it, it seemed), but it was extremely convenient when trains did have plugs where I could recharge my phone. After all, my morning alarm was on it and the last thing I wanted was to accidentally sleep in and miss one of my connecting trains, throwing the entire itinerary into chaos in a terrible snowball effect.

Arriving late at night in Belgrade, my biggest fear was that I wouldn t have time to buy my next ticket. I needn t have worried, thanks to the staff at Hotel Moskva. The four-star Hotel Moskva is one of Serbia s oldest and grandest. But it s not just the Russian secessionist-style building (one of the capital Belgrade s most-recognizable landmarks, with famous guests including Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Frank Sinatra, Indira Gandhi, Julia Roberts, and more) that s legendary, I found it s the unbelievably helpful staff. I emailed the hotel a few days in advance saying that I was worried I would not have time to buy the next ticket I needed from Belgrade on to Zagreb, Croatia at the station because my train was not due to arrive until after the ticket office closed, and the next train I would need to be on was scheduled to depart early in the morning before the ticket office opened. Not a problem, replied Uro , Hotel Moskva s concierge. Sure enough, when I checked into the hotel that evening, there was a train ticket for the next morning waiting for me. Needless to say, I slept peacefully that night also because the ticket to Zagreb cost just 19 ($21).

I enjoyed Belgrade so much, I wanted to stay longer ... A few hours is not enough time to really explore a city but it was enough time to recharge and prepare for the next leg of the journey, a day-long trip to the Croatian capital of Zagreb, more than 240 miles (390 kilometers) away. It was in Belgrade I also experienced something I never had before: a live piano player during breakfast. As if the Hotel Moskva couldn t get any more impressive.

... But I had another train to catch. Having such an exactly planned itinerary like I did can have its drawbacks, I realized: little wiggle-room if you want to spend more or less time in a place. And yet, because I was experiencing so many new things all the time, I also wasn t heartbroken about having to keep pushing on.

Entering Croatia from Serbia, I could already see the changes from Eastern to Central Europe. The relatively flat farmland became less flat, and the rolling hills less rolling and more jagged, as we chugged along into Croatia from Serbia. There seemed to be fewer abandoned buildings, and less garbage than I saw in some areas of Serbia and Bulgaria. There also seemed to be less graffiti at the train stations and on the trains themselves or at least the graffiti that there was appeared to be more artistic than simply someone s name scrawled on something.

In the Croatian capital of Zagreb, I spent the night at the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel, the fanciest one I stayed at during the entire trip. Built in 1925 for Orient Express passengers, the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel s marble-walled lobby seemed so grand, the staff and guests so elegant, I was afraid I d be turned away because they d think I was weird for showing up with all my life s possessions while wearing my old-timey clothes and round straw hat. There was another reason to be worried, too: guests at the hotel which took 26 months to build have included the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon, late Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, the aviator Charles Lindbergh, Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles, director Alfred Hitchcock, actress Vivien Leigh, and many, many more. I had no claim to fame. However, like everywhere else, the staff were incredibly friendly and helpful. Also, to get to the hotel, all I had to do was walk outside Zagreb s main train station, take a left, and walk for about 90 seconds. For all the opulence, which was refreshing after a long day riding the rails, I was amazed by the cost. The price for literally living like royalty, with an actual Champagne breakfast (if you wanted Champagne for breakfast) included, was just 139.20 ($155) per night.

It was after Zagreb that the scenery really began to change. Then again, we were entering the Alps. Traveling northwest on an Austrian Federal Railways ( O sterreichische Bundesbahnen in German) train from Zagreb, the hills of Croatia gave way to cute lakeside towns in Slovenia, before becoming dramatic mountainside villages in Austria. The sheer amount of colorful nature on display was almost overwhelming: after living in Dubai for more than a year surrounded by skyscrapers and sand, I d almost forgotten how beautiful places that are not the desert can be.

The train from Zagreb was also mostly empty. Again I was surprised — not only because of the scenery, but because the $132 ticket seemed like good value. For the 119.20 ($132) I paid for a ticket on the train from Zagreb to my next destination in the Alps, I thought I was getting a good value for my money, especially since we were traveling more than 320 miles (515 kilometers) on a nearly 12-hour trip, and the natural views from the window were utterly jaw-dropping. Yet I still couldn t understand why the train wasn t packed full. Was it because the travel time was so long? Because my next destination was somewhere not exactly known for getting very many tourists? I pondered this as we zigzagged around mountain passes and zipped through tunnels.

As we went deeper into the Alps the scenery became magical — and again made me think how I wouldn t be able to appreciate it in the same way had I flown. Here the world was green, peaceful, and so... quiet. Even the other passengers on the half-full train were almost dead silent. Maybe they, too, were just too awed by the environs in which we were traversing. I felt like I was living in a painting.

