The political events of twentieth-century Europe reflect the central importance of international railways at that time: both as practical conduits for information and commerce and as symbolic monuments to state power.
This was seldom more evident than in 1918, when CIWL 2419D, a Pullman railcar owned by Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (historic parent company of the original Orient Express), served as the location for the signing of the November 11 Armistice ending World War I.
In the aftermath, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits officials feared that the Orient Express and its sister trains could become targets for German nationalist violence. Their fears would prove well-founded in 1940 when, in an all-time act of pettiness, Adolf Hitler forced French leaders to sign the terms of their national surrender in CIWL 2419D.
Before doing so, Hitler ordered the carriage's relocation from its then-residence (an Armistice Museum in Compiègne) to the same forest clearing where German Armistice had been signed in 1918. The Armistice Museum was subsequently bombed, and CIWL 2419D was taken to Berlin, where it was torched in 1945.
By 1919, long before the rise of the Third Reich, the Arlberg line of the Orient Express had already been inaugurated to circumvent these very tensions. In what was considered a safer alternative to the train's traditional route, it called at Zurich and Innsbruck rather than Munich and Strasbourg, thus avoiding postwar Germany.
At its operational apex, Arlberg Orient Express was a stunning alpine odyssey between Istanbul and London (or Paris), which linked the Alps and the Carpathian Mountains by way of its namesake, the magnificent Arlberg Pass into Austria. Three times each week, it offered an alternate southerly service to Athens via Belgrade in Serbia, where it crossed paths with its sister line, the Simplon Orient Express.
The historic Arlberg Orient Express ceased operations in 1962: nowadays, its nearest equivalent runs just once per year in the form of an exclusive journey from Paris to Istanbul on the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express by Belmond, which charges anywhere from €19,600 ($20,000) and €56,000 ($57,000) per ticket.
Fortunately, as of 2022, it remains possible to re-create either of the legendary routes once run by the Arlberg Orient Express through a combination of sleeper trains and international railways.
How Long Does It Take?
With point-to-point tickets, travelers can stop for as long as they desire in any of the fabulous cities featured on the Arlberg line, including Paris, Zurich, Innsbruck, Salzburg, Vienna, Belgrade, and Budapest.
Or, for those seeking to re-create the experience of a direct train as closely as possible, the Arlberg line's traditional route (from London to Istanbul) can be retraced on modern railways in as little as five days, while its alternate route (from London to Athens) can be retraced in as few as four.
How Much Does It Cost?
On both the traditional and southerly alternate Arlberg route re-creations, overall transportation costs are exceptionally low compared to the VSOE, especially with an interrail pass.
London to Istanbul (one-way)
- With a 5-day interrail pass: €345 ($351.60)
- Without interrail pass: €523.90 ($534.07)
London to Athens (one-way)
- With 4-day interrail pass: €308.20 ($314.19)
- Without interrail pass: €583.90 ($595.24)
Passengers on the historic Arlberg Orient Express traditionally departed London Victoria at 2:00 pm, arriving by 3:42 pm in Folkestone Harbor, near the White Cliffs of Dover. Then, they journeyed by ferry across the English Channel to northern France, reaching Paris by train at 7:55 pm. From Paris, they continued onto Switzerland, arriving in Zurich just after 5:00 am the following day.
Re-create Day 1
Morning: London to Paris on the Eurostar high-speed train
Modern travelers starting in London should begin by taking the 10:22 am Eurostar from St. Pancras International Station. With second-class tickets selling for around €195 ($199) on average, or about €34 ($35) with an interrail pass, this comfortable high-speed train is the ideal means of journeying between London and Paris.
After traversing the affectionately nicknamed “Chunnel"—a 31.5 mile-long concrete subterranean tunnel beneath the English Channel, which connects the British Isles with continental Europe—the Eurostar features a scenic journey across northern France before terminating at Paris Gare Du Nord at 1:47am.
After arriving in Paris, a simple transfer of stations is required. From Gare du Nord, take the Réseau Express Régional double-decker metro rail Ligne D Sud (south line D) to arrive at Gare de Lyon in less than half an hour. A single ticket costs €1.9 ($2).
Afternoon: Paris to Zurich on the TGV Lyria high-speed train
At 4:22 PM that afternoon, depart from Gare de Lyon onboard the Lyria: a sleek, high-speed double-deck Duplex operated by the French national railway service, SNCF. Its second class seats—averaging around €123 ($125), or €29 ($30) with an interrail pass—are spacious and comfortable, and each is equipped with its own power socket.
