Michael Williams

Riding Bond-style on the train Smersh would have loved

September 27, 2008 The Independent

Glamorous, sure. But would Bond have approved? As the Danube Express, Europe’s newest luxury train, pulled majestically out of the austere platforms of Berlin’s Schönefeld airport station for its maiden journey to Budapest last week, I’m thinking of the world’s favourite secret agent, and Ian Fleming’s words in From Russia With Love.

“The great trains are going out all over Europe, one by one,” wrote James Bond’s creator back in 1956, as Agent 007 got ready to board the Orient Express to Paris with the sexy Russian girl from Smersh. It was to be a journey of intrigue, treachery – and lechery. But Fleming was lamenting what he saw as the end of a golden age of rail travel. Bond’s train, he wrote, “throbbed with the tragic poetry of departure.”

What, I wonder, would Bond have made of the gleaming navy and cream carriages of our train – claimed to “set new standards for overnight rail travel in Europe”? As we gather speed on our two-day journey down the “glittering tracks”, in Fleming’s words, to the Hungarian capital I feel sure of one thing. Bond would certainly have approved of the beds.

Since the era of 007, a lot of nonsense has been talked about the so-called “romance” of night trains. On every continent in the world, the reality is mostly different – cramped compartments, hard “beds” converted from day seats, and primitive washing facilities. Even the most famous trains are not exempt. The Venice-Simplon-Orient Express, promoted as one of the world’s most luxurious trains, is something of a passion killer. No proper beds, no en-suite lavatory facilities or showers – and, to the horror of many American tourists – no air-conditioning.

The passengers embarking on the maiden voyage of the Danube Express encountered something rather different last week. There were real beds with proper mattresses in double berths, en-suite showers and toilets, air-conditioning and soft lighting, with just five spacious sleeping compartments in each car. The new coaches on the train have been converted at a cost of £500,000 each by a British businessman, Howard Trinder. Previously, they served as the travelling post offices of MAV, the Hungarian State Railways.

Originally designed for stable riding so as not to unbalance the postal sorters at work, the mail train bogies now have a different purpose – to soothe the customers to sleep in their comfy upholstered beds. And the smooth suspension will do nothing to hamper the libidos of those determined on Bond-ish pursuits.

As it turns out, my journey is to be more Smersh than Bond, as the steward leads me through swaying gangways to the front of the train. Here the coaches are older, the curtains thicker, the blinds more impenetrable, the mahogany more burnished. And the sense of mystery thickens. These historic coaches are marshalled into the train from Hungary’s national collection of vintage rail vehicles. Eventually we arrive in Car No 54, where the door slides open to reveal a spacious compartment, complete with one of the widest train beds I have seen.

No wonder it is known as the VIP suite, since in its former incarnation, it was the personal quarters in the private coach of the last Communist president of Hungary.

Members of the Hungarian ruling elite were not known for skimping on the luxuries they denied to the proletariat, and President Janos Kadar was no exception. Installed as Moscow’s placeman after the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956 – the same year as Agent 007 was duelling with the agents of Smersh – he had a fearful reputation among railway staff. Six years previously, as Minister of the Interior, Kadar had hanged the innocent 73-year-old former manager of Hungarian Railways, simply to boost the regime of terror and to cow the people.

But, lucky for me, the president was also phobic about flying, and relied on the train for international state visits. His carriage was one of the best appointed of its day. So I settle back for the journey, amid the authentic 50s “commie chic” – lots of Formica, Dralon, heavy tasselled curtains, art deco lighting and a beaten copper table where the president liked to play chess (the cerebral leader used to ban television on Mondays so Hungarian workers could engage in similar lofty pursuits).

Instead of guards with Kucher machine guns who would once have been stationed outside the door, stewards (one is inappropriately named Atila) wait patiently for my every need. Can I smell a steam engine at the front of the train? No, it is just the stewards stoking up the coal-fired stove along the carriage that heats up my personal radiator and hot water.

It is this rather gentler nostalgia that defines the Danube Express’s journey south along the banks of the Elbe and the Danube – as we pass through a timeless world of middle Europe, still dominated by the ghosts of Slavs, Magyars, Tatars, Ottomans and Habsburgs. The tone is set by the names of the new coaches, taken from the ancient Roman provinces through which we pass. Not Annie and Clarabel, but Pannonia, Vindobona and Kracovia.

First stop is Dresden, melancholy in the rain, with many of the architectural splendours from the “Florence of the Elbe” reconstructed after the devastation by Allied bombers in 1945 and the concrete horrors of Soviet-era rebuilding.  But is it all too much like a stage set? In the square opposite the Frauenkirche, ostnostalgie is very much alive as stallholders do a roaring trade in sales of model Trabants (the one I buy claims to be metal, a great improvement on the resin and polyester of the real thing).

Back on the train, there is more nostalgia as the whiff of roasting goose for supper fills the carriages. In a world where meals on modern trains are rarely created outside a microwave, there can be few better sounds than that of a sizzling oven as we pass through the restaurant car to take our seats. And over the next two days, chef Gustav recreates some great Hungarian classics – Hortobagy pancake, chicken and mushroom ragout, pungent red cabbage, apple and sour cherry strudel and fine Tokai Furmint wine.

Rocked to sleep by the old-fashioned clicketty clack of the rails we awake amid the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia, surely the modern incarnation of Ruritania, where the official rail map – incredibly – shows the hills still to be inhabited by wolves and bears. We stop for a break in the second city of Kosice where I had to pay in Koruna (euros become legal tender only in the New Year) for an overlarge pair of East European swimming trunks. Locals still drink in a bar dressed up with Lenin memorabilia.

Journey’s end is Budapest’s Nyugati station, with its elegant wrought iron roof built by Gustav Eiffel – and a glass of champagne in the baroque but rather dusty surroundings of emperor Josef II’s personal waiting room, opened especially for the train’s arrival.

Next spring, the Danube Express extends its iron horizons to other great capitals of Eastern Europe – Prague, Vienna, Sofia and Istanbul. So what would Bond have made of it? More homely than exotic, I suspect. Certainly, I did not fall into the arms of Tatiana or anyone like her. Nor did I manage to solve the mystery of the Spektor encryption machine. Maybe this was no bad thing, since there were other compensations. It was famously said in Hungary that, like Stalin, its Communist leaders “never slept”. I am happy to declare that, coddled by the train in the President’s bed, I had one of the best night’s sleep of my life.

September 27, 2008 The Independent

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