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Authors: Peter King

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“I must find him,” said Friedlander, and promptly set off on his quest.

Brenner, the indefatigable friendship-broker, was about to detach the “Walburgs and introduce them to a couple with unmistakable Australian accents, probably instigating a clash of travel reminiscences that could reach epic proportions. He was thwarted by waiters walking around striking wooden gongs with padded hammers and emitting three notes. This was presumably a Swabian way of announcing that dinner was about to be served.

I promptly approached Miss Tabor and asked her if I could have the pleasure of escorting her into the dining room. She gave me an imperious look that seemed about to tell me that she could find her own way there but she relented and actually accepted with a slight smile.

My gallantry was not rewarded, for the tables had place settings and name plates embossed in gold on a mahogany panel. She found her table at once, and I had to search further.

I was at a table with Helmut Lydecker, who described himself as a salesman; Irena Koslova, an attractive young Romanian woman who gave the reason for her presence as “something I have always wanted to do”; a small dapper Frenchman called Henri Larouge, who was associated with one of the organizations providing the train’s food; and a Hungarian girl with reddish hair and a calm, serene air who introduced herself as Talia Svarovina.

The meal began with three “dollhouse dishes,” as the Germans call them. A liver dumpling, the size of a marble, was accompanied by a few shreds of sauerkraut. A quail egg was larger, but only by about a millimeter. A teaspoon of mayonnaise with a distinct tang of lemon lay artistically over it although its cohort was another teaspoon of potato salad. It was heated and was made in the German (South German) style, with brown cubes of bacon, olive oil, and vinegar.

The third item was a Wiener schnitzel, a miniscule sausage, half the size of a little finger (a very small female little finger) and it was flanked, as if by two guards, with a microscopic slice of fried potato on either side.

Each came on a separate segment of one large plate. Each was delicious in its own way, and each could be ingested in one mouthful, though I noticed that most guests made that mouthful last as long as possible.

“Dollhouse indeed,” commented the lady on my left. She was the Hungarian girl, Talia Svarovina.

From then on, dishes were closer to normal size, although, as the ornately printed menu informed us, we were having six courses. In fact, the portions were small by German standards, but that managed to be balanced by an extremely high quality.

A clear asparagus soup came next. In it floated white truffle shavings, and I detected marjoram and chervil among the flavorings. Then came trout poached in champagne. Trout is very popular in Germany and the rainbow trout, introduced from America many years ago, is the most favored.

Everyone at the table approved heartily of this dish, and the Frenchman, Henri Larouge, said, “I must find out where they get their trout—this is really exceptional.” The Romanian woman, Irena Koslova, leaned across the table. “That woman at the next table—do you all recognize her?”

Helmut Lydecker, the self-described salesman, said, “I thought I did—but then I wasn’t sure.” He didn’t look like a salesman. Was it because he was too well dressed? I wondered, but then I told myself that maybe he was a very successful one. He would have to be, traveling on this train.

We all studied the woman whom Irena had pointed out. She was stunning and certainly looked as if she must be somebody. She had an exotic appearance with high cheekbones, long almond eyes, and a pouting, irresistible mouth. She was dazzling the others at her table and was undoubtedly the center of attraction.

“She must be somebody prominent,” said Henri Larouge. If he had had a mustache, he would have been preening it.

The woman was also attracting attention from other tables, and it was then that I noticed that the woman on my left, the Hungarian Talia Svarovina, was finishing her fish and not joining in the adulation.

“Don’t you think she is very striking?” I asked her.

She dissected a piece of trout and put half of it in her mouth. She looked carelessly at the next table. After giving the woman there the briefest of glances, she returned to the enjoyment of her meal.

“I suppose she is,” she said, then, aware that her disregard was about to promote argument, added, “Yes, she is striking.” She continued to eat. Lydecker looked at her, then at me, and shrugged.

Talia disposed of the last of the trout, pursued a slice of potato across her plate, and dispatched it. She laid down her knife and fork.

“She’s Magda Malescu,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Really!” Henri Larouge had finished his course and was able to devote his full attention to ogling the woman.

