Cupcakes and Ferris Wheels

What do chemists call a benzene ring with iron atoms replacing the carbon atoms?

Cupcakes and Ferris Wheels

A ferrous wheel! Hee, hee!

Cupcakes and Ferris Wheels

There is a story to the Ferris wheel…

Cupcakes and Ferris Wheels

It’s story time, it’s story time!

Cupcakes and Ferris Wheels

Cupcakes and Ferris Wheels

In late 1890, Daniel Burnham, the eminent architect charged with turning a boggy square mile of Chicago into a world-dazzling showpiece for the World’s Columbian Exhibition, assembled an all-star team of designers and gave them one directive: “Make no little plans”. Burnham was laboring in the shadow of the Tour Eiffel, erected the year before in Paris, for the Exposition Universelle of 1889, an elegant wrought iron structure rising 300m into the air.

Eiffel Tower
Eiffel Tower

But nobody in the States had an answer for the Eiffel Tower. There were plenty of tower proposals: a tower garlanded with rails to distant cities, enabling visitors to toboggan home; another tower from whose top guests would be pushed off in cars attached to thick rubber bands, a forerunner of bungee jumping. Eiffel himself proposed an idea: a bigger tower! Clearly, everyone was suffering from tower vision 🙂

As plans for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago took shape, there was a void where its exclamation point was meant to stand. Burnham spoke before a group of engineers employed on the project and chided them for their failure of imagination. To avoid humiliation, he said, they needed to come up with “something novel, original, daring and unique”. Interesting motivational speech. Still, one of their number, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., a 33-year-old engineer from Pittsburgh whose company was charged with inspecting the steel used by the fair, had a lightbulb moment and quickly sketched a huge revolving steel wheel. After adding specifications, he shared the idea with Burnham, who balked at the slender rods that would carry people to a height taller than the recently opened Statue of Liberty. “Too fragile”, he said.

George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.
George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.

Ferris was hardly the first to imagine such a wheel. In fact, a carpenter named William Somers was building 15m wooden wheels at Asbury Park, Atlantic City and Coney Island; a roundabout, he called it, and he’d even patented his design. But Ferris had not only been challenged to think big; the huge attendance expected at the fair inspired him to bet big. He spent $25,000 of his own money on safety studies, hired more engineers and recruited investors. On December 16, 1892, his wheel was finally chosen to answer Eiffel. It measured 76m in diameter, making the wheel 80m high, and carried 36 cars, each capable of holding 60 people.

Cupcakes and Ferris Wheels

More than 100,000 parts went into Ferris’ wheel, notably a 40 tonne axle that had to be hoisted onto two towers 43m in the air. Launched on June 21, 1893, it was a glorious success. Over the next 19 weeks, more than 1.4 million people paid 50 cents for a 20-minute ride and access to an aerial panorama few had ever beheld. “It is an indescribable sensation,” wrote a reporter named Robert Graves, “that of revolving through such a vast orbit in a bird cage.”

Cupcakes and Ferris Wheels

But when the fair gates closed, Ferris became immersed in a tangle of wheel-related lawsuits about debts he owed suppliers and that the fair owed him. In 1896, bankrupt and suffering from typhoid fever, he died at age 37. A wrecking company bought the wheel and sold it to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Two years later, it was dynamited into scrap.

That’s the life story of the one and only official Ferris wheel. But the invention lives on in the ubiquitous imitators inspired by the pleasure Ferris made possible. Eiffel’s immortal icon is undoubtedly une pièce unique. Meanwhile, ferris wheels have been popping up everywhere. At boardwalks, county fairs and parish festivals around the globe, millions whirl through the sky in neon-lit wheels and know the sensation that, years later, Joni Mitchell put into words. “Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels,” she sang, “the dizzy dancing way you feel” (Both Sides, Now). Summertime riders know just what she means.

Since the original 1893 Chicago Ferris Wheel there have been nine world’s tallest-ever Ferris wheels. The current record holder is the 167.6-metre High Roller in Las Vegas, which opened to the public in March 2014.

1893 – The Original Ferris Wheel (80.4m)

Cupcakes and Ferris Wheels

1895 – The Great Wheel in London becomes the world’s tallest Ferris wheel at 94m.

