I’m standing in front of a lofty double door in the heart of Budapest’s Nyugati Railway Station. The paint is chipped and peeling, and the once golden handles are now dull.
Commuters pass by without so much as a glance this way, which is entirely understandable – the entryway is rather unremarkable. What lies beyond is not.
With a knock, the doors heave open and I’m ushered into the station’s Royal Waiting Hall. I’m about to retrace a rail journey of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as Sisi, so it’s only fitting that we begin in the private waiting chambers she once shared with her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph I.
Legions of inquisitive travellers in the know try to gain entry to these cloistered quarters, many of whom are told by the station’s staff that there’s nothing to see. I try to hide a smile as I sink into a wing-backed velvet armchair with a flute of bubbly in hand.
Out on the platform, The Grand Empress Steam Train has drawn a crowd of curious onlookers. Strokes of sunlight bounce off her jet-black paintwork and thick clouds coil and rise skyward from the boiler barrel.
The 1920s Mav steam locomotive is indeed a sight to behold and so too are the collection of original wood-panelled carriages it will soon haul across the Hungarian countryside.
Call me old fashioned if you will but I love the uncomplicated nature of train travel, especially in Europe. There’s no rushing through traffic to reach the airport. No arriving three hours early and certainly no tedious check-in procedures.
For this particular journey I don’t even recall needing a ticket – it had all been pre-arranged, every tiny detail, by the wonderful folk at APT as a sneak peek into the new experience guests on the company’s ‘Magnificent Europe’ river cruise can look forward to in 2019.
Seated by the window in a stately carriage that I can imagine once carried the Empress herself, it feels as if I’ve entered into her mysterious world of pageantry and prestige.
Silverware tinkles softly as I delight in a meal of pheasant and foraged vegetables while the city of Budapest untangles before my eyes.
Concrete flats and art nouveau buildings slowly spread into craggy hills and green pastures then to thick forest as The Grand Empress trundles onwards.
Sisi despised the stifling ceremony of the Hapsburg court, choosing instead to travel at any chance she could. Though evidence of her life and extensive expeditions can be traced across many parts of Europe – from her birthplace, Bavaria, to Vienna where she began her married life, and to Geneva, where she was assassinated – Gödöll? Palace, our destination, was known to be her favourite summer residence. Wandering the halls, chambers and grounds I can see why – the hush of the rural hideaway is unmistakable.
Back aboard the train, I watch the countryside dissolve back into a crowded grey cityscape. The Hapsburg Empire may have long crumbled, but one fascinating fragment of Sisi’s story lives on aboard The Grand Empress Steam Train.