How the Orient Express Became the World’s Most Glamorous Train

How the Orient Express Became the World’s Most Glamorous Train

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What do Lawrence of Arabia, Mata Hari, Leo Tolstoy and Marlene Dietrich have in common? They were among the 20th century’s most fascinating figures—and over the years, each experienced the opulence of the Orient Express. The famous train threaded its way from Paris to Istanbul, playing host to spies, dignitaries, artists, and presidents along the way.

But why was the train so famous—and how did it gain its reputation for intrigue and mystery? The story involves a brilliant entrepreneur with an ambitious vision for world travel and a knack for luxury, a world hungry for a better way to travel, and an American innovation translated for a glittering clientele.

The story of the Orient Express begins in the 1860s, when the concept ofglobetrotting tourism was still new. For years, the ultra-rich had been the only people who could afford to travel through Europe. And though railroads were introduced in the first half of the 19th century, they were often dirty and uncomfortable and jostled along fragmented routes that often ground to a halt at the continent’s many international borders.

As rail travel expanded,luxury hotels began to pop up to cater to travelers’ needs. But it took an entrepreneur named Georges Nagelmackers to combine trains and hotels in Europe. Nagelmackers was a member of a prominent Belgian banking family and had investments in European railroads. After the Civil War, his family sent him to the United States in an effort to help him get over a failed romance with his cousin—and while on an extended vacation, he fell in love.

The object of his affections wasn’t a woman; it was a train. While European travelers chugged along in sooty, jostling trains, Americans were beginning to travel in Pullman cars. These train cars, invented by George Pullman, were speciallydesigned for long-distance travel. The hotel-like cars were clean and staffed by friendly workers who catered to passengers’ comfort. And they contained something European trains did not: beds.

Nagelmackers became fascinated by this comfortable mode of travel and even approached Pullman with a proposal to become his partner and spread his cars through Europe. When Pullman rejected him, Nagelmackers returned to Europe with a plan: copy Pullman and make his own, even more luxurious, train.

He was briefly thwarted by the Franco-Prussian War, but by 1873 he had formed his own company, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Nagelmackers wasn’t content with the idea of mere sleeper cars. He wanted to create something entirely new: a luxury travel experience that swept passengers from Paris to Istanbul (then Constantinople) without stopping at borders. To do so, he recruited a powerful ally: King Leopold II of Belgium. The king was a notorious railroad enthusiast with family ties to some of Europe’s most powerful monarchs, and he helped Nagelmackersget permission to run his trains across international borders without interference.

In 1883, the opulent train the press dubbed the “Orient Express” made its maiden voyage. (It only went part of the eventual route due to infrastructure challenges.) It was unlike any other train Europe had ever seen. Instead of soot and bad service, it had gleaming wood surfaces, plush seats, and beds with silk sheets that rivaled those found in hotels. Inside was a restaurant that served fancydishes like oysters and caviar, and musicians serenaded the passengers as they sped over borders.

It was an intoxicating combination, and one that proved irresistible to Europe’s most well heeled passengers. (Poorer passengers were out of luck; in its early years a single trip on the traincost a quarter of an average Frenchman’s annual income.) By 1889, the train’s Ottoman Empire infrastructure was completed and it went all the way to Constantinople. And though it never went all the way to the Orient—and Nagelmackers’s company added and changed multiple routes over the years—its name suggested glamour and intrigue.

This was in part due to another kind of clientele: spies. Over the years, the train was nicknamed “Spies’ Express” because of the comfort and convenience it offered people likeRobert Baden-Powell, a British spy who also founded the Boy Scouts, and Mata Hari, whotook the train during her European dance tour. It became famous for its fictional spies, too, like James Bond, who took the train in Ian Fleming’s novel From Russia With Love.

Today, the train is perhaps most famous as the setting for Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express. There was at least one murder on the train; in 1950, the body of an American naval attaché was discovered in a tunnel along the route, but the murder remainedunsolved. But for the most part, the train was famous for the exploits of its famous passengers, like King Leopold, who had a private car on the train just for his mistress, orJosephine Baker, who gave an impromptu concert to wounded passengers after a 1931 accident.

Nagelmackers’s train made its last full journey in 1977, and though copycat train lines still exist in Europe, they’ve never matched the opulence and mystery of the original. The Orient Express may be dead, but its reputation is still very much alive. Just the mention of its name brings to mind luxury, speed and intrigue—and that’s the way Nagelmackers would have wanted it.

Orient Express: The golden age of the train

Resplendent in its pristine blue-and-gold livery, our faces reflected in its polished-to-perfection paintwork, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express greets us in all its glory. The immaculately uniformed staff line up in welcome — chefs, cabin stewards, waiters, porters… One of the world's most alluring travel experiences lies ahead of us.

A glass of sparkling Blanquette de Limoux arrives next, as we marvel at this spectacularly restored train: an invitation to travel back in time on what's effectively a living, breathing homage to the past.

