Grand Entrance: The Orient Express
A century ago, travel wasn’t just about how to get most efficiently from point A to point B: It was as much about the glamour of the journey. Today, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express – still traversing in its iconic route from Venice to Paris – reminds us that a slow arrival is often the most memorable. Cue the monogrammed trunks…
Article by Lindsay Talbot
Photography by Benjamin Bouchet
Styling by Céline Marioni
Prop styling by Aurélien Maillé
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A century ago, travel wasn’t just about how to get most efficiently from point A to point B: It was as much about the glamour of the journey.
Today, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express – still traversing in its iconic route from Venice to Paris – reminds us that a slow arrival is often the most memorable. Cue the monogrammed trunks…
In an era when everything is instantaneous, the greatest luxury may well be the languorous arrival—no wonder, then, that we’ve seen the revival of so many legendary trains over the last few years (India’s Palace on Wheels; the Royal Scotsman in the British Isles; the Blue Train in South Africa).
Counter clockwise from left:
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Through Space and Time
But in the annals of great lines, the most legendary of all is the Orient—Express. With its elegant blue-and—gold carriages and mahogany corridors, the train offers a journey not just through space—but through time as well.
Its history began when a Belgian banker’s son, Georges Nagelmackers, envisioned “a train that would span a continent, running on a continuous ribbon of metal for more than 1,500 miles,” as E. H. Cookridge Writes in Orient Express: The Life and Times of the World’s Most Famous Train.
In 1883, Nagelmackers’s Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits made its ﬁrst trip, from Paris’s Gare de Strasbourg to the minarets of Constantinople, in three days, and the newspapers dubbed it the Orient-Express. The name stuck, even though Istanbul was as far east as the train ever went.
Counterclockwise from left:
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A Fallen Victim
The Orient-Express was styled after Europe’s grandest hotels, and its romance would soon become as mythical as it was mysterious
(Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich both climbed aboard, and the train made an appearance in a number of ﬁlms, including Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and the James Bond thriller From Russia with Love). But not even a glittering reputation could prevent the line from falling victim to the modern need for speed, and the train was eventually retired, a relic in an age of supersonic Maglev trains and of course airplanes.
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Happily, the Orient-Express’s legacy lives on, largely due to one man’s obsession. In 1977, hotelier James Sherwood bought two Orient-Express sleeper cars at a Sotheby’s auction.
He went on to acquire 35 Pullmans, sleepers, and restaurant cars from museums and private collectors, restoring them in workshops throughout Europe. And in 1982, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (now owned by Belmond) made its ﬁrst journey, from London to Venice.
Today, riding from London to Venice—or Venice to Stockholm or Budapest to Paris (there are 26 routes in all)—remains a traveler’s rite of passage, and a glimpse into the glamour of a bygone era.
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“The very name is romantic,” says creative director Yolanda Edwards, who took the overnight Venice- to-Paris route last spring and fell in love with the train’s celebration of the traditional and the old-fashioned, right down to the dinnertime black-tie dress code.
“It’s a different way of traveling. Everything is heightened; everyone seems more mysterious than if you were seeing them in a hotel. You get to play a role in a narrative that’s been going on for a century.” She especially loved the leisurely pace, how it forced her and her family to do things they wouldn’t have time for on a regular trip: read, write letters, and simply gaze at the passing landscape. (It should be noted that the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’s slowness isn’t a luxury but a necessity: There are speed restrictions on vintage carriages.)
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Choose Your Journey
The cathartic rhythm of a train, as Eric Lomax wrote in The Railway Man, says more “about departure than a petrol-driven snarl can ever do; perhaps it has something close to the beat of our pulse.”
It may not be the fastest way to travel, but it’s certainly the most evocative—and a testament to why the rails are enjoying a second golden age.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’s most popular route, London to Venice, runs from March through November, but Belmond also offers a once-a-year Paris-Istanbul train that stops in Budapest and Bucharest, following a route similar to that of the 1883 maiden voyage (800-524-2420; belmond.com; trips from $970 per person; London—Venice from $3,140; Paris—Istanbul from $9,000).