The 94 m Great Wheel at Earls Court, London, world's tallest Ferris wheel 1895–1900
The 94 m Great Wheel at Earls Court, London, world’s tallest Ferris wheel 1895–1900

1897 – The Wiener Riesenrad was built in Viena.

Wiener Riesenrad, Vienna, built in 1897, originally had 30 passenger cabins but was rebuilt with 15 cabins following a fire in 1944
Wiener Riesenrad, Vienna, built in 1897, originally had 30 passenger cabins but was rebuilt with 15 cabins following a fire in 1944

1900 – The Grande Roue de Paris becomes the tallest Ferris wheel with a height of 100m.

The 100 m Grande Roue de Paris, world's tallest Ferris wheel 1900–1920
The 100 m Grande Roue de Paris, world’s tallest Ferris wheel 1900–1920

1920 – New York’s Wonder Wheel is the world’s first eccentric Ferris wheel.

Wonder Wheel, a 45.7-metre (150 ft) tall eccentric wheel at Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, Coney Island, was built in 1920 by the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Company
Wonder Wheel, a 45.7-metre (150 ft) tall eccentric wheel at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, Coney Island, was built in 1920 by the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Company

1968 – Six Flags Astroworld opens the world’s first double Ferris wheel ride manufactured by Intamin

Giant Wheel, a double wheel
Giant Wheel, a double wheel

1989 – Japan’s Cosmo Clock 21 becomes the tallest Ferris wheel yet, topping out at 107.5m (later increased to 112.5m).

Cosmo Clock 21, world's tallest wheel 1989 to 1997
Cosmo Clock 21, world’s tallest Ferris wheel 1989 to 1997

1997 – Tempozan Ferris Wheel opened with a new record of 112.5m.

Tempozan Ferris Wheel, world's tallest Ferris wheel 1997–1999
Tempozan Ferris Wheel, Japan, world’s tallest Ferris wheel 1997–1999

1999 – Daikanransha takes tallest record with a height of 115m.

Daikanransha Ferris Wheel, Japan, world's tallest Ferris wheel 1999–2000
Daikanransha Ferris Wheel, Japan, world’s tallest Ferris wheel 1999–2000

2000 – The London Eye smashes the current record holder with a total height of 135m.

London Eye
London Eye, world’s tallest Ferris wheel 2000–2006
Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey
View from the London Eye – Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey
London Eye
Magical London Eye
Funny London Eye
Funny London Eye

2006 – The Star of Nanching in China becomes the first Ferris wheel over 150m tall, with an official height of 160m.

The Star of Nanchang, China, world's tallest Ferris wheel 2006–2008
The Star of Nanchang, China, world’s tallest Ferris wheel 2006–2008

2008 – The Singapore Flyer in Singapore is becomes the world’s tallest open and operating Ferris wheel with a height of 165m.

Singapore Flyer, world's tallest Ferris wheel 2008-2014
Singapore Flyer, world’s tallest Ferris wheel 2008-2014
View from Singapore Flyer
View from Singapore Flyer
View from Singapore Flyer
View from Singapore Flyer

2014 – The High Roller in Las Vegas takes the height record with 167.6m.

The High Roller, world's tallest Ferris wheel
The High Roller, world’s tallest Ferris wheel

This is the most famous Ferris wheel of all 🙂 The ferris wheel Mummy climbed when she was a cheeky monkey!

Onești - Roata mare
Onești – Roata mare

Nutty Christmas Stories

Little bears are interviewing the Nutcracker soldiers to make sure they have organised the right version of the Nutcracker story for tonight.

Christmas Stories

Ever heard of E.T.A. Hoffmann? It turns out he is the original author of The Nutcracker and Mouse King.

The initials stand for Ernst Theodor Amadeus, although he was named Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, but he changed the Wilhelm to Amadeus out of admiration for Mozart. He wrote about music, he composed music, he drew, he painted and he wrote stories, spooky tales that trespassed the border between fantasy and reality. They were such famous stories that other composers read them and set them to music throughout the 19th century — for example, Jacques Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffmann.

One of the episodes in The Tales of Hoffmann is based on a story called The Sandman, in which evil inventors create a robotic girl. It was also — loosely — the basis for Leo Delibes’ comic ballet Coppelia, about the misadventures of a young man who falls in love with a life-size dancing doll.

