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I walked away from Marienplatz square, past houses with leaded windows, flower boxes filled with red geraniums, and dormered, steeply gabled roofs. I walked by inns, antique shops, boutiques, and cafes—all with the lacy, gold signs that are so typically Bavarian. Along Munich's Dienerstrasse, the chic sidewalk cafes were filled with young people sipping Milchkaffee, beer, or wine.
I turned along Charlottenstrasse to my destination—the Kempinski Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten. One of the greatest hotels in Europe, its name can be translated as "The Four Seasons."
As always, the palatial lobby teemed with people, and I found my way to the Grand Ballroom, where the great event was to take place. An attendant in an eye-catching purple uniform with gold trim carefully checked my identity against his list and waved me through the entrance. The mellow wooden walls, festooned with bronze-and-scarlet tapestries, lent a venerable air to the huge room, filled now with a pattern of pristine white tablecloths, gleaming silver, and sparkling glass.
The sweeping, majestic strains of one of the greatest pieces of music ever written—Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg—was a fitting background to this historic occasion. A massive banner across one wall proclaimed the reason why I was here. It announced:
TWENTY-FIFTH ANNIVERSARY THE DANUBE EXPRESS
Several dozen people were here, all to be passengers on the twenty-fifth- anniversary journey of the fabled Danube Express. One of the great trains of a bygone era, its tradition had been revived a quarter-century ago, and, since then, it had made its journey along the Danube Valley just once a month. The reason for such picayune service was that it was no longer a train of convenience—it was now a train of sybaritic luxury.
As it made its way through Bavaria, Austria, Serbia, Slovakia, and Hungary to Romania, it served the finest cuisines and wines, each according to the country it was passing through. No longer trying to fulfill the need for an "express train," it proceeded leisurely along the Danube Valley so that passengers could enjoy to the fullest, the magnificent panoramas of mountains, forests, lakes, and rivers. The ultimate in modern technology provided a smooth ride as it wound along the valley of the Danube River, so smooth that no feeling of motion was apparent.
It was a voyage for food lovers, wine lovers, and, well, lovers, including those of ancient trains and spectacular scenery. It was an experience for those who like to enjoy the indulgences of life and those who love to be pampered. The pictures in the brochure showed a massive green-and-gold monster with enormous wheels and a smokestack belching real smoke. It was a reincarnation of the legendary days of train travel when spies, counts, Queen's messengers, anarchists, and courtesans crisscrossed Europe on nefarious errands and mysterious missions.
Behind today's façade was a closed world of every luxury, comfort, and convenience modern ingenuity could devise. It was the kind of world that I always enjoyed though it was often beyond my reach. The times when it was within my reach, however, were when I was working—and I was working now.
This reception at the Four Seasons was hosted by the DS Bahn, the Donau Schnellzug Bahn or Danube Express Railway, before the dinner so that the passengers could get acquainted. Waiters in impossibly white uniforms carried around trays of Sekt, the German champagne, fizzing and sparkling.
Erich Brenner, president of the DS Bahn, greeted me after my ticket and credentials had been checked.
"Welcome, welcome, a thousand times welcome! I am delighted you can join us. This is a truly historic occasion and the DS Bahn is pleased that you can share it with us!"
He was big and beefy, as are so many Germans. I had learned that it is not fat that makes them that way but muscle. He had a large but aristocratic face and silvery hair. He squeezed my hand with a genuine sincerity.
"I'm very glad to be here," I told him. "I have been looking forward to this. I have always wanted to ride the Danube Express, but I didn't expect to be so lucky as to be present on its twenty-fifth anniversary."
"We have been preparing for this great day for some time. Now it is finally here. Tomorrow, we set off on our marvelous journey!" He caught sight of someone past me. "Let me introduce you. Herr Vollmer!" he called.
Gerhardt Vollmer was prematurely white-haired but had a skier's tan, a firm jaw, and the look of a businessman who would be tough in a negotiation. He smiled, showing good white teeth, and Brenner said, "Herr Vollmer made the decision to join us quite recently, did you not, Herr Vollmer?" To me, he said, "Herr Vollmer is with the Nord Deutscher Energie."
I had heard the name. They were one of the leading suppliers of energy in Europe, with electrical power plants, oil refineries, and liquid natural gas tankers. Based in Germany near Hamburg, they had offices and operations in several other countries.
Herr Vollmer gave me a firm handshake. He addressed both of us as he said, "Yes, my decision was recent—that was because the need arose for me to attend a meeting in Costanza on the Black Sea. I require a couple of days of reviewing documents in order to prepare for the meeting, so when our travel department suggested the Danube Express, I agreed very quickly."
"And," interjected Brenner in his bluff, hearty manner, "an auxiliary reason came to mind, is that not so, Herr Vollmer?"
The German nodded. "We often transport heavy equipment used in oil drilling, and we may soon conclude a contract with the Danube Express for that service. I can tie up a few loose ends on this journey."
Erich Brenner nodded emphatically. "Yes, we are not only a luxury train service, we have routine transportation capabilities, too. So," he went on, "this trip could turn out to have far-reaching consequences, could it not?"
Vollmer gave a rueful laugh. "The word leaked out a few days ago, yes, so now everyone knows." He must have caught the blank look on my face, for he explained, "Exploration in the Black Sea of the offshore potential for a high grade of oil has been bringing us extraordinary results. The meeting I am to attend could—should it have the success we all hope for—have the consequence of making Germany independent of Middle East oil."