The most famous train in the world. The most glamorous train in the world. The most luxurious train in the world. The superlatives come thick and fast on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, and little wonder, given its long history — not to mention its impressive cinematic and literary stature, thanks to a certain Agatha Christie.

Created back in 1883 as the Orient Express, by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits — and originally running between Paris and Istanbul via Vienna and Budapest — the service's glamorous heyday was during the interwar period. This was the era of the Simplon Orient Express, a more southerly route from Calais and Paris to Istanbul via the Simplon Tunnel — under the Swiss Alps — and Venice. This incarnation ran until 1962, when it was replaced by the Direct Orient Express — a slower service, withdrawn in 1977.

A version of the Orient Express continued until 2009, when the route was decommissioned, but the story of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express was far from over. Just five months after the withdrawal of the Direct Orient Express, American shipping magnate James Sherwood bought two of the original first-class carriages at a Sotheby's auction in Monaco, not long after acquiring Venice's iconic Hotel Cipriani. He went on to acquire a further 23, helping him to achieve his outlandish goal of restoring and refurbishing the original 1920s and '30s carriages to their former glory.

It soon dawned on Sherwood that the train would be unable to cross the Channel on a ferry. A suitably elegant and period-correct means of conveying passengers from London to Folkstone was needed. And so, another mammoth restoration project began, involving the acquisition and restoration of Pullman carriages dating from the 1920s to the 1950s. Out of this, the British Pullman emerged.

On 25 May 1982, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express was born, with London the new starting point. Within a year, the Arlberg Tunnel was substituted for its titular Swiss counterpart, although the Simplon name stuck.

The hors d'oeuvre

On arrival at Victoria station, we check in with staff bearing old-fashioned clipboards — naturally — and our 'hold' luggage is checked through to Venice, our final destination, while our cabin baggage is set aside, destined to meet the grand dame herself, the VSOE, in Calais.

As the British Pullman's cream-and-umber carriages glide into platform two, the sense of occasion is palpable. Guests are dressed to impress and staff immaculately attired. From the outside, the train looks as grandly impressive and nostalgia-inducing as you'd expect but on the inside it's all that and more. Each of the 10 carriages — painstakingly restored and refurbished — has a name, a distinct style and design, and a history. The bespoke detailing of features like wood panelling, luggage racks and bathroom floor mosaics — most with an art deco flavour — are testament not just to the craftsmanship of a bygone era but of a certain industrious Frenchman. In his book, Orient Express: A Personal Journey, Sherwood explains: 'We had hired Gérard Gallet, the French designer, to oversee the decoration of both trains and he had to recreate or source literally hundreds of objects and fittings, from chairs and fabrics to authentic art deco lamps.

'He copied the original Wagons-Lits cutlery and the china was an 1820s design modified with our own logo. Even the towels and linen were replicas of the original. When it was complete, passengers would be surrounded by glittering mirrors and crystal, polished woods and brasses, exquisite marquetry and "Sapelli Pearl" inlay, all flawlessly restored or replaced.'

Most of the carriages have hosted illustrious figures — the likes of Churchill, de Gaulle, our own Queen and other heads of state. We take our seats in 'Lucille', built in 1928 as a first class parlour car for the Queen of Scots Pullman. Kicking off with a bellini — invented by the founder of the hotel at our final destination, no less — we embark on a brunch of fruit salad, pastries, and crumpets topped with scrambled egg and smoked salmon. So far, so expectedly plush what comes as a surprise, though, is the warmth of the staff — many with decades of service experience behind them. There's none of the pomp or stuffiness I've been half-expecting.

Before we know it, the Kent countryside has flashed by. We arrive in Folkestone to be serenaded by a brass band on the platform, and we depart for the only modern part of the journey — the coach that will take us through the Tunnel. The transfer breaks the spell briefly — although 35 years ago the ferry would no doubt have had the same effect.

The main course

Exiting the coach on the French side of the Channel, it's not long before we're once again ensconced within the wood-panelled golden age of rail — no less glamorous here, aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, than aboard the British Pullman. But here, cabins — rather than dining cars — dominate. There are 11 sleeper carriages altogether, along with three restaurant cars, two service cars and one for the bar. Stretching for a quarter of a mile, it seems a thing of endlessly snaking elegance a place to live in luxury, at least for a while.

My wife and I are shown how our bijou cabin works by our cabin steward. Everything is exactly as it would've been almost a century ago, complete with numerous ingeniously compact solutions to deal with the lack of space. A sink, for instance, is cannily concealed within a closet, while the banquette seating, we're told, will be converted into bunks while we're at dinner. Sadly, there's no Houdini-esque reveal of a hidden toilet there are just two — one at either end of the carriage.

The attention to detail is immaculate rest your gaze on pretty much any surface, even in the smallest room, and you'll see original designs and logos, restored brasswork and wooden panels that must have been varnished at least 15 times.

