The World’s Most Romantic Train Journey
"There has always been an aura of glamour, a hint of mystery about this train and the Queen of Crime Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ – both the book and film – have done much to increase the cachet of this mystery."
There were scenes of wild enthusiasm when the Stockton and Darlington railway opened to traffic on 27 September 1825. It was the first railway in the world designed for steam locomotives. The British parliament approved the building of the line in 1821, but it was only after the company acquired the services of a young designer, George Stephenson, that the decision was made to go for steam.
The railway was built to take coal from the South Durham coalfields near Shildon down to the River Tees at Stockton, via Darlington, but the railway company soon realised that the future lay with passengers as well as goods and in 1883 introduced regular steam hauled passenger trains.
The thrill and romance of the railway is as alive today as it was in 1825, when Stephenson’s ‘Locomotion’ made the historic trip from Stockton to Darlington. Generations have dreamt of the spectacular journeys made by rail through breathtaking scenery to cities full of promise and mystique. Nearly 200 years after its invention, the train continues to provide one of the most satisfying modes of travel. Today, those in search of nostalgia for this golden age of travel can combine traditional charm and elegance with modern facilities and first-class service.
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 1870s, the first sleeping carriages and parlour cars in Britain went into service and for the first time, meals were served onboard 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.
In 1865, a prominent Belgian banker’s son named Georges Nagelmackers, also began building luxury railway carriages and gradually proceeded to do for continental train travel what Pullman had for Britain. In 1881, after experimenting with several demands, Nagelmackers introduced the first restaurant car aboard a continental train.
With sleeping carriages and 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. The initial route ran from Paris to Giurgi (on the Danube in Romania), via Strasbourg, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest.
By the turn of the century, the great age of rail travel was in full swing. The Simplon Tunnel – at 12½ miles, the world’s longest – was built in 1906, cutting the trip from Paris to Venice significantly, and by 1921 the Orient-Express was running an extended Simplon- Orient-Express route to Istanbul.
Since Hannibal crossed the Alps, Europe has been inspiring travellers to seek out the glories of its civilisation, from the ruins of ancient Rome to the soaring, artistic triumphs of the Renaissance and the modern age. What more evocative way to see these treasures than on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express? This legendary service has always been more than a mere train journey. Ever since the first trip from Paris to Giurgi in 1883, it has captured the imagination of the world.
There has always been an aura of glamour, a hint of mystery about this train and the Queen of Crime Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ – both the book and film – have done much to increase the cachet of this mystery.
The Second World War brought a savage interruption to rail travel across Europe and the original Orient- Express service fell into a gradual decline. That was until 1977, when James Sherwood, president of the Sea Containers group, attended a Sotheby’s auction in Monte Carlo where he acquired two sleeper carriages from the original train and thus the process of resurrecting the great train had begun. Five years later, on 25 May 1982, Sherwood realised his dream as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express departed from Platform 2 at London’s Victoria Station bound for Venice. Today, the glamour and the romance live on.
Since its inauguration in 1883, the Orient- Express has travelled through the glamour of the 1920s and 1930s, played host to the leading royal, literary, political, and iconic characters of its time, seen its carriages woven with the intrigue of spies and courtesans, and pioneered luxury adventure travel seemingly reminiscent of ‘The Grand Tour’.
In 1982, when the train embarked on a celebrated rebirth, Sherwood’s meticulous restoration re-established the train to its former eminence. With its many comforts and facilities, it now exceeds the highest expectations of the most discerning traveller.
Today, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, more often referred to as the (VSOE), is owned and operated by Belmond Management Limited, the leading UK-based luxury hotel and leisure group, whose global collection of 46 iconic hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants, trains, river cruises and unforgettable African safaris, bringing together some of the world’s most thrilling journeys and destinations, offers an exceptional personal service, with diligent attention to the finest detail making your journey on the VSOE a truly memorable experience.
Throughout its distinguished history, the Orient-Express has encouraged its passengers to expect a service that is above the ordinary, and in meeting and exceeding these expectations it has earned itself a legendary reputation. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express now arrives in the 21st century resplendent with style, romance and intrigue from a lifetime of remarkable travel, and set for a future of equal distinction.