In 2010, we heard Sumi Jo, the South Korean soprano, singing the aria with which she is now inextricably associated – The Doll’s Song from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann.

Inanimate things come to life in many of Hoffmann’s stories. He was a champion of the imagination run wild. It’s possible Hoffmann was rebelling against the dominant movement of the time, the Enlightenment, and its emphasis on rational philosophy. He believed strongly, as most of the German Romantics at that time, that the imagination was being attacked by the rise of rationalism throughout Europe. The only way that an artist could survive would be to totally become dedicated to another way of looking at the world, and to reclaiming nature, reclaiming innocence, reclaiming an authentic way of living.

One of Hoffmann’s stories was adapted by the French writer Alexandre Dumas. It was the tale of a little girl, Marie, and her Christmas toys. Hoffmann’s title for it was The Nutcracker and Mouse King.

In this original version, Marie worries about a beautiful nutcracker that’s been broken. At night, she goes to check up on it. To her surprise, it has come alive, and a story-within-the-story begins: armies of mice and toy soldiers battle in what is either the child’s delirious nightmare, or perhaps another reality into which she wanders.

Alexandre Dumas altered that original version, making it lighter and less scary. Disney wasn’t around just yet 🙂 This is the title plate to Dumas’ L’Histoire d’un Caisse-Noisette (The History of a Nutcracker), published in 1844. It was illustrated by Bertall when he was just 24 years old.

Christmas Stories

We can trace accounts of wooden nutcrackers springing to life back to the folk tales of Bohemia, Poland and Muscovy. It was on this folklore that E.T.A. Hoffman drew in his Nutcracker and Mouse King, a macabre exploration of wide-eyed childlike imagination pitted against the bourgeois values of 19th century Bavaria, which reshaped the tale.

Christmas Stories

A Nursemaid Guarding Princess Pirlipata – Bertall’s original French illustrations were also used in Chapman and Hall’s 1847 edition of The History of A Nutcracker by Alexandre Dumas held in the Blythe House, Renier Collection.

Christmas Stories

Godfather Drosselmayer watching over Fritz and Marie – re-used in the first English edition (1847). The illustrations are as shrill, disturbing and iconic as those of his exact British contemporary, John Tenniel, for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

Christmas Stories

The Dodo picture from Alice in Wonderland – Just as there are resonances between Bertall and Tenniel’s visual worlds (both were also caricaturists), so Dumas’s playfulness with perspective seems to anticipate Alice’s famous capacity to shrink and elongate: for Marie is human-sized, yet through the back of an old wardrobe she enters a world filled with nutcracker-sized people.

Christmas Stories

The highest ranking European general of all time of African descent, General Dumas was born to a former slave and a French nobleman on the island of Sainte Dominigue (present day Haiti). Alexandre Dumas was only four when his father died in 1806, but the young boy grew up hearing about his extraordinary military career during the French Revolutionary Wars. These tales of derring-do and extreme exploits in battle helped shape his writerly imagination, and explain why The Battle (in The History of A Nutcracker) is so vivid – despite being played out by tin soldiers and assorted toys.

Christmas Stories

Dumas’s wife, the actress Ida Ferrier (born Marguerite-Joséphine Ferrand), is credited with translating Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King from German into French. Dumas himself then adapted it, introducing a framing device and restoring the tale to its oral storytelling tradition. Our narrator is tethered to a chair in the boudoir of a French children’s party and the society brats refuse to untether him until he has told them a gripping story. Enter Hoffman’s Nutcracker, with exceptionally high stakes: it is as imperative for Dumas’s narrator to hold his audience’s attention as for Scheherazade.

Christmas Stories

Christmas Stories

Dumas’ version is famously more saccharine than Hoffman’s lugubrious tale, and when Tchaikovsky was commissioned to compose the score for a libretto by Marius Petipa, he was unhappy that Petipa had adapted directly from Dumas. The resulting two-act ballet premiered in December 1892, to mixed reviews. It wasn’t until 1934 that a complete performance reached England, and the ballet wasn’t staged in its entirety in the US until Christmas Eve 1944.

