ITALY’S in debt, you say? Well, I’m on the Orient Express headed straight to Venice – fiddling while Rome burns, you might say – and there’s no sign of the Italian economy crashing here. As if to prove my point, the flamboyant Massimo shows me another popular purchase from the train’s on-board shop. “These diamond earrings: €4,000. This bracelet: €2,200” he purrs.
“Italians, we have a big emotion for everything” he sighs, as he models the bracelet, with links inspired by the train tracks, around his tanned wrists.
The Orient Express is the epitome of luxury train travel: the vintage carriages are from the 1920s and 30s, 1,700 bottles of champagne are served in a season, the carriages are adorned with art-deco by the likes of René Lalique, and former passengers include aristocrats and politicians.
Georges Nagelmackers of Belgium conceived the trains in 1883, and the first trip carried some forty passengers to Constantinople. Train travel took a turn for the worst during the Second World War, and in 1977 the Orient Express had to hang up its iconic blue hat.
In 1982 the train re-launched. Rail enthusiast James B Sherwood spent £11m locating, purchasing, and restoring some 35 carriages. Suddenly the Orient Express was back on track, and proving itself recession-proof. Additions to destinations included Prague, Budapest, Krakow and Dresden to its list of destinations. Plus, in 2010 it went to Amsterdam on a private charter for the very first time.
We stayed in Carriage A, Cabin 1. Each cabin has its own story: 3544 being used as a brothel, 3425 was shot at during World War II, and 3309 was stuck in a snow drift for ten days outside Istanbul.
Entering the room for the first time is exciting, in particular discovering the James Bond-esque ingenuity: this button calls your personal steward, that table reveals a hidden sink, and this latch manoeuvres to turn your sofa into a bed.
The cabins are a compact piece of luxury: ten coats of varnish are used to make the walls dazzle, art-deco floral and leaf patterns decorate the walls, ladders to climb up to the top bunk are covered in velvet, and there are huge windows for you to look out onto the view at all times. The cabin is spacious enough for one, but at times cramped for two (especially when dressing up for the evening).
Come dinnertime our blue-suited, gold-buttoned, and white-gloved steward, Juan, begins turning our sofa into a bed. The train jolts a few times and passengers hold on for balance. Juan, however, stays upright, like the calm in the eye of the storm, and continues working. What’s the strangest request? He makes our bed and answers matter of fact: “Sometimes someone may press the bell at 3am in the morning, and ask for champagne to celebrate. So I will have to wake up, put my uniform back on, and do this.”
“As the bell is very close to the bed, recently a couple pressed it every hour four times,” he pauses. “Accidentally.”
The bar car is buzzing before dinner: waiters carry trays full of cocktails, winding their way through well-heeled ladies and shiny-shoed gentlemen. Any sudden jolts on the train don’t faze these guys.
Walter, our waiter, bounces towards us. He’s short, smiley, and black-spectacled. He talks through the cocktail menu and suspiciously suggests an Agatha Christie cocktail. It’s the most recent addition to the menu, and his own unique creation. “The drink’s ingredients are from ten different countries”, he grins.
There’s no murder in the Bar Car; the drink is a sweet delight, garnished with a beaming blueberry. Another round is ordered. The air is filled with soft melodies from the grand piano, mixed with the merry clink of glasses: a perfect concoction to people watch and sightsee.
A woman is lost in the latest copy of Tatler, and a man is reading the menu with a monocle: all normal sights on the train. When we stop in Paris, however, a younger bohemian crowd of twenty-somethings hop on.
Dressing up, be it at Secret Cinema or masked balls, have grown in popularity amongst young Londoners. There’s no reason why the Orient-Express wouldn’t excite the city’s hipsters who love to dress-up (and have deep pockets).
“You can never be overdressed on board”: states the Orient Express travel information. Women wear flapper dresses to full-length evening gowns, and men are in tuxedos and black ties. We put on our finest and instantly feel like we’re transported to a bygone era. The only thing that breaks the belief is the odd digital camera flash by an excited passenger.
