In 32 hours from Villach to Edirne, once across the Balkans. This is the car train Optima Express. David has tested whether the mammoth journey is worth it.
Of course, who flies from Vienna to Istanbul, is hardly more than two hours on the way. But when I went to the Bosporus with a good friend in spring, I had other things in mind. I was looking for an overland alternative. And yes, even after a little adventure. I found what I was looking for with the "Optima Express", a privately operated car train that connects Austria with Turkey without changing trains.
For the well 1.400 kilometers, the Optima Express needs two nights and a full day. Not exactly record-breaking. On its journey from Villach to Edirne, the Optima Express crosses not only four countries – Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria – but also some breathtaking landscapes.
Departure from Terminal 2
But one after the other. For us, the journey begins in the Railjet, which winds its way from Vienna through the enchanting Alps. While Styria and Carinthia pass us by, we get in the mood for the coming adventure with schnitzel and wheat beer in the on-board restaurant. Arrived at the main station in Villach we quickly do some shopping, then we start walking the two kilometers to "Terminal 2.
No, this is not a part of the airport, but the loading area for cars and motorcycles. The Optima Express is already ready for loading, at the latest two hours before departure the passengers should have arrived. At the check-in we get the tickets. In advance we have reserved two seats in the couchette, sleeping cars are not available. Then we watch the vehicles from Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Austria roll onto the transport wagons.
The many passengers, most of them with Turkish roots, are well prepared for the long journey. Besides the luggage, there is also a lot of self-prepared food in the train. While we watch the hustle and bustle, the lady from the check-in rushes to us again with new tickets. She has found another compartment for us with a younger gentleman. This will certainly fit better.
Welcome to the Optima Express
At half past nine the shunting work is finished and our train consisting of three couchette cars, one dining car and six closed motor coaches starts moving. We have 32 hours of travel ahead of us, five border crossings and countless locomotive changes. It feels like entering a different era of rail travel.
We sit on our beds and familiarize ourselves with the surroundings. Curtains, wood look and, of course, "open windows" – it doesn’t take long for the nostalgia fever to take hold of us completely. Despite the advanced age and the one or other scrape: the couchette cars from GDR production (Waggonbau Bautzen) are throughout in good condition.
The toilets at both ends of the car are allocated for women and men. Every few hours they are roughly cleaned. And the stewards also keep an eye on their cars, so that despite the long journey, there is never an impression of uncleanliness. We won’t spend much time in our compartment anyway, the hustle and bustle in the dining car is much more interesting!
Dining car romance
The fact that a night train carries a dining car has not been taken for granted for a long time. Fortunately, the Optima Express is a different story: In the middle of the couchette cars, there is a train restaurant that has fallen out of time, curiously enough from the Slovenian railroads. Here we are served from a small but varied menu. The main course is excellent grilled meat with rice and fresh vegetables, for breakfast bread, cheese, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as butter and jam.
Next to the restaurant there is also a bar area, which is used for smoking as in the old days (good thing the windows could be open here for the whole trip; it would have been unbearable otherwise), but is also quite modern with sockets and WLAN. The overwhelmingly pleasant atmosphere causes us to spend a large part of the trip here. To play cards, to read, to look out of the window. Or just to marvel.
Windows open in the Nišava valley
The first night ends early, at 6 o’clock we reach the Croatian-Serbian border. A full day of train travel through Serbia follows. Because there has been no investment in infrastructure here for a long time (the Budapest-Belgrade night train was recently hit), we sometimes drag ourselves along the tracks at almost walking speed. The beautiful weather, the scenery and the food in the dining car make the trip nevertheless an entertaining experience.
In the afternoon we reach Niš. As at all stops along the route, there is no passenger exchange in Serbia’s third largest city. Instead, the locomotive is changed once again, from electric to diesel, because the scenic highlight of the whole trip follows: the non-electrified, single-track railroad line through the narrow Nišava Valley. We meander along the river all the way to the Bulgarian border.
Being pulled through this stunning landscape with the window open is one of the most memorable moments of the trip. In front of us hums the Dinara 666-001, which already pulled Tito’s "Blue Train" through Yugoslavia, next to us the slopes shoot steeply into the sky. The sound of the Nišava river and the green vegetation – who wants to get on a plane?? Around 8 pm we have reached the border with Bulgaria. Once again we check, two hours later we are in Sofia.
Good morning Turkey
The second night is also short. We reach Svilengrad, the Bulgarian border town with Turkey, and then, at barely 4 a.m., Kapıkule on the Turkish side. Turkey – we have made it! Despite the early hour, all passengers have to leave the train, the longed-for entry stamp is only available at the customs house next to the station. Half an hour later we are in Edirne, the westernmost city of Turkey. We reach our destination and final station with a delay of almost 15 minutes, it is 5:45 a.m.
A big hello at the station. Passengers stream out of the train, the car cars are shunted to the loading point, and soon the first tires roll on Turkish asphalt. For us it goes on with the only train of the day from Edirne to Istanbul. Five hours to go, then the Bosphorus glitters before our eyes for the first time. It is noon when we reach Istanbul Halkalı.
There’s one thing we won’t miss: We take the newly opened Marmaray Railway, which passes under the Bosporus in a tunnel, to Sirkeci Station. There, where once the legendary Orient Express dismissed its passengers, we have also finally: arrived. 48 hours after our departure from Vienna we dive into the hustle and bustle of a breathless city.
Optima Express: My conclusion
The Optima Express runs for a special but loyal audience. For individual travelers, there are certainly cheaper ways to travel by train; the non-stop journey also means that beautiful places such as Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade or Plovdiv are left behind. And still: I can only recommend the Optima Express! Especially for those who want to travel to Turkey relatively quickly and with a good dose of railroad romance.