♦ SUB-EDITOR/WRITER ♦ Planning a trip on the modern Orient Express to honour a giant of the rails
Ahh, the romance of rail travel…
Yes, the Orient Express was the godfather of luxury rail adventures, and this month sees 135 years since the first service rolled out of Paris on its way to Vienna on 5 June 1883, one year after a successful pilot run.
Don’t you mean ‘ is the godfather’?
It’s complicated, so bear with me. June 1889 saw the birth of the train’s signature route, direct from Paris to Istanbul and passing through Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. Then the 1920s and 30s saw it spawn several sister lines with (confusingly) similar names, extending its arm all the way across Europe.
Sounds good so far. What went wrong?
Purists saw 1977 as the death of the ‘original’ Orient Express, as operator Compagnie des Wagons-lits binned the Istanbul service and handed day-to-day running of its lines to the national rail firms of Germany, Austria and France. It continued in various guises for the next 32 years, its routes shrinking until the last one – Strasbourg to Vienna – closed in 2009. Ah, you mean the Venice Simplon-orientExpress. This is the brainchild of American James Sherwood, who spent years buying up 1920s and ’30s carriages (many belonging to the old Orient Express – the one ditched in 1977) before launching a London-to-venice service in 1982, a time-frozen replica of the ‘Train of Kings’ at the very height of its pomp.
OK. I think I’m on the right track – pardon the pun. So how can I pay tribute?
In many ways the Orient Express defined the first great era of international train travel, so any long rail journey with rich views from your cabin is arguably homage enough. Plus, it produced so many subsidiary routes that a number of trains traversing southern and eastern Europe now trace its early days. But if you have the cash to spare, recreating the old London-to-venice route on board its modern-day equivalent costs upwards of £2,000 and is well worth the outlay for heaps of travel nostalgia in return.