It was in 1889 that the original Orient Express train completed the Paris to Istanbul route for the first time. Our cycling version of the Orient Express has been setting off from Paris since 2005, and is still going strong.
In 2019, for the first time ever, the Orient Express bicycle tour will be all hotels. Yes, you read it right. Each night you will be sleeping indoors in a comfortable bed, in a centrally located hotel. You’ll be able to enjoy the local amenities, whether that may be local food that you want to try, or a historical site in the center of town.
The adventure will begin in Paris, and a brief stop at some of its most famous site before we head into the countryside. The route through France passes through medieval towns and across increasingly lush, hilly and forested terrain, before a thrilling descent down to Munster, near the French-German border.
Inside Germany we soon reach Donaueschingen, the start of the Danube Cycleway, which we follow off and on all the way to Budapest. It snakes across picturesque Bavaria through Ulm to Linz and then to Vienna, with its monumental palaces dating to the Hapsburg Empire. After a day of inspirational classical music and architecture we are off to Bratislava, the cosmopolitan capital of Slovakia.
We continue on to Budapest and its iconic spot alongside the now wide and mighty Danube River. We take a short rest in Budapest, before we head for the Carpathians and the Romania region of Transylvania. Steeped in folklore this region also boasts some spectacular mountain scenery. Then on to Bucharest, before we cross into Bulgaria and cycle along a series of secondary roads to Veliko Tarnovo – a gorgeous town dating back 5,000 years.
Then it’s on to the lively border town of Malko Tarnovo before we head into Turkey. We will have a few days getting to know the welcoming near-east culture before we arrive at our final destination, exotic Istanbul. There we will gather together one last time for a celebratory dinner, and reflect on the epic journey just ended.
This section will definitely give you a feeling of Joie de Vivre as we pedal from Paris’s Eiffel Tower along the meandering, quiet roads in the French countryside to the German Black Forest region. Experiencing these sites astride a bicycle, you will see and sense Europe in a manner unlike any other tour.
The adventure will begin in Paris, the City of Lights. After a brief cycle tour of the city stopping for quick photos at Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe we will head for our first stop in Provins, a walled medieval town designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From Provins, the road takes us through the rolling French “Champagne” region, home of the authentic bubbly, and into Alsace, along a route dotted by picturesque towns, including Chaumont and Plombières-les-Bains. We will cross the Vosges, where you will have a challenging 10 km climb from 200 to 1200 meters in altitude – the most difficult day of this section and on a route used in year’s past on the Tour de France.
After a night in Munster sampling its famous Munster cheese, we cross into Germany across the Rhine River at this borderless border between the two European Union powerhouses. Just 50 km inside Germany we arrive in Freiburg, a vibrant university town, and gateway to the Black Forest.
From Freiburg it’s a one day ride to Donaueschingen, the official source of the mighty Danube River. It is in Donaueschingen where we meet the Danube Cycleway – or Donauradweg as it’s known in Germany. This is a 1,357 km dedicated bicycle path that runs along the banks of the Danube River. Occasionally isolated entirely from vehicular traffic, this amazing cycle way offers gorgeous views, trailside cafes, bike repair stations, and winds through interesting towns and villages throughout the rest of this section.
We will bike across picturesque Bavaria through Ulm, the birthplace of Albert Einstein. On our day off in Ulm, riders can take some time to climb the 768 stone steps spiraling straight up to 141 meters inside the steeple of what is the world’s tallest church – the Ulmer Munster.
From Ulm we pedal through Regensburg with its old stone bridge, before we explore the delights of three of Europe’s most cosmopolitan urban centers; Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. Each is a capital city, ancient and modern, rich with imperial architecture, opera houses and museums, as well as chic shopping and delightful eateries.
Inspirational classical music and delicious Viennese cream cakes await you in Vienna. Then, we are off to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia – a mix of old and new, the city is rapidly modernizing while maintaining the ‘old city’ and it’s cobbled streets lined with shops and restaurants. Then on to Budapest, once dubbed the ‘Pearl of the Danube’ for its enviable spot on the river at one of its widest and grandest points. We will stop along the way to take pictures of the parliament buildings – Budapest’s tallest building with its impressive Gothic Revival architecture.
Anyone who has not visited Eastern Europe recently will be enchanted by Budapest’s latest Parisian fashions, an impressive array of international cuisine and majestic Austro-Hungarian architecture. Hungary’s centuries-old spas will relax you after your journey. Visit one of the large public spas and you will observe a slice of local life in this city unlike any other.
Leaving Budapest we will head southeast, traversing the plains of southern Hungary. As we cross into Romania and Transylvania, the flat days soon end. Not only is Transylvania rich in history and intrigue, its landscapes rival the Alps and Pyrenees for sheer challenge and awe-inspiring views. Throughout our time here we will observe horse-drawn carts, and farmers pitching hay into large mounds that dot the fields like giant furry thimbles.
Cycling eastward on country roads, we arrive at our rest day in Alba Iulia – the capital during Michael the Brave’s short reign as Prince of Transylvania.
On from Alba Iulia, the Carpathians creep ever closer on our right, until we turn inward and start our challenging (yet surprisingly manageable) ascent up the Transfagaras range and into the territory ruled by Vlad Dracul, better known as Dracula.
Over a distance of approximately 60 km we will climb to an altitude of 2034 m negotiating more than 50 switchbacks on the north side of the pass on a road engineered with gentled grades. After reaching the top we stay near one of the dictator Ceaucescus’s old hunting lodges set by Lake Balea.
After a cooler mountain night in idyllic surroundings, we zoom downhill through tunnels and past manmade lakes high in the mountains, stopping to explore the little known ruins of Poienari Castle – one of Vlad’s fortresses, until we reach Curtea de Arges – one of the oldest cities in Romania on the banks of the Arges River.
The next stop is Targoviste, the city from which Vlad ran his empire, and the site of the trial and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu. After another day of riding into the metropolis of Bucharest, the current capital of Romania, our time cycling is complete.
After a convoy out of Bucharest, it’s a straight shot to the Bulgarian border, crossing the Friendship Bridge over the Danube River, and staying in a riverside hotel for our final chance to watch the Danube on it’s journey to the Black Sea.
We cycle along a series of secondary roads and follow the Cyrillic-only signs past the UNESCO-recognized rock monastery at Ivanovo, and arrive to Veliko Tarnovo – a town perched on the cliffs high above the Yantra River. The town has a history dating back 5000 years, was the former capital of Bulgaria and once voted the most beautiful city in the country.
Then we follow even quieter roads through Bulgaria’s hilly interior. We stop a night in Kotel with its talented Roma population of musicians who can be found playing in restaurants and orchestras all over Bulgaria. After another stop in Malko Tarnovo we head to the Turkish border.
We will have a few days getting to know the friendly people of Turkey over kebabs and coffees until we arrive at our final destination, exotic Istanbul, which straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosporus Strait. The same city, known in antiquity as Byzantine and, later, Constantinople, served as capital, in succession, of three empires. Istanbul remains one of the world’s most majestic, enchanting and vibrant cities. There we will gather together one last time for a celebratory dinner, and reflect on the epic journey just ended.