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Orient Express: The golden age of the train

A journey aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is a journey into the past — tinged with glamour, luxury and intrigue

Orient Express: The golden age of the train
Image: Belmond

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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 This incarnation ran until 1962, when it was replaced by the Direct Orient Express — a slower service, withdrawn in 1977.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.

Image: Belmond

Image: Belmond


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?


How to do it
A three-night journey with Belmond including an overnight journey aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express from London to Venice and two nights at Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice, starts from £3,400 per person. The price is based on two sharing a twin cabin and double room and includes a return flight from Venice to London and transfer from station to hotel in Venice. Based on travel in March 2018.

Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)