Travel as Art

How to prepare for the Orient-Express

Like any great work of art, a journey on the famous old train is to be savored. Therefore it calls for some preparation and even a little – dare I say it – deference. Not in terms of the staff or fellow-passengers, of course, but to the stricter codes of a more graceful time.

That is not to say you will not be pampered within an inch of your life.

When you arrive at the station don’t expect to hear the train’s location or time of arrival announced over the tannoy. Travelers on the Orient-Express were always a discreet bunch, and their arrivals and departures are a matter kept strictly between themselves and the crew.

In fact, the sojourns of the blue and gold train often go unnoticed.

At the end station either in London’s Victoria Station or the Santa Lucia in Venice, you may be struck by the small army of maintenance personnel furiously polishing every brass fixture, right up to departure time.

Don’t even think of carrying your own luggage aboard. A porter will take care of that for you – and you will not see it for the rest of the trip. That is correct. The elegant cabins will not countenance heaps of suitcases. They will be relegated to a luggage coach for the duration of the journey.

Fortunately, your valet will have packed a small suitcase with the bare necessities for a 30-hour trip, including evening wear.

If you board in London, the European train’s British cousin, the British Pullman, will take you to Folkestone, where a luxury bus will whisk you across the Channel to Calais. There you will re-embark onto the VSOE (Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express) line, which operates on the continent.

Your first task will be to get settled in to your cabin and the Art Deco realm of brass, mahogany, and Tiffanystyle lamps.

You may be surprised that, in deference to the original 1930’s era plumbing, there are no showers in the cabins – just small wash cabinets with hot and cold running water. Magnificent marble, brass and mahogany “personal conveniences” are a pleasure to visit at the ends of each wagon. So take heart. This might have been a problem back when the trip to Istanbul took five days, but on today’s 30- hour trip, even the most hygiene-obsessed will survive.

Presently, you will commence to dress for dinner. This is not just a good idea – it’s the rules. Gentlemen have a choice of dinner jacket and tie or tuxedo. Ladies have none: Evening gowns, preferably in the ultra-chic style of the 1930’s, are de rigueur.

This is a good time to warn those apt to chafe at the dictates of fashion that there is a dress code on this train. Because the Orient-Express hearkens back to a time when traveling was a social occasion, voyagers are expected to dress correspondingly. No common jeans or T-shirts, let alone sweatshirts or shorts, shall surface during the trip.

(Granted, in the morning, savvy travelers evade these rules by shuffling up and down the corridors in the fluffy, dark-blue robes, more elegant than anything most of us have hanging in our closets, furnished compliments of the VSOE – possibly for this very purpose.)

The first night you will be amply rewarded for your dressing efforts by the outstanding creations of the train’s French chef. The cuisine on the Orient-Express was always famous. Austrian gourmets were known to board the train in Innsbruck and disembark in Zurich just for the pleasure of eating lunch aboard.

Nothing has changed. A typical five-course menu can include: crème soup, a fish course with anchovies and saffron risotto, stewed beef, a platter of ripened French cheeses, and Bavarian chocolate cake.

Following a round of cocktails in the bar car, supper will be served, on sparkling china and crystal – with a corresponding barrage of forks, bien sur. Hopefully, you will have studied your Emily Post before departure, but if you forgot, you can take a peek at which fork your neighbor, who hopefully didn’t, is using.

After supper you may congregate in the piano lounge to listen to period Big Band music, or retire to your compartment. The steward will have transformed it into a bedroom, unfolding the seats into full-sized beds. Snuggling between the monogrammed covers, you can let the train, rolling at 140 kilometers per hour, rock you to slumber.

The next morning, at an hour prearranged with the steward, a discreet knock, followed by the man himself with a breakfast tray, ushers in a new day. You can watch the countryside fly by as you sip your coffee, tea or hot chocolate and munch on piping hot buttered croissants.

Later you can slip on the aforementioned bathrobe and slippers and join the throngs of passengers socializing in the corridors in theirs. This is a good time to make the acquaintance of your fellow travelers: an elderly couple whose children pooled their money to send them on a second honeymoon, the odd film star, an artist or two, or just the average millionaire.

With all due respect to Agatha Christie and Graham Greene, what you are not – and never were – likely to find on the Orient-Express are murderers and spies. In all of its 124-year history, the Orient-Express has not lost a passenger and doesn’t intend to start doing so now. As for spies, it is hard to imagine any government, then or now, willing to foot the bill in exchange for strategic information that can be found on a train.

Agatha Christie based the detective novel, Murder in the Calais Coach (later renamed Murder on the Orient- Express) on an incident in 1928, when passengers were trapped in the train for five days by a snowstorm in the mountains outside of Sophia, Bulgaria.

Lunchtime is another chance to savor the view and the cuisine. It is a convenient bridge to afternoon tea, served in the compartments so that travelers do not need to tear themselves away from their novels or games of euchre.

As the shadows lengthen and the train approaches its destination, the tim comes to prepare for life without obliging stewards, mahogany wall panels, Tiffany lamps, dressing for dinner, and breakfast in bed.

They will be missed. Yet perhaps it is a good thing to leave now; the only thing worse than yearning for luxury is getting too used to it.

Facts about the train:

It is huge, with a total of 17 wagons. There are nine sleeper cars with nine double-bed compartments each; two sleeper cars with seven one-bed compartments and three two-bed suites; two service and luggage wagons; three restaurant cars; and the essential bar car.

The train chugs through Prague’s Hlavní Nádraží four times per year, in May, June, September, and October.

The 40-member international crew includes a sophisticated mix, for example, a French chef, Italian waiters, and English and French stewards. All speak four major European languages.

A treat for history buffs and romantics

The first Orient-Express left the Gare de Strasbourg in Paris on October 4, 1883 with 40 passengers aboard. It was the creation of Belgian entrepreneur George Nagelmackers and, thanks to the coverage of Henri Stefan Opper de Blowitz, the Parisian correspondent of the London Times, it made the covers of all the newspapers. Shortly before the first train voyage, Nagelmackers created the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Europeens, which still exists, and runs the VSOE to this day.

The Orient-Express would never have achieved its present renown if it hadn’t been for the project of a Hamburg firm to join Switzerland and Italy via the Simplon Tunnel. It created a shorter route to the orient for the train, which in 1906 came to be known as the “Simplon-Orient-Express.”

Service was stopped during World War I, but between the wars its fame grew and the cars became more and more luxurious – some are still part of the train that runs today. The train stopped running during World War II and never regained its glory. Its routes grew shorter and shorter, and the niveau on the once elegant cars dropped beyond recognition.

Then, in 1977, James Sherwood, president of Sea Containers Group, bought two of the original sleeper cars at a Sotheby’s auction in Monte Carlo. He decided to restore the train to its former glory. Over the next eight years, he bought 35 more cars and had them restored at a cost of over 500 million CZK. The reward came on May 25, 1982, when the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express, restored to its full splendor, left Victoria station. Today it runs every week from spring to November on a route between Venice and Paris and Calais, with a connection to London. It’s a gorgeous collection of original sleeper cars and has several routes: Venice – Innsbruck – Zurich – Paris – Calais; or Venice – Vienna – Prague – Paris – Calais, and many more.

Once a year, in September, it retraces its original route to from Paris to Istanbul. This train carries only 100 passengers who, owing to the lack of showers on the train, spend every other night in a hotel.