In a bid to remain as true to the original train as possible, there are no private bathrooms (the patchy wi-fi and wheezy air-con seem like grudging nods to the 21st century). That said, passengers unwilling to forgo their mod cons but willing to splurge will, from March, be delighted to find the world's most famous, glamorous and luxurious train has become even more opulent. The three new Grand Suites will be three times the size of a regular cabin and offer double beds, a private shower room, and a living area.

Departing Calais at 5.20pm, we opt for the second sitting at 9.30pm in the Côte d'Azur restaurant car — one of three, each with a unique decor — and arrive into Paris as we await our second course. We dine on blue Brittany lobster with fennel fondue and cuttlefish sauce lasagne slow-roasted beef fillet with a truffle caviar mousse and chocolate salted butter caramel 'pebble'. All exquisitely balanced, richly flavoured yet delicate.

It is, make no mistake, an exceptionally expensive experience but, justifiable perhaps as a one-off. A couple next to us are celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary, there's a party of four behind us toasting a 70th birthday, and many of the other guests are evidently ticking the journey off their bucket list while marking a significant occasion.

They say you can never be overdressed on the VSOE, and while black tie and evening dress aren't compulsory, everyone is dressed to the nines. Having indulged in gin and tonics before dinner, and Champagne during, we head back to bar car 3674, where the resident pianist is now tickling the ivories. Decked out in luxuriant blue and gold, it resembles an exclusive members' club — which, in many ways, it is.

Mindful of waking for the views, we retire before midnight to remarkably comfortable bunks and the soporific sway of the train. Breakfast arrives at 8.30, just as the Swiss Alps start to unfold around us, canopied by a bright blue sky. Lush meadows soon give way to lakes, snow-capped mountains, valleys, tunnels, pretty villages, fir-tree-covered hillsides… Admiring the majestic landscape from our cabin is a full-time job.

At midday, while dining in the L'Oriental restaurant car, there's an abrupt change of scenery — the Alps suddenly replaced by the shores of Lake Lugarno: all exotic palms, Italianate villas and blue waters shimmering in the sun.

Staring out the window is tricky while eating but the food is, again, a memorable distraction. A turban of sautéed salmon and spinach comes with a carpaccio of saffron scallops and artichoke cream. This is followed by roast duckling breast with an escalope of foie gras and redcurrant. For a finale, we get cherry puff pastry, pineapple with syrup and a syringe full of Granny Smith jelly. I could get used to Mondays like this.

We head on to the Italian border and skirt around the bottom of Lake Garda, the train then meanders at a dignified pace through the verdant farmlands of northern Italy — Verona, Brescia, Vicenza and Padua. Finally, around 4pm, we reach the lagoon on the approach to Venice, and resign ourselves to departing this moving museum. Before we know it, we're whisked from the platform to a sleek, lacquered mahogany water taxi that delivers us into the heart of La Serenissima. If you want to feel like royalty, this is surely the only way to arrive.

Venice's timeless beauty is, obviously, best seen from the water, and the Belmond Hotel Cipriani's position on the island of Giudecca, across the Grand Canal from St Mark's Square, provides a vantage point away from the crowds. The tranquillity here is one of its main attractions, and no doubt a key reason for James Sherwood buying the hotel in 1976, which kick-started his rail odyssey. It seems hard to fathom now, but back then the whole enterprise was a high-stakes gamble.

"When I bought those two old carriages in Monte Carlo, people thought I was slightly crazy. They said it was a fun idea but it wouldn't work." Sherwood told The Telegraph in 2012, "The common wisdom was that luxury rail travel was dead. Now it's fully booked every year and the carriages, every one different, are in better condition than they have ever been. Concorde has come and gone and the Orient-Express is still here. It was a good hunch."

What's in a name?

The original Orient Express brand name was licensed from the French train company SNCF, and James Sherwood's company later expanded it across the globe with Orient-Express Hotels (rebranded as Belmond in 2014). The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express licence remains with Belmond, but SNCF struck a deal with French hotel group Accor last year to develop a chain of hotels under the Orient-Express name — which have nothing to do with the original Orient Express hotels, now operating as Belmond. Got it?

The Golden Age of Railway Travel

The Golden Age of railway travel came in the 1930s. Most of the people opted for railway transport for its safety and speed, especially when it came to long distances. Given its luxury and quality of food served on board, it became a favorite for the royalty and dignitaries from various corners around Europe. Many successful business people also used the train for their travel.

Some of the famous people who rode the train include Lawrence of Arabia, Marlene Dietrich, Leo Tolstoy, Agatha Christie and Leon Trotsky, among many others. It is the work of Agatha that made the railway travel service known around the world. She used the Orient Express to visit her husband, who was an archaeologist in Syria. Her memoirs recollected her trip across Europe and the contrasting difference between Syria and Europe at the time.

There has been reported a few high profile suspicious deaths on the train. The first was the death of a wealthy Romanian lady called Maria Farcasanu, who was pushed through the window after being robbed in 1935. (The killer was arrested and imprisoned for life). There was also Eugene Karpe, an American naval attaché who fell off the train in a tunnel at Salzburg in 1950 in a suspicious twist of events.