We sniff our way along to the end of the train, a full quarter of a mile long. We spot the brightest green macaroons, waiting to be delivered, as pretty as their surroundings. Dinner is served in three restaurant cars and there are six chefs on board, who create up to 185 dinners a night. The military-style operation is run by French head chef, Christian Bodiguel, and completed in a tiny kitchen. The result? Extraordinary.
Each dish arrives looking like a work of art: lobster with confit tomato petals, roast fillet of charolais beef, and, of course, pistachio, with those gorgeous coloured macaroons. Five courses, two bottles of wine, and at least three hours later, we’re full. We head to our cabins and are rocked to sleep by the train.
Waking up at 5am isn’t easy, especially on holiday, and with no showers on board. When you’re promised the views of the Swiss Alps, however, it’s worth setting your alarm clock.
As the temperature drops, passengers wrap themselves in navy blue robes, complete with golden Orient Express logos. Early risers gather to look in the aisles of the carriages for a better view, and there is a buzz in the air that soon the sights will appear.
The train continues chugging, people wake their travelling partners up, and we are all soon rewarded with the magnificence of Lake Zurich and the Alps. Each of the large windows offers a widescreen view; rolling images of scattered sheep, massive pine trees, and endless mountains.
You certainly feel like you’re away from it all. The rush hour of London’s Victoria station, which is where the journey begins, feels like the 1,715km away that it is. Plus with no wireless or mobile phone signals, it’s a unique opportunity to relax. Slow and steady definitely wins the passengers over. Sip an English Breakfast tea, enjoy the fresh croissants, and gaze out on the magnificent scenery. Bliss.
Breathtaking views in a luxurious setting are just what the train is known for, and rightly so. Exactly 31 hours later we arrive in Venice, feeling rejuvenated and ready to explore a city just as beautiful as the train.
Whoever said the journey is just as important as the destination could have easily been thinking about the Orient Express.
Kohinoor Sahota travelled with Kuoni (Tel: 01306 747008. www.kuoni.co.uk). It offers four nights on a tailor-made holiday to Italy, travelling on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, with return flights with British Airways, from £2,423. Liaisons Abroad (Tel: 020 7808 7330. www.liaisonsabroad.com) offer opera tickets, guided walking tours and off-the beaten-track restaurant bookings for Verona, Venice or any European city.
For just £60, you can leave London at night and wake up in the beautiful West Highlands with deer bounding outside the windows. If you continue from Fort William on the West Highland Line to Mallaig, you’ll pass over the viaduct used in the Harry Potter films. Or, once up north, take the Royal Scotsman for unbridled luxury. www.scotrail.co.uk, www.royalscotsman.com
Modestly dubbed “the most famous train journey in the world”, it takes seven hours to travel just 180 miles from Zermatt to San Moritz, travelling over 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels, and passing through the Rhine Gorge, Mattertal Valley and Oberalp Pass. www.glacierexpress.ch
THE BERGEN LINE
Travelling from Oslo to Bergen, this, too, takes seven hours, with even more vertiginous views across fjords, glaciers and icy peaks. Make sure you stop off to use the Flam Railway, opened in 1940, which climbs 2,838 feet in just 12 miles past two spectacular waterfalls.
This 2008 newcomer to the luxury train scene offers a variety of trips through eastern Europe. It’s not cheap (starting at £2,500), but it’s by far the most refined way of passing through Transylvania.
GOLDEN EAGLE TRANS-SIBERIAN EXPRESS
The world’s greatest train journey, immortalised in Doctor Zhivago, was always about the hypnotically vast open spaces rather than comfort. Then, in 2007, the capitalist revolution finally caught up: for £5,595 and up, you can now speed through the grim wastes in luxury unimaginable to its few inhabitants.