Europe by train

The Ori­ent Ex­press is a train renowned for its lux­ury and fine food. But can a bud­get ver­sion ever be as good? We grab our tick­ets and try both on a Euro­pean ad­ven­ture right from our own front door…

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS & PHO­TO­GRAPHS PHOEBE SMITH

The Ori­ent Ex­press is the last word in lux­ury, so does a bud­get ver­sion match up? We ex­pe­ri­ence both sides of the tracks on a Euro­pean ad­ven­ture of two halves

Wa­ter lapped the edge of the pave­ment with such a steady rhythm I was, tem­po­rar­ily, hyp­no­tised by it. Tiny waves leapt up and down, slow and steady, as though peek­ing up at me to get a bet­ter look. It was only when a wa­ter taxi passed by, thrust­ing its frothy wake to­wards me, that the spell was bro­ken, and I lifted my eyes to see the cam­era-wield­ing pas­sen­gers in­side look­ing back at me.

I was in Venice, Italy’s fa­mous wa­ter-veined city, wait­ing for a traghetto – a stripped-down gon­dola that costs only a frac­tion of the price (€2 ver­sus at least €80) – to take me across the Grand Canal. The ex­cite­ment of cross­ing one of the world’s most fa­mous wa­ter­ways in a tra­di­tional skiff, with a punter wear­ing a trade­mark blue-and-white-striped shirt – al­beit mi­nus the cush­ions and ser­e­nad­ing song, was pal­pa­ble. Though it only lasted a few min­utes, there was some­thing supremely ex­cit­ing about ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a travel clas­sic the cheaper way. A stu­dent at the time, find­ing bud­get means to ex­plore was my life’s mantra.

As I’ve grown older, how­ever, I’ve of­ten thought back to that ex­pe­ri­ence and longed to try the real deal, to sub­merge my­self (par­don the pun) in one of Venice’s most au­then­ti­cally unique ac­tiv­i­ties – re­gard­less of the cost. For, I rea­son to my­self when look­ing at my dwin­dling bank bal­ance, how can I truly ap­pre­ci­ate the bar­gain with­out also ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the clas­sic?

And it was with that thought that I found my­self many years later, stand­ing on the plat­form of St Pan­cras Sta­tion in Lon­don (hav­ing taken the train from the vil­lage in Berk­shire where I live), about to em­bark on a bud­get ver­sus clas­sic ad­ven­ture to Venice and back again.

I had planned my itin­er­ary metic­u­lously – with an In­ter­rail pass in hand I would fol­low the route of the in­fa­mous Ori­ent Ex­press from here to Venice, pass­ing through Paris and Basel in Switzer­land, feast­ing on the lo­cal food (and sights) en route, be­fore ar­riv­ing at the canal-side city. Once there, I would head back via the of­fi­cial Bel­mond Venice Sim­plon-ori­ent-ex­press to ex­pe­ri­ence lux­ury on my re­turn – and re­ally be able to com­pare and con­trast the two. This trip would truly be all about the jour­ney.

“You don’t need to rough it just be­cause you’re In­ter­rail­ing,” ex­plained Amanda, who was ar­rang­ing my tick­ets and help­ing me nav­i­gate my way through Europe’s myr­iad rail­way routes. “Up­grad­ing to first class means you’ll get free meals on some routes, more space, more com­fort, free wifi and – of course – the op­tion to have a sleeper cabin. And it starts from just £80 more than a stan­dard pass.”

I was sold. This wouldn’t be a stu­dent-style cross­ing of the con­ti­nent, this would be low-priced lux­ury.

The first course

In keep­ing with the theme, I started in style with a break­fast at the plat­form-ad­ja­cent Plum and Spilt Milk restau­rant – whose name aptly comes from the liv­ery in­side the din­ing cars of Bri­tain’s Fly­ing Scots­man. There I feasted on a hearty full English, drink­ing lash­ings of Earl Grey and toast­ing stereo­types.