Source: Belmond

European Travelling Advisor

Probably the most popular train in the world travels through Europe. You already know its name – it’s Orient Express. I believe many travelers around the world have at least once wanted to get on board and travel the famous route, taking the role of a passenger that travelled that way at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. I know I have…

The original journey, as we know it, started in Paris and passed through (Strasbourg, Munich) Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest and ended in Istanbul. It first ran in 1883. But the route changed many times. During World War I Orient Express service was even suspended. At the end of the war it ran again, but changed it’s route Istanbul – Sofia – Belgrade – Venice – Milan – Lausanne – Paris. During World War II, similar thing happened. It couldn’t run properly because some areas were closed and in other parts it was sabotages because of political issues. Eventually it was cut to Venice to Paris part only.

The coaches of the authentic Orient Express were the place of many historical scenes and intrigues. One of the sleeping coaches, no. 3309, was a part of the train that was in 1929. stuck in snow for 10 days about a 100 km from Istanbul. The passengers only survived because the locals from the villages in the neighbourhood helped. Some of the coaches were a German loot during World War II. Even Bulgarian king Boris the Third was a train enthusiast and sometimes drove it himself.

But I’m sure that a lot of you remember Orient Express by Agatha Christie’s novel Murder in the Orient Express. Another amazing story led by the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The journey with Orient Express was called “The birthplaces of the Empires”. Very early its name became a synonymous of luxury travel. Today, the train is, of course, completely restored but the route from Paris to Istanbul no longer exists.

The Real History of the Orient Express

The real history of the orient express begins in 1883. After many problems starting up the service and difficulties in negotiations with railway companies, Nagelmacker through his company Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits established a route from Paris to Constantinople or present-day Istanbul.

The Journey on 4th October was a highly publicised event. Many journalists had come on board to cover the event. The proprietor, Mr Nagelmacker arranged to have the then obsolete coaches stand in the adjacent tracks to show the contrast. The train had a classy ambience with wooden panelling, leather armchairs, luxurious upholstery, and other luxurious accessories that gave the passengers a feeling that they were in a luxurious hotel. The trip from Paris to Istanbul aboard the Orient express would take eighty hours or almost three and a half days to complete.

The Orient Express proved to be irresistible to the wealthy Europeans the poorer population was unable to afford trips on the service. On average, a single trip on the Orient Express cost a quarter of the annual wages of an average French citizen. In 1889, the railway line in the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey) was completed, and this made the trip all the way to Constantinople or present-day Istanbul possible.

Constantinople (now Istanbul) station opened in 1890, and this was the beginning of the golden age of the Orient Express. It enabled the train to make its way from Paris to Istanbul station faster than a boat. In the 1890s, the Ottoman Empire was in its decline however, due to the opportunities and population influx that was brought about by the Orient Express. This made the capital of the Ottoman Empire still flourish with trade, and by 1900, it was a hive of activity. Because the city was a travel hub, this meant that it was cosmopolitan in nature with the Turks, Armenians, Jews and Greeks living together.

The Orient Express also led to the influx of investors, diplomats from the west, and artists. Constantinople as a final destination still got the attention of many people and had a lot to gain from the Orient Express. However, the main aim of the Orient Express was to link up major European cities as was seen in its schedule. It had daily runs from Paris to Munich, Vienna and Budapest, and it reached Constantinople only two times in a week.

The Orient Express gained a lot of fame and affinity with the people and the leaders such that some kings and presidents opted to use the train. Some of these leaders even made outrageous requests for the coaches to be modified to suit their needs. Others requested to drive the train by themselves. Amongst the many leaders who travelled on the Orient Express was Ferdinand of Bulgaria who opted to lock himself in the bathroom for fear of assassins.

The King of Belgium King Leopold II travelled on the Orient Express on his way to Istanbul as well. Bulgaria’s king requested to be allowed to drive the train through his country and his wish was granted, though he drove at very high speeds. The president of France in 1920, Paul Deschanel, was seen as he tumbled from these cars at night and the talk that followed about this event made him resign. He had consumed some sleeping pills and had fallen out of his window whilst wearing his pyjamas.

Due to the preference of the Orient Express passenger service train by the kings, tsars, and spies, it was later called the Train of Kings. Other famous passengers on the service were Mata Hari, Robert Baden-Powell, Marlene, Dietrich, Lawrence of Arabia, Tolstoy, Trotsky, Diaghilev and other fictional characters such as James Bond and Hercule Poirot. The train was also referred to as the spies express with spies such as Robert Baden-Powell choosing this as his travel option.

The Orient Express, or one of its cars at least, also had historical significance as it was used when German officers signed a surrender document on November 11, 1918, in one of its cars. This particular car had been converted to a conference room. It was exhibited in Paris as a historical symbol, but after 1940, Hitler commanded for its return to original spot where the surrender had been signed so that France could sign its own surrender. After Hitler established that he would lose the war, he ordered it to be blow up four years later so that the French could not claim it as a trophy.

