By Emma Gratton,
Golden Eagle Luxury Trains Travel Expert
I have been, as some would say, lucky enough to travel the World, but until recently I had never had the privilege to indulge in the epitome of elegance onboard a ‘Luxury Private Train’. Traveling overnight for 16 hours down the coast from Mumbai to Goa was an unforgettable train experience, however fast forward (several years) and I am eagerly embarking on what is sure to be another.
I am escorted onto Istanbul Halkali Station as symphonic saxophone sounds serenade the platform, and I am greeted by an array of impeccably presented members of my extended Golden Eagle family. The delightful Turkish sun starts to set, and I step on board the Golden Eagle Danube Express. The cheap warm Indian Kingfisher beer I had previously been accustomed to on train journeys was swiftly replaced by a clear crisp crystal flute of champagne.
I am guided by my friendly, attentive, and knowledgeable attendant to my cabin where my luggage awaits me. The train slowly pulls out of the station to the guard’s whistle, I take a deep breath and I immediately fall in love with my surroundings, my highly anticipated voyage of a lifetime has begun!
The tour started 24 hours previous as I met my fellow travellers and guests at the Iconic Pera Palace hotel in Istanbul. Despite a delayed flight from Manchester UK, I was met on arrival at the airport by a Golden Eagle representative and whisked off in a luxurious private transfer. I arrived just in time to enjoy the welcome cocktail reception and dinner hosted by our very own, and very experienced, Golden Eagle Luxury Trains Tour Management Team. Inspired by many iconic guests and famous faces, including Agatha Christie, the unique and legendary hotel overlooks the magnificent Golden Horn and the historical old city. Many of our guests had arrived at our starting destination a few days prior and were already enjoying the 5* service and luxury.
The reception allowed Tour Manager Tatiana, known already by many of our previous Golden Eagle guests, to welcome our new discerning travellers. The impeccable service we proud ourselves on at Golden Eagle Luxury Trains was instantly recognisable as each guest was individually greeted with a leather-bound travel wallet and informative welcome pack outlining everything that was needed to know for the upcoming days. Over a delicious three course dinner, old friends reunited sharing their past Golden Eagle Luxury Trains journeys and new faces enlightened on hearing their stories. The excitement was now building for the first full day of the Castles of Transylvania tour.
It was a bright and sunny day as the group assembled around the instantly recognisable Golden Eagle logo flag, held high with pride by the team, this was clearly visible in the decorative foyer area of the Pera Palace. The group naturally branched into two groups and boarded modern and comfortable coaches. Armed with a personal receiver and headset allowing each guest to tune into the commentary provided by an expert local guide, we left the bustling Pera area of the city and headed towards one of the most famous monuments in both the Turkish and Islamic Worlds, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque). The area was gathering crowds, eager to marvel at the exterior structure, however with the assistance of our experienced guides we swiftly found ourselves absorbed and mesmerised by the thousands of Iznik tiles and painted floral motifs inside the UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Instagram worthy photograph opportunities continued throughout the morning as we visited Istanbul’s must-see historic sites, the Hagia Sophia and Basicalla Cistern. Reuniting over a well-earned traditional Turkish lunch of Tulum, meats salad and Baklava, friendships were visibly starting to form as the two groups began to share their travel stories and highlights of the morning. Train embarkation time was fast approaching and the excitement within the room was electrifying.
Whilst sipping on my champagne I absorbed my surroundings as the stunning scenery began to unfold right before my eyes and I took a moment to reflect on what was going to be my home for the next 5 days. My Deluxe Class cabin onboard was ornately decorated, the coordinated fabrics complemented the wood-panelled walls and brass fittings and the comfortable armchairs provided ample day time seating. A large picture window and full-length mirror enhanced the spacious feel, and my cabin featured a private ensuite bathroom compromising of a shower, washbasin and toilet. After a personalised introduction to my cabin amenities, conducted in a friendly welcoming manor from my attendant, it was time to embrace and define the decadent nostalgia of luxury rail travel.
As I took the short stroll down the gently swaying carriages, I arrived at the social heart of the Danube Express. The pitch perfect sounds created an authentic ambience in the Bar car as guests took the time to familiarise themselves with their opulent surroundings whilst settling into life onboard with fellow guests. Although no formal dress code is implemented for dinner, the carriage was an array of delightful colourful dresses and buoyant blazers elevating and defining luxury travel. Our tour leader James, grandson to Company founder Tim Littler, proudly welcomed everyone onboard and raised a toast to the train, staff, and the journey ahead as he announced dinner was about to be served.
The relaxed restaurant cars are a delightful venue in which to enjoy meals skilfully prepared by our Executive chef and his onboard team using only the very best ingredients. Throughout the journey the open seating policy allows guests to dine wherever and with whomever they please in one single sitting.
Upon taking our seats we were swiftly greeted by our steward, dressed impeccably and professionally the attention, dedication, and passion of exceptional five-star service as promised was instantly evident, it’s simply a family tradition at Golden Eagle! The culinary choices of a starter and main course was a challenge as the world class chefs had brought an extensive symphony of flavours and ingredients to the menu. My choices certainly did not disappoint! Freshly steamed lobster, served with a delicate tuna ceviche, followed by a succulent braised beef brisket with a Bourbon – peach glaze, both accompanied by specially selected fine wines. Simply exquisite!
Following dinner, many guests continued with the evening entertainment provided by Golden Eagles own resident pianist onboard. The bar is awash with an array of spirits allowing guests to sample a choice of custom curated cocktails crafted to perfection. I was somewhat in au, when to my surprise a bottle of the French liqueur Benedictine was nestled amongst the vast collection. A traditional, if somewhat controversial, combination of bene and hot water, made famous during the First World War, originates from my place of birth, Burnley (Lancashire, UK). Head barman Nemanja, even with his wealth of experience, welcomed the newfound concoction to his masterclass of mixology. And just like that. The Danube express was already starting to feel like home!
