Tracks across Europe

The Orient-Express is the epitome of romance. The days of Iron Curtain intrigue may have faded, but love is still in the air, says Michael Williams
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

They'd be a beautiful couple if they didn't look so grumpy. He's drumming his fingers on his Beck's bottle; she's twirling the swizzle stick in her Martini, pretending to stare out of the window. We've all been there at some point, I guess - the Holiday with the Wrong Person.

They'd be a beautiful couple if they didn't look so grumpy. He's drumming his fingers on his Beck's bottle; she's twirling the swizzle stick in her Martini, pretending to stare out of the window. We've all been there at some point, I guess - the Holiday with the Wrong Person.

And it seems all the more poignant, on this nigh-perfect evening, since we're in one of the most romantic situations in the world - purring through the Austrian Alps on the London-bound Orient-Express from Venice. Everyone's done up for dinner, the man at the baby grand in the bar car is tinkling away at Gershwin and Cole Porter, and the last of the evening sun is glinting off the Art Deco chinoiserie panels in this, the most glamorous train ever.

"Shame about those two." You can almost hear the clucking as people pass to take their seats for the high point of the 32-hour journey from Venice to London - a four-course dinner prepared by the train's French chef.

Two hours later, inflated by caviar with blinis and quail with foie gras, I squeeze past them in the corridor. Emboldened by a few glasses of St Emilion Grand Cru, I mutter a platitude of consolation.

I couldn't have got it more wrong. "Oh," he says, "we just got engaged 10 minutes ago." She, not so coyly, brandishes a huge diamond and platinum ring.

"It happens all the time," the barman tells me later. "It's something in the atmosphere on the train. You just get these spontaneous things. A favourite trick is to get me to freeze the ring in an ice cube and slip it into the lady's drink. You just have to watch she doesn't swallow it."

For more than a century since it first steamed out of the Gare du Strasbourg in Paris, bound for Bucharest, the Orient-Express has been special - synonymous with passion, romance and the mystery of the East. Kings and con men, millionaires and migrants, sheikhs and smugglers, divas and prostitutes crossed Europe on it; tycoons and bankers thrashed out deals across its sumptuous dining tables; diplomats, spies and revolutionaries moved seamlessly through the Iron Curtain at a time when all other avenues were shut.

Ian Fleming captured the glamour in From Russia With Love in 1956, as Agent 007 boarded it in Istanbul: "The great trains are going out in Europe one by one, but still three times a week the Orient-Express thunders superbly over 1,400 miles of glistening steel track between Istanbul and Paris. Platform 3 positively throbbed with the tragic poetry of departure..."

By the 1960s, though, Europe's premier departure had been reduced to a couple of scruffy coaches patronised by itinerant workers and backpackers, and tagged on to other stopping trains. (An Orient-Express of sorts still runs from that Paris station - known these days as Gare de l'Est - as part of Europe's international rail network - but it barely travels as far as Vienna.)

Then along came the American shipping tycoon James Sherwood, a millionaire with a heart of gold - at least as far as train buffs are concerned. He scoured the world for the diaspora of historic carriages, restored them at a cost of £11m and relaunched the train on its regular run from London to Venice in 1982.

For our 32-hour journey to London, we're travelling in first-class sleeping car No 3544, built in 1929 - immaculate in blue and gold on the outside and René Prou-designed Art Deco marquetry on the inside. It is steeped in the chequered history of 20th-century Europe, having been at various times, our steward Sylvan tells us, part of the legendary French Train Bleu, the Dutch royal train and a German brothel in Limoges during the Second World War.

Everything in this 17-coach leviathan is touched by luxury. Its passengers are fuelled by the 250kg of caviar, 12,000 pieces of lobster, one ton of foie gras, 1.5 tons of smoked salmon, 6,000 bottles of champagne and 10,000 bottles of wine that are consumed every season.

Sherwood's passion for authenticity is everywhere - from the two tons of brass lettering proclaiming "Compagnie des Wagons Lits Internationales" above the coaches, to the design of the glassware and napkins in the restaurant cars.

