One hundred and thirty years ago in 1883 the Orient Express train service was set up by Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) between Paris and Istanbul (Constantinople). Since then the service has taken on an almost legendary travel status, stoked as much by Hollywood as by history.
Since the film adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1934 ‘Stamboul Train’, Agatha Christie (Murder on the Orient Express, 1934), Alfred Hitchock (Une Femme Desparait, 1938), James Bond (Russia with Love, 1968), Phileas Fogg (Around the World in 80 days, 2004) and even the late Alan Whicker (Whickers World 1982) have adventured on the train.
This week as more than 10,000 Australians and New Zealanders marked Anzac Day’s centenary at Gallipoli in Turkey, the historical significance of the Orient Express – where the Armistice was signed (Wagons-Lits Car No. 2419) between Germany, France and its allies on 11th November 1918 – is particularly relevant.
Certainly when I boarded Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) last week, travelling from Venice to Victoria Station, I was as aware of the history behind the Orient Express as of its reputation for luxury and tradition. I was also fully aware of how privileged I was to experience such an iconic mode of transportation, and am still buzzing at what was a remarkable cross continent journey. Having travelled tens of thousands of miles by train across all five continents in all manner of classes I can say that this was one of the most fabulous train journeys I have ever experienced.
From the moment you arrive at the Boarding Platform the sense of history and occasion dominates. Handshakes, photos and excited smiles galore as you climb aboard the immaculately preserved 1920s style carriages. Our carriage steward, Rupert, explained that every year the oak panels of each cabin are dismantled, to be sand blasted and re-coated with 21 layers of varnish.
I was immediately seduced by the smart, starched, classical cabin layout, complete with period furnishings, gleaming oak panelling, a welcome glass of champagne and salver of canapés.
Departing Venice and travelling up through northern Italy, our journey was further cheered by spring flowers, exploding apple blossoms and patchwork vineyards. Stopping in Innsbruck near the Olympic Ski jump, above the railway station, ushered in picturesque Tyrol mountain landscapes with tall church spires, sleepy villages and lush green valleys. All to the backdrop of snow-capped Alpine peaks.
A sumptuous lunch was followed by some cabin dozing time as the train passed fast-flowing rivers and steep gorge valleys. Afternoon tea, delivered to one’s cabin (thank you very much) reminded me of all that must have been the golden era of train travel with gently passing Austrian landscapes that can hardly have changed over time.
Indeed throughout the journey the sense of fun is enhanced by equally excited fellow passengers sharing tales of past travels, dream journeys and how best to decide between the new Champagne Bar and Piano Lounge. The sense of friendship is facilitated by knowledgeable VSOE staff, who at all times provide an immaculately tailored service to all travellers. With bright blue uniforms, polished brass buttons and Inspector Clouseau gendarme hats they lead the way in smart attire. This is embraced by all as guests in period costumes, black tie dinner jackets and elegant evening dresses congregate for dinner in the beautifully set out Dining Car.
I was delightfully impressed with the standard of fresh European cuisine, prepared under the watchful eye of Head Chef Christian Bodiguel. The highlight of which was probably the superb lobster brunch, as we rolled out from Paris en route to Calais.
I loved the whole experience and wholeheartedly recommend you try and factor it into your future travel plans. The memory of such a journey will live long for me. Magically illuminated by the one off double act of Walter Nisi, Head Barman of the VSOE, and Colin Field, Cocktail Barman at Paris Ritz, who together provided the most amazing variety of tipples well into the night. So good was our Orient Express party that I finally got to bed well past the 6am hour. Which means that I will simply have to return in order to experience the true comfort of a full night’s sleep on the Orient Express.
Aside from the last Istanbul station image, I took all the photos in this blog last week when travelling on the VSOE train.