The train is composed of the original 1920s and 1930s British Pullman and Continental Wagon-Lits carriages, lovingly restored, boasting exquisite marquetry panels and designs by artists of the art deco movement, including René Lalique. Elegant cabins are equipped with upper and lower berths and washing facilities. For added comfort, cabin suites, made up of two interconnecting double cabins, are recommended.
Life onboard the Orient-Express is as captivating as the train itself. In keeping with the exquisite surroundings, the atmosphere is equally inviting and varied throughout the day. The service is of course, in perfect harmony with the setting. Once your journey starts, you settle into your private cabin and watch Europe’s finest scenery glide by. Liveried stewards minister to your every need, and will serve you breakfast and afternoon tea in your cabin. No request is too much trouble for the cabin crew. As darkness falls, a gentle, sociable buzz begins and you will be invited to venture into the main body of the train to enjoy the relaxing ambience of the restaurant cars and bar car, where the service alone is an elaborate ceremony of almost forgotten rituals.
There are three individually styled restaurant cars, each offering the finest cuisine prepared onboard by a team of skilled French chefs, with the finest supplies taken onboard during the train’s journey, while an extensive cellar offers a superb choice of notable French and New World wines to accompany your meal. Each dish is lovingly prepared by executive chef Christian Bodiguel, a true culinary master who has honed his craft on the train over three decades. He takes his inspiration from what’s seasonal and local, with ingredients sourced from the destinations the train travels through. Glance through the window of the tiny galley kitchen and you may even spot Bodiguel and his brigade of chefs inspecting lobsters from Brittany, Provencal tomatoes or salt marsh lamb from Mont Saint-Michel.
Lunch, dinner and brunch are served by the Italian waiters in one of the three restaurant cars: Lalique, Etoile du Nord or Chinoise. Table d’hôte meals are included in the fare, while an a la carte menu and 24-hour compartment service is available additionally, and may be called by the bell in your cabin. The maitre d’ will come to your cabin to take your lunch and dinner reservations in advance of your meal.
The modern French menu on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has been described as a “twist of imaginative genius” and the exquisite cuisine is undoubtedly the focus of every guest’s visit. The quality of the food stems from the freshness and purity of its ingredients.
The menu is as adventurous as any culinary explorer could wish and prepared with flair and imagination. Our journey on the road to gastronomic nirvana began with the hors d’oeuvres – a mouth-watering platter of Mediterranean crustacea. For the starter we chose the steamed fresh salmon and spinach roulade, salmon tartare and eggplant pancake, and for the plats principaux (main course) we had le filet de boeuf (fillet of beef ) pickled with coarse salt, dill, juniper berries and coriander seeds, served raw, thinly sliced and roasted with a tangy red wine sauce. The dessert menu offered an equally tantalising selection. We closed proceedings with cocoa wafers layered with a white chocolate, light custard and the summer fruits with spicy wine.
And, of course, the setting is very different from that of conventional restaurants. The décor in the dining cars is, perhaps, the train’s finest and the attention to detail is breathtaking. Mellow lighting creates the romantic mood; the guests themselves provide the elegant and sociable tone, while the inviting glow of the bar car, with its ever attentive cocktail stewards guarantees to solicit your custom until the early hours.
Famous for its delicious cocktails and welcoming atmosphere, the bar car is the heart of the train. It is truly a unique, intimate and stylish experience that resounds to the voices of royalty, heads of state and celebrities.
Transformed and designed by Gerard Gallet from a dining car, the bar car is the ideal rendezvous to enjoy relaxed conversation before or after dinner, and to warm to the musical skills of their resident pianist.
Dressing for the occasion is all part of the experience. Their guide is that you can never be overdressed aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient- Express. But whilst you relax in the bar car, ponder this question – which came first, the baby grand piano, or the carriage that surrounds it?
At the end of the day the mood changes as your exclusive compartment, with its intricate Edwardian marquetry and finely cast solid brass fittings, is transformed into a cosy bedroom, complete with an original washbasin and beds dressed with crisp, damask cotton sheets – gracefully turned down and ready to welcome you for a relaxing night of locomotive dreaming. Let the rhythm of the train lull you to sleep, for tomorrow you will wake to a new landscape, fresh croissants, and a unique sense of well-being.