Dusk falls as we are passing through the Swiss Alps, and there is a sulphury whiff of coal smoke from along the corridor. This is Sylvan firing up the stove. Despite the fact that the carriages are hauled by a state-of-the-art electric locomotive, no one has forgotten the episode in 1929 when the train was stuck in a snowdrift in Turkey for nine days. "We'd hate anyone to freeze if it happened again," Sylvan explains. But authenticity has its price. Much to the chagrin of North American passengers, there is no air conditioning - it would spoil the original pattern of the coach roofs, apparently. And magnificent and mahogany-clad though they are, you still have to pad down the corridor to use the lavatories.

Then there is the question of the bunks. How far can you - ahem - go (and I don't mean from Innsbruck to Calais) with the person of your dreams in a compartment with two narrowish bunks suspended from the wall - even though the prickly moquette is moderated by crisp silky sheets applied while passengers are at supper?

My friend the romantic novelist Belinda Jones travelled on the Venice train to research the ergonomics of this question and concluded: not all that far and certainly not all the way. Kim and Tyler, the protagonists of her book I Love Capri take adjoining compartments but, despite several late night amaretti in the bar car, do not themselves conjoin during the journey. History, however, tells a different story. For years, the conducteurs augmented their salaries by turning a blind eye to the Flapper-era equivalent of the mile-high club - illicit relationships formed on the train and consummated after the bar had closed. King Leopold II of Belgium, who was partial to this kind of thing, gave particularly handsome tips, by all accounts.

An Orthodox bishop, the Archimandrite Cyril, for years travelled on the Orient-Express between Sofia and Belgrade for the sole purpose of enjoying the company of poules de luxe - western girls imported into Balkan cities as dancers or chanteuses. I get the only answer he can possibly give when I ask Bruno Janssens, the suave chef du train, if it still goes on: " Il faut être discret." But he admits in best Poirot-style (for Janssens, too, is Belgian) that certain objets have been retrieved from the berths in his time, including a roll of $7,000 in cash, a pair of handcuffs and a grey lace bra.

"You see, monsieur, not everything on the train is exactly as it seems," he says. For instance, whatever Agatha Christie wrote, there has never been a recorded murder on the Orient-Express, although there have been a couple of "defenestrations" - spies shoved, Bond-style out of the window of the moving train. And, continues Janssens, "Look around. The passengers here are not dukes or royalty or nobility. They are ordinary people who have saved up their money to savour some romance. You could - how do you say it? - call it the Peoples' Train."

He is right, certainly in terms of the crowd at lunch in dining car No 4141, as we speed towards journey's end across the Pas du Calais. Keith and Janet are celebrating retirement from their garage business. Emily has brought her goddaughter for a coming-of-age treat. Lesley, 22, who works in Glasgow's housing department, has come without a partner, but saved up simply to enjoy what she reckons is the glamour and romance of the train. And there, over in the corner, under the watchful eye of Lalique's bacchanalian maidens, are Mr and Ms Not-So-Grumpy-Any-More, with eyes not for the lobster and strawberries, but only for each other. Maybe those bunks weren't so difficult to negotiate after all.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE: ALL ABOARD THE ORIENT-EXPRESS

THE TRAIN

Travelling from London Victoria to Venice or vice-versa aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express takes around 32 hours and costs £1,310 per person, including all meals but not drinks. You can book through 0845 077 2222; www.orient-express.com.

The British part of the journey is aboard a separate train; the crossing between Folkestone West and Calais Ville is made aboard a coach using the Eurotunnel shuttle. Other calling points are Paris Gare de l'Est, Buchs, St Anton, Innsbruck and Verona.

GETTING THERE OR BACK

The writer flew from Stansted to Venice on easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com) for a fare of £16, booked well in advance. The airline also flies to Venice from Bristol and Nottingham East Midlands. Other airlines that will take you to or from Venice include BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) from Heathrow and Volare (0800 032 0992; www.volareweb.com) from Luton. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Treviso airport, north of Venice, with a bus connection to the city. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) also has flights from Birmingham, Gatwick and Manchester to and from Venice, but does not offer low one-way fares and is therefore not an ideal choice.

STAYING THERE

The Orient-Express leaves Venice at 10.30am so you will probably spend the preceding night there. The writer stayed at the small San Zulian Hotel (00 39 41 522 5872) right by the Piazza San Marco which offers doubles from €135 (£92), including breakfast.

Comments