The 19th century was undoubtedly a great era for luxury travels, particularly after the railroad made the world much smaller with the possibility of reaching long distances in relatively short periods of time. But only one train would eventually become synonymous with adventure, luxury and long lasting memories: the Orient Express.
Its origin goes back to 1883, when the Frenchman Georges Nagelmackers, founder of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, created a service to connect Western European capitals to other Eastern routes for his distinguished travelers. On October 4, 1883, the extraordinary and sumptuous train Express d’Orient left the French city Strasbourg in its maiden voyage. It wasn’t until 1891 that the train would change its moniker to become the Orient Express.
The first route of the mythical vessel covered the cities of Paris, Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest, finishing the journey in Giurgiu, Romania. Although nowadays anyone with sufficient means can board the Orient Express, in the beginning, its coaches were occupied mostly by kings, princes, counts, dukes, sultans, aristocrats and heads of State, as well as diplomats and magnates of the era. But, unavoidably, the passengers also included smugglers, spies, arms dealers, high-end prostitutes and billionaires whose fortunes were acquired through rather unorthodox ways.
The first train had two cars and 20 compartments with bunk beds, which, during the daytime were transformed into lounges. In addition, the train featured a dining car and unimaginable luxuries for the time, such as teak, walnut and mahogany panels, gold embossed upholstery, silk sheets, marble fixings in the bathrooms, the finest crystal and silver cutlery, floors lined with thick carpets and superbly insulated wagons equipped with gas lighting, central heating and hot water. Everything was conceived to provide maximum comfort and luxury to the first privileged passengers.
During the time of World War I, from 1914 to 1917, the service was interrupted, but it was soon restored in 1918. Very few people know that in one of the cars, which were housed, for some time, in a Parisian Museum, Germany’s surrender was signed in 1918. The car was later retired from the Museum and used again to sign the surrender of the Nazi troops at the end of World War II.
In 1919, after the return of more peaceful times, the train went back to its regular schedule, but with an important difference: the opening of the Simplon tunnel, which connected Switzerland and Italy, giving the train a new route to the South through Milan and Venice; this infrastructure was such a modern technical advancement that it was included in the train`s official name: “Venice-Simplon O.E.”.
To understand the dimension of this mythical train, you only need to take a look at its cars, each with its own name and peculiar history. “Vera”, with antelope marquetry and built in 1932, hosted, on its first trip, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, the children of Queen Elizabeth II of England, and “Persus” was used in Winston Churchill`s “Funeral on Rails” in 1965.
Currently the Orient Express has a seating capacity of 252 passengers, eleven sleeping cars, three restaurants, a bar-car and two additional cars for staff and baggage. It travels around Europe following the same characteristic model of quality and luxury: the famous train runs through enchanting cities such as London, Paris, Venice, Florence, Rome, Prague, Lucerne, Bucharest, Budapest and Istanbul.
There have been many curious anecdotes about the events aboard the Orient Express during the last 130 years. Some of the juiciest stories have come to light after a long period of discretion. Ferdinand of Bulgaria locked himself when he wrongly suspected that he was being pursued by gunmen. The next Bulgarian king, Boris III, insisted that he should be allowed to drive the train through his country, which he did at a dizzying speed while the two machinists watched in horror. In 1891, a gang of thieves got away with a bounty of 40,000 pounds (around $60,000) after kidnapping five passengers. And a year later the train had to be quarantined due to an outbreak of cholera on board.
The Russian Tsar Nicholas II asked that the wagons he and his entourage were going to occupy during a trip to France were redecorated in hid personal style. In 1920, the French President Paul Deschanel fell from one of the cars in the darkness of night. A few hours later, he appeared, in his pajamas, in the home of a security guard at a French railroad crossing, asking where he was. The last great odyssey experienced by the passengers of the Orient Express during the golden age, occurred in 1929, when the train was blocked by a snowstorm. Its passengers had to survive for five days in extreme temperatures, and with exhausted coal and food reserves.
The interwar period, and especially the decade of the 1930s, was the time of maximum splendor inside and outside the train: new intermediate destinations were added and Wagons-Lits placed special emphasis on the luxury on board with personalized service, haute cuisine and increasingly comfortable cabins. It was during this period that the most fascinating stories about espionage and intrigue were born, some real and other fictional, as was the case with Agatha Christie’s emblematic novel, Murder on the Orient Express (1934), which added to the train’s mystique.
With the passage of decades the fabled stories waned and the luxuries inside the train declined in order to cut costs and compete with air travel. In the second half of the 20th century, the Orient Express was dying slowly, leaving behind its years of glory until 1977, when it closed its service for the first time. The mythical train came back to life in 1982, nearly a century after its birth, but with a new name: the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express.
The Orient Express of 2013 has regained all the luxury and splendor of yesteryear and has deservedly become a unique part of a glorious past, a witness to a journey through history that still appeals to travelers seeking exclusivity and unique experiences. ■