In the 1935 mystery novel, Murder on the Orient Express, Detective Hercule Poirot is called on to solve a murder that occurred in his cabin the night before. The story is thrilling.
Agatha Christie was perhaps the best known of all mystery writers. Oddly, in 1926, she vanished for eleven days. The only clue to her disappearance is that Agatha stayed in room 411 in the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, where she wrote her novel Murder on the Orient Express. The mystery of her vanishing has never been solved. However, on March 7, 1979, with the cooperation of a psychic, an old key was found beneath the doorsill of room 411. Now the key is kept in a safety deposit box, and it is believed that this key shall one day unlock the mystery of Ms. Christie’s eleven mysterious days. During my visit to this hotel I felt that Agatha Christie was still there writing.
In 2004, I experienced a marvelous journey on the renovated Venice Simpleton Orient Express (VSOE) that follows the traditional path of the 1920s legendary Orient Express route. It is also the same trip that Agatha Christie took in 1926. The route starts in Istanbul and includes stops in Bucharest, Budapest, Vienna, and views of the magnificent Alpine scenery to Venice.
Istanbul’s Sirecki Station, formally known as the Orient Station, is a magnificent station that takes you back in time. From the moment you walk along the red carpet leaving behind the vibrant, bustling Turkish streets, you are taken by the trains overwhelming elegance and the fabulous local musicians who serenade you as the curious locals wave to you.
My Orient Express carriage cabin was beautiful; however, there was only a sink. Since these are the original carriages, they have beautiful bathrooms but no showers. So as Agatha Christie did years ago, we stopped at five-star hotels along the way. But ladies, don’t worry — you do have your own butler. Every day he presented guests with special gifts: elegant perfume, champagne, and (my favorite) these hand blown cordial glasses and sherry bottle.
The elegant five-star dining cars was a destination in itself. Each of the carriages had a theme and every meal came from a scrumptious gourmet menu, including fine wines from the area.
The bar car was absolutely nostalgic. If you look hard enough, you can see Agatha Christie standing next to the grand piano.
At each stop we were greeted like royalty, which included a red carpet, music, dignitaries, champagne and flowers.
In Bucharest, we stayed at the Athenee Palace Hotel. Like the Orient Express, the hotel was enormously popular during the war years.This hotel has long been associated with spies and intrigue, and chambermaids were famously paid to supply German spies with the contents of wastepaper baskets. The bar was noted as the place to exchange confidences and the acoustics of the lobby were renowned as enabling a person to overhear a whispered conversation. For many years agents of the Gestapo believed that they were the only ones who knew this secret, yet a journalist would revel in supplying them with propaganda.
At Sinaia, called the “Pearl of the Carpathians,” I visited the fairytale-like Peles’ Castle, built by the royal family as a summer residence. We enjoyed the Fosior, which is rarely open to the public, but as special guests we had a delicious lunch and were amused by local entertainment. As you can see below I really enjoyed it. What happens on a vacation stays on a vacation, right?
Our next stop was Brasov. This town that according to legend is where the Pied Piper of Hamelin led the children away from the town, after the local council had refused to pay him for delivering their city from its plague of rats.
Transylvania, a historical region in central Romania, is a name that strikes chill into the hearts of all people. Vlad the Impaler was transformed by writer Bram Stoker into the infamous Dracula. The house where the prince is said to have drawn his first breath is now a restaurant. The locals told me that there is a legend that Vlad’s mistress enjoyed taking blood baths.
In Budapest I was able to relax in The Royal Waiting Room, an elegant little building not usually open to the public. The Royal Waiting Room, which has somehow survived two world wars and the Russian occupation, has a superb gilded interior, which is utterly worthy of Orient Express passengers, and was obviously intended as much for those of the Hungarian royal train. Here I am, I kept thinking. I couldn’t believe that I — a school teacher from America — was experiencing the same entrance as the royal families, presidents, and many famous (and infamous!) historical figures.
In Vienna we visited the famous Ringstrasse, along with some of the most prominent buildings such as the opera house, the Imperial Palace, and the City Hall. We rode in a Fiaker horse carriage through Vienna’s Old Town, one of the nicest ways to see this old part of the city. Of course a visit to Vienna would not be complete without savoring some typical Viennese pastries, and in the evening we enjoyed a formal party and the beautiful Viennese Waltz.
Our final destination was Venice, and is one of my favorite cities. Venice is built on 118 islands and the city seems to float on the waters of the Venetian lagoon. In 1987 it became an UNESCO site. In Venice I stayed at the beautiful De Napoli Hotel in St. Mark’s Square, a gorgeous hotel comprised of what used to be three palaces, situated next to Doge Palace.
While I did not unlock the mystery of Agatha Christie’s unsolved disappearance, I did have a sense of the mysterious and enchanting aura and the gilded splendor along this unique route. This truly was a trip of a life time.