It was four years before that, in 1940, that Disney introduced the music of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, and classical music in general, to children and adults alike in the US. In 1940, Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet was relatively obscure: the ballet had never been performed in its entirety in the United States, and was barely seen outside of Russia at all. The Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy is a tour de force of animation, putting Disney’s crack team to one of their utmost tests in a series of scenes that cast a magical glow over painstakingly drawn woodland scenes.

Four years after Fantasia was released, the San Francisco Ballet staged the U.S. premiere of the complete ballet, and by the time George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet Nutcracker premiered in 1954, the work was on a fast track to become a permanent Christmas staple in cities across the country. That production, by the San Francisco Ballet, met with such acclaim that The Nutcracker has been in production in San Francisco every Christmas since. With its toy soldiers and its sugarplum fairy who come alive on Christmas eve, Tchaikovsky’s ballet of The Nutcracker has come to sum up the magic of the festive season.

Christmas Stories

Christmas Stories

Preserved in our collective false memory as a candied fruit, and now often thought of only in the context of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her dance, the dragée (the name now given to sugared almonds offered to guests at weddings and baptisms) in fact refers to the sugar-coating process which created the hard sweet known as the sugar-plum.

Of course, you can sugar coat just about anything, like these pommes d’ amour. Of course, if you go with cerises, there is no need for sugar coating!

Christmas Stories

This seems to be a suitable sugarplum version of the story… and bonus, it comes from the very cuddly Nutcracker Teddie!

Christmas Stories

Christmas Eve Feast

Dark Cherry & Almond Tart from François http://www.francois.com.au
Dark Cherry & Almond Tart from François http://www.francois.com.au
Kirsch Panettone from Andresa http://madcakehouse.com.au
Kirsch Panettone from Andresa http://madcakehouse.com.au
Brazilian Milk Pudding from Andresa http://madcakehouse.com.au
Brazilian Milk Pudding from Andresa http://madcakehouse.com.au
Amarena & Cannella (Cherry & Cinnamon) Panettone from  Loison www.loison.com  Best Cherry Trfle in the world by yours truly :smile:
Amarena & Cannella (Cherry & Cinnamon) Panettone from Loison http://www.loison.com
Best Cherry Trifle in the world by yours truly 🙂

Cherry overload and not a salad in sight! 🙂

Kirsch Christmas Log from Chez Jean-Claude  http://www.chezjeanclaudepatisserie.com.au
Kirsch Christmas Log from Chez Jean-Claude http://www.chezjeanclaudepatisserie.com.au

The Christmas feast is ready! Dig in everyone!

Christmas Eve Feast

Christmas Eve Feast

Have a beary cherry Christmas everyone!

Christmas Eve Feast

And watch out for the full moon tonight, the last full moon of 2015. The next full moon for Christmas will be in 2034!

Choo Choo Orient Express

All this talk about trains has reminded Puffles and Honey of their grand adventure on the Orient Express for an iconic journey from Venice to Paris.

Choo Choo Orient Express

The leisurely morning in November 2007 started with a stroll from the hotel, through cobbled laneways, over tiny bridges and past glorious Venetian palaces to get to the Santa Lucia train station one of the world’s most famous train journeys begins.

Modernist Santa Lucia Station may not be terribly alluring but the Venice Simpleton-Orient-Express reception desk, where the smiling staff, soft carpet and velvet rope create the atmosphere of an exclusive Hollywood party, was where the excitement started to build. And the anxiety about all the luggage we had to check in starts to dissipate 🙂 The first glimpse of the gleaming navy train is a moment to remember – staff clad in blue and gold Balenciaga-designed uniforms, wearing sparkling white gloves, line the platform, ready to greet and assist their passengers.

Choo Choo Orient Express

We were welcomed by a charming Italian cabin steward, who showed us to our double cabin, a beautifully restored 1920s compartment featuring polished wood, plush seats and art deco lighting in sleeping car 3425, which was a part of the Orient-Express service used by King Carol of Romania. We requested the royal cabin 🙂

Choo Choo Orient Express

In the cabin, we found a note of congratulations, and a bottle of champagne on ice 🙂 Then the train manager came to personally wish me a happy birthday 🙂 Impressive! I could see Sharon’s guiding hand all over this welcome (our travel organiser before Warwick 🙂 )

Choo Choo Orient Express

The history of ‘luxury’ train travel can be traced back to 1864 when the innovative railway builder, George Mortimer Pullman, created a train in Britain, featuring the ultimate in 19th century technology and opulence and was far more advanced than anything that existed in Europe.