Some of the sleeping cars from the late twenties and early thirties, which are now completely refurbished and included in today’s great train, represent the peak of the railway craftsman’s art. Each carriage has a unique name, décor and fascinating history, from transporting European royalty across the continent and being shot at during World War II, to being caught in a snow drift for 10 days and inspiring the events that unfold in Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’.
Sleeping Car 3425 was built in England in 1929 in an art deco leaf decoration and shipped to the Continent where it then switched from service to service all over Europe. The car was part of the Orient-Express service used by Carol II, King of Romania, who would very often join the train to conduct love affairs or to pack off a discarded lover. He eventually fled Romania in 1940 onboard the Orient-Express. The train, packed with the King’s treasures and valuables, was shot at while crossing Yugoslavia before reaching the safety of Switzerland.
Sleeping Car 3309 is the oldest of the sleeping cars and was built in 1926 in Belgium. The exquisite marquetry designed by René Prou is floral art deco. It operated exclusively on the Orient-Express, working on various parts of the route from 1928 to 1939, from Paris to Bucharest or Munich, or to Istanbul via Vienna and Budapest. The car was part of the service, which in 1929 was stuck in a snow drift for 10 days, 60 miles outside Istanbul, along with a full complement of passengers who survived only with the assistance of nearby Turkish villagers.
Creating new levels of luxury accommodation aboard the historic train, Belmond’s indefatigable president and chief executive officer, Roeland Vos, recently announced the launch in 2018 of three new grand suites for the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Each suite features a private bathroom with showers, double beds and a living area, offering the ultimate in style and comfort. Named after the romantic cities to which the train travels, Paris, Venice and Istanbul, the interior designs of each cabin reflect the spirit of each city whilst staying true to the timeless elegance of the original 1920s art deco design.
Contrary to popular belief and to the film ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, there was never a day Pullman car attached to the main train. Agatha Christie, in fact, never actually wrote a book with that title – she called it ‘Murder in the Calais Coach’ and the first few editions published in pre-war days appeared under that name.
Regardless, the mystery of the Orient-Express still remains a draw for the discerning traveller. As the train winds its way between the palaces and piazzas of Europe’s greatest cities, one can sit back and enjoy the ever-changing panoramas that unfold before you. View the majestic Swiss and Austrian alpine lakes and mountains, the patchworks of Italian vineyards and the great Renaissance cities.
The journey from London (Victoria) to Venice takes 31 hours and is 1,715km. Two separate trains are used: a traditional twenties and thirties Pullman train in the UK between London and Folkestone and a magnificent rake of original Wagon-Lits carriages to continental Europe. The Channel crossing is made by luxury motor coach on the Eurotunnel.
Few, if any travel experiences can compare with the romance and luxury of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. It is the attention to detail in both service and accommodation that sets it in a league of its own, and commitment to this each and every day means that standards have excelled since the kings and queens of the 19th century first set foot in its carriages.
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: spies used it as a secret weapon. Hitler wanted it destroyed. The American dancer Isadora Duncan travelled on the train wearing “less than a veil, and that in the wrong place”. French president, Paul Deschanel tumbled from it in 1920, and was found wandering along the track in his pyjamas. King Boris of Bulgaria insisted upon driving the train through his country. Hercule Poirot solved his most famous case on it, Alfred Hitchcock’s lady vanished from it and James Bond rode it from Istanbul to London.
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, which once again unravels the claustrophobic tale of a primal connection between 12 seemingly disparate suspects and one profoundly sinister criminal on the eponymous snowbound train, all under scrutiny by the outlandishly moustached Branagh, who also cast himself as Christie’s perfectly groomed Belgian detective Poirot.
Throughout the 200 year history of rail travel several names have stood proudly above all others; world recognised symbols of unashamed luxury and indulgence. The Venice Simplon- Orient-Express will always epitomise the very highest standards of quality and gracious living, encapsulating the refinement and elegance of yesteryear. This is quite simply the yardstick by which other train journeys must be judged.
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