The Orient Express to Venice? The trip of a lifetime for prosperous provincial empty-nesting Rotarians? A petting zoo for Poirot fetishists? Premium-priced kitsch for sickly fantasists? A wounding embarrassment for a streamlined design guru?
My critical reverie was interrupted when the waiter said: “Would you like some more caviar?” I asked him if anybody ever said no and he told me: “You’d be surprised.” I raised my eyebrows while the sunlight refracting through my Bellini made even Catford look romantic. We rattled towards Folkestone.
Now, to get the terminology sorted out early, the official name of the service that connects London and Paris with La Serenissima is the curiously hyphenated Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. But everyone calls it the Orient Express, all the more so since the old Paris-Istanbul train of that name disappeared.
I enjoy rail journeys and this is a trip I had always wanted to do, even though the Orient Express’s retro-fantasia compromised a lifetime’s belief in being modern and making a spiritual commitment to advanced technology. Another Bellini helped to calm my qualms.
Actually, I persuaded myself that it is ludicrous to be so self-denying. Venice is itself a retro-fantasia, although one not in as good a condition as the Orient Express and with much worse service and hygiene. Venice is a dream, a memory of a memory. Those amusing street names in Venetian demotic? They were put there only recently. They are no more “authentic” than Mickey’s Magic Kingdom. Even to consider Venice is to dabble in the margins of fiction. It is a beautiful rotting corpse which has resisted every modern incursion and convenience that might have kept it alive … apart from the crass tourism which is systematically destroying its remains.
The journey begins at London’s Victoria Station where the British Pullman, a private train that gets languorously shunted out of the way to prioritise fretful commuting salarymen, leaves late Thursday morning. Several guests had dressed up to get in character with carriages that are all survivors of the Agatha Christie era. Ours began life as a 1938 First Class Parlour Car. In 1965, it was part of Churchill’s funeral train. On 30 October 1972, it ran the very last Golden Arrow service to Paris, and five years later it was acquired by Venice Simplon-Orient-Express for the revival in which I am now participating.
The history is as profound as the upholstery is deep. Outside, brown and cream, perhaps a little like the colour scheme of Princess Dragomiroff’s knicker drawer. Inside, a continent’s-worth of Australian walnut. The loo is a masterpiece: where today you find plastic, here you find lustrous wood. The floor is terrazzo and the lock is a wonderful rack and pinion.
At Folkestone, the dream world is abruptly suspended. You detrain and board a bus for the transit from the old technology Folkestone station to the new technology Channel Tunnel. Soon you are in a remote railway siding, unattractive even by the astonishing standards of ugliness set by Calais. And then you see the train.
Only the most determined cynic would not be stirred by the dark blue wagons-lits cars with the pink shrouded table lights and the seductive glow plus the enamel signs saying “Paris-Zurich-Innsbruck-Venice”. The point about all things Venetian is that they defeat cynicism.
Your cabin is your home for the next day, so you are glad it is so comfortable. We could not stop ourselves smiling like simpletons under a fog of nostalgia. With your first glass of champagne, you look around. My children only know the plastic American “Your Life Jacket Is Under Your Seat”, but here you read a brass plaque, that, as a backpacker, defined my early understanding of our richly truffled European civilisation.
The French say “Ne pas se pencher au dehors”. The Germans say “Nicht hinauslehnen” while, more beautifully, the Italians make do with “E’ pericoloso sporgersi” (it is dangerous to lean out). Delightfully, our cabin has a window which can be fully, with no regard to health and safety, retracted with a beautiful brass handle.
On the train, a lot of Agatha Christie remains: the pushing of bells for en-suite drinks, the slick making-up of beds, the furtive goings-on in the corridor, the tap-tap on the door by the chef du train. Dinner is real food (lobster lasagne with slow-cooked endive) by a real chef (Christian Bodiguel). It made us happy.
We woke up near Zurich, crossed the border to Liechtenstein near Buchs, went through St Anton in the Arlberg, stretched our legs in Innsbruck, eyed the Tirol and went on to Brennero. There followed Bolzano, Trento and the spectral Dolomites, Verona, Vicenza and Padua before arriving in Venice at about 6pm. I nearly forgot to mention lunch. Quail stuffed with figs. Splendid.
Orient Express also owns the Cipriani Hotel, a joint venture of 1956 between Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar and the three Guinness sisters. The inevitable destination after the train, it is, architecturally speaking, not the most beautiful hotel but its site on the island of Giudecca, just by San Giorgio, is metaphor-testing. Many people with knowledge of the situation think it the best hotel in the world. They may be right.
