A ticket to railway’s golden age
The grand 24-hour ride from Florence to Paris on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is . . .
AMID the irritable commuters and daytrippers at Florence’s Campo di Marte railway station, our heels and polished brogues clickclack conspicuously along the concourse. Overdressed? Yes, we most certainly are. Most trains are a means of getting from A to B, but the fabled Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is different. We are about to embark on a 24-hour trip paying homage to travel’s golden age. It is one of several new Grand Tour routes criss-crossing Europe — through Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands. There’s a frisson of excitement as the shiny midnight-blue carriages pull in.
Fellow passengers, also in their finery, take a flurry of snaps. Cases are taken by porters in smart uniforms. And we’re soon whisked to our vintage 1920s cabins. The interiors are impressive: plush carpet, glossy walnut cabinets. Smart seats fold into beds. Cupboards hide compact ceramic basins.
There is ornate floral marquetry by Art Deco master René Prou, and engraved glass panels by René Lalique. It’s a cut above the 8.30am from Basingstoke.
And Belmond has launched even more luxurious Grand Suites — spread across a whole carriage with lavish beds, marble en-suite showers and private dining. There’s something nostalgic (and indulgent) about riding the rails in such style, yet this form of travel seems thoroughly modern — perfect for those who wish to travel sustainably, and slowly.
Lunch is served as the train winds towards northern Italy, passing sun-baked towns and tomato fields. There are three dining cars, each with 1920s motifs: Etoile du Nord (with wood-panelling and Art Deco- style carpet); Côte d’Azur (featuring Lalique glass panels); and L’Oriental (with its Asian-inspired decoration).
Menus from head chef Jean Imbert focus on seasonal ingredients, inspired by landscapes the train passes through. Clear tomato soup dotted with herbs and summer flowers is followed by sea bass in a shellfish sauce. Roasted cherry and pistachio ice cream as we snake through Emilia-Romagna.
You soon get used to the clickety clack of the tracks mingling with the tinkling of crystal and china.
At any time, it seems, a porter might knock to offer a glass of fizz. Outside, vistas shift from cypress trees to shining lakes.
Then, before you know it, a voice announces dinner. There’s an
Agatha Christie feel about the evening: women in floor-length, sequin dresses, men in tuxedos. Sitting on green velvet chairs in the Etoile du Nord dining car, we expect to see Poirot any minute.
White- gloved waiters serve chilled champagne and delicate amuse-bouches. Tables are laden with feasts of sea bream tartare, lobster and Bellini peach melba.
By nightfall, we reach Switzerland and the Alps, and as the train heads to the Gotthard Pass, it’s time for us to move to the bar car ‘3674’ for a nightcap. It’s wonderfully glamorous, with much bonhomie as guests sip Martinis while a pianist plays a baby grand.
I’m rocked to sleep by the motion of the train as it rolls through rural France, Paris waiting down the line. Mais, oui!
ONE-night trips from Florence to Paris from £3,210 pp in a ‘Historic Cabin’ with all meals (and wine with dinner), plus Eurostar transfers to London ( belmond.com).