The Orient Express, like any other famous symbol, had its fair share of scandals and controversies. In the trips that followed shortly after its inception in 1883, a lot occurred that made news headlines in those days. The early trips were dangerous in that in 1891, there was a kidnapping of five passengers who were held at ransom. The following year comprised of yet another scandal which made headlines as the train was quarantined after an outbreak of cholera on the train. In 1901, the train had experienced brake failure and came to rest at Frankfurt’s station restaurant.

In the 1930s, the train had caught the eye of criminals and a Hungarian terrorist group caused its derailment that led to the death of twenty passengers. Notably, in this event, the famous singer Josephine Baker helped in tending to the injured after the unfortunate incident. In the 1950s, the body of an American citizen naval attaché was discovered in a tunnel on the route that the Orient Express followed, with the murder remaining unsolved to date.

Some cars on the train had been converted for reuse as gazebos. By the thirties, there were several Orient Express copycats which had been developed to cover other routes such as the Simplon Orient Express which ran via Venice and Belgrade. The Stamboul Train, dubbed as the Oostende Vienna Orient Express, was also developed as another Orient Express copycat and ran through Brussels and Frankfurt. The Ostend Vienna Orient Express was so successful that another branch running to Athens was established. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express was incepted in 1982 by an American offering the same ambience, luxurious cars with leather seats and luxurious upholstery as the original Orient Express, coupled with coaches that had been refurbished. It has become renowned and is now a legend.

Nagelmacker’s Orient Express has largely been copied by many other train services in attempts to replicate the success. Majority of these train services cover different routes, and they still used the term Orient Express for promotional purposes. Many promoters have attempted to recreate the yesteryears of the Orient Express by encouraging the passengers to dress up in 1920’s fashion. The modern versions of the Orient Express paint a picture of stark contrast from the original as it has become a normal train service for regular travellers whilst in the past, it was deemed fit for spies, kings and crooks alike, diplomats smugglers, big game hunters and other prominent people.

It was a train of choice for Europe’s wealthy lot. The train symbolised income inequalities. It snaked its way through half a dozen countries with farmers pausing their work in fields to have a look that the magnificence of the train’s shiny cars and the faces of the wealthy in the cars.

The First World War saw the abrupt end in the movement of people in Europe from one place to another, and this greatly affected the demand for the travelling services as countries were in conflict with each other. This meant foreigners were treated as alien enemies and, therefore, may not have been welcome. This situation was compounded on the day that Austria declared war on Serbia and the Orient Express came to a standstill.

Other companies and countries took advantage of the war which had paralyzed the operations of the Orient Express and decided to come up with their own luxury train passenger service. One of these countries was Germany. Germany and its allies started a luxury train passenger service at the height of the First World War. This luxury passenger service train went all the way to Constantinople or current day Istanbul. After the First World War, there were overall shifts in power and political changes that led to the redrawing of the railway routes of the European railway system. This resulted in the limitations of various passenger railway services and the enhancement of other passenger railway services that were well connected. The original Orient Express was left to serve up to Bucharest whilst a new train was introduced that bypassed Germany. It was called the Simplon Orient Express. It went through the Swiss Alps via the Simplon Tunnel, through to Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and subsequently to Greece and then finally to Turkey.

The Treaty of Versailles gave the Simplon Orient Express a monopoly that would last ten years on the Paris to Constantinople route and it later introduced steel carriages that had fancy art décor in the interiors. It became popular with diplomats, artists and writers.

The Simplon Orient Express was made even more famous by the novel Murder on the Orient Express. This novel by Agatha Christie had been inspired by when the Simplon Orient Express had been snowed on for five days at a small station in Istanbul, However, actual murder on the Simplon Orient Express did not occur until one year later.

The new Simplon Orient Express also had its scandals and controversies when in 1935, a wealthy Romanian woman was robbed by her companion and pushed to her death through an open window in her compartment. It took two years to find the killer after the rail workers found her body in mid-1935 beside the tracks near Admont in central Austria on the route that the Simplon Orient Express followed.

In Conclusion

The Orient Express did satisfy an actual gap in the market place when George Nagelmackers travelled to the United States of America and witnessed Americans travelling by rail in style. This was in sharp contrast to the old and sooty coaches back home in Europe. Given this opportunity, it was prudent for George Nagelmacker to develop a similar service to cater to the wealthy Europeans who wanted to travel in luxury across continents without the need for passports. This became a reality when George Nagelmacker managed to convince the Belgian King Leopold II to help him convince other monarchs to allow the train to pass through their kingdoms. The fact that the train ride covered a distance of 3000 kilometres over the European continent without the need to stop at border points as was the case in the past, coupled with the luxury and good customer service, made the Orient Express appealing. Those who could afford the ticket took up the opportunity with open arms as is it served a niche market of kings and other wealthy people. The train service declined during the world wars, but it was revived through the Simplon Orient Express in the later years past the world wars. It, however, took a route slightly different from the original Orient Express, but still had Istanbul as the final destination.