"I certainly wish you success in that case," I told him, and Herr Brenner endorsed my sentiment wholeheartedly.
"We will be talking later," Vollmer said to Brenner. "We need to establish your open capacity for the next three months." He shook hands with me again. "A pleasure to meet you, and I am sure we will have an opportunity to chat again."
"I certainly hope so," I said, and Vollmer left. Herr Brenner was already waving to bring over another passerby.
"It is important you meet everyone on the train. This is Paolo Conti, he is with the European Wine Journal. Reporter-at-Large—isn't that your title, Paolo?"
Conti was tall, and, though the polite term was lean, he was skinny. He had that haughty look that comes so naturally to many Italians, inherited probably from Roman ancestors who had conquered Europe and part of Africa and Asia, looking down their noses at unkempt and inferior races clad in animal skins and waving wooden spears.
When he smiled, though, the haughtiness disappeared, and he greeted me as if he really was glad to meet me. His proud, dark eyes were friendly and the high cheekbones suggested breeding and not arrogance. He was probably in his forties but with the touch of world-weariness that made him look older. His sleek black hair was abundant, and his smile showed strong white teeth.
"This journey will make a great story for the Journal," I told him.
"It will indeed. I did a story some years ago and described the vineyards we passed as we cruised by on the river. Since then, many of them have grown in significance and several fine vintages have been produced."
"And tomorrow's great journey will see the production of many more, no doubt," Erich Brenner said. A fleeting look was exchanged between the two of them, and I wondered what Brenner meant by the remark. Before I could ask, however, Conti was excusing himself to talk to a couple, and Brenner was introducing me to Dr. Richard Stolz.
"He will be our physician on this trip," Brenner said. "We always have an eminent physician accompany us—in a professional capacity, of course."
"An invitation which I, for one, am pleased to accept," said Dr. Stolz. "The twenty-fifth anniversary of the Danube Express is an opportunity few would refuse." He was gray-haired, and his face was gaunt and lined, but he might have been younger than his appearance suggested. He was sharp-eyed, though, and his manner was youthful.
"I took the journey on this train from Vienna to Bucharest many years ago," the doctor went on. "It was an experience I shall never forget."
"You may have to replace the memory with this journey." Erich Brenner smiled.
He went to bring to us an elderly American couple for introductions. Mr. and Mrs. Stanton Walburg from Cincinnati were inveterate travelers, we soon learned. They had "done" the Amazon, the Alps, Alice Springs, and Alaska, and, they went on to add, the Serengeti, the Middle East, and Madagascar. The list would have been longer, but Erich Brenner adroitly steered them to our impending journey, which he maintained would eclipse all others.
"Now this young lady—I don't know." He broke off to wave toward us a svelte young woman who was passing by with an empty glass she seemed eager to refill.
"Allow me, mademoiselle," he said gallantly, and, with a practiced gesture, beckoned a waiter with a bubbling bottle.
As he poured, Brenner introduced himself, then the Walburgs and me. "And you are—?" he invited the woman.
"Elisha Tabor. I am Hungarian. I am returning to Budapest."
"On the Danube Express?" questioned Mrs. Walburg. "I thought you young people preferred flying."
Elisha Tabor was just tall enough to avoid the description of "petite," but she had a slim, trim figure, black hair, and bright, alert eyes. "I fly a lot, but this is business—I am with a publishing house."
She had the autocratic air that so many East Europeans possess, and she tossed her hair back carelessly, regarding us with a raised chin.
"Now here is a man I know," said Erich Brenner, who was tireless in keeping track of almost everyone in the room. He beckoned the man passing to join us. The man was lean and spare and one of those individuals who project restless energy. He had long hair that he kept flicking back and a long face with a lugubrious expression.
"Herman Friedlander," said Erich Brenner, "the conductor of the Swabian State Symphony Orchestra."
The musician, who wore a slightly sad expression, acknowledged each of us in turn when Brenner did the introductions.
"We heard Ozawa last month in St. Petersburg, Russia," said Mrs. Walburg. "He was wonderful."
"His tonality," stated Friedlander in a grating voice, "is not consistent. I hope he didn't conduct Brahms."
Mrs. Walburg looked to her husband for support.
"He did Brahms," confirmed Mr. Walburg.
"A mistake," declared Friedlander. "He should never do Brahms."
The Walburgs looked nonplussed—surely a rare occasion for them. Friedlander warmed to his theme.
"I have told him many times—'Seiji,' I have said, 'don't play Brahms,' just as his teacher told Brahms, 'You could be a great pianist one day, Johannes, if you will only stop composing.' He didn't listen to his teacher, and Seiji doesn't listen to me."
The Walburgs nodded uncomfortably, but the diplomatic Karl Brenner rescued them. "Tell me, Herman," he asked the conductor, "have you talked to Herr Schaeffer?"
Friedlander brightened perceptibly. "No, is he on this journey?"
"He wanted to be," said Brenner, turning to the rest of us. "Herr Schaeffer is one of our directors and is considering having Herman here write a piece of music entitled The Danube Express Symphony."
"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.
Excerpted from Dine and Die on the Danube Express by Peter King. Copyright © 2003 Peter King. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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