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The legend of the Orient Express

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

Once upon a time there where central stations manned by porters carrying multiple Louis Vuitton travel trunks to private carriage on a luxury train. Touristic travels were just for restless and curious souls, well-to-do people yearning for romance. They deserved to have the most comforting journey during their holidays, settling themselves in a cozy cabin being pampered by the passenger rail equipment 24/7. It was the time when traveling was a real pleasure, to enjoy the panorama or reading a book in peace and quiet.  Railroads in the 20th century, so well entrenched, were the dominate mode of transportation and the largest and renowned train stations where built to reach also the most remote spots of a country. An increasing number of people, too often crammed in wagons, used the railway to go to work or simply to make short trips. Everyone was exposed to railroads in one shape or form, particularly because it was the fastest and preferred method of travel, though just a few could afford and enjoy the comfort of a quiet trip. 

One of the first advertising poster of the Orient Express , 1888

The "Golden Age" of railroads took place during the first half of the 20th century, with the building of several famous passenger trains, stations and terminals. It was during this time that the famous and legendary named trains began to appear and, among them, the legendary “Orient Express”.

The Orient Express was the train of magic, mystery, love and dream. Onboard of it history has been written and it has witnessed relevant events, thanks to the personalities of the time that ussually travelled on this train. The idea that many people have of the Orient Express is something related to fiction rather than a tangible entity. The most intriguing and captivating stories have been told on movie screens about this train, so that  we tend to associate it to noir films or books: Poirot solved many cases on it, “Lady Vanishes” by Alfred Hitchock in 1938, James Bond's fight with a rival spy is set aboard the train  in the movie “From Russia with Love” of 1963. Also writers seized the moment to exploit its fascinating mystery: “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) by Agatha Christie is one of the best known stories related to the Orient Express. 

The Orient Express was a long-distance luxury passenger train which elegant coaches were created in 1883 by Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) of the Belgian banker and entrepreneur Georges Nagelmackers and it connected Paris Gare de l’Est to Istanbul. The idea to build high-end rail caravans addressed to wealthy people came to his mind after he saw the Pullman train built by Pullman Car Company of Mr George Pullman during a trip to the USA. They were real traveling hotels with every comfort to meet the most demanding passengers' needs. 

The American counterpart of the Orient Express: the Pullmann Car, Lithograph advertisement, Strobridge & Co, 1894.

Inside one of the US Pullman Cars, 1900. They were designed to revolutionize the way people traveled by railroad. These new cars provided comfort to those who rode with a variety of different and fun opportunities. They had everything from Dining cars to sleeping cars.

Inside the luxury Pullman parlor Car , early 1900s

The dining room, early 1900s

Inside of the restaurant car, 1893. The fine interiors are so gorgeous and carefully tended.

Dining car, 1895 Baltimore and Ohio RR publicity photo

Pullman porter helping passenger onboard, 1900.

Georges Nagelmackers witnessed the many innovations in railway travel in US and wanted to bring them also to Europe. He envisioned ...

“... a train that would span a continent, running on a continuous ribbon of metal for more than 1,500 miles.”

— E. H. Cookridge, Orient Express: The Life and Times of the World's Most Famous Train.

The Orient Express was the first of its category to cross Europe in that way in 1883 and a  symbol of the Belle Époque. It was mainly taken by high-ranking personalities like nobility, actors and businessmen who loved to surround themselves with luxury and comfort and enjoy fine food served in the restaurant car with silver flatware. 

Most important, it was the first time that a train connected Western Europe to the East, although the passengers were forced to embark on a ship in the last stretch of the journey. Even though it was introduced in 1883, it was in 1888 that the train reached for the first time the city of Istanbul by rail, and not by ship. The train crossed almost the entire old continent following the path traced by the Danube and stopped in cities such as Strasbourg, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest and Varna on the Black Sea.

Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL)

The first Orient Express, 1883

The first Orient Express featured in L’Illustration, 1884

Orient-Express, west of Vienna, 1885

First Orient Express brochure, 1887

In 1890, photographer Paul Nadar took the oldest known photograph of the arrival of the Orient Express at its final destination.