You can still experience the luxury of travelling on the Venice Simplon-Orient Express in the Belmond VSOE which has been assembled from the original European Orient Express carriages which date from the 1920’s which have been meticulously resorted. Checkout The Orient Express prices for full details.

Why not treat yourself to one of the world’s most luxurious train journeys and travel in style across Europe.

Has worked for many Internet marketing companies over the years, and has contributed to many online publications. If there is a story, he will find it.

The True History of the Orient Express

To most people the Orient Express is more an idea than a tangible entity. We are most familiar with its life in fiction and cinema: Hercule Poirot solved his most famous case on it, Alfred Hitchock's lady vanished from it and James Bond rode it from Istanbul to London.

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Now, the latest iteration of the legendary train is chugging back to the big screen as director Kenneth Branagh tries his hand at remaking Agatha Christie's  classic murder-mystery tale.

But what was the real Orient Express like, how did it first attain its aura of mystery and intrigue and what was the famous train's ultimate fate?

In 1865, a prominent Belgian banker's son named Georges Nagelmackers first envisioned "a train that would span a continent, running on a continuous ribbon of metal for more than 1,500 miles," as E. H. Cookridge writes in Orient Express: The Life and Times of the World's Most Famous Train. During a trip to America, Nagelmackers witnessed the many innovations in railway travel there—chief among them George Pullman's unprecedented, luxurious "sleeper cars"—and he returned determined to realize his vision.

In 1883, after a number of false starts, financial troubles and difficulties negotiating with various national railway companies, Nagelmackers's Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (wagons-lits being French for "sleeper cars") established a route from Paris to Istanbul, then called Constantinople. The newspapers dubbed it the "Orient Express"—though Istanbul was as far toward the "Orient" as this train would ever travel—and Nagelmackers embraced the name.

On October 4, the Orient Express set out on its first formal journey, with many journalists aboard to publicly marvel at the train's luxury and beauty. (Nagelmackers, a clever showman, even arranged to have shoddy, decaying old Pullman cars stand in contrast on the tracks adjacent to the Express as it left Paris's Gare de Strasbourg.) Aboard the train, the delighted passengers felt as though they'd entered one of Europe's finest hotels they marveled at the intricate wooden paneling, deluxe leather armchairs, silk sheets and wool blankets for the beds. The journey from Paris to Istanbul lasted a little over 80 hours.

Some kings traveling onboard the train infamously exhibited very odd behavior. Ferdinand of Bulgaria, scared to death of assassins, was observed locking himself in the bathroom. Belgium's King Leopold II rode the train to Istanbul after making elaborate arrangements to infiltrate a Turkish man's harem. The king of Bulgaria, an amateur engineer, insisted that he be allowed to drive the train through his country, which he did at perilous speeds. Czar Nicholas II demanded that special cars be built for his visit to France, and some decades later the French President Paul Deschanel clumsily tumbled from one of these cars in the dead of night, an event that prompted such ridicule that he eventually resigned.

In its heyday, the train duly earned another nickname: "Spies' Express." Continent-hopping secret agents loved the train, writes Cookridge, since it simply "made their jobs so much easier and their travels much more comfortable." One of the most remarkable of these agents was an Englishman named Robert Baden-Powell, who posed as a lepidopterist collecting samples in the Balkans. His intricate sketches of the forms and colors of butterfly wings were actually coded representations of the fortifications he spotted along the Dalmatian Coast, which served as great aids to the British and Italian navies during World War I.

Though the two World Wars severely limited Orient Express service, a single car played a fascinating symbolic role in both. On November 11, 1918, German officers signed a surrender document in an Allied commander's Wagons-Lits car, which he used as a mobile conference room. The French proudly exhibited the car in Paris until June 1940, when Hitler ordered that it be hauled to the precise spot where the Germans had been forced to surrender 22 years before there he dictated the terms of French surrender. Four years later, when Hitler's loss seemed imminent, he ordered that the car be blown up, lest it "become a trophy of the Allies once more."

What remains of the Orient Express? The pedigree of the train became rather complicated in later years, as Nagelmackers's original line spawned similar ones following slightly different routes, and as other providers began to use the phrase "Orient Express" for promotional purposes. The Direct Orient Express, the Simplon Orient Express (the train Poirot rode), the Nostalgic Orient Express and many others have existed over the years. One descendant of the original Orient Express became rather shabby, crowded and cheap—a disillusioned journalist called it a "roving tenement." Today's Venice-Simplon Orient Express aims for the opulence of the original, and for the right price, a person can still go for a ride in its restored original Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits cars.

But attempts to maintain the old glamour of the Orient Express have largely fallen into self-parody—promoters of the line have encouraged patrons to dress in�s garb, and even once staged a murder mystery game during a journey. Writing in 1976 for the Los Angeles Times, one reporter meets a tired and cranky contessa who says, on the trip's last leg, "If there are going to be any murders on this train, it will be the Turk that wakes me up at 5 a.m."

