By Maggie Shipstead
December 11, 2019
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From left: Bran Castle, in Transylvania; Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia.
Katherine Wolkoff

Here's the thing about trains: they take you behind the façade of a place and show you fleeting, random glimpses of ordinary life, sometimes beautiful, sometimes gritty. It's the variety pack, not the greatest hits. Traveling from Istanbul to Budapest on a luxurious private train called the Danube Express, I looked out on storybook medieval villages and gloomy Communist housing blocks, smokestacked industrial suburbs and endless fields of sunflowers. Countless anonymous homes came and went, with countless laundry-garlanded back gardens. Bystanders took phone videos of our cream-and-blue carriages, which were restored in the style of a glamorous fin de siècle sleeper train.

Sometimes the train's throwback elegance made me feel like a visitor from another era; sometimes the scenery gave me a sense of traveling through another time. Once, somewhere in Romania, beside a highway humming with boxy Cold War–era Trabants and the latest German luxury cars, I glimpsed a man driving a horse cart down a dirt lane. One person's now, I thought, is another person's then.

For four days, the train carried me and my 17 fellow passengers through four countries, across a thousand miles. And here's what blew my mind: every scene we saw, every inch of railroad we clacked across in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, fell inside the boundaries of what was once the Ottoman Empire. For more than 600 years, a series of sultans ruled a vast multinational, multilingual, multicontinental block of territory, and this ghostly overlay on the map was what unified our itinerary, new from luxury train operator Golden Eagle this year. Every day the train made a stop or two, and every day local guides led us on walking tours of medieval citadels or castles or once — memorably, bracingly — a distillery for a 9 a.m. schnapps tasting.

The Ottomans popped up constantly in the guides' narration, their presence as ambient as the weather. The reconstructed fortress we visited in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria? A bulwark against the Ottoman Turks until 1393, when they burned it down and took over. Budapest's iconic public baths? An Ottoman legacy. The defensive towers in the 12th-century Transylvanian citadel of Sighioara? One guess who they were built to defend against.

The dining car of the Danube Express.
Katherine Wolkoff

Where else could the trip begin, then, but Istanbul? Everyone describes the city — the Ottoman capital for almost five centuries, from 1453 until the empire's dismantling in 1922 — as amazing. But, for some reason, I'd never felt an urge to go. As soon as my car from the airport crested a hill, though, and the labyrinthine metropolis unfolded below, minarets needling up like cactus spines and the Bosporus strait reflecting a purple-pink dusk, I got it. Amazing.

First there's its sheer size: Istanbul is home to more than 15 million people. It rambles on and on, a grand jumble of tiled roofs, expansive waterfront promenades, and maze upon maze of narrow, Byzantine alleys. Then there's its thrilling geography, spanning Europe and Asia with the Bosporus in between, a location with strategic and commercial advantages so irresistible that it's no wonder the site has been continuously inhabited for at least 3,300 years. The living city sits astride a midden of history, its surface pierced by reminders of lost eras: fortifications, monuments, and archaeological finds that crop up pretty much every time someone puts a shovel in the earth.

After a night at the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, my fellow Danube Express passengers and I set out on foot to tour the neighborhood — the hilltop heart of what was once the walled Roman city of Byzantium. Among our number were an older Englishwoman always attired in perfect, crisp whites; an American couple who compete in equestrian endurance events; and an Australian husband and wife on a classically antipodean three-month, two-continent travel odyssey.

The Danube Express en route through Bulgaria.
Katherine Wolkoff

Yiğit Tahtalioğlu was our guide in Istanbul, and though kind and scholarly, he gave us perhaps too much credit for our advance knowledge, making breezy allusions like, "And then of course there were the Scythians…" But the big picture—the Ottoman Empire's essential qualities of immensity, longevity, and complexity—was driven home by our first stop, Topkapi Palace. This was the sultans' dwelling place from the mid 15th to mid 19th century and their seat of power over a gigantic swath of territory that, at the empire's peak, included not only all the land over which our train would shortly chug but much, much more, stretching from Algeria to Iraq, and Croatia to Saudi Arabia.

Topkapi's structures are long and low and, to my eye, decoratively understated—at least when you consider the sultans' extreme wealth. They surround gardens now plain but once paradisiacal, abounding with tulips and roses, peacocks and gazelles. Tahtalioğlu pointed out the mismatched columns outside the imperial council's chamber, made from granites and marbles from far-flung Ottoman territories and intended as subtle reminders of the immense power and resources of the men meeting within.

