Even though the surviving Orient Express today ends at Budapest (and is nothing to do with the recent upstart luxury Venice-Simplon Orient Express), train 263 from Gare de l'Est in Paris carries a cargo of history on its journey east. At its sumptuous peak, elegant navy-blue-and-gold carriages carrying the brass crest of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Europeens concealed interiors and fittings straight from a Victorian manor- house.
Waiters clad as butlers served first-rate food and wine to a clientele who expected nothing less. Crystal chandeliers illuminated luxury dining- cars in which the cutlery was silver, the napkins were linen and the upholstery was leather. The artistry and detail of the wooden marquetry were exquisite; the solid brass table lamps and the luggage-racks were objects of beauty. Sleeping compartments were convertible, with the table being folded away and the four armchairs pushed together to form two beds at night.
Perhaps Georges Nagelmackers, the Belgian who founded Wagons-Lits in 1876, was never destined to become a household name. This honour was reserved for the man who inspired him, the American George Mortimer Pullman.
Pullman's genius had been to introduce communal sleeping-cars to the US in the 1860s, providing a measure of comfort hitherto unknown on the railways. Pullman's agreement with different American railway lines to ensure that passengers were not obliged to change trains so often was equally ground-breaking. On a trip to America in 1869 the young Belgian engineer was so inspired by Pullman's achievements that within a year he had established his first route from Ostend to Brindisi, in spite of the complications caused by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War.
By 1874 Nagelmackers, with a little help from his friends, had thwarted Pullman's European ambitions and established a far-reaching network that was to ensure the success of the fabled Orient Express well into the next century. In February 1883 Nagelmackers met representatives from eight different railway companies in Constantinople. (It became Istanbul in 1923, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.) From this conference the Express d'Orient was born, its name being anglicised in 1891 in recognition of its international status.
On 4 October 1883, a distinguished party set off from the Gare de l'Est, Paris, and trundled in a sea of champagne through France, Germany and Austria. Initially the Orient Express was not a through train, for the Danube had to be crossed by ferry at Giurgiu in Romania into Bulgaria. A rather less salubrious train awaited, rattling its way to Varna on the Black Sea, where the shaken passengers joined the good steamer Espero for an 18-hour voyage to Constantinople.
In August 1888 the first through train from Paris arrived in Constantinople 67 hours and 35 minutes later. It was a dramatic reduction of 14 hours in the journey time.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Wagons-Lits acquired luxury hotels to look after wealthy passengers in the style to which they were accustomed. The grandiose Bosporos Summer Palace Hotel in Constantinople, overlooking the Straits of Asia, was one of the company's more exotic undertakings. Among the royal passengers were the kings of Bulgaria and Hungary, who used the train to travel to Queen Victoria's funeral in 1901. King Boris of Bulgaria was such a fan that he often exercised his royal right to drive the Orient Express as it passed through his country.
The train ground to a halt when the First World War broke out in 1914. The original route did not resume until 1931, in part because of German unwillingness to co-operate. After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, however, the Simplon-Orient Express, named after the Simplon Tunnel between Switzerland and Italy, began in April 1919. Deliberately routed to avoid the politically unreliable Germany, Austria and Hungary, it went instead via Switzerland and Italy and in this inter-war period became as legendary as the original Orient Express itself.
Once again the outbreak of war in 1939 brought about the suspension of the service; the train, at least, was never to be the same again. With the fall of France in 1940, much Wagons-Lits rolling stock was sequestered by the Germans. Stationary sleeping-cars became camouflaged makeshift barracks (or even brothels) whilst dining-cars were often converted into restaurants.
By the end of the war, Wagons-Lits had lost a staggering 845 carriages, including perhaps their most famous diner, car number 2419, where Germany had surrendered at the conclusion of the First World War. Hitler, always a lover of drama and symbolism, had the self-same dining-car dragged from its museum in 1940 to the very same place at Compiegne to receive the French surrender. The carriage was then hauled off to Berlin until 1945 when, facing all-out defeat, it was blown sky high by an SS unit determined to avoid a humiliating replay of 1918. Following the Allied victory, the Iron Curtain began to descend over eastern Europe and after 1947 Wagons- Lits' contracts there were not renewed. In any case air travel was in the ascendancy, far cheaper and quicker than the Orient Express.
The original Orient Express can be booked through Rail Europe (0990 848 848) as part of a normal trip to Budapest. A return from London costs pounds 358 and takes 24 hours each way. The last trip of the year on the luxury Venice-Simplon Orient Express (0171-805 5100), from London Victoria to Venice (via the Folkestone-Boulogne SeaCat), departs tomorrow. The service resumes in March; the one-way fare (based on two sharing) is pounds 1,130