There was only one carriage on the train that was going to Vienna, and it was jam-packed with people. We rushed on early and all three of us managed to squeeze into a compartment but there wasn’t room for all our rucksacks, so I padlocked mine to the window outside in the corridor, between the less lucky latecomers who were squashed together out there on the floor.
We spent a fairly wretched night sat bolt upright in our cramped and stuffy compartment, although at Salzburg the corridor emptied enough to become navigable and I spent some time sitting on my rucksack in the breeze from the window. Then as we entered the final three hours of the journey, the passenger on the seat opposite to mine left the compartment , and I wasted no time reclaiming my seat and putting my feet up on his, dropping instantly into a deep and comfortable slumber.
All too soon, we found ourselves decamping somewhat dishevelled and bleary-eyed onto the platform in Vienna. An attempt to spruce ourselves up found us scalped in the station toilets and in the cafeteria; we hadn’t realised just how expensive Austria could be. We spent even more attempting to use the telephone to find a hotel, and then once again when we checked our backpacks into the left-luggage office. We hadn’t even left the station, and we had already blown a fifth of our daily budget.
We did however now have a destination in mind, a “student annexe” to a proper hotel in the centre of the city. Glad to have left our backpacks behind us, we sprinted across five-lane intersections without any understanding of how the traffic worked, found the hotel, and reserved our rooms with a handful of notes. It was so early in the morning that no rooms were yet available, but the concierge amiably agreed to let us use some showers around the corner.
Suitably refreshed, Andrew volunteered to guide us on a whistle-stop tour of the attractions of Vienna. He did a great job and we enjoyed a whirlwind of largely Gothic splendour, a pot-pourri of cathedrals, palaces and government buildings.
The city was photogenically beautiful, and everything was conveniently situated close to the central Cathedral. The prices, however, wore us down. A combination of entrance fees and our lunch in a tourist cafe wiped us out, and we began to consider our escape to less expensive climes. The Thomas Cook International Rail Timetable, arguably one of the most amazing books ever published, showed that if we ran we could still catch a train to Hungary, which was importantly and famously inexpensive.
We made a hasty (and expensive) phone call to the hotel to cancel our reservation and, thankful that we had left our packs at the station and not at the hotel, ran for the train.
The Orient Express
Almost everybody has heard of the famous Orient Express, with its art-deco rolling stock and white-tablecloth service, subject of books and films throughout the twentieth century. However, none of those trains (for there have been a number of them) were in fact “The Orient Express”, although they did use those words as part of their name. The “true” Orient Express was from 1883 to 2009 the more prosaic everyday train that ran between Paris and Vienna, with sections going on to Budapest and Bucharest. The version that we caught in 1983 lacked in every way the glamour and history of the drama phenomenon.
We managed to secure a compartment to ourselves by the now standard practice of hanging up our washing and dirty socks to make it seem less palatable to other travellers, and stretched out to enjoy the ride.
As the designated accountant for the trip, I spent some of the time totting up our IOUs and calculated that we had spent an average of £5 per person per day which, Vienna notwithstanding, meant that we were still £1 per day under budget, and we were now heading for some cheaper nations.
At the time of our visit, Hungary was still solidly behind the iron curtain. This meant that we had five separate visits from green-uniformed officials who checked for stowaways under our seats, guarded the exits at every station, and re-counted the passengers after every stop.
As soon as we disembarked at Budapest Central, we were accosted on the platform by a man in a suit and umbrella who offered us all a room to sleep in for £9 per night. Andrew bartered him down to £6, slightly below the suggested rate in Katie Woods’ wonderful Europe By Train, which we had been using as our bible.
Our new friend Leslie led us to a money exchange where we got hold of some florints, waited while we scoffed down a welcome schnitzel and chips at the station cafe, and then took us home on the tram.
We crowded into the tiny lift of his apartment block, arrived creakily at the seventh floor, and were led into the living room of his flat. The room was packed with furniture and mats, the walls a mosaic of insulating carpet tiles, and dominating it all were a 26″ television (tuned to a single channel) and an old bakelite radiogram. Leslie gave us a soft drink, some milk, and a bowl of slightly battered pears, and we settled down to sleep wherever we could find some space.
We woke up after a good night’s sleep, and asked for some hot water to make coffee. Apparently coffee is a scarce resource here, because Leslie was very shocked when we offered to make him one, and even more shocked when Andrew left some dregs in the bottom of his cup.
Suitably refreshed, we tackled the first order of the day, which was to register our new address with the Alien Control Centre. We got back on the tram, which cost only pennies per ride, and gawked out of the windows as we traversed the ugly concrete streets, alongside tiny scurrying Lada and Skoda cars, to get to the central police station.
Leslie handled the registration process, which involved a lot of arm-waving and discussion, while the three of us perspired freely while hemmed in and hustled about by machine-gun toting henchmen. It seemed to end well, though, because we left with papers that entitled us to stay for three days as long as we did not leave the capital city.