The first Orient Express train, or Express d’Orient, as it was called then departed Paris in Oct 1883 but its heyday was in the Roaring Twenties. The Orient Express train travelled throughout Europe and further afield offering glamorous socialites stylish travel to exotic destinations such as Syria, Constantinople, Budapest, Paris and Venice. Champagne, fine dining and socialising where high on the agenda on these “Grand Tours” and was very much one of the things “to do and be seen on”. The second world war put an end to this indulgent travel and indeed after the war flight took over as THE fashionable way to travel and its popularity declined until it stopped running in 1977.
James Sherwood set himself a mission to reincarnate the Orient Express travel. He bought two carriages at auction in Monte Carlo and has scoured the world tracking down the other originals. Not an easy task as over 1,600 carriages were destroyed during the second world war when impounded by Hitler who flattened them in order to use the base and wheels for transport of armoured vehicles.
The carriages varied hugely in condition and highly skilled craftsmen were recruited to work to painstakingly restore them to their original glory. A particularly lovely story is of Rob Dunn who worked on restoring the marquetry, which was originally worked on by his grandfather. Equally the original moulds were found at the Lalique glassmakers so that the stunning panels in dining car 4141 could be recreated. The project of bringing the train back to life took 5 years before the train again took to the rails as the Venice Simplon Orient Express in May 1982.
The Venice Simplon Orient Express is now the longest train in Europe – at full capacity it is 17 carriages long, of which 3 are dining carriages, 1 is the spectacular bar carriage and of course there is also the kitchen carriages and carriages for the staff on board.
Each carriage has a glamorous history dating from the 1920’s and each has its own individual characteristics so when travelling on the train look out for the detailed differences. It could be special hooks to hang and protect pocket watches, foldable brass candle holders, and the upholstery and marquetry design is different in each carriage.
Carriage 3309 is the oldest carriage, built in 1926 in Belgium and is the one that was famously stuck in a snow drift for 10 days in 1929 inspiring the renowned movie Murder on the Orient Express. Sleeping carriage 3425 is associated with King Carol who escaped Romania with his mistress in 1940, whilst sleeping carriage 3544 was used as a wartime brothel!
Despite their history and individual quirks the sleeping carriages are effectively the same, with nine cabins with their own steward and one shared loo, and each cabin has its own private wash basin. Each cabin is converted into bunk beds, with a short ladder to the top bunk, in the evening by your steward whilst you dine.
The steward will do all he can to ensure you have a trip of a lifetime and indeed has many hidden talents, such as sewing a ladies broken dress strap back on as we saw on our trip! A welcome glass of bubbly, afternoon tea and breakfast are served in your cabin. Expect fine china, exquisite pastries, and piping hot tea or coffee.
For those looking for a bit more space a Suite can be booked which is basically two cabins with an adjoining door that can be left open which certainly creates the feeling of more space than just two cabins. People then have the choice of using one as their living area and one as their bedroom, or having both lower bunks made up as beds for those that are not keen to climb the ladder!
Unexpectedly, and rather charmingly, there are real coal boilers that are still used in each sleeping carriage to heat the water. Indeed this is one of the reasons that the Venice Simplon Orient Express cannot go through the EuroTunnel due to the fire risk.
There is one different sleeping carriage which only has three cabins which are the spectacular Grand Suites with their own en suite bathrooms with shower, double beds, on tap champagne and the choice of in-cabin dining for those that would like more privacy. Themed after Paris, Venice and Istanbul these Grand Suites have a separate living area and as they take the equivalent of three standard cabins offer oodles of space. These brand new luxurious Grand Suites have been incredibly popular and book up very early indeed.
The three restaurant cars are called L’Oriental , Etoile du Nord, Cote D’Azur and all serve the same food though have very different atmospheres and decorative styles . Christian Bodiguel is the Head Chef and such is his love of the train that he has been 30 years onboard, serving up to 180 guests on each journey!!
There are two servings of both lunch and dinner, and you will be impressed at the extremely high standard of fresh food and service entirely produced on the train from two tiny kitchens. A particularly popular meal is the lobster brunch that is served on the return journey from Venice to London. Food tolerances can be catered for as long as the team are pre-advised and the team on board will go out of their way to ensure you have a fabulous meal. Expect expert wine advice, immaculate service and superb food. You will not be disappointed.
The beating heart of the train is the 3674 bar carriage. Recently refurbished it oozes elegance, conviviality and elegance. Here people gather pre and post dinner to listen to the pianist who will be playing well known favourites from the musicals as well as jazz numbers. Here is where the magic of the train touches people as strangers connect and exchange travel stories. Here is where you show off your finery from full floor elegant dresses, to flapper dresses with feathers and bowers and chic cocktail dresses.
Finally the cabins for the staff are newer and date from just after the second world war and the way to spot the difference as you are walking along the corridor is that there is no inlaid marquetry in the woodwork.
Every winter for four months the train stops running and the carriages are revived and freshened up in France to ensure they maintain their intricate beauty and elegance. Based on a certain mileage, which equates to about every 7 years, each carriage is also taken out of service and totally stripped down and lovingly maintained. The carriages external brass-work is also removed and polished; a task that takes 10 days!
The joy of the Venice Simplon Orient Express is the ability to travel in style and elegance with no stress, to unwind and watch the magnificent scenery that passes. Each journey is timed so that you will see the best scenery before it gets dark. The train passes a range of different scenery depending on the journey, and we particularly enjoyed the vineyards framed by dramatic mountains on the Venice to Prague journey. We hope this has given you enough information to inspire you to want to go – we can certainly strongly recommend it! Please Click here to see some of the superb Venice Simplon Orient Express breaks that we offer so you can have that once in a lifetime experience.