This summer I followed the route of the Orient Express, and took a train trip all the way from London (Clapham South in fact) to Istanbul, with my dear friend Julie.
Revelling in a new phase of holidaying on my own, and J’s husband being away on a business trip, we decided to revisit our teenage years and go Interrailing. It really was the best trip ever!
We stayed briefly in Zagreb, Belgrade and Sofia en route. Each time we booked a small hotel or B & B and downloaded a short 48 hour itinerary from the internet. Open Top Bus? – did 3; Orthodox Church? – saw at least 5; local markets? – tick. We visited synagogues, cathedrals and mosques, sampled the local food and wine, and basically had an absolute blast.
We took a week to get to Istanbul and then spent two and a half days there, exploring. It is a truly amazing place. We saw and experienced so many things and met many lovely people.
I have always been an advocate of train travel, particularly for visiting family in Yorkshire and in Scotland. But travelling into and across Europe on the train, where the journey is an integral part of the holiday rather than a means to an end, is a new kind of adventure. Spending a whole day watching the changing scenery through the window, brings a new meaning to the term ‘headspace’. Not once on our adventure did I feel like reading my book or plugging into the music I had downloaded ‘to make the journeys pass more quickly’.
And the night train is an experience not to be missed. The only thing I can vaguely compare it to is taking a cabin on the overnight ferry. However, whereas the ferry is relatively quiet and calm, populated on the whole with considerate families and their pets, all hoping for a good nights’ sleep before the long drive through France – the night train from Munich to Zagreb is noisy, and loud, and slightly edgy. The carriages rattle and shake with a constant, urgent progress and you feel every bend in the track and the braking of the huge engine. The beds are small and the top bunk is so high that you need Jack’s Bean Stalk to get up there! I didn’t sleep very well – there were people shouting and arguing, strange bangs and shouts – but I didn’t really want to sleep and miss any of the experience!
So back to travelling light and in particular, to packing. We were going to be away for nine days, in a fairly hot climate, with no real access to washing/drying facilites. We also had to consider the fact that we would be travelling on some pretty basic trains and would have to shift our bags through various cities. Most importantly, we had to be able to lift them onto the overhead luggage rack! However, not for J and I the typical rucksack and bedding roll. Being of a certain age, we decided that we would try and retain a degree of sartorial elegance on our travels.
I initally plumped for a small wheelie suitcase and a lightweight handbag. I found the absolute perfect bag in Arket – their travel range is perfect. Beige, so it goes with anything, and made from lightweight nylon. Main pocket for purse, reading glasses(!), keys, passport, currency, tissues etc. Within that there is a small pocket which was perfect for my phone and another zip pocket for ‘essentials.’ Essentials is one of those words that can mean different things at different times. But believe me, from tampons to lipsalve, this pocket is ideal.
The front of the bag has a further slim pocket in which I kept my Interrail pass and seat reservation – genius!
I then had a choice whether to wear the scarf (intending to visit plenty of mosque whilst away) and the denim jacket (for emergency purposes only), carry them in my hands (awkward) or take a further bag.
Thinking ahead to our time in Istanbul, I correctly predicted that we might make a few cheeky purchases, and I would need some way of carrying them home – so I plumped for the extra bag option.
Again, I found the perfect item in Arket. Their packable tote bag (in purple – great for summer or winter?) was ideal. Made from the same lightweight nylon as the handbag, it is durable and has a tardis-like capacity (increasing to take three times its original volume on the return flight to London?!)
I envisaged myself wafting elegantly around the roof top bar of our hotel in Istanbul in a long kaftan-style dress – so packed two beautiful, full length cotton sundresses with that in mind. Did I wear them? – obviously not. Often on holiday after a full day of exploring and sight seeing, I find it’s easier to ‘go straight through’? Returning to the hotel to shower and change, can break any momentum you may still have and brings the inevitable risk of actually falling asleep whilst awaiting your turn in the bathroom – thus missing the evening all together! (Even on the nights when we showered and changed before going out, the full lengh ‘wafting’ thing seemed unecessary and inapproriate).
Three pairs of sandals – flat, lightweight – one pair on my feet, two in my bag. Do not underestimate the joy of changing your footwear at the end of a long hot day, however comfortable your shoes are.
Then I rolled up and packed 4 knee length cotton dresses. I had high hopes of wearing each item at least twice, but 12 hours on a train through Belgrade with no air con, and several 14 hour days on the streets of eastern Europe with an average temperature in the mid-30’s, soon put paid to that!
And I took one full-length, non-transparent nightie for the night train. We had a small sink in our bunk room, but the toilet was quite a trek along the corridor. And having been told by the Guard to keep our door locked, that night-time trip to the toilet took on a whole new level of intrepidation!
The denim jacket came out of my bag only once. Our final train journey was overnight from Sofia to Istanbul. At about 3am we reached the turkish border and were awoken by banging on the door and the Border Police ordering everyone to get off the train for passport control. For the group of young men in the cabin next door, I’m sure it was no big deal climbing out of their bunks and queueing on the moonlit platform still dressed in their jeans and tshirts from the day before. Cut to J and I, faces cleansed, teeth brushed, nightie and eye mask on and fully out for the count! Luckily for me, as I eventually reached the bottom of the 25 runged ladder, I could grab the denim jacket and pop it sartorially over my shoulders….. you can never go wrong with a denim jacket – I carried it half way across the world for precisely that moment!