Modern versions of the Orient Express are a far cry from the original that Cookridge lovingly and nostalgically portrays: "Kings and crooks, millionaires and refugees, big-game hunters and smugglers, prima donnas and courtesans traveled on it tycoons and financiers clinched their deals across its sumptuous dining tables diplomats, spies, and revolutionaries on board the train moved secretively to their moments of history." The era of such intrigue and excitement aboard the Orient Express is over. But in a world that becomes more connected every day—and one in which there is no shortage of luxury travel—much of Nagelmackers's vision lives on.

The Orient Express became the train of choice for Europe's wealthy and high-born, a rolling symbol of the economic disparities of its age. "Peasants in half-a-dozen countries would pause in their work in the fields and gape at the glittering cars and the supercilious faces behind the windows," writes Cookridge. It came to be called "the King of Trains and the Train of Kings."

About David Zax

David Zax is a freelance journalist and a contributing editor for Technology Review (where he also pens a gadget blog).

Visa Obstacles

The strict visa policies in communist Bulgaria formed a major obstacle for Simplon Orient Express travelers going on to Turkey. The number of Western passengers could usually be counted on one hand, and were often American and British diplomats and intelligence officers. One of them was the former naval intelligence office Ian Fleming, who partly based his 1957 James Bond thriller, From Russia with Love, on Eugene Karp’s tragic, last train journey.

Between 1951 and 1953, Bulgaria completely blocked the Simplon Orient Express due to conflicts with neighboring countries. Once Bulgaria allowed the train to enter again, art students were deployed to beautify the surroundings of the railway line in order to make a good impression on Western travelers. One of these students was later to become the renowned artist Christo.

The Orient Express shown at a border station between Liechtenstein and Switzerland. (Photo: Murdockcrc/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 2.5)

Express to the Orient: On board the world's most famous train

A journey to die for? Leslie Ann Horgan takes a luxury trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

I 'm standing swaying with a crystal glass in one hand, black streaked down my face, laughing like a madwoman.

No, I haven't just offed someone in a Poirot-worthy plot (let's get the Agatha Christie reference out of the way early). I've actually been trying to put on liquid eyeliner. on a train moving at 100 miles per hour. after half a bottle of Champagne. It's only at this moment that the surreality of the situation actually hits me: I am on the Orient Express.

The day had begun in an altogether more dignified manner as I checked in at the Belmond private lounge at London's Victoria Station. Our journey to Venice was to begin aboard the British Pullman, which would take us to the English coast. The train consists of 11 historic carriages, which represent the remnants of the golden age of British rail travel and its evocatively named services The Brighton Belle, the Golden Arrow, The Queen of Scots. I found my seat - a plush armchair - in Ibis, the oldest of the carriages, built in 1925.

Next year sees the return of luxury rail to Ireland, with the launch of the Belmond Grand Hibernian service. It will offer two, four- and six-night journeys departing Dublin and taking in Belfast, Cork to Galway, or both. With all-inclusive prices starting from €3,200pp, it will rule out many Pullman passengers - enjoying a €350 daytrip which I guessed to be retirement or silver wedding anniversary presents.

After breakfasting on smoked salmon with crumpets and peach Bellinis, we left these passengers at Folkstone and made our way by coach through the Channel Tunnel to Calais. At first sight of the famous train itself - gleaming in the 5pm sunset with its uniformed staff lined up to greet us - I felt a pressing awareness that this was a level of posh far beyond even my most glamorous moments.

A cabin on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

First launched in 1883, the Orient Express has always been synonymous with luxury travel. Although most people think of it for the famed Paris to Constantinople line, it in fact provided several different routes to Eastern Europe. Hosting everyone from royalty to movie stars, it was a five-star service from the outset.

In 1906, the Simplon Tunnel - the longest in the world, linking Switzerland and Italy - was opened and trains for Venice and Constantinople were directed through it, thus renaming the service the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE). Luxury rail was all but destroyed during World War II when tracks were closed and carriages torn apart for materials. A much-reduced VSOE limped on until 1962. It was only rescued from extinction by shipping magnate James B Sherwood, who scoured international auctions to find the original carriages and had them lavishly restored before relaunching the service in 1982.

The expression 'small but perfectly formed' could have been written for the VSOE. My cabin contains just a seat, a fold-down table, a stool and a concealed washbasin - yet every detail, from the Art Deco flowers set into the lacquered woodwork to the brass luggage racks overhead, is opulent. It is small, but certainly not cramped, and I stretch out comfortably when the seat is later turned into a bed by the stewards (I sleep like the dead under any conditions, and happily did so on a moving train).

Our carriage has eight single-occupancy cabins. Couples travelling together would need to book two and open the interconnecting doors, or choose a carriage with double occupancy drop-down bunks. For a ticket price of €3,000pp per night, there are shared toilets, no showers and no Wi-Fi - but that doesn't seem to matter when you've just stepped back into the 1920s for a 24-hour, 1,100km journey across Europe.

