Golden Eagle Danube Express | House & Garden

Budapest

Shutterstock

As exit lines go, this was one of the better ones: “I am just off to Sicily to catch a train to Budapest. I’ll be back in four days.” Trains these days, like cruise ships, are no longer content to travel from A to B. Mine, a luxury private train called the Golden Eagle Danube Express was starting from T: Taormina in the north east of Sicily, though as the 'Danube' of the name implies, it is based in Budapest and operated by Hungarian Railways.

Our rail cruise started in darkness, at 5am, after a night in the Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea. The dim globes lighting the Taormina station platforms were reflected in the gloss of the Golden Eagle’s blue and white livery. In the bar car, we were greeted with fresh orange juice and the resident pianist, Gábor, tinkling show tunes at the piano. We rattled past boxy grey apartment buildings and on to the seashore. Breakfast was scheduled for the Italian mainland, after we had crossed the Strait of Messina.

Golden Eagle Danube Express | House & Garden

The eight-kilometre passage from Messina to Villa San Giovanni is served by one of last train ferries in Europe. Scilla, one of two stocky sister ships, absorbed our nine carriages, shunting them onto a spotless deck of royal blue. This was Golden Eagle’s first foray south through Italy; their trains’ normal habitats are on the less beaten tracks of eastern Europe, Iran and central Asia. My train had just completed a lap of Sicily as part of a 12-day journey from Venice and was now on its way home. We had three stops and were given guided walking tours in each. Bari was the first, where we arrived in darkness, followed, in the next two days, by the Ruritanian republic of San Marino, and Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia.

Golden Eagle Danube Express | House & Garden

On two nights we slept on board, where there are three grades of cabin. The most affordable, in ‘Heritage’ carriages from the 1950s, have bunks. Eight of them share a loo at one end of the corridor and a shower the other. At the more expensive end of the range are Superior Deluxe cabins. With only four per carriage, each has two windows and are sufficiently spacious for daytime settees to metamorphose into king-sized double beds at night: the carriage attendant did the conversion during dinner. With oodles of storage space, free wifi, personally controlled aircon and sockets and ports aplenty, they are extremely well equipped. Loos are ensuite, as are the showers which, to save water, work in five second bursts – about an armpit’s worth.

On the last night Gábor gave a recital. Cocooned in the bar, roaring through Hungary, listening to ‘O Sole Mio , it was a unique experience in the world of rail travel. A few hours later, we were deposited at Budapest’s Nyugati Station in the heart of the city, minutes from the Kempinski, that night’s hotel. Convenience: it’s what trains do.

Ways and Means

Peter Hughes travelled as a guest of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains (goldeneagleluxurytrains.com, 0161 928 9410) and easyJet (easyjet.com) A similar Taste of Italy journey, departing on September 14 2019, costs from £2,995pp based on two sharing a Heritage cabin and includes all meals, drinks, guided excursions, airport transfers and gratuities. Flights are not included.