I needn’t have done it, I quickly re­alised, when my first-class ticket for the Eurostar gave me ac­cess to the pre-de­par­ture lounge,

⊳ where I was of­fered more tea, cof­fee and crois­sants than I could eas­ily stom­ach. Board­ing the train (fast track, nat­u­rally), I was once more of­fered break­fast, which of course I had to ac­cept to fully re­view my ex­pe­ri­ence, and watched in a food-in­dul­gent stu­por as we pelted through the English coun­try­side and plunged into the tun­nel un­der the Chan­nel.

It was au­thor and Amer­ica’s favourite ex­pat Ernest Hem­ing­way who said that France’s cap­i­tal is “a move­able feast”, and, hav­ing eaten my body­weight in break­fast trim­mings by the time I reached it, I felt that the one thing I would need to do when I did ar­rive – just over two hours later – would be to move.

Get­ting Ernest in Paris

Af­ter ar­riv­ing into Gare du Nord I had around three hours in Paris be­fore my next train de­parted for Switzer­land at Gare de Lyon (fol­low­ing the OE’S two-day route, I was try­ing to make the jour­ney as quickly as timeta­bles al­lowed to make it a fair com­par­i­son). Grab­bing a ticket for cen­tral Paris on the Metro, I – in­spired by Hem­ing­way – headed for Jardin du Lux­em­bourg.

It was here in this statue-stud­ded and foun­tain-rich green space that he would come and soak up na­ture, shad­ing be­neath the well-groomed trees. It’s also where, I read, the cash-strapped writer would some­times hunt for pi­geons to feed his wife and son. As I strolled past an artist spilling the im­age of the yel­low-bricked palace onto his can­vas I was amused to see the birds ma­noeu­vre away from him ner­vously.

As it had been an hour or so since I’d eaten, af­ter a brisk stroll with my wheelie lug­gage in tow (the down­side of In­ter­railling) I headed for an­other Hem­ing­way haunt, La Closerie des Li­las. In the 1920s and ’30s, many creative types – in­clud­ing F Scott Fitzger­ald of Great Gatsby fame, Pablo Pi­casso and Paul Cezanne – would meet in this café to drink and talk art, life and love.

Prices here are not cheap. I chuck­led to my­self how very apt it was that I de­cided to have a starter as a main, along with a glass of wine to toast the pen­ni­less artists who had sat here be­fore me. Clearly spot­ting a kin­dred spirit, the waiter seemed to take pity on me and brought over ex­tra bread with a know­ing wink. Still full from break­fast, I found the soup more than enough and sat hap­pily scrib­bling notes while sip­ping my sauvi­gnon, while the pi­anist played a jaunty tune and the world seemed to move by in a rush out­side the full-length win­dows.

I could have sat peo­ple-watch­ing for hours, but I had a train to catch. And so, wan­der­ing past Hem­ing­way’s apart­ment on Rue du Car­di­nal Le­moine, where mar­ket ven­dors still sold less-thanper­fect pro­duce at cut prices, I made my way to Notre Dame Metro sta­tion. Though the cathe­dral is un­de­ni­ably cap­ti­vat­ing, it was the op­po­site book­shop, Shakespeare and Com­pany, that I wanted to visit be­fore I left. Pick­ing up a cof­fee and a book for

‘At the Hem­ing­way haunt La Closerie des Li­las, I sipped my sauvi­gnon while the world seemed to move by in a rush out­side’

⊳ the next leg of the jour­ney I failed to see how even a lux­ury train could of­fer any bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence than this.

Then I reached the Metro and was promptly told the train was can­celled due to a fault with the line. A help­ful lo­cal, with whom I con­versed in a mix of my GCSE French and his equiv­a­lent-level English, took me via an­other route. But it was no use. I had missed my con­nec­tion.

Hap­pily an In­ter­rail pass means this isn’t the end of the world. Though I had to pay a €20 re-book­ing fee, I man­aged to get pas­sage onto the next train to Basel.

