Chasing the Orient Express – Rediscovering the Romance of European Rail Travel

A lavish train ride across Europe is the backdrop for Agatha Christie’s beloved detective Hercule Poirot. On a journey aboard the famous luxury train, Poirot witnesses a murder and becomes determined to solve the case.

Kenneth Branagh stars as the finicky Belgian detective who boards a first-class cabin with a cast of characters that rivals the cast of Clue—including a scar-faced pistol-toting wheeler-dealer (Johnny Depp), a snobby Russian princess, and a pert British governess.

The Orient Express

The Orient Express is one of the most famous trains in history and an emblem of European travel. It evokes romance, mystery and glamour and has been immortalized in novels and films. The Orient Express is no longer in regular operation but it is still very much alive and for those willing to charter the train it offers an unforgettable experience.

The first journey of the Orient Express took place on October 4, 1883 and was a resounding success. It received full coverage from the press and Nagelmackers, a master showman, knew just how to capture the public’s attention. He parked old and shabby Pullman train cars alongside his new luxury line to demonstrate just how far this newly minted “Orient Express” had come from its humble beginnings. As passengers boarded, they were greeted by plush leather armchairs and beds with silk sheets that rivaled those found in the finest hotels.

As the train pulled away from Paris, the journalists marveled at its beauty and luxury. Nagelmackers made a point to showcase the train’s fine details, such as intricate wooden paneling and expensive glassware intended for the finest wines. It was a train unlike anything Europe had ever seen.

Over the years the Orient Express became even more popular, with many celebrities and royalty taking it. Even Tsar Nicholas II took the train. Despite the fact that the route would sometimes be disrupted by war or political unrest (such as when Ferdinand I of Bulgaria blocked it for two years), it was an important part of the European cultural scene.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Route

When you think of the Orient Express, you might imagine a glamorous antique train that crisscrossed Europe at the height of its popularity in the 1930s. The famed service became famous thanks to the classic 1934 detective novel Murder on the Orient Express and two films that were later made from it. However, the Orient Express doesn’t run anymore. Instead, luxury train travel is experiencing a bit of a revival and you can still get your Agatha Christie fix by traveling along its former routes on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

When Georges Nagelmackers launched his luxurious long-distance line on October 4, 1883, newspapers dubbed it the Orient Express. Nagelmackers knew that the name would evoke images of mystery and excitement. He wanted his passengers to feel like they were traveling on the finest hotel on wheels, so he even hired art students to decorate the snazzy Wagons-Lits cars.

The train’s era of glory came to an end with the outbreak of World War I, which severely limited its operations. As a result, most of the countries through which it passed became enemies of France and the Entente. In addition, the development of air travel took a toll on the Orient Express.

Today, the Orient Express is owned by Belmond, which operates 45 luxury hotels, restaurants, tourist trains and river cruises in 24 countries. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express still runs many of the same routes that Nagelmackers envisioned, although the company has trimmed its fleet to keep costs down and avoid overcrowding the cars. The route between Paris and Istanbul remains the most popular. As you board the Orient Express at Calais Ville Station, look for its gleaming Wagons-Lits carriages and prepare to be whisked away to your journey’s final destination.

The Train’s History

The Orient Express isn’t just the subject of a famous murder mystery novel, it’s also an icon of European rail travel. While it’s hard to imagine now, in its heyday the train was considered the pinnacle of luxury. Its passengers were royalty, aristocrats and wealthy industrialists who could afford to relax in the elegant cabins or dine in the luxurious restaurant cars.

The train’s gilded interior and storied past have made it the setting for several works of fiction, most notably Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. The novel and subsequent movie adaptations have shaped our perception of the train and of its passengers. Hercule Poirot, in particular, is seen as a fussy and effete detective with an elaborate moustache and dyed whiskers. But these are only the visual cues – the film is really all about the characters and their fateful interlocking lives.

Sadly, the Orient Express’s golden age was short-lived. Two world wars and declining seat sales sent it hurtling towards its eventual demise. In 1977, the Orient Express pulled up its tracks for the last time. Although it continued as the direct Orient-Express sleeper between Paris and Istanbul until 2009, the train was eventually replaced by an Austrian Rails EuroNight service running on the same route, starting in Strasbourg instead of Paris (as well as Paris-Strasbourg via the high-speed TGV line). The old Orient Express cars were dismantled to make room for the new train. The cars themselves are now scattered around the world, some on display in museums or private collections. But some have been restored and converted into tourist trains, like the one that runs along the original Orient Express route today.

The Train’s Interior

Despite its somewhat murky origins and the fact that Agatha Christie’s original novel doesn’t hold up particularly well (the clunky dialogue is hard to read even in an edition translated by Sir James Mettetal), Murder on the Orient Express, and its subsequent remake by Sydney Lumet, have rekindled the glamour of first-class steam train travel. The star-studded casts, gleaming Art Deco fittings and mouthwatering catering in the film have given a boost to train lovers everywhere.

The modern-day Orient Express, also called Belmond’s Eastern & Oriental Express, uses carriages originally used on the Orient Express service that began in 1883 and the sister Simplon Orient Express route until 1962. While it’s not the original Orient Express, it is as close to being on the train as you can get without chartering the entire train yourself.

A visit to the Orient Express museum allows you to tour carriages, admire vintage posters and other memorabilia from the era. You can also see replicas of sleeping carriages, showcases of butler uniforms and tableware and original Louis Vuitton luggage trunks. But lingering isn’t really possible in the cramped spaces of the museum as you move from one display to the next, and photography is forbidden to protect the items on display.

The Orient Express experience is certainly not cheap, but it’s an opportunity to imagine yourself as a Dietrich or Baker, Bond or Poirot. The Orient Express has long been a symbol of the luxury of European rail travel and it seems that for many people, there will never be another train quite like it. That’s why it continues to captivate us. For more information about booking a trip on the Orient Express, contact Belmond’s reservations team.

The Train’s Comfort

Once upon a time, traveling by train was a given on any multi-city trip through Europe. From gap year backpacking adventures to breaks during a study abroad semester to annual two-week vacations, the assumption was that you’d take the train from one city to the next. With the rise of low-cost airlines and a surge in car rentals, that assumption has faded somewhat. But the train is still a magnificent mode of transport and there are some trips for which it’s truly the best way to go.

For many of us, travel is a form of escape and there’s something magical about boarding a train and letting the world melt away as you speed towards your destination. It’s an experience that can evoke the wonder of childhood, whether it’s a journey to see iconic sites or a romantic getaway. And while flying may be the most efficient means of transport for longer distances, there are plenty of trips for which trains offer a more intimate, relaxing and luxurious experience.

The Orient Express is no exception. Restored to its Gilded Age glory and imbued with a sense of luxury that’s hard to match, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express offers Grand Suites featuring double beds, bathrooms, a separate living room, walls of windows, a new champagne bar and four-course meals in its three dining cars. The experience is utterly enchanting and there’s no doubt that passengers leave the train feeling refreshed and inspired.

A renowned Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, boards the train and soon finds himself in the midst of a murder investigation. When American business tycoon Samuel Ratchett is murdered and the train hits a snowdrift, Poirot interviews all of the other passengers and soon finds that there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

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