Sipping from the bubbly that my cabin steward, Marco, opened on arrival, I could happily spend the evening watching France roll by, but there is a black-tie dinner to be attended. which is how I now find myself with the eyeliner dilemma.

With make-up finally in place, I make my way to the first of the two bars - one cocktail, one Champagne - for a pre-dinner drink. While meals are included in your ticket, alcohol is extra, and the prices - €14 for a bottle of Heineken, €22 for a vodka and soda - are high, to say the least. While I didn't see anyone splash out €490 for the Imperial Beluga caviar listed on the menu, the type of passenger the VSOE attracts can clearly afford it. Most are aged over 50 and, though some are newlyweds or on a bucket-list trip, the majority seem well acclimatised to this style of travel.

What is the Orient Express?

The Orient Express was a direct train from Paris to Constantinople (now Istanbul) that began to run in 1883. Sadly, the train service ended in 1977.

Why is it so famous? For one thing, the Orient Express was famous for its grandiose first-class travel. Passengers would be wearing bowties and tiaras as they sipped champagne and dined aboard the Orient Express.

Of course, this train service also became famous due to the classic 1934 detective novel by Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express. Two films based on the book have also been made, no doubt adding to the train’s legendary status.

Although the Orient Express doesn’t run any longer, you can still take the Orient Express train route, but without the murder.

Best of all, you can plan your journey to spend some time exploring the fascinating regions along the way.

The Mystery of the Orient Express Resurfaces at a Paris Museum

PARIS — In forming an exhibition on the Orient Express, the railroad line most steeped in myth, it was wise to bring in the body of the train itself. The habeas corpus of this hefty train, its 60-ton weight requiring a reinforcement of the pavement outside the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, offers a reality to a history as much wrapped up in fiction and fact.

View to the Institut du Monde Arabe from the Orient Express (photograph by the author)

That isn’t just with Agatha Christie’s murder mystery or Graham Greene’s tale. There was always a heavy amount of mythology from its beginning in 1883. The east of the line that went to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and later Cairo and Baghdad was idealized and romanticized by the west in Paris and Vienna. Travel posters showed gleaming ruins and exalted the exotic in primary colors. And the Orient Express leaving from Paris was the most glamorous way to get there.

Il était une fois l’Orient Express (“Once Upon a Time on the Orient Express”) opened in April with three restored cars of the train, as well as an exhibition of artifacts and art at the Institut du Monde Arabe. Curated by Claude Mollard, it’s a collaboration with the SNCF train company, which is planning to relaunch the Orient Express line in stages over the next five years. In this way it’s a curious mix of history as pr, as the exhibition both emphasizes strongly the luxury of traveling on the line, and the cultural complications that in many ways endure.

Orient Express ticket station (photograph by the author)

You start your journey at a facsimile train station, where you get a train ticket to board the three cars installed in front of the museum. There is a fourth which is hosting a pricey pop-up restaurant from chef Yannick Alléno, as well as a 1922 locomotive that periodically lets out a “chooo – choooo” from its metal body. Inside the cars, including the Flèche d’Or from 1929, the sleeper car from 1949, and the Train Bleu from 1929, is art nouveau splendor and little theatrical scenes representing different figures associated with the train, from entertainer Josephine Baker to novelist Pierre Loti to courtesan-spy Mata Hari.

It’s all very cinematic, and even has a bit of comedy you end with the stage set for Hercule Poirot to solve the murder from Agatha Christie’s novel. But it is stunning, from the mahogany walls to the crystal details of beautiful ladies by René Lalique. You can’t help but want to make the journey.

Waiting to board (photograph by the author)

The Train Bleu car (courtesy Institut du Monde Arabe)

Flèche d’Or train car (courtesy Institut du Monde Arabe)

Detail of the Flèche d’Or car (photograph by the author)

Inside the museum, the exhibition is less thrilling with artifacts from the train, travel posters, and a video surrounding the space with archive footage of its travel stops. What it’s missing are details from the other side of the journey. It did, after all, make return trips, but there are no examples of things like travel posters advertising Paris to Istanbul, or voices from locals on the impact of having all these rich outsiders suddenly turning up on a timetable basis. It also doesn’t discuss much the fading of the train’s popularity in 1945, which cut off Istanbul service in 1977 and ended completely in 2009.

SNCF seems intent on keeping this luxury heritage alive, however, having purchased the vintage cars in 2010 from Christie’s, and now this initiative to return the line. But there’s a lack of acknowledgement that this is also resurrecting a relic of colonialism and its orientalist elite, even as it did connect countries previously difficult to cross with an enviable travel prestige.

Pierre Loti’s place (photograph by the author)

Hercule Poirot’s place on the train (photograph by the author)

Orient Express at the Institut du Monde Arabe (photograph by the author)

Il était une fois l’Orient Express continues at the Institut du Monde Arabe (1 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, 5th Arrondissement, Paris) through August 31.

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