“Vin blanc ou rouge, madam?” the guard on my three-hour jour­ney said in a heav­enly Gal­lic tone. Af­ter my whirl­wind tour of Paris, sit­ting in this car­riage, re­gard­ing the French towns in the dwin­dling sun­light, felt like the per­fect, calm­ing an­ti­dote. First class on this train meant more food and wine. On reach­ing Switzer­land’s lit­tle bor­der city, I de­cided that I didn’t re­ally need to eat at the aptly named Le Train Bleu, and in­stead jumped on the next in­ter­city to Zurich where I’d pre-booked a ho­tel that abut­ted the sta­tion.

“We’ve got you a room over­look­ing the train tracks,” said the re­cep­tion­ist in the newly opened Langstrasse where the bar drinks are listed on ever-chang­ing boards like you get on the plat­forms. There’s even a Trainspot­ting Suite, gym and pool where you can watch the lo­co­mo­tives go by.

Lulled to sleep gazing at the me­chan­i­cal be­he­moths ar­riv­ing and de­part­ing like clock­work from my win­dow, I woke the next day ready to get back on track. I had a slow start in the city, me­an­der­ing around the streets in no par­tic­u­lar hurry, idling in cof­fee shops and ne­go­ti­at­ing the cob­bled streets of the Old Town, be­fore tak­ing a se­ries of trains bound, ul­ti­mately, for Mu­nich.

Canal routes

Though the next stage of the jour­ney was not on the Ori­ent Ex­press route that I was roughly fol­low­ing, I’d wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence an In­ter­railling sleeper. To this end, I spent a happy day mov­ing through farm­land and moun­tains, chang­ing trains at the pic­turesque town of Lin­dau on Lake Con­stance – the mighty body of wa­ter bor­dered by the three coun­tries of Aus­tria, Switzer­land and Ger­many – be­fore mak­ing my way to Bavaria’s cap­i­tal.

Once there I was whisked aboard my sleeper train and shown by the guard to a small pri­vate cabin where a bed, toi­let – with shower – and some snacks and drinks waited for me. It was ba­sic and a lit­tle cold, but more than I ex­pected. I thought I’d sleep well but, with mul­ti­ple early-hour stops en route and the high-speed pas­sage through tun­nels, I of­ten found my­self shaken awake and was glad to fi­nally reach Venice.

Af­ter leav­ing my lug­gage in the stor­age room at Venice Santa Lu­cia sta­tion, I set out on foot, cross­ing bridges, tak­ing al­ley­ways and never once check­ing a map. The joy of this city is get­ting hope­lessly lost, dis­cov­er­ing un­ex­pected squares af­ter ne­go­ti­at­ing in­creas­ingly nar­row­ing pas­sage­ways, tak­ing traghetti (or gon­do­las – fi­nally) and weav­ing by wa­ter from place to place, dis­cov­er­ing the cafés where

‘The joy of Venice is get­ting hope­lessly lost, dis­cov­er­ing un­ex­pected squares af­ter ne­go­ti­at­ing nar­row­ing pas­sage­ways’

‘We left the la­goons of Venice be­hind, sip­ping cham­pagne and eat­ing fresh fruit while watch­ing the ur­ban trap­pings give way to pock­ets of vine­yards’

⊳ only the lo­cals drink. I stum­bled upon one fol­low­ing a ran­dom turn­ing away from the crowds where I sam­pled a proper Ital­ian cof­fee and a freshly baked cor­netto pas­try sweet­ened with mouth­wa­ter­ing or­ange rind.

Cross­ing the tracks

Af­ter a cou­ple of hours I headed back to the sta­tion to sam­ple train travel lit­er­ally on the other side of the tracks. On the plat­form the royal-blue train stood, its name Venice Sim­plon-ori­ent-ex­press em­bla­zoned in gold. Its crew lined up along­side in blaz­ers and hats that matched the navy-gold paint­work.

I felt the eyes of other trav­ellers on me as I made my way along a red car­pet to­wards my car­riage. “You must be Ms Smith,” said my smil­ing ste­ward, of­fer­ing out his white-gloved hand as an in­tro­duc­tion. I felt like I’d stepped off the streets and straight onto a movie set.

