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Taking a D.I.Y. Version of the Orient Express

Taking a D.I.Y. Version of the Orient Express

Mention the Orient Express to most people, and you’re likely to conjure up visions of the private five-star luxury train — Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express — whose meticulously restored coaches feature every conceivable Belle Epoque bell and whistle: acres of mirror-finish mahogany, sophisticated silver service, a pianist taking after-dinner requests at the lounge car’s baby grand.

That train primarily runs overnight excursions between Paris and Venice. For two travelers sharing a sleeper, prices start at 3,530 British pounds, or around $4,500 per person — but once a year, the V.S.O.E. takes five nights to retrace the classic route from Paris to Istanbul. For a solo traveler, the cost of admission is £35,000 — and that’s for the smallest cabin.

Thanks to Europe’s ongoing night train renaissance, though, it’s now possible for the first time in years to travel from Paris to Istanbul by regularly scheduled sleepers, with just two planned changes of trains, in Vienna and Bucharest. And not only can you book this D.I.Y. Orient Express online, you can reserve private sleeping compartments for the entire trip for less than $1,000.

It was a trip I had always wanted to take. And so, one balmy evening last July, I found myself under the soaring glass canopy of the Gare de l’Est in Paris — from which the first Orient Express departed 140 years earlier — with tickets in my pocket for a trip 2,000 miles east to the shores of the Bosporus, on an unbroken ribbon of rail.

Sure, there’d be no pianist in the lounge car — nor a piano, nor a lounge car. And the trip takes at least four days, with two lengthy layovers. But not even a surprise downgrade to third class (that would come later) could have lessened my excitement when “Wien” flashed onto the digital departure board. I didn’t even wait for a track announcement; I spotted the rake of blue sleeper cars across the station and lit out for Track 5 and the far edge of Europe.

The Austrian Railways (ÖBB) Nightjet train to Vienna left with little fanfare: just a blast of the whistle and we were off.

The sun was streaming into my compartment as we picked up speed through the outskirts of Paris, and there was a laid-back camaraderie on the train as everyone settled in for the 15-hour journey ahead. In the corridor, I met a music student on his way back to school in Vienna and an Austrian couple heading home to Linz, a reminder that overland travel in Europe is a…

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