In addition to complimentary Wifi, the train offers a regular food trolley on its upper deck, while its stylishly modern café in car 4 serves beer, wine, soft drinks, and snacks. After a gorgeous trek across the Swiss countryside at sundown, Lyria arrives in Zurich Hauptbahnhof (better known as Zurich HB) around 8:26 pm.
Evening: Zurich to Budapest on the Kalman Imrie sleeper train
Just over an hour after Lyria's arrival, Euronight's Kalman Imrie line departs Zurich HB at 9:40 pm. Onboard, travelers will experience the vintage charm of a classic Hungarian sleeper car, as well as wonderful morning views of the countryside. As of 2021, the train is equipped with a restaurant carriage serving a variety of freshly cooked meals.
Tickets for a single bed in a triple (3-berth) sleeper on the Kalman Imrie sell for about €139 ($142), or €38 ($39) with an interrail pass. From Zurich HB, the train's overnight route carves across Lichtenstein, northern Austria, and western Hungary before arriving at historic Keleti Station in Budapest the following day.
The second day onboard the historic Arlberg Orient Express saw passengers arriving in Budapest by sunset. From Budapest, their train journeyed overnight across Hungary, reaching the Romanian city of Bucharest the next afternoon. On alternate days, the train began its southerly route towards the shores of the Aegean Sea.
Re-create Day 2 (Traditional)
Morning: arrival in Budapest on the Kalman Imrie
On their second day of travel, modern travelers onboard the Kalman Imrie arrive at Budapest Keleti around 9:00 am, having recently passed through a number of charming Austrian cities, including Innsbruck (1:20 am), Salzburg (3:22 am), and Vienna (6:27 am). Most travelers with point-by-point tickets choose to extend their stay at one or many of these stops before continuing onto Budapest.
Evening: Budapest to Bucharest on the Ister sleeper train
Following a leisurely afternoon in Budapest, modern travelers can take the Euro night-operated Ister from Keleti at 7:10 pm. Named after an ancient word for the Danube river, the Ister Express is a comfortable modern sleeper train complete with a Romanian bar and bistro car serving cooked breakfasts. Tickets for a bed in one of its 6-berth couchettes start at €35 ($36) or €14 ($15) with an interrail pass.
Re-create Day 2 (Alternate)
Unfortunately, the direct railway between Budapest and Belgrade has been suspended for construction and is not expected to resume operations until 2024.
The simplest solution is to travel via Zagreb, effectively following the route of the Simplon Orient Express: the Arlberg’s southern counterpart. For those who wish to replicate the historic Arlberg alternate route as closely as possible, though, an approximation can still be achieved by combining Hungarian and Serbian intercity lines.
Morning: Budapest to Subotica on Hungarian Local trains
From Budapest Keleti, take metro lines 3 and 2 to Nyugati Station (about a 20-minute journey). Next, take the 10:53 am MAV intercity train to Szeged, arriving at 1:15 pm. From Szeged, the 2:22 pm replacement bus runs to Kelebia on the Hungarian-Serbian border.
Afternoon: Subotica to Belgrade on Serbian local trains
From Kelebia, a daily Serbian Railways train departs at 2:41 pm, arriving in Subotica, Serbia, by 3:55 pm. At 5:00 pm, a bus from Subotica runs to Novi Sad with a 6:30 pm arrival. Finally, at 7:00 pm, an intercity train connects Novi Sad with Beograd Centar (Belgrade Center) in just over half an hour. The journey totals approximately €20 or is free with an interrail pass.
Evening: Overnight in Belgrade
In the absence of the direct Budapest-Belgrade rail line, it is not currently possible to reach central Belgrade in time to catch the same-day sleeper train bound for Greece, which departs around 6:30 every summer evening. This is just as well, though, since Belgrade is a mightily underappreciated gem of a city and more than worth an evening's stay.
Situated on the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers and boasting Soviet-era brutalist architecture, gritty street art, and exuberant nightlife, there are few more enjoyable places to visit in all of Europe than Belgrade.
Spend the night swapping stories with other travelers in one of the city's incredibly inexpensive budget hostels, or stay at historic Hotel Moskva, just a short cab ride from the rail station.
On their third day in transit, Arlberg Orient Express passengers would continue overnight from either Bucharest (on the traditional route) or Belgrade (on the southerly route) towards their ultimate destinations in Istanbul and Athens, respectively.
Re-create Day 3 (Traditional)
Morning: arrival in Bucharest on the Ister
Around 9:45 am, following its evening departure from Budapest, the Ister Express calls at Brașov in Transylvania. Here, travelers using point-by-point tickets can stop to visit Bran Castle: the historic home of Vlad the Impaler and the inspiration for Dracula’s lair in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel.