As it hap­pens that wasn’t far off the truth. The Johnny Deppfronted film Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press had been film­ing on this very train just weeks be­fore my visit. My cabin was as A-list as the name of the train is fa­mous. Bur­gundy car­pets lined the floors, while the wal­nut-and-teak door and wall pan­els were adorned with mother-of-pearl sten­cils. The sofa was cov­ered with plush ma­roon and plat­inum up­hol­stery and a lit­tle lamp with a fringed fab­ric shade sat at the win­dow, while hid­den away in a cup­board was a wash-basin with shiny chrome taps.

“No toi­let?” I asked, only to be told that, to keep the train as au­then­tic as pos­si­ble, these re­main at the end of each cabin and that show­ers have only just been in­tro­duced to the most ex­pen­sive suites. I was quite taken with the idea that we were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing lux­ury as it would have been back in 1883 when a Bel­gian en­tre­pre­neur de­signed this train to take the cream of so­ci­ety be­tween the cap­i­tal cities of Paris and Is­tan­bul. Orig­i­nally the jour­ney to link Europe with

⊳ Asia, it now only of­fers that cross­ing a cou­ple of times a year, but this short­ened Euro­pean route is equally as pop­u­lar.

We left the la­goons of Venice be­hind, sip­ping cham­pagne and eat­ing fresh fruit while watch­ing the ur­ban trap­pings of the out­skirts give way to pock­ets of vine­yards. We briefly stopped at Verona, Shakespeare’s leg­endary city where the star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet gazed upon each other, but there was no get­ting off – in­stead our minds were left to imag­ine the scene as we headed to the din­ing car­riage for a multi-course lunch of freshly baked bread, olive oil pro­duced in the land­scape through which we were pass­ing, and a con­coc­tion of flavours such as but­ter­bean mash and pineap­ple cooked in brown sugar with salted caramel.

I wad­dled back to my cabin then took time to sit and watch the fields morph into moun­tains as we wove be­tween the jagged spires of the Dolomites, en route to Aus­tria via the Bren­ner Pass – a Trans-alpine route used since the Ro­man times. De­spite the speed of flights, there’s some­thing truly mag­i­cal about trav­el­ling by train. Per­haps it’s the pace – slow and steady. Maybe it’s the views – for no one can deny that watch­ing the world go by, con­stantly chang­ing from the com­fort of a car­riage win­dow, beats the squeezed per­spec­tive wit­nessed from an air­craft porthole on take­off and land­ing. Or, very pos­si­bly, it’s the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of the jour­ney. It was funny to think that here I was nav­i­gat­ing across bor­ders into the ski town of Inns­bruck and this had all be­gun by catch­ing a train from the sta­tion 10 min­utes from my front door.

As the “buon­giorno” s turned to “Grüss Gott” s, the pi­anist in the lounge car be­gan to play and, af­ter chang­ing into my fin­ery (for you can never be over­dressed on the Ori­ent Ex­press), I grabbed my­self a G&T – all in the name of re­search – and lis­tened as the mu­si­cian’s fin­gers flut­tered over the ivory as smoothly as the train pushed on to­wards Switzer­land. Men were dressed in tuxe­dos; women had or­na­mented their hair with plumes of black feath­ers and wrapped se­quined shawls around their shoul­ders.

The food and cham­pagne kept com­ing as we sat down to an­other multi-course feast while the moun­tains turned pink in the sun­set. For­get Paris, I mused, this was a move­able feast.

Back in my room the ste­ward had trans­formed the sofa into a bed and I fell into it, drunk on food. I tried to stay awake, peer­ing through the win­dow to make out the tiny choco­late-box vil­lages through which we’d pass, but be­fore I knew it the gen­tle sway of the car­riage rocked me to sleep as we bounded on­wards in the night.

Home­ward bound

Break­fast came to my com­part­ment as the sun rose over the out­skirts of Paris the next morn­ing. Once more we were back in France’s be­witch­ing city, but now our ar­rival was with a bit more fan­fare. Some pas­sen­gers left, fol­lowed by porters with their lug­gage. But, head­ing home, I re­mained on for lunch, sip­ping and savour­ing my last glass of wine from this re­mark­able blue train.

