For the best views of Hungary, ride the footplate of a steam engine

The Royal Hungarian Express used only to host the Communist president. These days it hauls Westerners on luxury breaks. Michael Williams climbs aboard

Are they waving - or saluting? Out of factories and corner shops, down the stairwells of Stalin-era apartment blocks, people are rushing to the lineside as our train gently gathers speed out of Budapest.

Are they waving - or saluting? Out of factories and corner shops, down the stairwells of Stalin-era apartment blocks, people are rushing to the lineside as our train gently gathers speed out of Budapest.

It may, of course, be the sight of the massive black "Buffalo" class steam engine, now wreathing the glass roof of Gustav Eiffel's Nygati station behind us in a crescent of black smoke. Or could it just be that folk memory can't quite help but defer to the familiar but inscrutable olive-liveried coaches, dining cars and sleeping cars of the official train of Hungary's last Soviet-installed president, Janos Kadar?

Once, the heavy red curtains pulled back across my window would have been tightly shut, even in daytime. A soldier, with gun cocked, was stationed by the lineside every 500 metres. Kadar's life was constantly at risk as the liberal exponent of "goose-liver Communism", which in the 1980s helped to eat away the foundations of the Berlin Wall. The lineside military parade used to extend well beyond Budapest, as far as Moscow, Prague, Sofia, Bucharest, in particular because the president was phobic about flying.

It's hard to know what Kadar and his henchmen would have made of the Western tourists in the former Wagons Lits piano bar, drinking designer beers and savouring the smell of a three-course lunch being prepared in the restaurant car. I am having a (quite early, even by Hungarian standards) morning schnapps with Andras Szendrey, the managing director of the company that now owns the train, served by Josef, the president's personal steward, whose very life once depended on sprinkling the right amount of paprika on the great man's goulash.

Along with Andras, Josef and 30 other stewards, chefs, waiters and sleeping car attendants, we are off for a three-day odyssey into the heart of Hungary, whose tectonic plates have not yet settled between its new status as a part of the EU, the certainties of the Communist era, and rosy memories of an imperial past.

Andras was once an engine driver. ("When hauling the president there were always two security men each side of us on the footplate. We called them the 'guitar men' because you knew from the shape of their cases about the Kalashnikovs inside.") But now he runs Hungary's answer to the Orient Express - not quite as luxurious, perhaps, yet as atmospheric in its own way, since we are on the only regular sleeping car train in Europe where you can nod off to the rocking of the pistons of an express steam loco up ahead.

With ruddy face and Magyar moustache, Andras may look as though he belongs to the old Hungary, but he is very much a new man, running Mav Nosztalgia Ltd, a £1m business spun off from the state rail system, promoting some of the best survivors of Europe's steam-age heritage, to well-off British, German and Austrian tourists. It may sound absurd, but it is oddly appropriate in this country of contradictions that a train designed for a politburo élite should be dubbed the "Royal Hungarian Express". And it is, paradoxically, only thanks to the democracy of the past decade that Andras has the keys to the royal waiting room at Budapest station, which he unlocks for us to drink pre-departure champagne in the Baroque splendour created for the personal delight of Emperor Josef II.

Hungary is a surprisingly small country - nowhere is more than four hours by train from Budapest, which itself is more than 10 times the size of the next smallest town. This is because the nation lost more than two-thirds of its territory when it was split up at the end of the First World War under the Treaty of Trianon. So it doesn't take long for loco No 424.287 and its nine vintage coaches to ease themselves at a steam-age pace into a different world from the hip, city-break cafés of Buda, and the euro-fuelled plate glass blocks of corporate Pest. As I discover over the next few days, it is a pity that only a handful of British tourists ever travel outside the capital to an unspoilt rural world of lazy villages, gentle lakes and spas and ripe vineyards.

