Europe sliding by the windows. Our cabin steward serving tea on a silver tray in our compartment. The train rumbling through the moonlit countryside. Historic citadels of civilization waiting to be explored. It now seems very much like a dream.
There are trips with promising beginnings that gradually unravel. Then there are adventures with inauspicious starts that build to a fine crescendo. But rarely are there trips that are grand from beginning to end.
The formula for this sojourn was hard to argue with. Begin in exotic Istanbul. End in romantic Venice. In between, ride the rails in total luxury through some of Europe's greatest cities - Bucharest, Budapest and Vienna.
We were treated like royalty. And why not? We were on the train of kings, the Venice Simplon Orient-Express, sometimes called the "King of Trains." This is the real McCoy - a train of authentic "wagons-lits" magically restored to their former 19th century glory - surely the world's most celebrated train.
Our adventure began in Istanbul, responsible for the "Orient" in Orient-Express. We had lunch in Europe and dinner in Asia simply by crossing a bridge in the only city on Earth to straddle two continents. To get an overview, we spent a few hours cruising the Bosporus. This strait, separating Europe and Asia, is lined with imperial palaces, mosques sprouting slender minarets, fortresses, fishing villages and wildly expensive homes.
As the capital city of three great empires, Istanbul presides over the relics of Roman and Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans. At Topkapi Palace we learned about complicated rules governing the sultan's harem of hundreds of wives and saw jewels as big as eggs.
We wandered through St. Sophia, built by Constantine the Great and reconstructed by Justinian in the 6th century. This ancient basilica, with its Byzantine mosaics, is one of the world's architectural wonders. Facing St. Sophia is the Blue Mosque, the city's most splendid mosque named for its glowing interior decoration of blue Iznek tiles. Light streamed through 260 windows onto a floor covered with handwoven Turkish carpets where the faithful come to pray five times each day.
Our 1,589-mile, five-night journey through six countries began in Istanbul's Sirkeci train station. Beside the regal blue and gold carriages of the Orient-Express, three chefs in tall white hats looked on as an outlandishly costumed Turkish band gave us a rousing send-off. We settled into our compartment, watched Asia slip away and, heading for the heart of Europe, dressed for dinner. At last we were riding the train that had carried royalty to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and ambassadors to the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill.
When they say this train is authentically restored, they're not exaggerating. The intricate wood marquetry paneling, unique in each carriage, was extraordinary. These painstakingly restored works of art were but a few of the treasures in our rolling time capsule.
Nostalgia has its flip side. Compartments are small as in "you wait outside while I dress," there's no closet, and luggage stored on overhead racks is difficult to access. The toilet is located at the end of the carriage. No shower. No bath. Just a tiny sink tucked in the corner of our room for sponge baths. Actually, it all worked amazingly well. Every other night (in Bucharest and Budapest), we celebrated the miracle of modern plumbing at a fine hotel.
Each day sparkled with highlights. We rode through mountains, over rivers and by fields and fields of sunflowers. Children waved. Farmers paused to watch us pass. The Orient-Express is not your everyday sort of train.
During a stop in Bulgaria we leaned out our window and chatted with a young woman on the platform who wanted to practice her English. In the Romanian capital of Bucharest we visited Revolution Square while hearing tales of the country's infamous President Ceausescu.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the sightseeing department was Peles - a fairytale castle in the Romanian mountain town of Sinaia. This magnificent retreat with its ornately carved wood interior, once Prince Carol's summer "cottage," is now a national museum. Nice to know we were following in the footsteps of the inaugural Orient-Express guests who visited this Royal residence in 1883 at the personal invitation of the king.
Our guide in Budapest bemoaned the plastic swathed statues of Heroes' Square. "We have two seasons," she complained, "Summer and construction." After roaming the Castle District on the Buda side of the Danube, we bought enough fresh paprika in the local market to last several lifetimes.
In Vienna our tour followed the famous "Ringstrass" with a coffee break to sample Viennese pastries at historical Cafe Schottenring.
A leisurely horse-carriage ride through the narrow streets of Vienna's old town seemed the perfect way to spend yet another sunny September day.
We were well cared for from beginning to end.
Bruno, our cabin steward, couldn't have been more helpful. He took care of our passports as we crossed national borders, transformed our cabin from sitting room to bedroom, served breakfast and afternoon tea in our compartment, iced the champagne, reminded us to set our clocks back and even found a vase for our flowers.
The Orient-Express folks certainly know how to make their guests feel special. A brass band, violins or costumed folk dancers welcomed us at almost every stop. Gifts -- perfume, a long stemmed rose, a bottle of fine liqueur -- mysteriously appeared on our berths in the evening. Meals off the train were usually accompanied by entertainment, the most memorable being the colorful whirling performance of aerobically gifted ballroom dancers at Bucharest's famous Athenee Palace Hilton Hotel.
On board we sipped wine from French crystal stemware in the opulent Piano Bar car (complete with a resident pianist) and later dined in comfortable upholstered chairs in one of three restaurant cars. Our four-course gourmet meals, as delectable as they were exquisitely presented, were prepared by French chefs.
Dining decisions were difficult. Did we desire oysters and morels in a light pastry, pike-perch cooked with bacon, mushrooms and red wine or perhaps a broiled lobster with white truffle butter? And these selections were for lunch!
Dinner feasts included baked duck breast, sauteed foie gras and braised apricots; marinated salmon with sour cream and salmon eggs; rolled veal piccata and goat cheese; tender Turkish lamb fillet and creamed black olives. Dessert? But of course. A dark chocolate, mint and quince tart, Hungarian pastries or roast whole peaches and green lemon zests.
If our fantasy trip had to end, it might as well be in a spectacularly beautiful place. Venice filled the bill and then some. After being greeted at the station by trumpeters and bidding fond farewell to our new train friends, we spent several days on our own soaking up the atmosphere of one of the world's most romantic settings.
We were mesmerized by the sights and sounds of this floating city -- gondoliers with operatic voices serenading their passengers, frenetic water traffic on the Grand Canal, the musicians of St. Mark's Square, luminous reflected light dappling ancient canal walls, alfresco cafes and graceful bridges at every turn.
Istanbul to Venice on the Orient-Express -- a dream trip from beginning to end.
Istanbul to Venice -- a five-night, one-way trip with table d'hote meals (a la carte menu available at additional cost), sightseeing tours and overnight hotel accommodations in Bucharest and Budapest included -- costs $4,225 per person based on shared compartment.
The journey passes through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Italy. Passengers must have passports and are responsible for their own entry visa in Turkey.
When packing, remember the adage: "You can never be overdressed on the Orient-Express." Gentlemen should wear a minimum of jacket and tie at dinner. During the day, dress is casual but smart. Be sure to take comfortable shoes for walking tours.
Check the Web at www.orient-expresstrains.com/ for details of accommodations, routes, dining and leisure facilities, current special offers and booking information. For information and reservations call (800) 524-2420.