At Calais, the train ter­mi­nates and lux­ury coaches take you onto the Chan­nel Tun­nel train’s ve­hi­cle car­riages be­fore de­posit­ing you at Folke­stone Sta­tion where the Bri­tish Pull­man is wait­ing.

It wasn’t only pas­sen­gers who ar­rived at the red-bricked plat­form fes­tooned with flow­ers. Trainspot­ters also came, note­books in hands, to glimpse this lo­co­mo­tive stal­wart. No mat­ter where I travel, I find that the Euro­peans – and par­tic­u­larly the Bri­tish – are most en­am­oured with trains. Per­haps it’s be­cause we em­braced rail travel first.

I re­garded my own coun­try now, through the large win­dows of this Vic­to­rian car­riage, eat­ing a hot scone and drink­ing tea, and saw it from a new per­spec­tive. Af­ter the fields and moun­tains of the con­ti­nent I re­alised that we too have lush green beauty in buck­et­loads, and our towns with their cob­bled streets, canals and wa­ter­ways have his­tory to match that found in Venice and Paris.

Con­tin­u­ing on to Lon­don, I mar­velled at how ef­fi­cient our tube net­work is to get me from Vic­to­ria sta­tion to Water­loo where I would catch my last train home. I had ex­pe­ri­enced two very dif­fer­ent train jour­neys – from the grown-up In­ter­rail ex­pe­ri­ence to the ul­ti­mate in lux­ury on the Ori­ent Ex­press. I thought by the time I got home I would have de­cided which was best – the bud­get or the blowout. But I was fur­ther than ever from a de­ci­sion.

When it comes to trains, I rea­soned as the fa­mil­iar towns I passed on my way home flashed by, the jour­ney – no mat­ter how com­fort­able or ba­sic – is as much a part of the trip as any­thing else. And when it comes to low ver­sus high-end travel I can’t help but feel that a lit­tle bit of both is the real ticket to ad­ven­ture, and that each of­fers an ex­pe­ri­ence that – re­gard­less of the cost – is truly price­less.

‘I re­garded my own coun­try, through the win­dow of this Vic­to­rian car­riage, eat­ing a scone and drink­ing tea, see­ing it from a new per­spec­tive’

“We left the la­goons of Venice be­hind, sip­ping cham­pagne and eat­ing fresh fruit while watch­ing the ur­ban trap­pings of the out­skirts give way to pock­ets of vine­yards.” Phoebe Smith WAN­DER­LUST TRAVEL PHOTO OF THE YEAR For months, our judges have poured over

Twist on a clas­sic The Venice Sim­plonOri­ent-ex­press weaves its way through Europe, – but it’s not the only way to cross the con­ti­nent

Wa­ter & wine The view down Venice’s Grand Canal from Santa Lu­cia sta­tion is a fit­ting in­tro­duc­tion to the ‘Float­ing City’; ( left page, clock­wise from top left) Shakespeare & Co book­shop; fu­elling up pre-trip at the Plum & Spilt Milk; the pub­lic sleeper t

Bells & boats Paris’ iconic Notre Dame cathe­dral draws the crowds, but the book­shop op­po­site it is a tran­quil haven

Wa­ter ways When it comes to Italy’s Venice, a clas­sic gon­dola ride is the only way to ex­plore

Meals on wheels ( clock­wise from this) Pass­ing the Dolomites while head­ing to the lounge car; the friendly ste­ward; break­fast in bed; en­joy­ing the food and peo­ple-watch­ing at Hem­ing­way’s haunt, La Closerie des Li­las

Tak­ing the cor­ri­dor through Europe Bid­ding Venice farewell, the Ori­ent Ex­press heads off on its jour­ney

First-class crash outs A sneak peek at one of the Ori­ent Ex­press’ most ex­pen­sive bed­room suites

Vic­to­rian progress Leav­ing be­hind the lux­ury af­ter mak­ing one last con­nec­tion at Lon­don Vic­to­ria

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