All aboard! The engineers and conductor are ready to take their train from Tehran to Budapest. MEP
With its glamorous termini, wood-panelled cabins and liveried waiters, the Orient Express has for decades been the first name in luxury train travel. Thanks to British mystery writer, Agatha Christie, it even has a literary caché. What it doesn’t do, however, is live up to the promise of its name: the Orient Express doesn’t go to the Orient but ends its journey in Istanbul, a city as much a part of Europe as it is part of Asia.
Thankfully for those wanting to see the true Orient by rail, a new service was launched in October 2014. Known as the Jewels of Persia, it is the first European luxury train allowed into both Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran. We were invited onboard for the inaugural journey from Tehran to Budapest, traveling with 50 other guests from Canada, the USA and Europe.
The Golden Eagle Danube Express is the first European luxury train allowed into both Turkey and Iran. Golden Eagle Luxury Trains
The Golden Eagle Danube Express is a piece of history on wheels. Built in the mid-20th century to transport high-ranking Hungarian officials, the onboard entertainment, amenities and decor are reminiscent of an elegant bygone era: crisp linens, fine porcelain and cut crystal glasses are laid out on the dining car tables; a professional pianist performs recitals each evening in the bar; and every member of staff is immaculately attired in a classically-tailored uniform. A restored steam engine even hauls the carriages for part of the epic route.
We flew into Tehran, Iran’s sprawling modern capital, three days before the train’s departure. Though we’d travelled happily in the Islamic world before, and met erudite, cultured Iranian émigrés in other countries, the foreign media is particularly negative about Iran and diplomatic relations with the West remain decidedly lukewarm. We spent our first weekend in discovery mode, walking the city streets, drinking pomegranate juice in outdoor cafés and chatting with young Tehranis. The Ayatollah Khomeini stared sternly down at us from billboards now and then, and the women wore colorful headscarves, but these were the only outwardly visible signs that we weren’t in Moscow or Paris.
Three Iranian teens and their father enjoy the gardens of the Golestan Palace in Tehran. MEP
Map courtesy of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains 2014.
Trace this Journey of a Lifetime
The 7,000 kilometer or nearly 4,400 mile one-way route for this epic Jewels of Persia train journey travels through Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran. It is anchored at either end by the Hungarian capital, Budapest, and the Iranian capital, Tehran, respectively. Only within Iran, there are slightly different train routes taken and stops made on the Eastbound and Westbound itineraries. See the detailed itineraries for excursion descriptions.
Arriving at Tehran Railway Station, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that there was a rock star in our midst. A wall of cameras flashed and dozens of microphones were proffered by reporters: Where have you come from? What do you think of Iran? What do you think about the Iranian people? The sense that we were VIPs continued as we passed the line-up of staff standing to attention and walked onto the red carpet laid out before each carriage.
An appeal of train travel is that you can visit multiple destinations without living out of a suitcase. Our traveling companions (mostly retired professionals) were also drawn to the trip by the indisputable romance of long-distance train travel. By day we sat comfortably on the red plush sofa in our cabin, absorbing the ever-changing scenery, and come evening the space converts into a bedroom with two wide beds. For Heritage Class standard cabins, the toilet and shower rooms are at either end of the carriage, shared between eight cabins. The Deluxe Sleeper cabins have their own en-suite bathrooms, including a shower, wash basin and toilet.
Deluxe cabin aboard train. Golden Eagle Luxury Trains
Having rumbled away the miles overnight, we arrived in the holy city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran. Though rarely visited by tourists, Mashhad is a sacred place for Shi’ite Muslims: the Shrine of Imam Reza is the centerpiece of the world’s largest mosque complex and non-Muslims are welcome to visit if respectfully attired.
From Mashhad, the train turned south through deserts, passing the oases of Kerman and Mahan to reach Shiraz, the City of Gardens, a lush, green place famed for its pomegranates and the Shiraz grape. Shiraz is also the springboard for Persepolis, the ancient city founded by the Achaemenid Emperor Darius the Great in the 6th century BC, then sacked by Alexander the Great. Superbly preserved friezes depict subject tribes bringing tribute to Darius; vast pillars, hewn from the living rock, demarcate the audience hall of the Apadana Palace; and there are also exquisite carvings of winged bulls, magnificent horses and Zoroastrian deities.
