The True Oriental Experience: the Venice Simplon Orient Express
Published 02 December 2011
Steeped in tradition and elegance, the Venice Simplon Orient-Express epitomises the grandeur of rail travel. Nick Walton climbs aboard the world’s most famous train to experience a more intimate affair with Europe.
Text by Nick Walton
A crowd has gathered at Venice’s Santa Lucia railway station to welcome a celebrity. Cameras flash, parents carry children on their shoulders so that they can get a better look, and a host of languages and dialects mingle with the sound of trains, conductor’s whistles and boarding announcements. The ambience is that of a movie premiere or an A-list party.
Everyone is here to welcome the Venice Simplon Orient-Express, a train synonymous with the romance and mystery of European train travel. She finally pulls to a stop, the early morning sun already gleaming off her royal blue paint work, stewards in matching tunics and caps are quick to reach the platform, a host of duties ahead of them as they welcome another batch of travellers looking to capture rail travel’s age-old elegance.
Despite an age dominated by ocean-jumping jets, the seduction of train travel lingers still. Rail travel offers a decidedly slower, more intimate experience, one that invites you not to take a sleeping pill in the hopes of being productive in some far-off time zone, but to dress for dinner, enjoy lingering afternoon teas to an ever-changing backdrop and to feel the road, or in this case the tracks, beneath you.
“Everyone is here to welcome the Venice Simplon Orient-Express, a train synonymous with the romance and mystery of European train travel. ”
In Europe especially, train travel has retained its pedigree, rather like the martini. At first it was restricted to the nobility and the rich, with ever-expanding rail lines a means for European nations to display their power and prowess. But as air travel developed, those esteemed trains of old became points of national pride. While you can still jump on one of the continent’s high-speed rail services and see entire cities flash by, for many travellers train travel remains a chance to step into a time warp, to an era when tuxedos were the norm, not the exception, when lunch came with no less than three courses, and when your wine would be decanted perfectly by a rock-steady waiter without a drop being spilled, despite the incessant swaying of the carriage.
If any train epitomises the romantic era of European rail history, it’s the Venice Simplon, operated by Orient-Express. Although not the original Express d’Orient – an ordinary sleeper train until recently operated by Austrian Rail, this 1930s recreation decisively captures the Orient-Express era of train travel, one of spies and treaties, Agatha Christie novels and whirlwind romances.
First built in France, the original incarnation of the VSOE left Gare de Strasbourg in Paris on October 4, 1883. Its gleaming carriages were the result of an attempt by Belgian businessman Georges Nagelmackers to create an unsurpassed train experience for the nobility of Europe, during a period when steam trains were the private jets of the age. This was a time way before a single currency and the European Union; the continent was still a splattering of independent and relatively peaceful kingdoms, and Nagelmacker’s train was soon known as “the king of trains, the train of kings.”
The name came from the opening of the Simplon tunnel in 1906, creating a rail link between Italy and Switzerland and a short cut from Paris to Venice. Rail travel continued its glamorous acceleration, with its heyday in the 1930s, when a celebrity cast, combined with exotic destinations, fine wine and gourmet meals, made for the perfect backdrop for Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient-Express.
However, war soon turned Europe upside down; ferry connections were cut and rail services severely affected. In fact, the Orient-Express’ carriage 2419 was used for Germany’s surrender in November 1918, and again by Hitler at the surrender of France in 1940. That particular carriage was later destroyed by SS troops in 1945, with the rest of the famous train scattered to the wind. In 1977, James Sherwood, president of the Sea Containers Group, bought several carriages at a Sotheby’s auction in Monte Carlo, and in May 1982 the Venice Simplon left London’s Victoria Station on the maiden journey of its modern incarnation.
Dressed in a grey pin-stripe suit, I’m guided to my compartment by my steward, a young Australian named Richard, who is dressed in a starched uniform of white shirt and tunic, with a regal-looking overcoat and white gloves to protect against the Venetian morning chill. He stows my cases above the couchette, shows me the porcelain basin hidden away behind gleaming walnut cupboards and leaves me to settle in. Before long a shrill whistle is heard the length of the concourse, and the intensity of the onlookers increases. With a shudder we begin our journey towards London, via Italy, Austria, Switzerland and France. I wave at the families lining the platform, enjoying my fleeting moment in the limelight.
“Dinner on the Venice Simplon is more than just eating, it’s a visit to the culture and traditions of Europe’s past.”
The Venice Simplon is luxurious to be sure, but the accommodation can be an acquired taste all the same. Compartments comprise a comfortable couch-like bench with a delicate rosewood foldaway writing table. My timber-lined stateroom gleams under polish and the world beyond presents itself through a large viewing window that lets in the scenery without the sense of being exposed. But in the pursuit of authenticity, some sacrifices in facilities were required; there is a shared bathroom at the end of each carriage and no showers. Heating comes from restored boilers manned by the ever-attentive stewards. However, I am more than willing to accept missing out on one morning shower for the opportunity to travel on this moving, living piece of history.
The train ducks and weaves its way down narrow, fertile valleys into Italy’s north; across the valleys, towering cliffs loom over villages bathed in warm terracotta, and the bells of monasteries and ancient churches sing. Beside the tracks are vine groves and tiny hamlets, and I wave at farmers in their fields from my cabin’s open window. They wave back; as burly as these rural men are, there is something magical about the VSOE as she charges up the valley, the sun gleaming off the gold seal on each carriage. She is welcomed and revered in cities and towns alike, a symbol of connection and of heritage. On a map, I watch our progress, matching the names of village stations that flash by the window with those on our snake-like route. The red line wiggles to and fro across the page, indicating our course through Italy’s Trento region, up into the mountains of Austria, crossing the border at Brenner.