It was very cold — at least outside. The trains were nice and warm. I ve always loved extremely high temperatures (even in Dubai, one of the world s hottest cities, I still wore long sleeves and scarves), which made stepping outside when changing trains in places such as Schwarzach-St Veit in Austria an incredibly bracing experience. It made me that much more thankful the trains were warm and toasty inside.

I also met some fascinating people on the trains. From Leo the American, who was traveling from Zagreb to Munich, to Margareta, who d lived in Liechtenstein for more than a dozen years after moving from South America, I encountered a whole cast of fascinating characters during my journey. More perfect than anything Hollywood could come up with probably because they were real they were perhaps even more memorable than the scenery. That s also probably because without their help be it Yasin driving me for more than an hour from Istanbul s new airport to the Pera Palace, Sofia Hotel Balkan staff allowing me to stock up snacks when I had no food, Uro acquiring my next ticket, or a bartender named Ana I met in Schaan, Liechtenstein calling a cab to take me up to my hotel late at night through the freezing fog after I wandered the streets for nearly an hour trying to find a taxi with no luck the trip would not have been possible.

As an oppressive fog enshrouded us, things became slightly eerie. It felt like being in a real-life gothic novel. The deeper into Austria and higher into the Alps we went, the deeper the fog became. Wispy tendrils thickened into solid blankets, then puffy pillows, until finally all around us was a solid sheet of fog, so thick it was impossible to see more than a few feet. I ve long had an active imagination, and couldn t help but immediately think of the murk permeating the setting of the well-worn copy of Jane Eyre I brought with me for reading material. Like Charlotte Bront s titular heroine, I wondered if the gloom had a deeper meaning. It also gave rise to a somewhat foreboding feeling as we neared my next destination a place that s a mystery to many.

I spent three days in the Alps in Liechtenstein, one of the world s least-visited countries. I was tempted to stay longer. The fog made the arrival feel spooky, but I soon discovered there was nothing to fear in Liechtenstein, despite a name sounding a bit like Frankenstein. Fewer than 90,000 tourists visited Liechtenstein in 2018, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) making the German-speaking micronation sandwiched between Austria and Switzerland the second-least-visited country in Europe (only San Marino, another micronation that s entirely surrounded by Italy, had fewer). It was that air of mystery plus pictures I d seen of an otherworldy green landscape dotted with pretty chalets that reminded me of the setting of The Sound of Music that made me want to go in the first place, even if it wasn t an area the Orient Express traveled through. Waking up in the morning on the side of a mountain at the Hotel Oberland in the village of Triesenberg, and seeing a literal sea of billowing clouds below me, I knew I d made the right decision.

High up in the mountains, staying in Liechtenstein felt like taking a break from the world — and my journey. Time seemed to not exist during the days that typically began with breakfast in the cozy, wood-paneled breakfast nook/kitchen at Hotel Oberland, then involved hours of walking through farmland and forests in the crisp autumn air before returning for a hot drink as darkness deepened and it was time to retire for the evening. The friendliness of locals was heartwarming: every time I passed someone, they d smile or wave and say hello in German. I didn t see garbage anywhere, either and even the cows, goats, horses, and donkeys ambled over as I passed by as if to also say hello. None of it felt it was, as Whoopi Goldberg says in the film Star Trek: Generations to Patrick Stewart, like being inside joy, as if joy were something tangible and you could wrap yourself up in it like a blanket. And never in my entire life had I been as content.

But after eight days, it was finally time to reach London. The last day would begin in Liechtenstein and end surrounded by skyscrapers near Canary Wharf. Surrounded by cows and fog in an Alpine village at dawn, I don t think I ve ever had a day end as differently as it began. I went to sleep barely 12 hours later surrounded by glittering skyscrapers next to London s Canary Wharf. Even more incredibly, I covered the more than 650 miles (1,048 kilometers) distance entirely by train. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with so much packed into each day, it also passed by incredibly quickly almost too quickly compared to how time seemed to pass in Eastern Europe and Turkey when the journey began.

To get to London, I first took a train from Liechtenstein to Buchs in neighboring Switzerland ... Just across the Rhine River from Liechtenstein, Buchs is the terminus of the Feldkirch-Buchs Railway. The 11.5-mile (18.5-kilometer) line from the Austrian city of Feldkirch to the Swiss town of Buchs is the only rail line that passes through Liechtenstein. Because of this, it s a popular transit point for people going into and out of Liechtenstein by rail. Fog hung all around as it had been for days now as I boarded the train. After changing trains in the nearby city of Sargans, I d be in Zurich in just a couple hours a journey that would cost 34.80 ($39).