Then he led us around the corner to the harem. In this secluded complex, the sultan lived with his mother and other female relatives and, notoriously, a fluctuating population of female concubines. Only a small fraction of its more than 300 rooms are open to the public, but I still felt disoriented and claustrophobic as we walked through multiple tiled chambers and twisting corridors. At one point we emerged into an open courtyard where latticed windows looked out across the water toward the city, at a wider but unreachable world.

From left: A vendor selling simit, a bagel-like snack, in Istanbul; visitors look out from the Fisherman’s Bastion, an iconic monument on Castle Hill, Budapest.
Katherine Wolkoff

After Topkapi, Tahtalioğlu took us through Istanbul's remaining Big Three: Hagia Sophia, a hulking sixth-century Byzantine church turned mosque; the Blue Mosque, a mass of domes and minarets that were, when we visited, under heavy scaffolding for restoration; and the Grand Bazaar, an immense covered market that felt like a video game in which, instead of enemies, men offering deals on rugs popped out from all directions. All these places were compelling and important and worthy of Tahtalioğlu's erudite explanations, but they were also quite crowded, and the day was quite hot. By the time we boarded the train in the early evening, the health app on my phone said I'd walked seven miles, and I wanted nothing more than to take a shower.

My previous experiences with train showers had tended toward the basic, but on the Danube Express I had a glassed-in stall and L'Occitane bath products, both of which I reveled in as the train slid out of Sirkeci station. In my roomy, wood-paneled cabin, I could sit by one picture window and drink a cappuccino at a little table, or recline beside another on a pillow-strewn sofa, which an attendant converted to a fluffy queen-size bed each night.

The next carriage was the bar car, where white-gloved waiters circulated with drinks and crystal bowls of potato chips. A man played jazz standards on a keyboard and sometimes—get this—a saxophone. The dining car was next down the line, a vision of white linens and gleaming, elaborate place settings. I thought unavoidably of Hercule Poirot and the Orient Express. Indeed, the Danube Express invokes a kind of nostalgia for nostalgia, recalling an era of elegant travel so bygone that the vast majority of us only know it secondhand from period pieces.

Aboard the Danube Express, a luxury train kitted out in period style.
Katherine Wolkoff

I had imagined the trip might attract die-hard train buffs, and though a handful of our well-traveled group had already taken Golden Eagle's signature (and swanky) Trans-Siberian Express, most seemed drawn less by the train itself and more by the ease of our cruiselike itinerary. Being conveyed from place to place without having to repack or schlep bags or manage literally any logistics at all is no small asset in places such as rural Romania, where tourism infrastructure is on the rudimentary side.

As golden hour descended on the Turkish capital, I ate Parma ham draped over cantaloupe, followed by a mushroom Wellington. After that came lemon cake, and after that fruit and cheese, with lots of wine throughout, and even by the time coffee had been served and darkness had fallen, we still hadn't left the city limits.

I woke in Bulgaria. Outside the window, wispy fog and the green Balkan Mountains had replaced Istanbul's sprawl, and the city already seemed far away. In the night, the train had click-clacked northwest across the shifting frontiers of former empires, fought over for centuries but today all but forgotten. A little after 9 a.m., we reached our first stop, the medieval fortress city of Veliko Tarnovo, which was stacked so steeply uphill from the winding Yantra River that a local joke, our guide said, is that directions are given in terms of up and down, not right and left. We checked out an equestrian monument to the rulers of the Asen dynasty, who had overthrown the Byzantines in 1186, and then the Tsarevets fortress, which had failed to stop the Turks.

From left: A family walks in front of the Obelisk of Theodosius, in Istanbul; view of Veliko Tarnovo, a medieval citadel in central Bulgaria.
Katherine Wolkoff

In a nearby village, Arbanasi, we visited the late-medieval Church of the Nativity, a low, homely stone structure that looked like a meeting hall for hobbits. The inside, which was densely painted with saints in red, gold, and green, gave us all the giddy feeling of a holy kaleidoscope. An illustration that took up most of one wall showed a man ascending to fortune and glory before tumbling into ruin and, since this was a medieval church, hell. A lesson for empires, perhaps.

It was evening by the time we reboarded the Danube Express, and it dawned on me that on this trip I wouldn't be spending much time on the train at all. I'd imagined leisurely hours reading in my cabin, but soon learned that on journeys like these, nighttime and early morning are when the distances are covered. Daytime was for walking tours, which were always interesting and, since our visit coincided with the tail end of a heat wave, always characterized by the search for shade. (The Englishwoman in her tropical whites had the right idea.)

Day two on the train was castle day. How's this for a sightseeing marathon? We disembarked at 7:45 a.m. in the Romanian alpine town of Sinaia to visit Pele? Castle, reboarded for a quick lunchtime ride to the city of Bra?ov, toured Bra?ov before going by bus to Bran Castle for dinner, and returned to the train after 11 p.m., at which point I collapsed into bed, eager for the train to rock me to sleep. Half a dozen passengers, though, all decades my senior, adjourned to the bar car for a nightcap. Heroes.

