Slow train travel is making a come back says Rosie Paterson, who hops aboard the revived Orient Express from Venice to Paris.
On June 5, 1883, the first Express d’Orient chugged out of Paris in a ceremonial billow of steam, destined for Vienna, via Munich, and forever altering trans-European train travel. By October of the same year, the route was extended to Giurgiu in Romania, with guests whisked across the Danube to Ruse, Bulgaria, and onto another train bound for Varna on Bulgaria’s east coast.
The final journey to Istanbul, then still commonly referred to in the West as Constantinople, was completed by ferry. By June 1889, it was possible to traverse Continental Europe, from Paris in the north-west to Constantinople in the south-east, in one fell swoop. Sirkeci railway station served as the locomotive’s terminus in the latter—a pink-tinged Orientalist confection designed by Prussian architect August Jasmund in the late 19th century.
It’s still in operation today. Somewhat confusingly, the Orient Express (as it was renamed in 1891) was not a company, but a service used to describe all manner of routes, including those mentioned above, as well as ones that steamed through Zurich, Innsbruck, Milan, Venice and Athens. It was actually operated by a Belgian firm, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, whose fictional director Monsieur Bouc is a star character in Agatha Christie’s seminal novel, Murder on the Orient Express.
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As well as Christie, the Orient Express has inspired countless other authors, filmmakers and musicians — Bram Stoker, Ian Fleming, Paul Theroux, Michael Palin, Philip
Starke — who, combined, have ensured that it has remained synonymous with luxury train travel for 140 years and counting.
Plenty of the train’s real-life passengers also played their part particularly well, their various exploits stoking rumours and intrigue aplenty. Belgium’s Leopold II, a notorious railroad enthusiast, who was key to convincing neighbouring monarchs to let the train criss-cross borders uninterrupted, travelled to Istanbul on the train with inexplicable plans to infiltrate a Turkish man’s harem. Another king, Ferdinand I of Bulgaria, insisted on manoeuvring the locomotive through his own kingdom at stomach-churning speed and, in 1901, in a completely unrelated event, the brakes failed and the carriages came to an unceremonious rest in Frankfurt’s station
restaurant. At another point in time, the train was better known as the Spies’ Express because of its popularity with secret agents. James Bond himself would follow in their undetectable footsteps in From Russia with Love.
In 1977, the Orient Express ceased to serve Istanbul and, in 2009, it disappeared from European railway timetables altogether. Long-distance train travel had been falling out of favour ever since the Second World War, with the aftershocks that threatened to further destabilise the continent — disputed borders and the Iron Curtain coming crashing down — continuing long after the war officially ended. But, ultimately, the service fell foul of the advent of high-speed train travel and cheap air fares.
We are seeing the renaissance of long-distance train travel. You might put it down to travellers being more sustainably minded; you might attribute it to more flexible working hours and the boom in working from anywhere but the office in the wake of covid. Perhaps, staring down the barrel of so much change and so much speed, some
of us have a hankering for the slower — and some might argue more glamorous — ways of years gone by.
Two years ago, the Austrian Federal Railways introduced a thrice-weekly sleeper service on the original Orient Express Paris-to-Vienna route and, despite the introduction of increasingly speedy trains between European cities that have cut travel time down from days to mere hours, leisurely services linking Paris to Barcelona and Paris to Berlin that allow passengers to make the most of the idyllic views remain popular.
A number of the Orient Express’s original 1920s and 1930s carriages were acquired over a period of many years and restored by US entrepreneur James Sherwood, in a venture that would come to be known as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, A Belmond Train (VSOE). It’s proven so popular that, this year, Belmond will introduce a new class of accommodation — simply titled Suites, a level in between the Historic Cabins, the description of which in Murder on the Orient Express still rings true today, and the Grand Suites, which take up as much room as three of the former — and a new route, linking Paris and the Alps, in time for the 2023–24 ski season.
A month ago, aboard the VSOE’s first service of 2023, it was tricky not to marvel, mouth agape, at the navy and gold carriages, liveried stewards standing to attention outside each one, the polished wood interiors and the Michelin-star-worthy food appearing at every hour of the day from a kitchen that cannot measure more than a couple of yards wide. Glass ornamentation inside the Venice Grand Suite was sourced from Murano and, in the Istanbul iteration, walls are covered in intricate hand-carved timber panels and mother-of-pearl marquetry borders, a nod to traditional Ottoman design. It’s the kind of subtle opulence that many an interior designer has tried desperately to mimic and fallen far short of.
A plaque in each carriage recounts its own history. Carriage 3309 is believed to have inspired Christie and carriage 3544 was repurposed as a brothel, of all things, during the Second World War. The most famous is 3674, the opulent, cobalt-blue bar carriage. Following Christie and her contemporaries, it’s where guests from all over the world come together in their finery to converse over Belmond Zest cocktails, a heady mixture of Champagne, cherry Sangue Morlacco, Campari and lemon. It is a United Nations of travellers, close quarters rendering it impossible not to strike up a conversation with whomever is seated next to you.
Although, nowadays, most people on board treat the VSOE like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, rather than a necessary mode of transport, there are some regular guests who travel on the service three or four times a year, says Wolfgang Eipeldauer, the Belmond Eastern and Orient train manager. I cannot help but think that they might be onto something.
As you drink, dine and ponder, myriad different worlds whizz past, windows framing bucolic French and German countryside one minute, snow-capped Alps and glassy lakes the next. At borders, stations and passing points, the train comes to a standstill, perhaps exhausted by the weight and expectation of its own fame, perhaps to give those not on board a coveted glimpse; commuters, railway engineers and travellers outside suddenly rendered immobile by the train’s arrival, a moment of Art
Deco magic in a modern world. The reason for stopping is, of course, entirely more practical. The train’s engine is changed at each border crossing; a French-designed machine for the French part of the journey; an Italian one for the Italian part and so on. It means that if, for some reason, the train breaks down, the engineers in that country are best equipped to figure out what is going on in the quickest time possible.
Engine failure apart, it turns out that the best things in life really are the ones that take their time.
Scott Dunn offers one night from Paris to Venice on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, from £8,260, based on a couple sharing a Historic Cabin on a full-board basis (020–8682 5080)
Best of Europe’s train trips
The VSOE travels from Istanbul to Paris once a year. The five-night itinerary includes overnight stays in Bucharest and Budapest, a guided tour of Peleş Castle and a cruise along the Danube
Norway’s Bergen Line train connects Oslo and Bergen via the Hardangervidda National Park and Europe’s largest high-mountain plateau. It takes seven hours and reaches a peak height of 1,222m (4,000ft) at Finse station, which was used by polar explorers Nansen, Amundsen and Shackleton as an Arctic training ground.
The high-speed train linking Paris and Barcelona only takes six hours, but a more leisurely route via Latour-de-Carol makes much more of the beautiful rural and mountain scenery. At Latour-de-Carol, switch to a commuter line that runs all the way to Barcelona in just over three hours Switzerland’s Bernina Express is a UNESCO-listed panoramic railway dating from 1904. It starts in the northern Italian town of Tirano and finishes in the Swiss ski resort of St Moritz, traversing the Alps’ highest railway line.