Shortly thereafter, Ister embarks on one of the most richly scenic portions of the entire re-created Arlberg Orient Express route: its ascent of the majestic Carpathian Mountains.
After carving a serpentine path along this alpine region's yawning ravines and between its stunning, cloud-covered peaks, Ister continues on into rural Transylvania, coasting south towards Bucharest to call at the city's main station, Bucureşti Norde, by 11:59 am.
Evening: Overnight in Bucharest
Nowadays, by the time the Ister Express arrives at Bucureşti Norde from Budapest at noon, the daily sleeper train bound for Istanbul has already departed. As a result, all modern rail travelers to Istanbul via Bucharest must stay overnight in the Romanian city.
Fortunately, Bucharest, like Belgrade, is well worth exploring for an evening or more. Stop by the enormous Parliament Palace (considered the world's second-largest administrative building) to marvel at its 3,000 rooms, or attend a concert by the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra at the breathtaking Romanian Athenaeum.
Re-create Day 3 (Alternate)
Afternoon: Belgrade to Thessaloniki on the Hellas Express sleeper train
After arriving in Belgrade the previous evening, take the Greece-bound Hellas Express from Belgrade's Topcider Station at 6:21 pm. One of several excellent sleeper rails hidden in the ruggedly beautiful Balkans, the Hellas Express offers single beds in its four-berth couchettes for €80 ($82) or €18 ($19) with an interrail pass.
On the morning of their fourth day out of London (or Paris), passengers on the traditional and alternate lines of the historic Arlberg Orient Express arrived in Istanbul or Athens at 8:05 am and 11:55 am, respectively.
Re-create Day 4 (Traditional)
Morning: Bucharest to Istanbul on the Bosphorous Express sleeper train
After an evening in Bucharest, passengers can board the 10:55 am Bosphorous Express on their fourth morning in transit. Featuring comfortable, air-conditioned 4-berth couchettes with single beds starting at €30 ($31) or €14 ($15) with an interrail pass, this excellent train offers a direct sleeper service from Bucureşti Norde to Halkali Station in Istanbul.
Re-create Day 4 (Alternate)
Morning: arrival in Thessaloniki on the Hellas Express
After following a winding overnight path through the mountains via Skopje, the Hellas Express descends into the verdant Gulf of Thérmai at dawn, calling at Thessaloniki by 10:08 am. From the station, travelers can spend the better part of their fourth day exploring this fascinating Greek coastal city—a remnant of once-mighty Byzantium.
Evening: Thessaloniki to Athens on Greek local trains
At 5:15 pm, the Athens-Thessaloniki intercity line (IC 55) departs from New Railway Station. Tickets sell for €45 ($46) or are free with an interrail pass. At 7:24 pm, after passing the fabled Mount Olympus, modern travelers on the Greek IC-55 will reach their ultimate destination: the ancient metropolis of Athens, on the edge of the Aegean Sea.
While passengers on the traditional line of the historic Arlberg Orient Express reached Istanbul from London (or Paris) within four days of continuous travel, modern travelers on the Bosphorous Express depart Bucharest on the evening of their fourth day out from London, arriving at Halkali Station, on the outskirts of modern Istanbul, around 5:43 the following morning.
Re-create Day 5 (Traditional)
Morning: Halkali to central Istanbul on Local Turkish trains
To reach central Istanbul from Halkal, modern travelers can opt for an efficient and comfortable ride on the TCDD-operated intercity Marmary Express, which departs Halkali at 5:43 in the morning before pulling into the new underground railway terminus near Sirkeci Station at 6:33 am.
Upon emerging from the station, travelers in 2022 will find themselves in the bustling, hospitable, and populous heart of modern Istanbul. Straddling two continents—with half in Eastern Thrace in Europe, and the other half in Asia Minor on the opposite bank of the Bosphorous strait—this captivating city has represented the crossroads of the global East and West for centuries.
From the lively clamor of its bazaars to the serene, magisterial splendor of the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul retains, in 2022, the aura of romance and enchantment that had defined it since the early days of the Orient Express, when it was still the Ottoman stronghold of Constantinople.
Here, at the end of their unforgettable journey across the European railways, modern passengers can experience the sense of wonder shared by the generations of Orient Express passengers who once gazed out of their windows to see the rain-swept streets of England's capital transformed into the ancient mosques, ornate palaces, and glittering minarets of this legendary Turkish city.