Dreams of the Orient



I UNDERSTAND that the Black Sea coast around Varna is nice in the Spring.

While the world’s attention has been on the Crimea in recent days, the Black Sea’s other resorts are known to be among the best in Europe.

Varna, nestled in the foothills of the Caucasus, on the West bank, is one of the most delightful of these and has an old world charm mixed with a hint of the Orient.

I’ve never been to Bulgaria, to the west, or Georgia to the east, or those ancient centres of humanity which surround the Black Sea, but it’s something to behold apparently.

The myth of St George and the dragon has its roots in those regions – the flag of Georgia is similar to that of England. While some still take the tale literally, many see the story as being largely an allegory.

Some have even suggested the dragon was the symbol of the (very) Christian St George in ancient hagiography as being an allegorical representation of Christianity beating back Islam in that quarter of the world. That said, St George is also known to be a symbol in Islam as well so it may have a literal root.

I recall Hercule Poirot once waxing lyrically about such environs. When I was a kid, I dreamed of the mansions of Agatha Christie and the suave lifestyles of the aristocracy, albeit admittedly entirely fictional.

Christie knew the Orient and Black Sea regions well – for a while she was married to the eminent archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan.

The story goes that she was inspired to write Murder on the Orient Express while on her way back from a dig in Baghdad  - the ancient Mesopotamia of course, catching the train at Istanbul for a return to London, just as Poirot does.

One can only imagine the style and luxury of the Orient Express.

In Christie’s day, it ran all the way from the Orient (Istanbul) to Calais – there was a Calais coach for this express reason, with a boat train to London.

During the war and successive years, the route to the Orient was deemed to be too dangerous, so a truncated version ran to Venice.

Rail expert Mark Smith, author of the authoritative The Man in Seat 61 www.seat61.com website says:  "Agatha Christie's 'Murder on the Orient Express' wasn't set on the Orient Express - it's set on the 'Simplon Orient Express'. 

"By the 1920s and 30s there was a whole inter-connecting network of Wagons-Lit company trains with 'Orient Express' as part of their name in addition to the Orient Express itself. 

"The 'real' Orient Express has always run from Paris Gare de l'Est via Munich, Vienna & Budapest, whereas the Simplon Orient Express started running in April 1919, taking a Southerly route from Calais and Paris Gare de Lyon to Milan, Venice, Trieste, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia and Istanbul, with a portion for Athens.

"It's not to be confused with the Venice Simplon Orient Express (VSOE) run by VSOE Ltd, a special train of restored vintage ex-Wagon-Lits Company sleeping cars. This is the one most people have heard of, costing about £1,400 or more per person from London to Venice.”

Imagine the luxury of that journey in its heyday in the 1930s. I learned a smattering of French simply through watching Albert Finney in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express and imagined myself boarding the Wagon Lits after an overnight stay at the Tolkatliyan Hotel at the Sirkeci station  - and it’s a dream which has never really gone away.

Turning to the waiter and saying: “I shall probably keep the menu as a souvenir’, that sort of thing. Perhaps enjoying a late night cocktail with the Countess Andrenyi, the remarkable Jacqueline Bisset in the film.

Varna (see here) , a short branch line from the route of the Orient Express, once imagines is the sort of place you might chance upon the Count Almasy or even catch Claude Rains talking to ‘Rick’; with the sparkling Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid looking on. Some old fashioned aeroplane nearby perhaps or some remembrance of the Byzantines.

Once at the head of the Thracian and Byzantine empires, ancient golden artefacts have been found dating from 4000 BC at Varna – in fact probably the world’s oldest find of such. Warm springs still emanate from some subterranean caverns.

There are ancient churches and mosques dating from antiquity but also ‘modern; 19th C buildings in the art deco style.

Varna was Count Dracula's "transportation hub"—the point of origin of the ship Demeter in Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, and the place where the vampire's annihilation was planned to be carried out.

The Byzantine Empire arose out of the remnants of the old Roman Empire. When at its height, the Roman Empire became ponderously large, and a split was made for administrative reasons. The Western Roman Empire still had its centre on Rome but the Eastern Roman Empire had its centre at Constantinople (Istanbul), and Varna would have been a major seaport close to such.

When the Western Roman Empire fell, the Eastern Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire, with Byzantium (pre Constantinople), at its heart,  with both Western and Eastern influences, and continued for a considerable time.

In fact it was not until the mid-1400s that the Byzantine Empire fell, after the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders and the final crushing blow by the Ottoman Empire.

The Black Sea coast and its shelf are also important as an industrial area with developed (and growing) oil production and high level of cargo shipping. For example, Krasnodar territory, the only Russian region on the Black Sea, possesses vast resources of oil and gas and the production has been constantly growing in recent years.