Soon we are in a timeless mitteleuropa, where the Magyar warlords, the golden age of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the collectivist post-war world seem to merge. We pause at ghostly country stations, where nobody much comes or goes and where the only other transport is the occasional puttering Trabant or Wartburg. We alight to wallow in the radioactive waters at Heviz, where the gerontocracy have soaked themselves among the waterlilies since the Hapsburgs. We visit a horse fair near the Serbian border, where csikos - baggy-trousered Magyar cowboys - practise skills honed over millennia. The remnants of the Iron Curtain are never far away. On the Children's Railway high in the hills above Buda, the uniformed "Pioneers", some as young as eight, still salute the trains in time-honoured Communist fashion, though in these progressive days it is more do with getting house points in the education system than in the party.

The only time we wake from the reverie is with the thump of the loco recoupling as the train reverses in the night. (Because Hungary is so small, we are constantly doubling back on ourselves.) This is not to say I'm not comfortable. I have my own sleeping cabin, with endless hot water and a tirelessly attentive 24-hour attendant called Mate. ("I just couldn't call him by name and keep a straight face," said one of the passengers. "I'd sound like a Chav.")

The presidential suite even has a double bed, a rarity on any sleeping car train in the world, and the décor is smart, in the chrome and brown Formica fashion favoured by 1950s Soviet bloc designers. The food, with three meals freshly cooked on the train, is a world away from the goose-fat-and-schnitzel-with-everything image that still clings to Hungary (and which sadly still applies in many restaurants). We also get a chance to sample some of the newer wines, the best far removed from the stereotype of Bull's Blood and Asda plonk. But Euroland this is not, despite the German-registered BMWs and Audis parked outside posh villas along the waterfront of Lake Balaton, Hungary's inland sea. When the engine develops a troublesome coupling rod, it is simply dismantled and reassembled by the trackside. When I ask if I can photograph the train in motion, I am told: "Jump down and the driver will pick you up half a mile along the line." No sign of the health and safety police here.

The best moment is when I'm offered the chance to ride on the footplate. Night has fallen, and there is little to compare with the sensuous experience of being thrown around on this vast, hot beast in total darkness as it races along at 60mph. The ride is so rough that in trying to cling on, I mistakenly plunge my hand into a bucket of oil.

The charm of Hungary lies in her ragbag fusion of histories, passions and identities. But apart from the EU, do the British and the Hungarians have a single thing in common? I ponder this as I struggle to communicate with the crew in oily-handed gestures above the din.

There is, of course, the shared passion for old steam trains. (Of the thousands of statues in Budapest, only two are of Englishmen - and they are of James Watt and Robert Stephenson.) And for apricot jam: it is one of the obscurer pleasures of the trip to discover on visiting Kecskemet, the apricot-growing capital, that the entire production of the local jam factory is bought up by Sainsbury's.

But then, clambering grimily back on to the train I notice a peculiar thing. Zsuzsanna, our train manager and translator is wearing a Black Watch jacket under her uniform. "The reason is simple," she explains, in unusually good English, rarely encountered in Hungary. "It is for my Scottish country dancing. For you in England it may not mean much. But here, we love it!"

Back in Budapest, I discover an even more eccentric shared heritage. I stay the night in the old Hotel Astoria, which exudes memories from its faded but still elegant Art Nouveau and chandeliered public rooms. The first Hungarian government was formed here in 1918; it was used as a hangout for Nazi officials in the Second World War and as a spyhole for the Russians during the 1956 uprising. It was a pity about Lord Rothermere, two elderly waiters tell me, recalling how the British newspaper proprietor had turned down the crown of Hungary after receiving a petition from a million Hungarians grateful for his campaign for the return of the lost territories in the 1920s.

Just imagine, if the Daily Mail had had its way with Hungary. Would it be like Middle England now, I wonder. One thing is certain. My journey would have been a lot longer...

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The writer travelled as a guest of Great Rail Journeys (01904 521940; www.greatrail.com). It offers "The Imperial Explorer", a 15-day escorted tour visiting Vienna, Prague and Budapest with two nights on board the Royal Hungarian Express from £2,290 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return first-class Eurostar and rail travel throughout, 11 nights' full-board hotel accommodation, a two-night rail cruise on the Hungarian Express and all activities.

Further information

The Hungarian National Tourist Office (020-7823 1055; www.gohungary.co.uk).

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