“Of course!” Lydecker said.

“I’ve seen her on the stage many times!” said Irena.

“And in films,” added Larouge. “She was in that wonderful one recently,
Forgotten Dreams
.”

“I saw that,” said Lydecker. “Her acting has not improved.”

Braised lamb with rutabagas followed. The rutabaga is sometimes described as a Swede turnip and has lost popularity in many countries though it is still widely eaten in Germany.

The roast duck that came next had skin as crackly as phyllo, while the meat was juicy and flavorful. It came with timbales of Savoy cabbage, and these had leeks, carrots, onions, and celery streaked through them.

Throughout the meal, German wines had been served. First, there was a Rheingau from the Hattenheimer Mannberg vineyard. This is situated on a parallel with the middle of Canada, but this northern location does not pose the climatic problems one might suppose. Most Rheingau wines are descended from Riesling, and centuries of production and experience lay behind it—from as far back as the Romans. We had another Rheingau wine from the Rauenthaler vineyard, a delicate but mouth-filling white wine that lingered on the palate with a hint of fresh honey.

I was curious to see what wines would accompany the lamb and the duck, which I knew were coming up. The reason for this was that I had a friend who lived in the Black Forest area of Germany and every time I visited him, he would say, “I have a great new vineyard for you to visit.” We would go there, and after a glass or two of white wine in the vineyard’s tasting room, we would be served a glass of red.

The reason for this ritual was a more or less casual and possibly reckless remark I had once made to him to the effect that Germany does not produce a good red wine. We had many wonderful visits and drank many excellent wines, but never once had a really good red wine—and Eber, always determined to prove me wrong, reluctantly had to agree each time.

Here at the Four Seasons, they wisely avoided the problem and served Palatinate wines—that is, wines from the Pfalz region of Germany. The orchards there are full of southern fruit such as figs, peaches, and pears, and debate persists as to whether the soil influences the wines produced. Pfalz wines have more flavor and fuller body than other German wines and have long been the preferred accompaniment to the abundant game of the local forests. At least, I was relieved that a
Spatburgunder
had not been served. It is made from the Pinot Noir grape and, though it is drinkable, it is little more than that.

Two desserts were served. First came a poppy-seed ice cream. The trick to making it is to grind the poppy seeds, which must be absolutely fresh, to a fine and feathery texture. It was prepared to perfection. After it came small quince tarts with ginger sorbet.

As coffee was being served, Lydecker groaned audibly.

“Now comes the speech.”

CHAPTER TWO

“T
HE ADVANTAGE OF SPEED
as offered by jet aircraft was enjoyed by several decades of travelers before nostalgia set in, demanding a return to the alternates: of comfort and the sybaritic luxury and service offered by the train.”

Erich Brenner, as president of the
Donau Schnellzug Bahn
, opened his after-dinner speech with these bold and challenging words.

“Numerous rail networks are enjoying great popularity throughout Europe. The Eurostar goes under the English Channel to link London and Paris and make it possible to live in one and visit the other in the same day. The TGV connects Paris with most major cities in France. Cisalpino links Milan with major cities in Germany and Switzerland. Talgo and Ave are Spain’s high-speed trains, the X2000 links the bigger cities in Sweden, and ICE (Inter City Express) connects most German urban centers.

“Planners of transportation systems have found these to be a practical answer in linking city center to city center at almost two hundred miles an hour.”

He paused, and his tone changed to one of reproof.

“So much for speed and convenience. They can be appreciated by the business traveler and by tourists with limited time at their disposal. But those with a less crowded schedule and those who love luxury and service can be accommodated, too.

“The famous Blue Train across South Africa, the Palace on Wheels that crosses the great plains of northern India and goes through the world of the Maharajahs, the Royal Scotsman that passes castle after castle as it puffs north through Scotland, and the Orient Express, still thought of as filled with spies and revolutionaries while making its way from Paris to Istanbul—all of these great journeys of the past have been revived.”

Erich Brenner paused again and surveyed his audience with an air that was prescient of a dramatic statement to follow.