In the 1870’s the first sleeping carriages and parlour cars in Britain went into service and for the first time meals were served on board a train. The first all Pullman train in Europe, the Pullman Limited Express, began operating in 1881. It ran from London to Brighton and was the first train to be illuminated by electricity.

Shortly afterwards, by connecting trains to ferries, George Mortimer Pullman made safe and comfortable train travel between London and Paris a reality.

Georges Nagelmackers, a young Belgian railway enthusiast, also began building luxury railway carriages and gradually proceeded to do for continental train travel what Pullman had for Britain. The original Orient-Express was his brainchild.

In 1881, Nagelmackers introduced the first restaurant car aboard a continental train. With sleeping carriages and now restaurant cars in place, Nagelmackers was finally able to fulfil his dream and on 4 October 1883 the first Orient-Express train service was inaugurated.

On that afternoon, the Gare de l’Est — then called the Gare de Strasbourg — was overflowing with people. A crowd of curious, elegant Parisians had come to get their first look at the Orient-Express — an invention that would revolutionize travel. With leading politicians, journalists and writers looking on, the new sleeper train was inaugurated with pomp and ceremony.

Its destination was Constantinople: after travelling day and night from Paris to Bucharest aboard the luxury train, passengers took another train to Bulgaria, and then a ship to the Bosporus. The direct rail link began in 1889, making Constantinople the majestic final destination for the Orient Express — an icon of luxury and romance.

The train made its first 3,094-km return journey in less than two weeks, drawing enthusiastic accounts from the press. In the 20 October 1883 edition of Le Figaro, special envoy Georges Boyer wrote, “We made the trip from Constantinople to Paris in 76 hours instead of the usual 111, in perfect comfort and without the slightest fatigue.” A legend was born.

From its beginnings, the Orient-Express combined innovation and refinement. “The King of Trains and the Train of Kings”, it was built on breakthrough technology, and its cabins featured all the latest amenities of their day — central heating, hot water and gas lighting. Their many luxuries included upholstered interiors, where impeccably made beds and robes sporting the company crest awaited passengers. Only the finest materials were used: silk sheets, marble bath fixtures, crystal goblets and silver cutlery.

The sleeper train would transport royalty, diplomats, spies, gun-runners, business people and the bourgeoisie from one edge of continental Europe to the other. In its heyday, it was the favourite of royals and the rich and famous – King Carol of Romania, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, novelist Leo Tolstoy, actress Marlene Dietrich, Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, director Alfred Hitchcock and dancer Josephine Baker. Mata Hari, the exotic dancer and spy, was known to be a passenger. Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouts, travelled on it while on spying missions. His cover was that he was a butterfly collector.

The Orient-Express did not run during World War One but on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, restaurant car 2419 was hauled to a wooded clearing and became the extraordinary location for the German surrender.

But the train has also experienced a chequered history. In 1931, it plunged into a ravine after a bomb planted by a Hungarian fascist destroyed a section of the Biotobargy viaduct near Bucharest. Twenty people were killed. Among the survivors was glamorous dancer Josephine Baker, who sang patriotic songs as she waited to be rescued.

When Adolf Hitler invaded France in 1940, he extracted his revenge for World War One by removing the 1918 Armistice carriage from its museum and forcing the French to surrender in that same dining car.

Later, as Germany headed towards defeat, Hitler had it destroyed to avoid his own humiliation in the same carriage. He also had another carriage requisitioned and used it as a brothel for his officers in occupied France.

After World War Two, the Orient-Express resumed its service but it was a shadow of its former self. The exclusivity and luxury of the train was out of kilter with the austere times.

The Cold War closed the old routes through Eastern Europe and competition from cheap air travel later made the train uneconomic. In May 1977, a shabby train left Paris for Istanbul for the last time. That year, in Monte Carlo, old carriages were auctioned off – an event lent some glamour by the attendance of Princess Grace.

