A few months ago, half the world's newspapers were echoing with the - fortunately mistaken - rumour that the most famous train of all was ceasing operation. Fortunately, it was all simply a mix up, and spring has set the Orient Express back on the rails after her usual winter break. Her belle epoque furnishings have been revarnished, the velvets revamped, and everything is fine-tuned for the new season.
Around a dozen European cities, from Paris to Venice, Krakow and Budapest, will see the glamorous carriages of this myth on rails, which, since it began operating in 1883, has carried the creme de la creme of several generations across continental Europe, not to mention inspiring films, novels, and even a foxtrot.
The 'magic carpet to the East' is the phrase used by a famous chronicler of the period to describe the express when she set out on her maiden trip, with only forty guests on board, all carefully selected by the brain behind the train, the Belgian businessman Georges Nagelmackers. The train was practically born a legend, and her fame has grown decade by decade.
There was plenty to write about when the travellers included the crowned heads of Europe, artists, spies or dealers of renown; but the train's log is also filled with tales of incidents such as when the waggons were attacked by bandits who took hostage some of the passengers, or the time when the passengers and crew were forced to shoot the wolves prowling around when the train got stuck in snow in the middle in the Balkans.
The name has always had a certain cachet - a fact clearly understood when Graham Greene's Stamboul Train was published in America under the title Orient Express - but it's not been roses all the way for the great lady of the rails. Kings, aristocrats, tycoons and all kinds of celebrities of their times certainly imbued her with great prestige, but the fact is that during the Twenties and Thirties, among the wealthy, the passenger list included more lowly couriers and messengers, businessmen and even a minority of simple and anonymous tourists.
The First World War was the first major challenge for the Orient Express, one of whose carriages was used for the signing of Germany's surrender in 1918. Then, after two decades of renewed splendour, came the Second World War. Hitler made use of precisely that same waggon, number 2419, to put his seal on the French surrender in 1940, which was a disaster for the famous express.
At the end of the war, the line was restored, but the desolation of continental Europe that loomed beyond the luxury windows offered little encouragement to frivolity. The Cold War frontiers were hostile, and air travel offered speed and practical solutions that won out over journeys by train, including the Orient-Express. She looked set to end her days transporting immigrants in search of fortune in her increasingly shabby carriages.
In May 1977 the train made her last trip, and months later five of the carriages were auctioned at Sotheby's. There, the American entrepreneur James Sherwood bought a couple, with the idea of restoring them and re-establishing this erstwhile glory for discerning travellers headed for Venice, where he was also the owner of the legendary Hotel Cipriani. But far from being content with those first two sleeper cars, Sherwood and his wife were caught up by the project and spent the next five years visiting museums and private collections in search of vintage carriages to add to the collection. These were later entrusted to Gerard Gallet, the man responsible for restoring the lustre of yesteryear to marquetry by Rene Prou, Morisson and Nelson, Lalique crystal and the mahogany panelling and lacquered chinoiserie that, since 1982, has once again decorated the elegant lounge, sleeper and dining cars. Now, the Orient Express is once more on track for lovers of luxury, honeymoon couples and all who want to experience for themselves this legend about which so much has been written.
The routes of the Orient Express
Although in its heyday the most famous itinerary was the Paris-Istanbul run, that was never the only route on offer. Now, between March and November around a dozen routes are available to be travelled in full or in part. The full choice of options can be checked on the train's website, but range from trips that last less than a day, such as Venice-Rome for 660 € per person, or Paris-London for 690 €, to the legendary journey from Paris right across Europe to Istanbul. This journey, only offered once a year, lasts almost a week and costs 6,580 € per person.
In addition to accommodation, when the chosen itinerary includes a night on board the price includes all meals. Lunch and dinner are served in the restaurant car, while breakfast and afternoon tea are usually served in the traveller's own compartment.
During the day dress is casual but elegant, while in the evenings the men wear suits or tuxedos and the women don their evening gowns.