The Orient Express. Just say it. Intrigue. Mystery. Adventure and romance. And all wrapped up in what amounts to nothing less than a grand hotel on wheels; the Ritz hotel of the railways.
Courtiers and courtesans. Royalty and arms dealers. Spies, celebrities, and the simply idle rich. The Orient Express ferried them all across the continent in it’s heyday. It left far more than mere funnel smoke in it’s wake. For the first time ever, a train became a showcase, a stage, and a destination in it’s own right, all at the same time. It offered the comfort, service and fine cuisine of fist class on any of the great ocean liners. Often as not, the passengers on board had just checked out of the Savoy, or disembarked from the Mauretania or the Olympic.
Even today, the beautifully restored train still charms, dazzles and delights as it sets off on the thirty five hour, eleven hundred mile run that will see it cross no less than five frontiers, en route to the fantastic, floating sea city that is Venice. Fresh local fare is embarked with the passengers at Calais; champagne comes aboard during the evening stop in Paris. As the passengers enjoy a sumptuous dinner in one of the three, Art Deco and Art Nouveau restaurant cars, arrangements are being made to pick up fresh croissants at Zurich in the early morning hours.
The train is a shimmering, ethereal presence. Like some kind of magic carpet ride, it threads its way through the Vosges, towards the Alps and the Dolomites. Seventeen sumptuously appointed carriages, sheathed in the immaculate blue and white, brass festooned livery of the old Wagon-Lits company.
Inside, pools of soft lighting glint against etched Lalique panels. It reflects against exquisite wooden panelling that frames chairs, sofas and chaises- themselves decorated with exquisite marquetry- against a backdrop of popping champagne corks, upbeat piano melodies and sudden, swelling bursts of laughter.
White jacketed waiters perform an impressive ballet through the crowd, delivering cocktails in cut crystal glasses to people wearing jewels worth more than the debt of some small, third world country. Tuxedos and tiaras. The scent of impossibly heady perfume. Evening gowns and extravagant, outrageous head dresses.
The Orient Express is the gentle shudder of elegant glassware and exquisite cutlery on crisp white table cloths as the train rattles on through the night. The subtle, almost imperceptible swaying of rich. heavy drapes in the bar car that are caught only by the most astute. And the view from those big, brass framed windows as the greatest train in the world cuts a stunning swathe through the snow capped majesty of the Dolomites.
The Orient Express is the gentle humming of immaculate brass ceiling fans overhead as the great train vaults across some stunning bridge. The sudden, welcome wash of sunlight after you emerge from some long, deathly dark tunnel.
It’s the benign shades of Poirot and Mata Hari, hovering in the background as you linger over that champagne breakfast in your private compartment. History and hedonism. Excess and elegance, all packaged together in one swaggering, shimmering dream voyage across Europe. An adventure without a peer; an experience that stays with you long, long, after you actually leave it behind.
That’s what the Orient Express means to me. What’s your take?