Although Casanova used its vineyards for dating, Giudecca has a certain bleakness. The derivation might be “zudega”, Venetian for “judged”, a reference to banishment. On the island you find Palladio’s famous Plague Church of Il Redentore, and a nasty women’s prison is a memory that here Venetian families used to lock up their unwanted daughters in nunneries.
Thus, the contrast to the Cipriani itself makes the pleasure yet more intense. You arrive in a varnished, plushly upholstered launch, a “free” hotel service that runs night and day. The staff are imperturbable, and the enormous swimming pool is unique, kept at a continuous 28C; it is so big, the story goes, because the Guinness sisters specified it in feet, but they built it in metres.
Every year, Venice has a solemn and beautiful ceremony when it remarries the sea. But sometimes the Bride of the Sea is ravished by it. On the morning of 11 November, the children’s Feast of San Martino, we woke to hammering rain and a howling wind. The normally serene waters of the lagoon were churning and breaking violently. High tide, the notorious acqua alta, had been predicted, but, following the lead of Italian seismologists, the weathermen had calamitously underestimated. A tide of 140cm above a reference point by the Salute church is considered “exceptional”. Today, it would become 156cm. People would swim in Piazza San Marco.
Conditions were made worse by a fierce wind blowing in from the Adriatic which did not allow the tide to ebb and the worst flood since 1966 was feared; when crabs and fish were not only on the menu, but swimming in the Cipriani lobby. To add a theatrical flourish to the already dramatic weather, we were shipwrecked, or perhaps Cip-wrecked. In a scene worthy of Agatha Christie herself, this was the hotel’s last day of the season. They were fixing the shutters and the food was running out, but the landing stages were underwater and boats could not come and go.
This was a keen stimulus to reflections about Venetian eating. The Cipriani’s Fortuny restaurant offers “fine dining”, but this is a redundant amplification and best avoided. Instead, the informal Cip’s Club is much better. In spite of its unflattering design and lighting, its food is fresh, local and confident. We ate a perfect veal carpaccio, warm octopus salad, still wriggling, and scampi simply split and char-grilled.
Food in Venice can be a problem since the volume of dumb tourism does nothing to stimulate standards. I have been visiting since I was a student, so naturally I have favourites, but I asked two friends, both Venetian enthusiasts, for tips.
Russell Norman, the restaurateur whose Polpo is an artful and knowing take on a Venice bàcaro, suggested Cantina do Mori, a dark, crowded, ancient and shouty bar near the wonderful Rialto food market. It’s for jostling room only and you order plates of cicchetti: perhaps some burrata with splashing glasses of local wine. It is not restful, but nor is it expensive.
Willie Landels, a Venetian by birth, made Harpers & Queen London’s most talked about magazine of the Seventies. He made me promise not to pass on his recommendation, but since it appears in a local guide I will betray my friend. The Trattoria Antiche Carampane is close to the glorious Ponte delle Tette where prostitutes were once encouraged to parade topless to deter Venetian youth from fashionable sodomy. Thus the establishment’s trademark features a motif combining a pair of breasts with a wine glass. If that is not enough to make it the best restaurant I know, the home-made cavatelli with clams and fritto misto confirmed my tentative judgement.
How did we get off storm-tossed Giudecca? Masterfully, as the tempest subsided, Roberto, the Cipriani’s concierge commandeered the hotel’s launch and sent us to our next overnight on the Zattere. This was in the charming La Calcina, a pensione in John Ruskin’s old house. Ask for No 22, a corner room with windows on two sides which allows you to lie in bed and stare at Palladio across the Giudecca canal. Ignore the plastic shower curtain and revolting soap – the view is a luxury all of its own.
We flew back to Gatwick. The Orient Express is a magnificent curio and freak weather made the memories stronger. It was altogether exceptional, as Venice always is. Mary McCarthy said there is nothing original you can say about the place. Including that very sentence.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (0845 077 2222; orient-express.com) next departs from London Victoria on 21 March. A one-way journey costs from £1,920pp for the overnight trip, full board. A package including two nights’ B&B at the Hotel Cipriani and a return flight to Gatwick costs from £2,670pp.
Eating and drinking there
Cantina do Mori, Calle do Mori, San Polo (00 39 041 522 5401). Trattoria Antiche Carampane, Rio Terra de la Carampane, San Polo (00 39 041 524 0165; antichecarampane.com).