The adventures for those taking the inaugural Orient Express continued late into the night at Bucharest. They were taken by fiacre to dine in the city. This came at the tail end of their longest side journey. A journey that had already resulted in a 300 kilometer round trip train ride into the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps, a walk through a torrential downpour on a muddy road in boot deep mud to a bizarre reception where they met King Carol and Queen Elisabeth of Romania. The passengers had gotten much more than they had bargained for since arriving in Bucharest early that morning. And their eventful day was not yet finished. When they got back to the city, a very late dinner was in order. They were now at a point beyond exhaustion. It was after midnight when the train pulled out of the Gara De Nord. Bucharest was soon to become an afterthought as they fell into sleep. The Express was now headed southward toward the Danube, on the other side of which was Bulgaria.
Heightened Suspicions – A Cold Greeting
The final stop in Romania would be Giurgiu set on the north side of the Danube. The town had been held by two empires (Ottoman and Russian) and one nation (Romania) at separate times over the past half-century. It looked the worse for wear as none of its occupiers had seen fit to repair the extensive war damage. In Giurgiu the passengers would exit the Express so they could be ferried by steamship across what the French journalist Georges Boyer called “the yellow waters” of the lower Danube. In later years the Orient Express would go by land all the way to Constantinople, but in 1883 the construction of a railway link through Serbia and Bulgaria was still being negotiated. This route would not be possible until 1888. That meant the latter part of the Orient Express journey would take place first across a spur line in northern Bulgaria and then via steamship from the Black Sea port of Varna to Constantinople.
Romania was exotic and rough around the edges, but Bulgaria would turn out to be downright wild. Bulgaria was a land of danger, tension and political intrigue. Only five years before, it had gained independence from the Ottoman yoke after the nasty violence of the Russo-Turkish War. The newly formed nation had yet to recover. It was ruled by an elite clique of Russian officers whose main duty was to keep it under the ostensible control of the Tsar. The city of Ruse stood opposite Giurgiu on the south bank of the Danube. It still bore many scars from the fighting and was unappealing. The passengers were given a formal, but cold greeting at the station. The Russians were suspicious of the Orient Express’ intent, since it provided a strategic link between Bulgaria and western Europe. Tsarist officials saw this as a threat to the Russian sphere of influence. The upshot was that the Orient Express clientele was given an indifferent welcome before boarding another train that would deliver them to Varna.
A Brush With Anarchy – The Bulgarian Countryside
The passengers were glad to see Ruse fade into the distance as the train began to head eastwards. Soon a new fear came to occupy their imaginations, the threat of banditry. The train was now crossing a hard-bitten, dusty landscape. Instead of houses, there were hovels. Mud rather than stone or brick was the main building material. It was mixed with timber to produce homes that had not advanced in construction since the Middle Ages. The only markers of civilization were solitary mosques with minarets piercing the autumn sky. This was a society stuck in a medieval level of development. The peasants were not far removed from serfdom as they tried to scratch a subsistence living out of the earth. In such a quasi-primitive state, crime had the potential to pay much more than hard work. This was not lost on the passengers, several of whom brandished firearms ready to fend off any attempt at robbery. Stories were told of how bandits captured stations along the route, robbed officials and attempted to burn them alive inside the structures.
The Orient was turning out to be much more anarchic than anyone could have possibly imagined. There would be no problems, at least not on this train, but the tension would not subside, even when they arrived on the shores of the Black Sea. The only stop between Ruse and Varna was the depressingly ramshackle town of Sheytandjik. It lived down to the Turkish meaning of its name, “Little Devil”. Alone and exposed out on the poverty stricken frontier, it suffered from the lawless chaos that plagued the Bulgarian countryside. Sheytandjik was a strange place to stop for lunch, but it was on the schedule. The partridge served up to them was nearly indestructible due to its rubbery consistency. This was not so much lunch, as it was an endurance contest to see who could finish any part of it. A delicious repast of Turkish desserts did go some way in ameliorating memories of the main dish.
A Seething Mass – Into The Black Sea
At Varna the rail journey came to a rather depressing end. Beggars and officials were the only one there to greet those travelers from the Orient Express. They would now board a steamship, the Espero. It was run by the Austrian Lloyd-Triestino Shipping Company and had sailed from the port of Trieste in Austria-Hungary several weeks earlier. The final stretch of the journey would be to Constantinople by way of the Black Sea and through the Bosphorus Strait, a distance of almost 300 kilometers. The seagoing voyage would be fraught with tension. This was due to some extra passengers who had been sold tickets allowing them to travel on the ship’s deck. These were Turks who had lost their homes and property due to the Bulgarization of the countryside. They had been living in subhuman conditions for quite some time, as was apparent from the body odor which wafted over the timber barrier which kept this seething mass of refugees from coming into contact with passengers of the Orient Express. The Turkish men looked at the wealthy foreign travelers with undisguised hatred. The passengers recoiled in horror. This was bound to make for a memorable voyage to Constantinople.