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Train travel on the Royal Hungarian Express – where imperial indulgence meets communist chic.
The Magyar motto jól enni, jól inni, jól élni means eat well, drink well, live well. Hungary’s communist heads of state clearly did, as they moved around the country in private trains, on one hand encouraging the workers to exceed their quotas whilst occasionally entertaining Western royalty and presidents. The private company MAV Nostalgia have restored nearly 50 of these vintage train carriages and locomotives for tourist train trips.
My first train journey was on the Royal Hungarian Express. This had been chartered for three days by the UK tour operator, Great Railway Journeys, as one of the highlights of a fortnight’s Central European itinerary, which also included city hotel overnights and excursions.
I joined some British holidaymakers at Budapest’s Nyugati station, which had been built by Eiffel. They had already visited Prague and Berlin. In keeping with the spirit of the Hungarian motto, we drank champagne in the wonderful over-the-top royal waiting room, designed for Emperor and King Franz Joseph and his wife Queen Elisabeth. Heathrow was never like this!
Steam locomotive 424.247 was waiting for us at the end of the platform, quietly working up a head of steam for the journey to Balaton, the Hungarian costa and Europe’s largest freshwater lake. The train is one of only three of its kind left– the 424 locomotives are probably the best known and certainly the most successful of Hungary’s steam trains. Not surprisingly, it always attracts an admiring crowd. It was hard not to give a royal wave as we pulled out of the station blowing a 100-decibel whistle, which scattered the pigeons high over Budapest.
Once on the move we scampered about like children and explored the rest of the train. It was made up of several carriages of various designs and vintage. The restaurant car and the bar came with wooden panelling, and pristine tablecloths and fresh flowers adorned the tabletops. It was fitting that the interior had not been modernised. The masses of velvet and velour, once the height of communist chic, had been retained, though there were a few necessary modern day additions, such as power points and showers.
Individual compartments for two, contained bunk beds, a washbasin and hanging space. They are made up into sitting rooms during the day, however if you want to dress up in your party clothes for dinner you would have to banish your partner to the corridor or bar. Taking a shower involved walking along the corridor with your wash bag and towel. Only the three swanky presidential cabins had en suites.
The hub of the train was the bar, where the singer and pianist, Apollo, belted out soulful Frank Sinatra numbers and tickled the ivories. At 11am on the first day most of the passengers were enjoying the complimentary wine and beer.
Our lunch consisted of peppers stuffed with cheese, goulash and sour cherry strüdel, with a choice of six Hungarian wines. The main components of Magyar cuisine are goose fat, sausages, speck, cream and rich pancakes. Luckily, there was an excursion to Lake Heviz after lunch for a swim in its warm thermal spa. We worked off even more calories that night, dancing in the bar — A terrific camaraderie developed among the passengers and staff.
The managing director of MAV Nostalgia made it his business to get the women dancing; whilst he chef, Zsuzsanna, worked her charms on the men.
During the first day we were allowed in shifts to ride the footplate with the elite of the country’s train drivers. We were duly awarded a certificate for this. It was like being cast into a Dante’s inferno – hot smelly blasts from the oil-fired boiler left me with the view that riding the footplate, was definitely for rail aficionados.
The drivers, all with full moustaches, remained jolly throughout the invasion of their space. For many of the passengers (notably the males) the ride was the highlight of the day.
Like all prima donnas, 424.247 had her temperamental moments and we had to stop en route several times for minor engineering repairs.
On our second day we had a new locomotive, the shiny red American designed diesel electric M61 to haul us south to Kecskemét, Szeged and the Great Hungarian Plain, the Puszta. This train, whilst less romantic was considerably more reliable.
Back in Budapest the favourite excursion was to the Children’s Railway. On other excursions we rode on the toy town narrow-gauge Szilvasvarad railway through beautiful forests and took a coach trip to the Aggtelek caves, which had the largest stalactite system in Europe.
At Lajosmizse we were met with horse-drawn carriages to drive round the Puszta. Here Europe’s first cowboys, the csikos, give us an impressive demonstration of horsemanship.
Afterwards we enjoyed the Hungarian spirit by drinking litres of wine, consuming a vast traditional meal and afterwards joining in the folk dancing.
At the end of the evening we stumbled out of the horse-drawn carriages to gather around a bonfire, which had been lit by the side of the track. Then, lights blazing as if to welcome us back, our home on wheels pulled up inch-perfect alongside.
It brought tears to my eyes.
The price starts at £2,290 per person, which includes first-class travel on daytime trains, including meals and drinks on Eurostar, 11 nights’ dinner, B&B hotel accommodation, the three-day trip on the Royal Hungarian Express with meals and drinks and excursions, as well as Vienna to Cologne in two-berth sleepers.
write by John Davis