On returning to my cabin, it had been transformed into a dimly lit cosy bedroom. With bathrobes and slippers included I soon sunk into the luxurious plumed pillow and duvet and drifted off to sleep to the motion and movement of the train.
Welcome to Bulgaria! As the delightful Danube express slowly approached Gorna Orjahovica station guest were leisurely enjoying breakfast. The inviting aroma of piping hot coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and warm pastries (prepared on board by head pastry chef and Mestercrasz finalist Rebeka) filled the restaurant as the group assembled, eager for a full day of sightseeing ahead.
The previous evening, as part of the turndown service, guests receive a daily itinerary. Invaluable information, this overview assists guest in preparation for next day ahead. Times and temperatures, border crossings, currency & contacts are noted to ensure a seamless journey.
The day began with a sightseeing tour of the ancient capital Veliko Tarnovo. Nestled in a magnificent mountain setting the stone houses one above the other sit on the steep banks of the Yantra River. After a visit to the Asenevtsi monument, a prominent landmark in the city, the tour continued to the Orthodox church of Peter and Paul, and a visit to the remains of the fortress Tsarevets. The beautiful courtyard summer garden surroundings of a local restaurant provided the setting for lunch before enjoying some free time to browse the craftsmen’s street Samovodska Charshiya. The afternoon concluded with exploring a local residential Konstantsalieva House followed by a traditional Bulgarian music and dance folk performance.
Golden Eagle Luxury Trains voyages are meticulously crafted with the discerning traveller in mind as expertly curated excursions become a captivating experience. Itineraries are thoughtfully researched and curated to immerse guests in local cultures, traditions, and landscapes with the ultimate objective to explore destinations and provide an immersive and authentic encounter within each destination.
Day 4 of the tour did just that, it was the day I had been waiting for. The Castles of Transylvania! Was It a coincidence it was Halloween, or was that a result of expertise, blending tailormade unique Golden Eagle Voyages? Il let you decide.
This morning we arrived in Sunny Sinaia for a tour of Peles Castle. Not just any tour, a private tour! The castle is a masterpiece of German New Renaissance architecture, considered by many as one of the most stunning castles in Europe, and I must agree. The castle served as the summer residence of the Royal family until 1947 and its 160 rooms are adorned with the finest example of European art, Murano Crystal chandeliers, German stained-glass windows, and Cordoba leather- covered walls.
Mirroring the gorgeous gastronomy experience of dinner, lunch was served on board the train and was again Al a Carte with a choice of starter and main, followed by a delicious dessert and tea or coffee. Each course has a specially selected vegetarian option, however, should any guest wish for a lighter lunch or have specific dietary requirements, the dedicated restaurant team are hand to cater for any need. As the Danube Express weaved its way through the Romanian countryside, demand to enjoy a leisurely lunch and a glass of the finest wine with founder and president Tim Littler was high as guests were welcomed to join him throughout the journey as he shared his natural passion and enthusiasm for train travel. We soon arrived at what was sure to be a signature highlight and a magical memory for all.
As twilight approached, we transcended to a castle perched high atop a 200-foot-high rock. Surrounded by an aura of mystery the 14th century Castle owes its fame to its imposing towers and turrets, and of course the myths curated around Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We had finally arrived at Bran Castle.
After a spooktacular champagne arrival in the impressive courtyard, we were expertly guided into the history, mysticism, and secrets of the Castle through an exclusive exploration. We delved deep into the castle’s history and learned about real legends, and it was soon time to indulge in an intimate lavish private dinner. Spirits within the regal ambience of the castle walls were high and it was an inspirational moment to see the genuine enjoyment of our Golden Eagle guests.
By now I was fully embracing life on board. Travel allows the world to connect, it broadens horizons, it resets the body and mind. It was with great pleasure that I was now witnessing the Golden Eagle bond grow stronger amongst our guests of all ages and nationalities that were making memorable memories and long-lasting friendships.
Our exploration of Romania continued with a walking tour through the cobbled medieval streets of Sighisoras walled old town, and for those who were comfortable with it, a trip to the top of the 13th century clock tower. An afternoon in Sibu followed lunch on the train. The day was relaxed allowing plenty of free time to leisurely stroll through major landmarks to learn all about the cities turbulent and interesting history.
All good things must, unfortunately come to an end. As guests gathered for one last celebration and farewell dinner on board the Danube Express, we were honoured to be introduced, albeit to a standing ovation, to the behind-the-scenes restaurant staff whose culinary skills had surpassed all expectations. The heartwarming response melted the hearts of everyone, most of all Tims. After a turbulent few years, his hard work, passion and determination to continue Golden Eagle Luxury Trains soaring success was recognised by his team as he was presented, by his own grandson, a gift of appreciation. And just as my journey started, it was ending with a champagne toast.
The journey wasn’t over yet though, and the train travelled overnight into Hungary. Freedom of choice touring options allowed for a morning at leisure for those that needed it from the night before, the bar really does stay open until the last person leaves! We disembarked the train at Lajosmizse, deep within the Hungarian Plains, and took a short journey to watch a spectacular Puszta horse show.
It now really was time to say goodbye to my newfound friends and extended Golden Eagle family. As the train arrived in Budapest Nyugati Railway Station, the staff, still as impeccably dressed and presented as they were 6 days ago proudly lined up outside the Golden Eagle Danube Express. It was an emotional farewell, not only for all the guests who had experienced an epic adventure of a lifetime, but it also brought the Autumnal rotation of triumphant tours to a flourishing finale.