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!

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