Tag Archives: Central Europe

IRT Awards High Marks to Golden Eagle Danube Express

29 May
Belgrade Dancers

Serbian dancers greet the Golden Eagle Danube Express in Belgrade. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

It was the photo op of a lifetime.

As the “new” luxury train Golden Eagle Danube Express departed Venice’s Santa Lucia station, the world-famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express was pulling in.

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.

See Angela Walker’s photos from her Balkan Odyssey adventure here.

Ljubljana Sculpture

Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia. IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

Stellar Itinerary

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.

Zagreb

Golden angels in Zagreb’s Kaptol Square.             IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Excellent local guides offered fascinating insight to the complex 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.

Diners

Happy IRT guests on the Golden Eagle Danube Express. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Sumptuous Dining

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.

Thee Ladies 2

IRT guests playing cards in the lounge car of the Golden Eagle Danube Express.  IRT Photo by Angela Walker.

On-board meals are served in three courses, with choice of 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!)

Swan Dessert

Special “Swan Lake” dessert served on the Golden Eagle Danube Express.

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.

Budapest

Budapest tram stop. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

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, the ever-present 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.

Princess Michael

Princess Michael of Kent peers out of the train. Prince & Princess Michael of Kent officially launched the Golden Eagle Danube Express in Budapest in early May. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Lounge Car

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. [Editor’s Note:  The new lounge car was added to the Golden Eagle Danube Express in early 2016.  Click here to read our post about the new car.]

Border Crossings

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.

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Religious paintings at a market in Sofia, Bulgaria. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

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.

Angela Walker Vice President, The Society of International Railway Travelers. Photo by Arthur McMurdie

Angela Walker Vice President, The Society of International Railway Travelers. Photo by Arthur McMurdie

Lofty Dreams

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 tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

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.®

Danube Express Strikes Gold with Upgrades, New Itineraries

16 May

 

MilitaryBandBudapest (2)

Hungarian military band serenades passengers as they board the Golden Eagle Danube Express May 2 in Budapest’s Nyugati Station. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The Golden Eagle Danube Express celebrated its new name — plus new itineraries stretching all across Europe and a host of luxury upgrades — May 2 at Budapest’s Nyugati Station.

No less than a member of British Royalty, Prince Michael of Kent, drove the steam engine for an inaugural run to the nearby Hungarian Railway Museum and Park. I was happy to join in the festivities and to review the train.

The former Danube Express’ golden moniker is more than a new name. The Budapest-based private train boasts a raft of luxury upgrades ranging from service and amenities to cuisine and off-train touring. “I have every confidence that this is an experience that will be shared in the years to come by many thousands of guests,” declared His Royal Highness to a crowd of dignitaries, press and travel executives in the Budapest station’s Royal Waiting Room.

A pianist entertains in the Golden Eagle Danube Express lounge car. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

A pianist entertains in the Golden Eagle Danube Express lounge car. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

After speaking of his passion for railway travel, the bewhiskered prince climbed into the cab of the Hungarian Railways’ ‘Buffalo’ class 424 steam locomotive. A Hungarian military brass band serenaded the passengers as they boarded the waiting train.

The Prince then drove “his” train out of the station.

The following day, Prince and Princess Michael joined a small group of passengers for the train’s inaugural overnight run to Venice.  The journey included lunch on board, an excursion to Lake Balaton in Hungary, followed by dinner and drinks in the bar car, with a harpist entertaining.  It was a brief glimpse into the experience many passengers will have on the newly operated train in the future.

The special journey celebrated the Danube Express’ management takeover by UK-based Golden Eagle Luxury trains. The company is best known for its Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian journeys in Russia and Central Asia as well as its ground-breaking luxury rail tours to Iran, begun last year.

GE Danube Express Deluxe Cabin has two lower berths. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

GE Danube Express’ spacious Deluxe Cabin has two lower berths. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The Golden Eagle Danube Express comprises five sleeping cars, a lounge car and two dining cars.  Four sleeping cars contain Deluxe cabins with two lower berths. One sleeping car has Heritage class cabins with upper and lower bunk-style berths. The spacious Deluxe cabins have private shower, sink and toilet. The bathrooms even boast towel warmers.

Heritage class cabins are budget-oriented —about a third of the size of the Deluxe. Toilets and showers are shared and located at the end of the car.

Buffet breakfast in one of the two dining cars. Guests also can order hot items from an a la carte menu. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Buffet breakfast in one of the two dining cars. Guests also can order hot items from an a la carte menu. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The upgraded train includes two 42-seat dining cars which serve delicious meals and wines. The lounge car accommodates 28. [Editor’s Note: A new lounge car was added to the Golden Eagle Danube Express in early 2016.  Click here to read our post about the new car.]  Drinks are served (and included in the fare) throughout the day while a pianist entertains.

Golden Eagle Luxury Trains offers a range of itineraries on its new train, covering a swath of Western and Eastern Europe.

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Evening place setting. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Sample itineraries include the 12-day Balkan Odyssey (Budapest to Venice via Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria & Romania) and Balkan Explorer (Venice to Istanbul, traveling through nine countries in 12 days).

For more information on the Golden Eagle Danube Express, click here, or call (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. To book, click here.

Angela Walker is Vice President of Operations and Senior Luxury Travel Advisor. She has criss-crossed the world to review many of the World’s Top 25 Trains, in India, China, Scotland, Canada, Uzbekistan and Peru, to name a few countries, for The Society of International Railway Travelers, a Virtuoso travel agency.

Want to visit the best of Central Europe?

19 Jan
I loved seeing these young dancers at their portrait session

The little dancers pose at the Krakow Royal Palace

I arrived in Dresden in snowfall, having a remarkable conversation with a fellow traveler on the ICE. I came to scout Dresden for our Society of IRT tours. She, in silk scarf and dramatic cape, came to bury her husband, an opera star at Dresden’s Semperoper. You’ll never forget Dresden, she confided.  The train rounded the bend, the city shined before us.

And that is why I am delighted the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has decided to do a tour which includes overnights in Dresden, as well as Krakow. The train has organized in these two cities five-star hotels, transfers and some fantastic, guided outings and events for the lucky few guests. But the train has wisely left plenty of free time for guests to explore on their own. I think the mix is just about perfect.

In Dresden, the Frauenkirche, is a powerful symbol of reconciliation. When I saw it, the rubble, caused by Allied bombing in 1945, lay in huge, numbered piles.  The rebuilding began in 1994; it was reconsecrated in 2005, with the help of donations from around the world. Now it is busy with services, tours and concerts.

Dresden’s river front is  gorgeous…Just walking around, visiting the art galleries, the palace, cafes, the opera, is a ball.  The Dresden Semperoper has tours during many days to visit the amazing building itself.

You also won’t forget Krakow.

Krakow, whose entire historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is another great wandering place.  The memorable Cathedral,  Wawel Royal Castle on the hill, the wall around the city. A Polish military band, 50 at least, decked out in fabulous red and blue costumes, first grimaced for their portrait, then filled the square with their music.  A battalion of young dancers decked out in their costumes posing for photographs in the courtyard of the castle charmed all who were lucky enough to see them.

All of these experiences just happened on their own. Dresden, Germany and Krakow, Poland, are just two of the cities in the region that are so worthy to visit. You can get to both of them from major city centers by regular train. But in the one itinerary with the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express this summer, they are linked by luxury train and plenty of time on your own in between.

Do  you have favorite memories visiting either of these two wonderful places?

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