On Board the Majestic

Riding Through the Wachau on the Emperor’s Train: Rediscovering the Pleasures of (Affordable) Luxury Train Travel

On its route to Spitz in Lower Austria, the Imperial Train passes picturesque scenery completing the lavishness of stately rail travel

Inside, travelers see the luxury once enjoyed by Emperor Franz Joseph and Sissi

On its route to Spitz in Lower Austria, the Imperial Train passes picturesque scenery completing the lavishness of stately rail travel | Photo: Imperial Train

It was 15:40 at the Heiligenstadt Station on a Thursday afternoon in early summer. On the platform of Track 4, a scattering of well-dressed people mingled in threes and fours; one checked a watch; a cell phone rang. A young Austrian man in a well cut black suit came striding up the steps to be hailed by three others, in a hubbub of laughter, two-cheek greetings and hearty slaps on the back. Then three Japanese, two men and a woman, also in dark suits, stepped off the escalator, looking around inquiringly and consulting with each other in low tones.

A journalist stood alone on the platform, waiting for a colleague, eying the crowd and jotting down a few notes. She looked up to see a tall, patrician man with a van Dyke beard emerge from below and be instantly surrounded. This was Gottfried Rieck, owner and inspiration of the Majestic Imperator, the most elegant train in Europe, recreating the spirit and style of the Royal Court Train of the Kaiser Franz Josef.

 

THE COURT TRAIN

Train travel arrived in Austria in 1837 with the opening of the “Nordbahn,” chugging along from Floridsdorf to Wagram in the Marchfeld. With the enthusiasm and underwriting of Salomon Baron de Rothschild, tracks were laid along the Danube valley, north toward Prague, and south toward the Adriatic, so that by 1854, 1,433 km of track stretched out across the country.

By 1884, a 5,103 km rail network reached south to Trieste, west to Bregenz and east to Budapest and beyond. By World War I, 22,981 km of Imperial rail lines carried passengers and freight across the Empire.

Early trains tended to be a patchwork of individual cars, even for the royal family, and it was not until 1890 that the Austrian State Railway placed its first order for a uniform court train to carry the Emperor on his travels. It would be built at the Franz Ringhofer Imperial-Royal Carriage and Tender Factory in Smirchow outside of Prague, for the cost of 210,353 florins, about €40 million.

Photographs of the interiors show this train to have been sumptuous in the extreme, with the appointments and comfortable luxury that characterized all the imperial residences – along with opulent inlayed paneling, gilded mirrors and ceilings painted with cherubim, floors were hushed with carpets, chairs upholstered in thick brocade, and windows hung double layers of satin damask drapes, trimmed with braded fringe and tassels.

Of this original train, two cars remain: the first Salon Carriage of the Empress Elizabeth, on view at the Technical Museum in Vienna and the Imperial Dining Car from the Court Train of 1891 in the Technical Museum in Prague.

The Majestic Imperator is a salute to this original Court Train. Beginning with a Salon car dating from 1905, owner Gottfried Rieck has assembled a train of six cars collected from rail yards all over Europe and restored in the same Ringhofer-Smirchow works in the Czech Republic, where he found a few master craftsmen with the necessarily skills.

 

THE TRIP

That evening, each of the cars on the Majestic Imperator had been hired by a different group, one by the Japanese business association, one by a Russian company that was honoring all the company secretaries, another by the Vienna branch of AICR, (Amicale internationale des sous-directeurs et chefs de réception des grands hotels) The International Association of Deputy Managers and Reception Heads of Luxury Hotels. It was this last group that the reporters had been invited to join.

We were led to the “Ambassador,” a dining and lounge car near the middle of the train, outfitted in lustrous maple paneling, gilded mirrors, and thick drapes in green and gold damask and velvet tied back with gold braid. At one end was an elegant bar and serving kitchen; at the other, a wall hanging in worn red plush with a crown embossed in gold, that had once hung in the Imperial box at the Vienna State Opera.

Furnished as a restaurant, the tables in the “Ambassador” car were laid with crisp white linen and crystal, and a tiny bud vase with fresh flowers.

We helped ourselves to hors d’oeuvres from a serving table and settled into the broad-backed arm chairs covered in gold and grey floral velvet, just as the wine steward appeared at our side to fill the glasses from one of several local wines, including a fine Grüner Veltliner 2006 from Weingut Wieninger in Stammersdorf, a suburb of Vienna, and a second from Urgestein, Weingut Türk in nearby Kremstal. Service on the Majestic is attentive yet inconspicuous; tuxedoed waiters, in crisp white shirt and bow tie, a linen serviette over the arm, hover nearby, giving the feeling that somehow your glass is always full, your whims anticipated, your comfort complete.

Inside, travelers see the luxury once enjoyed by Emperor Franz Joseph and Sissi | Photo: Imperial Train

As the train rolls through the lush green farms and terraced vineyards of the Wachau, the landscape’s serene beauty unfolding past the window can be astonishing even for those who know it well, fruitful and alive, and lovingly cared for. The Danube, over 200 meters wide at Durnstein, bends through the countryside, nearly unchanged by the centuries of history that have passed this way.

In the villages and farms, houses are freshly painted coral pink, cream or yellow, and window boxes spill over with trailing geraniums. Back gardens bloom with azaleas, dogwood, plums and apricots. At the corner of the road, the rows of leafy grapes are tied neatly to the guide wires, right down to the edge of the railroad tracks.

And behind the fields and settlements, the ancient mountains rise up, a patchwork of vineyards and outcroppings of granite and mica-schist flashing in the sunlight.

 

BOOKINGS

Trips through the Wachau can be booked normally up to two days in advance, at the cost of €89  per person including wine and hors d’oeuvres. The train stops at Krems, Dürnstein, Weissenkirchen, and Spitz. Special outings include guided tours of historic Dürnstein, where Richard the Lionhearted was held prisoner on his way back from the Crusades by the Duke of Babenburger;  a gala 5-course dinner at Schloss Durnstein for €59 a person, or a vintner’s buffet and wine tasting at the Baroque Keller Schloessel for €39 . At Weissenkirchen and Spitz, travelers can wander through the streets of these picture perfect villages and have dinner at any of the many local Heuriger wine taverns. Or something else: Passengers are free to leave and reenter the train at any station and plan their own programs.

Majestic Imperator, Train de Luxe

Waggon Charter GesmbH

1., Opernring 4/8

Tel.: +43 1 513 28 81

Fax: +43 1 513 28 83

Mobil: +43 664 43 23 230

Email: gorieck@imperialtrain.com

Homepage: www.imperialtrain.com

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