Friday, 18 April 2014

The 8.55 to Baghdad

Finished April 17
The 8.55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames

Andrew Eames is a travel journalist and he was in the ancient city of Aleppo in Syria when he discovered a side of Agatha Christie that he hadn't previously been aware of. As he learned more of her life in the Middle East, he decided  to retrace the 1928 trip she took on her own to Baghdad, and beyond, the trip that completely changed her life. It was on this trip she met Max, who became her second husband and led her to spend many winters in this part of the world as she accompanied him on his archeological digs.
Eames travels the route of the Orient Express, the Taurus Express and on, exploring not only Christie's life, but the history of the train routes, train stations, and of each of the places he goes through. Of course he also talks about the people he meets along the way, whether those travelling along with him, or those he interacted with when off the train visiting the locations along the route.
He begins this journey in Sunningdale, England, the wealthy community Agatha lived in with her first husband Archie. He arrived at Victoria Station in London and boarded the first stage of the VSOE (Venice Simplon Orient Express) which uses restored Pullman coaches and then switched to a bus for the trip across the Channel. Once across, he was once again in luxury, this time in restored Wagon-Lits coaches, which took him on to Venice.
Not spending much time in Venice, he took a regional express to Trieste, where he did take time to explore this port city with a very interesting history. From there he took the Drava to Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he took a sidetrip from Ljubljana to Lake Bohinj, where Christie vacationed in 1967 and talking to a journalist who interviewed her then. He then took the Mimara from Ljubljana to Zagreb, Croatia. There he visited the Archeological Museum, observed the people, and met with a local historian to better understand the complex history of the former Yugoslavia and its resultant nations. He then took a train on to Belgrade, where he again made time to learn more about the Balkan situation, even arranging a meeting with the Crown Prince.
Eames then crossed into Bulgaria, but felt a need to take a break from cities, so took a sidetrip to the Black Sea, exploring the route of the original Orient Express. Following the first World War, the route was changed to the south to avoid German-speaking countries. The original train route ended in Ruse, Bulgaria, where the tracks ended (to be completed six years later), took a local train to the coastal resort of Varna and switched to a sea voyage on to Constantinople across the Black Sea. Eames travelled to Ruse, where he explored the Railway Museum, to Varna, on to the Golden Sands resort on the Black Sea and then inland to Veliko Turnovo [which I have also visited] and then back to Sofia to catch the sleeper to Istanbul. In Istanbul, he managed to stay in Christie's usual room at the Pera Palas hotel and explored the city for a few days.
He then took a train on to Konya, stayed a few days, and then took the day train on to join back up with the Taurus Express. This took him into Syria and on to Aleppo, where he again stayed in the Baron Hotel where Christie stayed when in town. He then continued on to Damascus on the sleeper train. From here following on Christie's 1928 route was only possible by joining a group tour by bus, which he did. This took him to Baghdad, but also on to the archeological sites of Samarra, Nimrud (where Christie spent many seasons), Nineveh (where Christie first worked together with her husband Max), and Ur (where the two met in 1929).
It was only a few short months later that the Iraq war started, so this story is also catches a unique moment in history for Iraq. The author takes time to try to find out what he can about the places he goes, talking to locals, trying to make connections, and showing the historical background. It is no surprise that this book won the British Guild of Travel Writers' Narrative Travel Book of the Year Award in 2004. It is a great, thought-provoking, informative read that also entertains.

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