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)

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

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.

The first Orient Express brochure from 1887

The first Orient Express brochure from 1887

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.

The First Orient Express from the French publication L'Illustration

The First Orient Express from the French publication L’Illustration

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.

Roundabout - The first route of the Orient Express in 1883 is shown on this map

Roundabout – The first route of the Orient Express in 1883 is shown on this map

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.

Click her for: The Orient Express Enters The Orient – Romania: Strangely Familiar & Totally Foreign (Part Two)