“There is one other great journey—the greatest of them all—and it is the train that you are about to embark upon tomorrow.

“It is the legendary Danube Express.

“We offer you beautiful carriages, the ultimate in luxurious accommodation, delectable cuisine, superb wines, and Old World personalized service. The train is stabilized for your comfort twenty-four hours a day, and we make it possible for you to view the most historic sights along the Danube Valley.

“The most modern technology has been applied throughout the design of this train,” Erich Brenner continued, “and you will find that you are hardly aware of motion. The very finest stabilizing and gyroscopic devices made by Hirschberg
und
Schneider of Stuttgart—the world leaders in this field—have been used. They were developed for the new generation of Zeppelins now being built in Germany. You will be as stable and secure when walking around as you are in your own home.”

He beamed at his attentive audience. “You will not detect even the faintest ripple on the surface of your glass of wine. And now—please enjoy your coffee. Liqueurs are being brought around on the trolleys, and you will find the choice almost inexhaustible. So, ladies and gentlemen, I will see you all in the morning, and I shall accompany you on the most wondrous journey of your life.”

The assembly applauded. Erich Brenner sat down, smiling. “I think I’ll have an early night,” said Irena Koslova. She finished her coffee and left. I saw the Walburgs rising to leave, too.

“I have to call our office in Tokyo,” Lydecker said. “They’ll be hard at work at this time—or should be.” He left, and the red-haired Hungarian miss, Talia Svarovina said, “I’ve had a long day, too. See you all tomorrow.”

Henri Larouge shrugged. “I have some discussions to make with the purchasing manager here at the Kempinski.” That left me all alone. I looked over at the table where the glamorous stage star from Budapest, Magda Malescu, had been joined by people from other tables. Some apparently knew her, and others looked like theater fans. I made a mental note to make her acquaintance tomorrow on the train, when she would be more accessible.

A stroll after a meal like that was a measure of reparation that I always tried to make. I went out, through the lobby and out on to the
Charlottenstrasse.

The Danube Express—what an experience it was going to be! Erich Brenner’s description of the train had intrigued me. As a boy, I had always been fascinated by trains. They were such a powerful symbol of an earlier era and represented spectacular technical achievements in a time when technology was not as vigorous and rampant as today.

The lure was too strong. I turned in the direction of the
Haupt-bahnhof
, the main railway station from which we were to depart the next day.

The thirty-minute walk was invigorating, the weather mild and pleasant, and Munich is a city that is friendly to pedestrians.

Bombing during World War II had destroyed the earlier station, and the present building had replaced it in the early 1950s. Railway stations throughout Europe are enormous structures, and those in Germany have always been among the most impressive. This rebuild had resulted in an edifice with a nondescript exterior that was, however, redeemed by its size.

The interior was entirely different, a temple dedicated to the ultimate in modern technology, with polished aluminum, stainless steel, glass, and marble everywhere.

Two stories of shops and restaurants make it an agreeable place to spend some time before your train is due to depart. Not that such time ever exceeded the schedule—German trains run on time to a degree that is equaled only by the Swiss. Large clocks on all the platforms tick away the minutes and the 10:30 train will leave for sure before the minute hand reaches 31.

The soaring, girdered roofs were so high they were almost out of sight. The clean and tidy platforms had colorful displays showing the makeup of every train with red, blue, and green indicating passenger coaches, freight cars, and postal wagons, and identifying coach and seat numbers. If you had a reservation, you could see at a glance exactly where you would be sitting.

I made my way to
Gleich 37
, the platform specially reserved for the Danube Express. A uniformed soldier with an automatic rifle stood on duty near the entrance, and a guard at the barrier stopped me.

“I have a ticket on the Danube Express tomorrow,” I said. “I wondered if I could take a look at the train. I have never seen it.”

“Do you have your ticket?” he asked. Fortunately, I did. He examined it carefully. “And identification?” I gave him my passport, which he read carefully, turning over page after page.

BOOK: Dine and Die on the Danube Express
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