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Paris to Sofia on the Orient Express

Author of the complete language course in our Member Area, Catherine Billebeau, gives us an insight into the the world's most famous train. Step back into the past and approach the magic of one of the most famous trains in the world - The Orient Express. The famous name can still be read in gold letters on the flanks of its revered navy blue carriages.

The Orient Express’ first trip to Sofia started on the 5th of June 1883, on the platform of the Parisian “Gare de l’Est”, and it was witnessed by Oppert de Blowitz, who at the time was a journalist for The Times. This very man published his impressions in a book just one year after, in what he described as an ‘unforgettable experience’. Sofia was not the final destination of the train, for it went as far as Istanbul, capital of the then Ottoman Empire.

On that day, the train left the platform at 7.30am on the dot in a glittery atmosphere, deliberately wished by the French authorities which wanted this inaugural journey to be as glamorous as possible. Let’s step into this magical ambiance for a minute and imagine two sleeping wagons, and two others dedicated to the storage of food and luggage, plus one very elegant restaurant indeed; all this in a slim but strong structure of steel gliding on rails at 65 mph.

Each sleeping wagon counts twenty comfortable bunk beds and the restaurant includes a smoking-room and a ladies lounge. Upon boarding the train, every passenger receives a glossy miniature map of all the Orient Express lines, and on the first page of this eternal reminder of the train trip of a lifetime, the number of the carriage allotted to them together with the passenger seat number etched on the card.

Off we go now, from the spires of Notre-Dame to the domes of Sveta Sofia. Hands are waving, arms are stretching, trying in a last desperate attempt to be close to loved ones on the brink of departure. On board the train, starched porters hurry at storing the luggage in their designated spots.

At the beginning of this tremendous adventure, the Orient Express would only ride between Paris and Giurgevo, Bulgaria, on the Danube River. From there, the passengers would take a ferry from Giurgevo to the then-called Bulgarian city of Rushtuk, now called Rousse, from which they would board another train still belonging to the Orient express company, taking them to the harbour city of the Black Coast, and then off the train again, to finally carry on to Constantinople by boat. At the time, the whole trip had a total duration of 81 hours and 41 minutes.

From 1889 onwards, things improved a great deal for the already very fortunate passengers of the Orient Express. New train lines were opened between Nisch and Bellova in Bulgaria, and from Bellova to Phillipopoli (now Plovdiv), thus offering the lines running from Budapest to Nisch to stop at Sofia, consequently reducing the train journey to 67 hours and 37 minutes. Back in those times, Oppert de Blowitz had been away from Paris for 19 days altogether, which he spent filling in his logbook with memories and scribbles of his oriental dream.

In 1889, thanks to the considerable extension of the train lines, a general contract was agreed with the Bulgarian rail for 15 years involving the exploitation of the network and maintenance of the trains. Things would not really operate until 1905 between Sofia and Varna and the Sofia-Tirnovo line would not be in service until 1906, followed by the Sofia-Philipopoli line in 1907 to finish with the Sofia-Zagora line in 1913.

Back in 1901, a travel agency was opened in Sofia shortly followed by another one in Varna in 1931. Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria was fascinated by the Orient Express and would frequently stop the train to go on board, would dress up as a driver and take the commands, saying that his royal title enabled him to do so without being contradicted, and in effect, thinking more or less that the train was a personal royal toy at his disposal.

Things obviously took a new dimension when WWI broke out. From 1915 to 1918, the Bulgarian services were under German hold and the lines were all suspended until the signature of the peace treaty in 1918. The same situation happened again when WWII broke out and this time the Sofia based agency was bombarded and reduced to next to nothing. Unfortunately, the magical destiny of the Orient Express was put to a tragic halt with the second World War. Further to Stalin’s occupation of both Eastern and Central countries, all hopes of ever seeing the Orient Express considered as the Pan European train were reduced to ashes.

Some even ghastlier situations occurred as the most unfortunate passengers did not see their home country again for a long period of time. For the anecdote, is the story of Helen, a young British passenger who got on the train just a few days before WWII broke out. She did not know anything about the war until she arrived at Sofia station. She made the decision to wait for better times to return to England but had to stay in Bulgaria for 50 years. She only left the country when the Berlin wall collapsed. The line to Sofia was indefinitely stopped in May 1977 owing to its lack of commercial success.

The current line to Istanbul only passes through the beautiful landscapes of Bulgaria now, so no stops are made whereby the passenger could enjoy the natural beauties of the country.

Should you choose the 9-day trip to Istanbul, you would stop in Bucharest, Romania and have enough time for a tour of the city, but don’t expect more than that. The reason is, that Bulgaria will be waiting for you on another trip and will not lift the veil upon its beauty until you have more time to dedicate to its natural wonders.

(Our sincere thanks to www.orient-expressimages.com for the magnificent photographs).