There is a quiet knock at the door. Perhaps it’s my contact, here to pass me a secret microfilm obtained through others’ daring and courage, which I must safely shepherd to Britain? No, it’s the Italian maitre d’, a bulky, serious man resplendent in a dark dinner suit complete with tails. He looks like he would be as comfortable in the wrestling ring as the dining room and invites me to take lunch in 15 minutes, pointing out that I would be “most comfortable” in my jacket and tie (which now hang from hooks behind the door). His prediction is more one of social temperature than that of northern Italian afternoons. Call it pomp or tradition, but there is something hopelessly elegant about dressing in one’s train compartment for lunch only 40 metres away. After all, it’s the contrasts to our usual routines that make holidays such as this so exciting and memorable.
I step from my cabin like a character straight out of “From Russia with Love,” and head down the narrow corridor towards the dining car. Guests are invited to lunch at particular times so as not to lose the ambience of the smallish dining cars. I’m seated at an intimate table for two (alas, I’m the only guest on the train travelling alone) as small villages whiz by, each with a tall church steeple as its centrepiece.
I enjoy filo parcels filled with spring vegetables and cured ham, topped with a spicy tomato puree, and John Dory with a butter and dry vermouth sauce, served with braised chicory and caramelised orange rind. It’s amazing what the VSOE’s chefs can do in the confined space of his galley and I’m already suitably impressed.
“Call it pomp or tradition, but there is something hopelessly elegant about dressing in one’s train compartment for lunch only 40 metres away.”
The Alps march closer and by afternoon we’re immersed in a whitewashed world, the banks on either side of the tracks crowded with snow-encrusted evergreen trees. The snow is a fresh powder that lies on every surface, from the rails to signposts, as we climb to the Brenner Pass. We pause briefly in Brenner, the Italian town on the border with Austria, where everything is still and thick snowflakes continue to fall. The convenience of the European Union has taken away some of the mystery of frontier crossing – no more uniformed inspectors looking for spies or refugees – but at least it means a quicker turnaround, and before long we’re cutting our way through deep green valleys criss-crossed with rivers and spanned bridges.
By mid-afternoon we’ve wound our way down from the pass into the Inn Valley to Innsbruck, Austria. Stretching on the platform, I can spy the three peaks of Nordkette, Patscherkofel and Serles, which besiege the city, before a whistle tells passengers it’s time to climb aboard again, as we continue on to Switzerland.
Not long after leaving Innsbruck, another small knock announces Richard and afternoon tea. Strong, rich Earl Grey from London’s Fortnum & Mason, delicate fairy cakes and cucumber sandwiches are served complete with silver tea pots and teaspoons, and I’m left in the intimacy of my warm compartment to watch the sun set through a frigid evening sky. Curls of chimney smoke dance from far-off alpine villages as dusk falls across the slopes of the mighty Mount Grossglockner.
Dinner on the Venice Simplon is more than just eating, it’s a visit to the culture and traditions of Europe’s past, and the rule is you can never be too dressy. I join other guests in the lounge bar for a dirty martini and listen to the pianist play Rat Pack classics before making my way to the Etoile du Nord dining car, which is bathed with golden light from table lamps in peach and rose. The settings are all gleaming silver, the wine crisp and cool from crystal glasses and the meal a medley of imagination and colour. Outside there is little to see in the encroaching darkness save the flurry of snowflakes illuminated by the lone lamps of tiny stations. Beside me, a handsome middle-aged couple are enjoying a bottle of champagne when the woman excuses herself to go to the powder room.
“Isn’t she a beauty,” says the deeply tanned man dressed in a white suit jacket, leaning towards me. His accent is Italian and playful. I look back in the direction in which his wife is walking and hear him start to laugh. “No, no, my friend, not her! The train! The train! A work of art!” I resist calls from other passengers I’ve met during the day to stay for a third Sidecar, preferring the welcoming solitude of my cabin, which Richard has converted into a bedroom while I was at dinner. The couch has turned into a comfortable bed, with a complimentary cotton dressing gown and velvet slippers laid out across clean, cool starched sheets. The gentle rocking of the train as we move through the mountains of Switzerland, silhouetted by the hunter’s moon which hangs low in the sky, lulls me to sleep. I find my dreams filled with visions of Agatha Christie mysteries, curious French detectives with delicate curling moustaches, of snowbound nights and dancing polished silver.
I wake to a French sunrise over the plains of Champagne, and to a breakfast of fruit and pastry picked up at a French town minutes before it’s served. The sun warms the browns of the earth and we gallop across the countryside, cutting off roads of early morning commuters as we rush by. It’s not easy to dress on the Orient-Express; part of me wants to continue looking out the window and I often have to find a hand-hold. Stopping in the City of Light, I look up at ancient Parisian mansions, and watch chefs load live lobsters, to be served as a final flick of their culinary brush.
Brunch lingers and I’m warmed by the mid-morning sun, but in Calais we must say farewell to the legendary train and board coaches for the Eurotunnel and then the British Pullman up to London. The maitre d’, head chef and head steward turn out in full uniform to say goodbye, while behind them their teams begin preparing for the return trip to Venice, complete with a new load of heritage-hungry train travellers.
Rates for the Venice-London trip (or vice versa) start from £1,550 per person