Travelling on the Orient Express is unlike any other journey I have ever taken by train. From the moment I arrived at London’s Victoria Station, to the moment I got off the train at Venice’s St Lucia Station, it was an exercise in carefully studied old-world luxury and opulence.
I had chosen the short, 31-hour ride between these two cities mostly because it seemed the best way to test-drive this unique experience, but also because I liked the itinerary. London — via Calais, Paris, the Swiss Alps, the Italian Dolomites and a handful of Italian cities — to Venice, a city I had never been to. Then spend two days there before taking a plane back to London. So doable in its simplicity for someone who had never before travelled more than six consecutive hours on a train.
By the time my partner in crime and I turned up at London’s Victoria station to board the British Pullman train, we were already tired from excitement. I had been counting down the day to this exciting event for months, and on the last night, it was all a bit too much for my poor body to bear. I slept very little and fitfully. At the trains station, we found the special platform from which check-in for the Orient Express takes place. Passengers part with their luggage here, and the next time they see it, it’s in the overhead compartment of their cabin inside the continental Wagons-Lits carriages in Calais.
The journey from London to Folkestone is by the British Pullman train, which is the continental Venice Simplon-Orient Express’ sister train in the UK. Just like their stablemate, the British Pullman carriages come with a lot of history. The one we were in — Vera — was a first-class kitchen car which first saw the light of day in 1932. Seating 20, it was always paired with Audrey as a two-car unit which then plied the London to Brighton route. These carriages heave under the heavy load of history, having both endured direct hits in an air raid at Victoria Station in 1940 before being repaired and restored. Vera then went on to transport Prince Charles’ and Princess Anne on their first trip on an electric train in 1954, while Audrey carried the Queen, the Queen Mother and H.R.H. Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh in 1953.
Well inside Vera, we are welcomed with bellini, rather fitting since the end destination is where the drink was invented — followed shortly by a breakfast of salmon, scrambled eggs, and caviar before we sit back and enjoy watching the English countryside roll by. First the Garden of England (Kent), followed by a couple of industrial towns built along the railway line before Dover spreads itself before us on this glorious morning. As impressive as all this is, it is a bit like having a good starter when you know the main dish is your favourite meal. I was itching to get on to the continental Wagons-Lits.
It took about 4 hours for this to happen. The journey to Folkestone takes about three hours, at which point passengers disembark from the British Pullman train to a fleet of luxury buses which takes them across the English Channel to Calais, before depositing them at the train platform there. There, the most glorious sight of navy blue and golden Venice Simplon-Orient Express carriages, with smiling stewards (not a single stewardess in sight) in a brighter blue uniform and caps standing by each carriage is the the sign that the Venice Simplon-Orient Express experience is about to begin!
I wasn’t the only one jumping out of my skin in sheer excitement. As uniformed stewards stood by the doorway to each carriage waiting to help those who needed it up the narrow, steep stairs to their sleeping cars, most passengers either walked excitedly to their carriages, or took turns taking pictures of each other with the train as a backdrop. I did the same, before finding my carriage and gingerly spreading my hand in the general direction of Juan Pablo, our steward for the entire duration of the trip.
It was like being teleported into another time and age. Brass plates, polished wood, marquetry, Art Deco floral patterns and geometric designs carved into wooden panels all converged in a row of snug cabins which doubled both as rooms for the night and very comfortable window seats by day. Here was a world unencumbered by Wi-Fi, air conditioning and, surprisingly, en suite bathrooms. Each carriage, it turns out, had a small toilet at the end of it that was to be shared by all of the carriage’s passengers. Washing and other matters of personal hygiene in the cabins were to be done in a small fold-up basin that doubled up as a table.
This, I must admit took some getting used to. But as the train set off for Paris, I sat back and began enjoying the journey. A journey which royalty, diplomats, spies, business people and even Agatha Christie – who drew inspiration for the plot of Murder On The Orient Express from her many trips aboard the train — have taken. As the French countryside rolled by, I marvelled at how the esteemed train journey first saw the light of day in 1883, thanks to a Belgian civil engineer by the name of George Nagelmackers, and how many times it rose and fell, only to rise again in new and improved outfits, the Venice Simplon-Orient Express being the latest.
It wasn’t long before it was time to make my way to one of the Orient Express’ three restaurants cars. There, I thoroughly enjoyed a starter of Alaska crab with avocado tartare mayonnaise, beef tournedos with sun dried tomatoes and béarnaise sauce, peppers filled with ratatouille, and fondant potato for the main course. For dessert cheeses and iced strawberry sorbet flavoured with pistachios hit the spot before I made my way to the cocktail bar, where I got even more of a chance to get acquainted with my fellow travellers.
But I did not hang around for long. As the train left Paris’ Gare du Nord station, I found my way to my cabin, which by then had already been converted into a single bed for the night. With the rocking movement of the train and the steady chug-chug noise as a lullaby, I was off to dreamland in just a few minutes. It had, after all been an extraordinary day filled with lots of impressions.
The next day, however, was packed with even more impressions, especially for those who like myself are lovers of nature and fresh air.
On that morning, I woke up to the sound of bells ringing outside the window. Dazed and mystified, I rushed to the window, drew the curtains quickly only to have several of my sensory organs assailed at once. Fresh alpine air from the Swiss mountains assailed my nose at the same time as I clapped eyes on white, bell-clad sheep grazing all over the green lush landscape of what appeared to be a sleepy Swiss village. A pristine lake in the distance reflected the morning sun over half of its surface, the other half shaded by a majestic mountain. I rubbed my eyes, partly to remove the debris that had collected itself in the nook of my eye in the course of the night, but also to convince myself I wasn’t dreaming.
If I had known that the rest of the morning would continue in the same vein I probably would have relaxed more. The Swiss Alps were replaced by the Brenner’s Pass, which in turn gave way to the Italian Dolomites, before more urban landscapes gradually begun to appear. Verona, Milan, Florence. Cities I have never been to passing by in a blur. This, for someone who has a serious case of wanderlust is akin to mild torture. The hot sauna that is summer in mainland Italy did not help matters any.
So by the time the train sidled into Venice’s St. Lucia train station after 31 hours, I was a bundle of mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was happy I had made this once-in-a-lifetime trip. On the other hand, I was sad to say goodbye to the acquaintances I had made in the train, both in the form of fellow travellers and stewards. But most of all, I was glad that the adventure had in no way ended; a weekend in lagoon city, with all its canals and gondolas beckoned.
All photos by Cynthia Wamwayi. For more pictures of the Orient Express trip, check out Luxury Travel Beat’s Facebook page.