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What is it that still draws people to the days of the golden age of rail, when trains resembled palaces on wheels and royalty travelled in the lap of luxury? Perhaps we simply yearn for peace in a hectic world and the uncomplicated coddling a fine train promises.
That frisson of pleasurable anticipation is palpable as we tread the red carpet to board the Majestic Imperator, a six-carriage Austrian train painstakingly restored to replicate the fabled imperial train of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.
Back in the day, Kaizer Franz Joseph I, whose empire dominated Central Europe, and his Empress Elizabeth of Austria, also known as Sisi, entered the landscape of their luxurious carriages to indulge the fin-de-siecle adoration of luxury steam travel.
For the Kaizer, it was a chance to get among the people and survey his domain. For the empress, who disliked the inflexible makeup of the Viennese court and found her duties a yawn, travel was her path to sanity. She loved gliding through new and wonderful settings and would pass her time writing, reading or devouring the landscape's moveable feast.
"A destination only becomes desirable because the journey lies in between," she wrote. Clearly she wasn't ensconced in a cramped compartment populated by strangers. Instead, the royals enjoyed sumptuous furnishings, excellent nosh, even the slowing of the train to walking pace every morning so the emperor could shave.
We are enjoying more of a Sisi-esque experience, though without the clouds of cigarette smoke that accompanied the puffing emperor like a travelling miasma. We're boarding the Majestic Imperator as part of our 15-day APT Magnificent Europe river cruise aboard the AmaBella from Budapest to Amsterdam. It's one of APT's signature experiences to travel the two hours between Linz and Salzburg and then, after touring Salzburg, to board the train again for the three-hour journey to Passau for some on-board entertainment before rejoining the AmaBella.
The recreation of the imperial train comes courtesy of Gottfried Rieck, an engineer at the Austrian Federal Railways. His dream was to rebuild one of the legendary royal carriages, which he did, presenting Salon I to the world in 1991, a century after the original train was built. But as with all dreams, his imaginings took wing. In May 1998, the youngest descendant of the Emperor and Empress christened six Majestic Train de Luxe carriages with a seventh named Franz Joseph added in 2015. Recreating this train was a labour of love, for the Majestic Imperator was destroyed during the two world wars, with only two carriages surviving as well as the plans on which the new Majestic Imperator was based.
The original court salon carriage of Empress Elisabeth is in the railway collection of the Vienna Technical Museum while Franz Joseph's original dining car from 1891 is on display at the Technical Museum in Prague. As the red carpet is rolled up behind us and the train pulls out of Austria's third-largest city and the capital of Upper Austria, Linz, we settle into our plush 36-seat "Equipage", a replica of Sisi's court salon carriage, furnished with original fabrics from Schonbrunn Palace, the Habsburg's summer residence.
The embossed tasselled curtains apparently were made on the original imperial weaving tables, interior walls are walnut with Italian inlaid woods and brass furnishings and there's a rather nice cream and gold domed ceiling.
Once we've demolished the champagne, delicate cakes and sandwiches delivered by our charming waiter Johannes, FOMO sets in. It's imperative to meander through the rest of the (differently decorated) carriages, admiring the plush interiors and seeking out the historic relics.
There's a bit of grumbling in "Excelsior" as one or two passengers with chair FOMO are taking issue with the banquettes. Look upwards, dear fellow travellers. Your carriage boasts the carefully coped ceiling paintings from the original train, plus the original mirror from Empress Elisabeth's carriage.
The new "Franz Joseph" carriage displays the emperor's small pipe, whose providence was guaranteed in 1916 by one Eugen Ketterl, Franz Joseph's valet de chambre. In "Ambassador", there's part of the original curtain from the emperor's box at the Vienna State Opera with its hand-woven Imperial crest. "Elisabeth" also has part of the original curtain sewn with freshwater pearls from the Danube.
We leap off the train in Passau with Empress Elisabeth's wise words ringing in our ears, "The thought of having to leave a place moves me and lets me love it."
Alison Stewart travelled as a guest of APT.
APT's Magnificent Europe 15-day River Cruise Amsterdam-Budapest and reverse costs $6995 per person with a Fly Free deal or Fly Business Class deal for $2995. Tours operate from March to December. Phone 1300 196 420 or see aptouring.com.au