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).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss