I watched the magical scenery unfold – the vineyards of northwest Italy, the snow-capped peaks of the Dolomites and the log cabins in unmistakable Alpine villages
Sarah Gilbert catches a ride on one of the world’s most iconic trains – the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
There was palpable air of excitement at the sight of the royal-blue train, complete with its gold insignia, and the row of immaculately uniformed stewards waiting to usher us on board.
The legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has long been associated with luxury and elegance. This collection of 1920s and 1930s train carriages built to transport the rich and famous around Europe, were all magnificently restored to their Art Deco splendour by American entrepreneur James B. Sherwood and inaugurated into service in 1982.
I was travelling from Venice to London via Paris, one of the train’s classic overnight journeys that winds its way across the Italian plains, Alpine peaks and five European countries. My journey had begun at the grand Belmond Hotel Cipriani, where I’d been whisked by water taxi through the canals of Venice to the modernist Santa Lucia railway station.
As the train started to roll leisurely across the Venetian lagoon, I settled into my private cabin. It featured a sumptuous banquette couch against one wood-panelled wall, a bell to summon my steward at any time of the day or night, and a small washbasin discretely concealed within a gleaming walnut wood cabinet, which also stored a leather vanity case filled with well-chosen toiletries.
Until this year, the train has remained true to its historic heritage, with windows that you can wind down, ceiling fans and no showers in the ensuites. Now three spacious Grand Suites – named Paris, Venice and Istanbul – have been added to the train, with showers in the private bathrooms, as well as double beds and a spacious living area.
Since the Orient Express first took to the rails in 1883, it’s transported a host of fascinating passengers – Lawrence of Arabia, Mata Hari, Tolstoy and Marlene Dietrich are just some of the fabled train’s more high-profile travellers. Not forgetting fictional characters such as James Bond, who boarded the train in Ian Fleming’s novel From Russia With Love, and of course the legendary detective, Hercule Poirot.
In 1928, the doyenne of crime fiction Agatha Christie took her first journey, to Baghdad via Istanbul and Damascus, and described it as the ‘train of my dreams.’ She became a regular traveller, painstakingly noting the details of the carriages and even taking her typewriter with her. Her bestselling thriller Murder on the Orient Express, inspired by a journey where her journey was delayed by two days due to bad weather, was published in 1934.
As I strolled through the dining – there are three of them – and lounge carriages, the attention to detail was breathtaking. From the exquisite marquetry of the Etoile du Nord to the black lacquer in the L’Oriental, ornate light fittings and plush armchairs covered in opulent fabrics, it’s all redolent of another age and undeniably a work of art.
To add to the train’s allure, the recently added Champagne Bar is decorated with beautiful Lalique glass panels. The designer created bespoke ice buckets and Champagne flutes, perfect for toasting your journey before sitting down to a lunch of pan-fried John Dory followed by a silky panna cotta, or for accompanying some indulgent Tsar Imperial Beluga caviar.
Afternoon tea was served in my cabin, as I watched the magical scenery unfold – the vineyards of northwest Italy, the snow-capped peaks of the Dolomites, fertile valleys and pine-clad hills, and log cabins in unmistakably Alpine villages. I gazed out of the window until the brilliant blue skies grew dark and began to fill with stars, as I dressed for dinner.
“In keeping with the spirit of the occasion you can never be overdressed on board,” passengers are advised. I joined fellow guests – women in glamorous gowns, men in black tie – in the Bar Car, resplendent in rich blue hues and glittering gold.
To a backdrop of animated chatter and the strains of a baby grand piano, Bar Manager Walter Nisi held court, mixing and muddling his creative signature cocktails. I couldn’t resist the Guilty 12, a heady concoction of 11 mystery ingredients topped with Champagne.
It’s said that King Edward VII tried to poach an Orient Express chef, but he politely declined. Christian Bodiguel, the French Executive Head Chef with more than 30 years experience on board serves Michelin-quality dishes that are all the more miraculous for being conjured up in the narrow galley kitchen.
The lavish four-course dinner – perhaps smoked Scottish salmon, herb-crusted Mont Saint Michel rack of lamb and a sinfully good gianduja chocolate cake, washed down with fine wines – is served at tables clad in starched white linen, weighty silverware, fine porcelain and sparkling crystal. Then it was back to the bar for a postprandial or two, where the drinks and convivial conversation flowed until the last guest retired.
When I got back to my cabin, my sofa had been transformed into a comfortable bed, with crisp, high thread-count sheets topped with a cosy woollen blanket, and I fell into a deep sleep lulled by the steady, gentle rock of the train as it swayed round Swiss bends and in to France.
I awoke to a new vista and a knock on the door announcing breakfast – warm croissants, just-brewed coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice, served on a heavy sterling silver tray, while the steward deftly turned the bed into a couch again.
When the train reached Paris, I got out to stretch my legs and watched as Bodiguel selected the finest lobsters from a selection on the platform at the Gare de l’Est. They became the centerpiece of a sumptuous brunch that began with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon and was rounded off by a sublime tarte tartin, all washed down with yet more Champagne.
There may not have been a murder on board but there was no shortage of adventure, glamour and the timeless romance of train travel. It was enveloped in the hypnotic clickety-clack of wheels on a track, the chink of Champagne flutes and the tinkling of the baby grand. It’s an experience like no other.