Sunflowers in Bulgaria, as seen from the train.
Katherine Wolkoff

Castles, in the year 2019, present a quandary. They are impractical dwellings and no longer serve defensive purposes, but letting them decay would be a shame. So admission must be charged and curiosity cultivated. We visit to connect with the past, to marvel at the idea of living in such vast structures. Pele? Castle was built mostly in the 1870s as a summer palace for Carol I, a German who became Romania's ruling prince in 1866 and, following the unification of two principalities, its first king in 1881, which honestly seems a little late to launch a monarchy.

Nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, Pele? is a maximalist 170-room fantasia done in a nostalgic (even for its time) catchall style known as neo-Renaissance. From the outside, Pele? looks like an over-the-top Bavarian hunting lodge, timbered and spired; inside, it's a showcase of embellishment, with once-futuristic features like a cinema and a central vacuum system. Final touches were added in 1914, just in time for two world wars and a mere 33 years before the Communists would seize all royal property. Touring Pele?'s public rooms, I felt an odd melancholy for its builders, who had been oblivious to the looming end of their gilded era.

Bran Castle, too, excites the imagination, but more for marketing reasons than for anything related to historical fact. Built in the second half of the 14th century as a fortress to defend against invaders, including, yes, the Ottoman Turks, Bran is now known as Dracula's castle, a tourist-trappy label reinforced by the stalls, clustered at its foot like a feudal village, selling plastic fangs and glow-in-the-dark wolf T-shirts. In the 1970s, enterprising Communist tourism boosters promoted the castle based on a tenuous connection to Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century Wallachian prince with a predilection for skewering his Ottoman enemies on stakes. He is widely believed to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker's fictional vampire, and so the leap from Wallachian prince to undead monster as the face of Bran was made. But, disappointingly, Stoker never came to Transylvania, and there is no concrete evidence he based his bloodthirsty count on Vlad the Impaler.

The extravagant Turkish Room in Peleş Castle.
Katherine Wolkoff

Dracula is a fun fantasy, though, and Bran is one of those attractions that transcend cheesiness. Perched on top of a rocky bluff, it's arresting and romantic and genuinely spooky-looking. Inside are appealing, whitewashed living spaces I would pick over the clutter of Pele? any day. Squeezing up a narrow stone staircase, we emerged into a high room where a long table was waiting. French doors opened onto a balcony overlooking the castle's towers and courtyard: the setting for a special Golden Eagle private dinner. A string quartet played while we dined and chatted, as tour mates tend to do, about travel. No bats flew off into the twilight, but sometimes a meal and a breeze are enough.

On the last day, I woke to find that Romanian cornfields had given way to the Great Hungarian Plain, a vast expanse of grassland that occupies the eastern half of the country. We stopped for one last excursion, which involved sampling the local schnapps and watching a traditional horse show. Then we reached Budapest, where we disembarked the Danube Express for the last time. That evening I sat beside the river drinking an Aperol spritz under a sunset the precise color of an Aperol spritz. Barges passed. Young women sat chatting on the embankment with their legs dangling over the edge.

Like Istanbul, Budapest is an ancient city. The Romans, the Huns, the Visigoths, the Magyars, the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, the Nazis, the Soviets—they all had a hand in shaping it. The city's spires darkened to silhouettes, and it struck me how crazy it is, really, how touching, that the human belief in the permanence of cities and borders and ways of life persists despite ever-accumulating evidence to the contrary. Someday, travelers might take trips designed to spark a sense of nostalgia for our era. Someday people might look on our mighty projects and laugh. Someday—and this is certain—we will be the ancient ones.

The exterior of the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, in Budapest.
Katherine Wolkoff

The Journey

The Castles of Transylvania itinerary takes travelers on board Golden Eagle’s Danube Express, a luxury train that accommodates just 50 passengers. The six-night tour showcases cultural and architectural highlights of the former Ottoman Empire. Passengers spend a night in Istanbul before boarding the train. They then travel through Bulgaria and Romania and disembark in Budapest. Excursions include walking tours of medieval Bulgarian citadels, visits to Transylvania’s Peleş and Bran castles and, in Hungary, a traditional Magyar horse show and distillery visit. The next departure leaves Istanbul on July 1, 2020. goldeneagle luxury trains.com; six-night trips from $5,995 per person.

Getting There

Turkish Airlines offers nonstop flights to Istanbul from most major U.S. hubs. From Budapest, American Airlines offers a nonstop to Philadelphia, while Lot Polish Airlines flies nonstop to New York and Chicago.