A superbly-preserved carving at the ancient Persian city of Persepolis in Iran. MEP
Lecturer offers informal discussion with guests in the Bar Car. Golden Eagle Danube Express
To the north of Shiraz lies Isfahan, arguably, home to some of the world’s most beautiful buildings. We visited Vank Cathedral, the city’s Armenian church, every internal surface of which is covered with extraordinary frescoes of cherubs, flowers and biblical scenes. The paintings exhibit the influence of Byzantine Christian and Muslim artists, a striking fusion of ideas in a medieval religious space. No less impressive were the Shah and Sheikh Lotfallah mosques lining the UNESCO-listed Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Living places of worship as well as museums, both these structures are faced with delicately painted tiles in gold and lapis lazuli blue.
Train ferry loads up for crossing Lake Van. Roger Wilson
Finally we tore ourselves away from Iran, the train crossed the Turkish border, and we encountered the greatest logistical challenge of the tour: there is no railway track across or around Lake Van. To continue west it’s necessary to break the train down into individual carriages and to load them onto ferries. We took the opportunity to visit the snow-dusted Van Fortress and nearby Akdamer Island, a small but sacred place of pilgrimage. The Armenian church here is notable for its exterior carvings and its location, surrounded by ice-blue water with soaring mountain peaks in the distance, is second to none.
The train charged on through Anatolia, stopping for a night amidst the surreal geological formations of Cappadocia to wonder at the rock-cut city of Goreme where early Christians carved out chapels and living quarters so they could hide from invading forces. Some of their religious frescoes are well-preserved, though it’s best to arrive early before the crowds if you want to contemplate the scenes in quiet.
Blue Mosque, Istanbul. Turkish Culture and Tourism Office
Every corner of Turkey is stuffed with wonders, but our favorite place still has to be Istanbul. Though the train stopped here but a day, this was ample time to visit the 4th-century AD masterpiece that is the Hagia Sofia, where the golden mosaics demand you stop and stare; to join worshippers in the Blue Mosque with its fine tiles and painted domes; and then, finally, to immerse ourselves in the sights, smells and tastes of the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar.
The final leg of the journey passed through Bulgaria and Romania and into Hungary. We expected these places to be an anti-climax but were happily proved wrong. There’s an unspoiled beauty to this rarely visited part of Europe, and the attractions are particularly varied: in the course of three days we stood inside recently excavated Thracian tombs and orthodox churches, walked the streets of untouched medieval villages and, in Transylvania, toured Bran Castle, the supposed home of Dracula. Sparsely populated, the terrain alongside the tracks still felt wild, and yet it was punctuated now and then with signs of its Soviet past, the concrete apartment blocks and civic artworks, both sculptures and mosaics, of the honest working man striding into a bright new future.
Shipka Memorial Church in Kazanlak, Bulgaria (Bulgarian Orthodox). MEP
A train car steward offers a hand to a guest stepping off the train. MEP
The Golden Eagle Danube Express steamed homeward to Budapest. While on the final strait, we rode on the footplate of the engine, shoveling coal into the furnace and getting covered in numerous smuts. The wind whipped through our hair and it was an exhilarating ride as the fields turned to suburbs and at last the heart of Hungary’s capital came into view. We stepped onto the final platform of our itinerary accompanied by the rum-tum-tum of a military band, a celebratory glass of champagne in hand. It was the fitting end to a remarkable journey, the first true express train to the Orient.
Golden Eagle Luxury Trains, www.goldeneagleluxurytrains.com, has been operating luxury, long-distance train services for 25 years, including along famed railway routes such as the Trans-Siberian between Moscow and Vladivostok, and the Silk Road from Moscow to Beijing.
There are several Jewels of Persia departures each way scheduled for 2015 and 2016 with prices starting from US$13,595 per person for the 15-day tour. All accommodation, meals and excursions are included, as are the services of an expert onboard lecturer. Dates and full details about the tour are available online. Tickets for the first trip described here by Sophie and Max sold out in 10 days!
Enjoy another of Sophie and Max’s adventures in our Travel Article Library, a wonderful volunteer vacation picking tea and learning about the finer points of tea cultivation while staying on a Darjeeling tea estate in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. You may also stay on the estate without serving as a volunteer.
Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare run Maximum Exposure Productions (MEP), a business and PR consultancy firm specializing in emerging markets in Asia. They have a particular interest in Iran, the countries of the former Soviet Union and the Indian Subcontinent, and have lectured widely on economics, politics and culture in these regions, including for the Royal Geographic Society, the Royal Asiatic Society and the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. Sophie and Max are the authors of five Bradt Travel Guides and have also contributed to titles for Insight Guides.