In the crowd was a wealthy rail enthusiast called James Sherwood. His dream was to restore the old rolling stock and run a private service across Europe. He bought his first two carriages at the auction and then began a Europe-wide search to recover the rest of the carriages and restore them to their former glory. The refurbished train first ran again in 1982, carrying actress Liza Minnelli and a host of celebrities aboard. This is the company that still exists today.

Now the Orient-Express attracts luxury travel enthusiasts from England, Europe and America. And little bears from Australia!

Choo Choo Orient Express

A trip on the Orient-Express comes with high expectations of luxury and intrigue. The fascination with this exotic journey was first fuelled by literature. There have been a total of 19 books written about the train and even a piece of music entitled ‘Orient-Express Variations’ has been written.

Author Joseph Kessel published Wagon-Lit in 1932, a novel partly set on the Orient Express. Kessel was overwhelmed by emotion as he settled in on board the train just departing from Paris-Nord. “I cannot describe the feeling that overcame me as I shut the cabin door behind me at the very instant that the train left the station.”

Though already a seasoned traveler, young Joseph Kessel fell under the spell of the Orient Express. At long last, he could relax, let himself soak up the luxury and simply enjoy the pleasure of travelling.

“The miracle was inside, in that snug compartment glinting with varnish and upholstery, and in the beating of my heart which merged with the throbbing of the metal beast as it bore me further and further away…”

Back in the glory days, Agatha Christie herself travelled on the Orient Express many times as she headed east to undertake archaeological digs with her second husband, Max Mallowan, whom she met on the train. She drew on a number of actual incidents for the plot of Murder On The Orient Express, which gives the novel a hard edge. In 1929, the train was trapped in a snowdrift for ten days, 100km from Istanbul. The story became front-page news and captured the imagination of Christie and gave her the starting point for her novel, published five years later. In the book, the train is halted by a snowdrift and the victim, 13 suspects and Belgian detective Hercule Poirot are trapped inside a carriage.

The fascination with this exotic journey was further fuelled by the acclaimed 1974 film adaptation of the book with an all-star cast – Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (delivering an Oscar-winning performance), Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset and Anthony Perkins, and the 2010 TV drama series starring David Suchet. Nostalgic travelers yearn to recapture the elegance of that era – the rustle of silk gowns, men in handsome tuxedos, and sublime food and wines served by impeccable waiters.

The Hollywood movie was partly filmed aboard the train and in replica carriages in a studio.

Choo Choo Orient Express

Choo Choo Orient Express

Actor David Suchet set aside his alter ego Hercule Poirot to step aboard the Orient-Express in the documentary David Suchet on the Orient Express: A Masterpiece Special.

Choo Choo Orient Express

And he got to drive the train!

Choo Choo Orient Express

James Bond traveled on the Orient-Express in From Russia With Love, and the train most recently helped Cruella da Ville make her escape to Paris in 102 Dalmations. Kenneth Branagh will star as Hercule Poirot and direct Fox’s reboot of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (release date unknown at this stage).

The Orient-Express lives up to the lofty expectations of luxury, and possibly intrigue, but the authentic experience means there are few modern conveniences. It offers vintage-style luxury, so you won’t find flat-screen televisions, WiFi, showers or even en suite toilets (the only concession to 21st century technology is a subtle plug for charging your phone and camera). Some tourists complain about the compact cabins, but are soon converted. If the carriages are updated, the original experience is destroyed. Travelers want to go on the Orient-Express because it’s a 1920s fit-out.

Each cabin, measuring a snug 1.5m by 2.5m, has everything a discerning traveler from the 1920s would have needed. The beds are less than a meter wide. But although the conditions are cramped, I cannot think of a more pleasant environment in which to be confined. Hot water in the sleeping cars is still provided by a coal-fired boiler but the candles that used to light up the carriage corridors, with the wax dripping on the carpet, have gone. Clearly that was something of a fire hazard.

You don’t go on the Orient-Express for a comfortable journey. The cabins have only a fold-up basin that doubles as a table. It is proof of Christie’s attention to detail that, in her novel, she mentions the clicking sound that the basin makes when opened and closed.

