Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains – the names have held a fascination for me ever since as a boy I first read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, probably by torchlight under the bedclothes.
The original midnight journey by the Gothic novel’s hero, Jonathan Harker, to the vampire count’s sinister castle was by a carriage drawn by coal-black horses with a mysterious driver, amid the howling of wolves. He had travelled to this region by train from Budapest.
We were aboard the Danube Express, following a 1,000-mile rail journey across eastern Europe from the Hungarian capital to Istanbul, visiting four countries in four days.
After a night in the Astoria in Budapest, a charming period hotel, I had boarded the train at the city’s Nyugati station, where passengers were greeted at a champagne reception in the sumptuous, chandelier-hung Royal Waiting Room.
It was the fulfilment of a long-held ambition when I found myself on the way to the very castle that had, just possibly, inspired Stoker when he wrote his story, which begins in Whitby, in 1897.
Legend has it that the author based his character of Count Dracula on the historical – and all too real – Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century warlord and prince whose grisly and protracted method of dispatching his enemies earned him his name.
So it was with a thrill that I discovered a plaque on the wall of a house in the citadel of Sighisoara, a town in the Carpathian foothills, recording that from 1431-35 it was the home of Vlad Dracul – in other words Dracula’s father.
Some researchers say that this yellow-painted house in the picturesque square of the medieval stronghold must have been Vlad the Impaler’s birthplace. And that on his return to the country from exile in Turkey he was known to visit nearby Bran Castle – a looming pile now gratefully claimed by locals and tourist chiefs as the “official” Castle Dracula.
The imposing 14th century castle, built on a rocky wooded outcrop outside the busy, historic town of Brasov, was donated to Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Queen Maria of Romania as a residence before becoming a museum in 1947. Despite a rather tacky souvenir and fast-food outlet at the foot of the hill, the castle has retained its integrity.
There is no reference to the Dracula tale in its perfectly-preserved interior. But exploring its stone courtyards, dark corridors and staircases – including a secret one linking the second and fourth floors – it was possible to believe that it could indeed have been the setting for the legend.
The Danube Express is designed to carry 42 passengers – a small enough number to get to know people during the journey without feeling you are living in each other’s pockets. We were a mixed bunch of mainly English, Americans and Hungarians, and a small group of Mexican women.
There are deluxe wood-panelled and brass-fitted compartments, four on each coach, with wardrobes and cupboards and enough storage space for two suitcases. There is a safe provided and the concealed lighting gives an atmosphere that outdoes many a hotel room. During the day the compartments provide comfortable seating which, while you dine in the evening, is converted into twin beds. Toilet and shower are en suite and each coach has its dedicated attendant, ready to supply drinks and other needs at the touch of a button.
The lounge car – with a resident pianist – provides drinks and refreshment, and is a relaxing place to sit and chat with other passengers or just watch the countryside roll by. Soft drinks, beer and house wines are all included with a charge of e4 for cocktails and some premium spirits.
Up to seven excursions with local guides are included during the three-night, four-day trip with the comforting thought that on return you are only seconds away from your own room and a welcoming drink, without the need for repeated packing and unpacking.
Despite the distance covered across Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and on to Turkey, the pace is always leisurely, with plenty of time to explore the changing cultures as we journeyed further east.
Outside Budapest we were taken by traditional horse-drawn carriage to a ranch on the puszta (a steppe on Europe’s largest grassland, the Great Hungarian Plain) to be given a riding display by the herdsmen and treated to a glass of barack palinka, the local apricot schnapps. Free time at the next stop allowed us to wander around the baroque town of Kecskemet before the late-night crossing of the Romanian border.
There we dined in style on fried pepper salad flavoured with herbs and goats’ cheese, followed by Burgundy-style roast venison with braised pear and potato cakes, with a dessert of apple and sour cherry strudel.
I awoke in Sighisoara for a walking tour of the town – a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the few citadels in Europe still inhabited – before we travelled on to Bran Castle and Brasov and the steep climb through the wooded Carpathians and the Bran pass, with snow-covered peaks glimpsed above the tree line.
The next day brought us to Bulgaria’s medieval capital of Veliko Tarnovo, before we travelled on over the Shipka Pass and into Kazanlak and the Valley of the Roses, where rose oil is produced for export throughout the world.
Here too is the stunning Shipka Memorial Church, with its massive golden domes, which honours Russian and Bulgarian dead during the battle for independence.
After another border crossing in darkness, dawn the next day saw us in Sirkeci station in the heart of Istanbul’s old town and with some sadness we left our train after a remarkable experience.
Peter Beal travelled on The Transylvanian overland journey from Budapest to Istanbul as a guest of Danube Express. The price starts at £2,790 per person, based on two sharing a deluxe twin en suite compartment, and includes three nights on the train with all meals, wine, beer and soft drinks, scheduled sightseeing, and tour manager throughout. Add-on services available include air or rail travel from the UK, four and five-star hotel accommodation and rail extension packages to both Prague and Vienna. Reservations: 01462 441 400 and www.danube-express.com
Other Danube Express trains include The Bosphorus (Istanbul-Warsaw), The Polish Explorer (Warsaw-Budapest) and The Albanian Pioneer (Budapest-Albania).