... Then from Buchs to Sargans ... A few miles south of Buchs (and on the southwest border of Liechtenstein) is Sargans. Because it s much bigger than Buchs and served by high-speed, long-distance trains that go to places like Zurich (the closest major international airport to Liechtenstein), many Liechtenstein residents drive their cars to Sargans and board trains there rather than in Buchs. Liechtenstein has almost as many cars as people, with one of the highest rates of motor vehicle ownership in the world perhaps not surprising since it also has the highest GDP per capita on earth, according to the United Nations. I could already see a marked difference from where I d woken up. For one, the fog that had enshrouded everything for the past few days was nowhere to be found. Hopping onto the Intercity 564 train to Zurich as the morning sun shone brightly and illuminated a looming mountain that reminded me of the Paramount Pictures logo, I wondered if I d see any more until I got to London. Spoiler: I did not.

... Then Sargans to Zurich ... The greens seemed greener than green, the blues bluer than blue everything in Switzerland appeared so clean, so fresh, so... clear. It surprised me I really had been expecting more fog. But I wasn t complaining. The views were so extraordinary, I did nothing else during the entire hour-long trip to Zurich but look out one of the train s right-hand side windows, which I was fortunately next to. The views seemed to be in better HD than any HD television.

... Followed by a high-speed train from Zurich to Paris. In Zurich it began to feel like I was in a different world and it fully did by the time I pulled into Paris Gare de Lyon station about four hours later, in the middle of the afternoon. Sharply-dressed people in scarves and pointed shoes wheeled about small suitcases and carried briefcases as they power-walked with purpose, not unlike what one would normally see in an airport. The huge number of people, large electronic departure/arrival boards, blaring loudspeaker announcements, the confounding number of shops and restaurants, dozens of indoor platforms, and of course ever-present security only added to the feel of being in an airport or some other kind of buzzing transit hub basically anything other than the quiet, calm stations I d been passing through for days.

Arriving in Paris felt like returning to reality. Arriving in Paris where I needed to take the subway from Gare de Lyon station to Gare du Nord so I could jump onto my final train to London also felt like being snapped back to reality because things were getting more expensive. A theme throughout my trip was the further west I went, the more the train ticket usually cost. Case in point: while Liechtenstein to Zurich was only 34.80 ($39), it cost 66 ($73) to go from Zurich to Paris.

I finally took the Eurostar from Paris to London underneath the English Channel. The very last leg of the journey would involve something that most certainly didn t exist when the Orient Express first entered service: traveling through the underwater Channel Tunnel, which goes beneath the English Channel and connects France and England. Opened in 1994, the 31.4 (50.5 kilometer) long tunnel (built for about 4.65 billion ($6 billion), equivalent to around 12 billion ($15.45 billion) today, according to The Telegraph) is regularly used by Eurostar passenger trains. That s the train I went on.

It was hard to imagine the journey was nearing its end. The train was comfortable, and very fast the 287-mile (462-kilometer) trip from Paris to London took barely two hours. But it was also by far the most expensive ticket of my trip, costing 150 ($166).

Disembarking for the last time, the bright lights of the big city were dazzling after several days surrounded by fog and farmland. Almost as silently as it departed Paris, the Eurostar pulled into London s St Pancras Station, almost to the minute we were expected to arrive. We were in England. At last.

I was glad to be in London, but sad the journey — from the warm Arabian Desert to chilly England — had come to an end. Eight days. More than 4,420 miles (about 7,120 kilometers). Five separate hotels. Thirteen separate trains. The previously-mentioned 77 pounds (35 kilograms) of luggage. And countless memories. It had been an epic journey. That night, excited as I was to finally be in the UK, I slept like a proverbial log. I hadn t realized how exhausted I was.

Train tickets for the journey cost under $500 in total, and I could have saved even more money by staying in less expensive hotels. Here s the price breakdown of my train travels: Overnight from Istanbul to Sofia, Bulgaria: 221 Turkish lira ($38). Sofia to Belgrade, Serbia: 20.60 ($23). Belgrade to Zagreb, Croatia: 19 ($21). Zagreb to Liechtenstein: 119.20 ($132). Liechtenstein to Zurich: 34.80 ($39). Zurich to Paris: 66 ($73). Paris to London: 150 ($166). Total: $491.90.

For a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I thought the price was more than worth it. I had seen much and learned much. Clich as it sounds, what is life if not a series of adventures adding up to one grand adventure?

Within days, I was already thinking of where to take a train next. In The Lord of the Rings, once the One Ring is destroyed and evil defeated once and for all, Frodo returns home to the Shire, hoping to live out his days in quiet peace. Yet (spoiler!) that s not what happens: a few years later, he boards a ship and sets sail for another adventure. My journey across Europe may not have involved battling any great evil, or been as epic as Katie Warren s travels along the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway earlier this year, but it had changed me in its own way. It was the sort of thing I ll hopefully never forget. At least, until my next epic journey riding the rails.

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