The staff on the Orient-Express are recruited from grand hotels and they include some of Europe’s finest chefs and the most discreet cabin stewards. If you’re looking for stimulating conversation, and fellow passengers do not meet your exacting standards, the staff is expert – both knowledgeable and entertaining. There is so much to talk about on this extraordinary journey – the views, the train, the history, the service – it’s proof that this adventure is as much about the people you meet as the places you go.

Choo Choo Orient Express

Today’s Orient Express is 400 meters long and you can build up an appetite just walking from your cabin to the restaurant car. And given the amount of food you get on board, you need the walk. The train comprises three restaurants, a cocktail bar and 12 lengthy sleeping cars with individual compartments. You will experience all 3 restaurants on the journey, for lunch, dinner or brunch.

Choo Choo Orient Express

Dining on board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is an unforgettable delight. All dishes are freshly prepared on the train by skilled French chefs, with the finest supplies taken on-board during the train’s journey. Lunch, dinner and brunch are served by waiters in one of the three individually styled Restaurant Cars: Cote d’Azur, boasting Art Deco crystal panels by French master René Lalique, Etoile du Nord, showcasing beautiful marquetry, or L’ Oriental, fitted with black lacquer panels. Breakfast and afternoon tea are served to passengers in the comfort of their cabins.

VSOE Etoile du Nord Dining Car
VSOE Etoile du Nord Dining Car
VSOE Cote d'Azur Dining Car
VSOE Cote d’Azur Dining Car
VSOE L'Oriental Dining Car
VSOE L’Oriental Dining Car

Since 2011, guests enjoy eating their meals from high-quality Villeroy & Boch tableware, individually designed for the Orient Express. But not with the cherry pattern 😦

The décor Oriental is designed with majestic water birds, grasses and reeds in an oriental style. The black glaze of the petit fours plate is a true eye catcher.

Choo Choo Orient Express

The Etoile du Nord collection uses warm shades with a floral theme to coordinate wonderfully with the predominantly wood interior of the dining car that bears the same name.

Choo Choo Orient Express

Inspired by a motif from the world-renowned glass manufacturer Lalique, a particularly delicate and artistic décor was developed for Côte d’Azur, echoing the figures and motifs that decorate the walls of the restaurant car.

Choo Choo Orient Express

For breakfast, which is served directly in the cabins, a golden 1920s style décor draws inspiration from the work of the decorator René Prou, who designed the oldest sleeping car of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Choo Choo Orient Express

Early in the trip, the maître d’ called at our carriage offering a choice of two meal sittings for lunch and dinner.

I enjoyed a delicious three-course silver service lunch in the Art Deco Côte d’Azur and the food was exquisite. The French chef, wearing his funny chef hat, personally came out to check that all was as it should be and wished everybody Bon appétit!

French chef Christian Bodiguel has spent 30 years whipping up culinary treats in the train’s tiny kitchens, ensuring customers never run out of lobster, caviar or champagne. The cuisine pays homage to Venice, Paris and other renowned gastronomic destinations along the way, drawing on fresh, local produce.

After lunch, with no distractions from modern technology, we spent time taking in the stellar rural views. The journey covers five countries, spanning the Italian Dolomites, Austrian forests, the Swiss Alps, a small corner of Germany and France. There are spectacular landscapes, mountains and vineyards to enjoy. As the Orient-Express pulled away from the Venetian Lagoon, we passed the ancient northern Italian towns of Padua and Verona, mentioned in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, before verdant lowlands gave way to pristine peaks.

Only an hour or so later, it was time for afternoon tea – not with tea, but espresso 🙂 served with an assortment of cakes, pastries and amuse bouche.

Before long, it was time for dinner. I had chosen to go to the second seating from 9:30pm, so that I could linger in the Bar at midnight.

The dress code requests smart daywear, with no tone-lowering jeans, shorts, T-shirts or trainers. (But preferably with stretchy fabrics to accommodate all the food offered 🙂 ) In the evening, men must wear a jacket and tie, and a tuxedo is welcome; ladies are invited to go to town, and often use the 1920s flapper look for inspiration. Due to space limitations, all this dressing up must be achieved with just one piece of hand luggage, and one suit carrier or overnight bag in your cabin. The rest of the luggage is checked through for storage in the baggage car.

