Surreal Shores – A Golden Dawn On The Bosphorus: The Orient Express By Boat (Part Four)

The passage by steamship from Varna to Constantinople was anything but romantic. For those who had traveled from the glitter and dazzle of Paris to the surreal shores of the Black Sea by train, the voyage across the water to Constantinople was a decided letdown. The passengers avoided the deck at all costs. A view of the sea was not worth chancing a confrontation with the throngs of refugees. The only thing standing between the bourgeois passengers and this primitive proletariat was a timber barrier and rope. The potential confrontation never took place as the passengers practiced the virtue of avoidance. They resigned themselves to “smoking” in their cabins. The smoking came not from cigarette or cigar smoke, but from a billowing black cloud emitted by the burning of low quality coal. Soon it had pervaded every compartment. Meanwhile the flat keeled Espero was battered and lashed by choppy waves in the tumultuous sea.

Panoramic view of Constantinople in the 1870s as seen from the Galata Tower (Wikipedia)

Panoramic view of Constantinople in the 1870s as seen from the Galata Tower (Credit: Wikipedia)

Technological Touchstone – A Question of Time
The ship had launched from the jetty in Varna at dusk. Just after the sun went down the temperature plummeted as an autumn chill gripped the air. A nice meal was prepared for the Orient Express passengers, but most of them were not in the mood for fine dining. This voyage was more about suffering than it was style. All the money in the world would not bring them greater comfort until they washed up on the shores of the Golden Horn at Constantinople the next morning. This watery journey would take a total of 14 mostly excruciating hours. The Orient Express had been a technological touchstone, but the Espero was a reminder of the way things used to be and still were for many travelers who had no choice but to travel by ship. Those who were fortunate enough to make this inaugural journey would be part of a relatively rare travel breed, a small group of people who had successfully completed the Orient Express route by train, ferry and steamship across land, river and sea. This cumbersome system using three types of transport would be the standard until 1888 when the Orient Express’ final rail links were opened in Bulgaria.

What the inaugural voyage gained in adventure by using such disparate modes of transport, it lost in time. Time was of the essence when it came to the Orient Express. The original timetable for the Paris to Constantinople trip showed that it should take 81 hours and 14 minutes. The inaugural journey ended up taking less than that, clocking in at 80 hours. Considering all the stops for ceremonies and side trips the Express had probably done much better than could be expected. Five years later, when the journey could all be done by rail the time was cut to 65 hours, saving over half a day. What made the journey by boat from Varna so ponderously slow was the weather. The open sea was an untamed wilderness of seemingly infinite space that ate away at the ship’s speed.

Dolmabache Palace as seen from the Bosphorus

Dolmabache Palace as seen from the Bosphorus

An Astonishing Sight – The Glory Of Constantinople
The Espero, was buffeted by a strong northeasterly wind that limited its average speed to just 12 knots (14 miles per hour). Thus, it is not surprising that the journey took from dusk to dawn for the ship to cover the Black Sea portion of the voyage. The passengers may not have enjoyed much of this seafaring adventure, but the final hours of it were nothing short of spectacular. The Espero entered the Bosphorus strait just as the sun rose. It was an astonishing sight. All the glories of ancient, medieval and more recent history were there for the viewing on both sides of the Bosporus. The ship passed by the rustic medieval castles on the European and Asian hillsides built to guard the entrance to the Bosphorus by the Ottomans. Both of the Sultan’s splendid palaces at Beylerbei and Dolhambache could be seen. The most marvelous sights were the domes and minarets that came into view from the city’s historic core. The ship entered the Golden Horn that morning, just as the city was coming to life.

A more dramatic entrance to one of the world’s greatest cities could not have been planned. All the troubles of the steamship voyage had been worth it. In a few more years, travelers on the Express  would not be able to have the same incredible experience. At the quayside, passengers were greeted by the Belgian Ambassador and some Turkish officials. The Belgian ambassador was there because the brainchild of the Orient Express was Georges Nagelmackers, the son of a Belgian banker. Nagelmackers had traveled with the Express on this inaugural journey. He must have felt an incredible satisfaction when he saw his dream of speedy and reliable transport with first class service connecting western Europe to the near east finally come to fruition.  The passengers had to be just as satisfied. In the process of this journey they had become part of history. Thousands of trips would take place on the Orient Express over the next one hundred plus years, but only one would ever be the first.

View of the Golden Horn from the late 19th century

View of the Golden Horn from the late 19th century (Credit: Tristram Ellis)

A Palace Of Transport – Many Happy Returns
The Orient Express passengers were transported by fiacre to the Pera Palace Hotel in Constantinople. They would relax in luxury. It is doubtful that the Pera’s refinement could best that of the Express. The Compagnie des Wagons-Lits which provided the cars and staff had set a high standard for service that was soon to become legendary. The Orient Express would become forever synonymous  with glamorous travel. The passengers who had just made the inaugural journey could certainly vouch for the focus on high quality customer service. They would get the same treatment on their return trip. The journey would seem shorter since there were no kings or queens to meet, no ceremonial welcoming committees, no officials to press the flesh and no side journeys to state of the art exhibitions. The return journey was more in line with what the Express would become, a palace of transport gliding along the steel rails of western, central and eastern Europe on its way to the mysterious Orient.

Click here for: The Orient Express By River, Land & Sea – Contemptuous Cargo: A Bulgarian Brush With Anarchy (Part Three)

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