It was the photo op of a lifetime.
The two elegant European touring trains slowly passed each other, as passengers waved and marveled.
Thus began the inaugural run of the newly dubbed Golden Eagle Danube Express on its Venice-Budapest Balkan Odyssey tour. The luxury train rolled through eight countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria & Romania. Its 54 passengers, hailed mostly from the U.S. & Australia.
Among the highlights awaiting those passengers: visiting the museum and tomb of Josip Broz Tito, former president of Yugoslavia; hearing a first-hand account of escape through the Sarajevo Tunnel during the siege of the city during the Bosnian War; and, most poignant, standing in the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, an event that triggered World War I and the deaths of more than 8 million soldiers and countless more civilians.
Excellent local guides offered fascinating insight to the history of these Balkan nations. Summoning personal experiences, they often focused on the conflict just 20 years ago, when Yugoslavia was divided and these countries were at war.
Earlier that week, the Golden Eagle Danube Express was christened with much pomp and circumstance in Budapest by a military band, festive speeches and no less a personage than His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent. For more on the ceremony as well as specifics of the luxury train’s accommodations, please click here.
Two dining cars seat 42 passengers each (which combined is more than the train’s 56-passenger capacity). The dining cars are attractive and comfortable, offering tables for 4 or 2.
“Albert” has a green and cream color scheme; “Pannonia” is crimson and beige.
The tables are resplendent with white tablecloths, crystal glassware and china emblazoned with the double-headed eagle logo of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.
Guests enjoy breakfast on board. One can choose from a buffet of fruit, breads, cereal, cold meats and cheeses. In addition, diners can order a hot breakfast including omelets, French toast, bacon and sausage.
Guests have either lunch or dinner off the train in a local restaurant, with the other meal on the train.
On-board meals are served in three courses. Guests can choose either vegetarian or meat starters and main courses.
On my trip, starters included asparagus with hollandaise sauce and zucchini rolls with ricotta stuffing, served in a char-grilled pepper sauce with basil olive oil. Other choices were foie gras terrine with spicy apricot chutney and toasted challah bread.
Main course options ranged from Moroccan baked vegetables with prunes and spicy couscous to beer-braised beef cheek with malted onions and ale sauce, served with carrots, green beans and onion mashed potatoes.
(The beef cheek was so tender and delicious, it was difficult to pass on seconds – which were offered!)
Desserts were a highlight (which pleased my sweet tooth immensely!) “Swan Lake” was a pastry shaped into a swan sitting on a “lake” of vanilla and chocolate sauce. The Swan Lake won the beauty contest. But for taste, I preferred the strawberry panna cotta and the chocolate mousse.
Meals off the train were generally set menus. But they still were multi-course affairs, with many featuring seafood. Vegetarian options also were available.
And some of the restaurants were in scenic locales. One example: our morning walking tour of the Belgrade fortress ended at Kalemegdanska Teresa restaurant within the fortress grounds, overlooking the Danube and Sava Rivers.
Service was good, although there is room for improvement. In the dining car, tables were not cleared and cleaned at breakfast as quickly as they should have been on a luxury train. Breakfast buffet items were not refilled once emptied.
I chatted with Edit Mészáros, on-board guest relations manager, and these actions were corrected the following day. Edit is very receptive to feedback and eager to please her guests. No doubt these small lapses in service will be rectified and perfected in the coming months.
Also, some of the train staff (mostly car attendants) do not speak English, or speak it poorly.
Lounge car “Budapest” is the social center. Unfortunately, the current lounge car only seats 28 – not enough to accommodate the train’s capacity.
But it is rare, if ever, that all passengers visit the lounge for a pre-dinner drink or nightcap (all drinks, with the exception of some premium wines, are included in the tour fare).
That’s a shame, as the train’s pianist, Eszter Kisgyörgy, was perpetually entertaining and an absolute delight.
A new lounge car (with a proper bar) is currently under construction and is set to replace the current lounge.
The journey was not without other glitches. Passing through numerous borders with a private train led to a few complications, mostly in the form of delays at the borders.
In some cases, the border control officials wanted to see each passenger with his/her passport in hand. Unfortunately, the timing of one of these crossings (Croatia to Bosnia) meant a knock on the cabin door in the middle of the night.
Scenic Bus Ride
Another setback: the train was not allowed to travel on the line from Sarajevo to Mostar, requiring a 2 ½ hour bus ride each way and lunch en route.
Although the motor coach ride was extremely scenic – running along glacial lakes through ridges, mountains and canyons – it would have been fantastic by train along a similar route, through countless tunnels and over many bridges (this will ideally be incorporated in future journeys).
The bus trip did serendipitously allow for an exceptional lakeside lunch in the town of Konjic – my favorite meal of the entire journey.
The Golden Eagle Danube Express has lofty dreams: to become the leading luxury touring train in mainland Europe. True, it lacks the polish of the famed Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
But its riveting itineraries, fully inclusive pricing and comfort undoubtedly put it in the forefront of luxurious European railway travel. The future seems bright for this up-and-coming luxury train.
To book this journey or ask questions about the itinerary or train, please call IRT’s Angela Walker at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Angela Walker is Vice President of The Society of International Railway Travelers and a senior luxury travel advisor. She has traveled the world over reviewing The World’s Top 25 Trains.®