I reveled in the ritual of getting ready for dinner, even though it was before the era of royal jewelry acquired courtesy of Miss Honey 🙂 , and definitely before Puffles and Honey acquired their impressive range of outfits. So no pants, no dining car experience for the bears 😦

Dinner was a leisurely four course meal in the marquetry-decked Etoile du Nord. We were served by the most delightful stewards, fussing the whole time. We had a hilarious bi-lingual conversation, with the stewards talking to me in Italian while I responded in English.

As good as the show was inside, the show outside was spectacular. It was snowing! Everything was covered in white, the snow flakes were dancing in the air, and at one point, it was like that picture-perfect postcard, with the little houses completely covered in snow, the windows, small squares of light sparkling in the night, the trees with the branches heavy with snow, and not a creature moving. I actually called my steward and told him to stop the train so I can take a picture. He thought that was the most hilarious thing he had ever heard! I was only half-joking. They had stopped everywhere else for no good reason, I didn’t see why they couldn’t stop now for a very good reason!

Choo Choo Orient Express

After dinner, I moved to the Bar Car where the Italian piano maestro serenaded the passengers on the baby grand piano and seamlessly switched to Happy Birthday on the stroke of midnight 🙂 Everyone started singing, but they all stalled when they got to the ‘dear…’ part, since they didn’t know whose birthday it was. That was ok. The look between me and the maestro was enough. Due to the train’s cramped conditions, you find that everyone socializes with one another. So a group of Scottish people decided to join me in drinking port. During the conversation, the barman joined in followed by a few others of the Italian stewards, including the one who thought I was really funny asking for the train to stop just so I can take pictures! A great evening was had by all. The Italians had an excellent sense of humour. It was a perfect match to mine 🙂

Choo Choo Orient Express

Choo Choo Orient Express

Back at the cabin, the steward has transformed the banquette seat into one comfy single bunk, where Puffles and Honey had fallen fast asleep lulled by the rocking carriage 🙂

Choo Choo Orient Express

In the morning, we woke to more food! A continental breakfast of croissants, cakes and a silver pot of coffee and a diversion to Brussels. The French had decided to go on strike. Not all of them, just the rail transport union, so the Orient-Express could not enter France any more. In sympathy, the Germans went on strike as well, so we waited for over two hours at the German – Belgian border for the new engine needed by the train to get over the mountains. We were meant to arrive in Paris at 9am, instead we finally got off the train in Brussels at 2:30pm, after another lobster lunch. Ooohhh…. Then the most comfortable coach I had ever been on took us to Paris. It took as long to get to the periphery of Paris as it took to reach the centre of Paris and our respective hotels. I finally got to destination 12 hours later than originally planned. So the shopping extravaganza for my birthday took place on the 16th 🙂

The Orient Express is the proof of the old adage that it is better to travel than to arrive.

Choo Choo Orient Express

Time to watch the 1974 movie. The tagline is: “The greatest cast of suspicious characters ever involved in murder.” Certainly true. But I don’t care at all for Albert Finney’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot. According to Christie’s husband Max Mallowan, Agatha herself was persuaded to give a rather grudging appreciation to this adaptation of her book. Christie’s biographer Gwen Robyns quoted her as saying, “It was well made except for one mistake. It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest moustache in England — and he didn’t in the film. I thought that a pity — why shouldn’t he?”

Personally I thought Albert Finney did not make a good Hercule Poirot, period. Additional “all star” adaptations of Agatha Christie novels in the 1970s and early 1980s, Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun and Appointment with Death featuring Hercule Poirot, had Peter Ustinov portraying the Belgian detective. Much better!

Choo Choo Mischief Train

Little Isabelle is busy eating all the chocolate with her partners in mischief, Feep and Purple Larry 🙂

Choo Choo Mischief Train

Little bears are too fascinated by the train going around the track to notice the disappearing chocolate 🙂 For as long as they remember, the train has been waiting at the station!

Choo Choo Mischief Train

A transformer and a couple of powerpoint adaptors later, the train leaves the station!

The M&M characters are cheering the train!

Choo Choo Mischief Train

It’s good to be a teddy bear 🙂

Choo Choo Mischief Train