The Orient Express at the Turkish border in 1894

Advertising, 1898

Orient Express, Paris - Istanbul, 1902

Photos from this period are rare. This picture shows an American lady during a stop of the Orient Express at Niš (Serbia) in 1903

Passenger rail equipment, CIWL archive, 1910s

Orient Express poster, 1891

Postcard from 1903 with the Orient Express

Luggage tag of the Orient Express

Ticket for the Orient Express, 1898

Lunch menu, CIWL archive, 1925

Passenger rail equipment, CIWL archive, 1922

Orient Express, 1920s, near Wettingen, Switzerland (SBB)

Orient-Express Paris - Bucharest, S3/6 no.18 470, Geislinger Steige, Germany, 1928

Dining car of the Orient Express in 1884

A cross section of an Orient Express dining car, 1896.

A passanger boarding on the Orient Express, CIWL (Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-lits) archive, end of 1800s

Inside the Restaurant car, CIWL archive, 1900

Two fashionable women posing outside the train of wonders, CIWL archive, 1920s

Luggage carries, CIWL archive, 1920s

This train was famous for the comfort delivered, for the haute cuisine and, of course, for the luxurious and refined interiors able to seduce visitors watching the world go by from their seats. That’s why the Orient Express gained the name of “The King of Trains” as well as “The Train of Kings”. 

Flaunting fine interiors as well as the most high-tech facilities of the day featured the cabins: central heating, hot water and gas lighting, incredible luxuries such as padded interiors, Cordoba leather ceilings, Art Nouveau style Lalique crystal bas-reliefs panels with Cuban mahogany as well as René Prou Art Déco style elegant walls of the reastaurant car. And also velvet curtains, Gobelins tapestries, embroidered tablecloths, silk sheets, marble bath fixtures, crystal goblets and silver cutlery.

Not just finest interiors aboard of this travelling wonder but also top-level chefs with their delicious and refined cuisine delighted high-society passengers. 

Original pictures of the time are rare. The CIWL online archive gives you an idea of luxury travels since 1876, though most interesting pictures are part of private collections. We can't do much but waiting for private collectors to decide to finally share these rarities with public - the story of the Orient Express is something that must be passed out to future generations, because it's true that its aura of mistery makes this train more appealing but it is a shame we cannot have access to sotheming that made and witnessed history. 

However, thanks to the exhibition "Once upon a time the Orient Express", held in Paris in 2014, we can finally admire the interiors of the original cars completely renewed as they looked once. This reconstruction, made in the minimum details, brought the train to its former glory.

A vintage postcard showing the Dining car of the Orient Express, 1910 One of the rare public pictures.

The dining room inside the renewed interiors of the Orient Express, "Once upon a time the Orient Express", Paris, 2014

Lalique crystal bas-reliefs panels with Cuban mahogany, the bliss of Art Déco style in this car's wooden walls, "Once upon a time the Orient Express", Paris, 2014

The piano in the bar car. The travel trunks are authentic. The exhibition revealed objects and photos. Visitors had the chance to embark inside the original train cars and look at the toilets and the vanity sinks, dishes and silverware, travel trunks or restaurant menus. As again old posters, travel documents and anecdotes related to the famous passengers of the Orient Express. "Once upon a time the Orient Express", Paris, 2014

Other amazing Lalique glass panels on the train walls, "Once upon a time the Orient Express", Paris, 2014

This incredibly luxury passenger train was the most renewed of the time. As it happened for the Orient Express with the older US Pullman Train, other legendary trains begun to appear following its footsteps, these were: the French “Blue Train”, the British “Golden Arrow”, the German “North Express”, the Indian “Toy Train” of Darjeeling, the “Canadian” and the “Mombasa-Nairobi” in Kenya. 

Inside of the lounge: Cordoba leather sofas, chairs and poufs sorrounded by mahogany wooden panels with Lalique Art Deco bas-reliefs. "Once upon a time the Orient Express", Paris, 2014

Details of the lamp in the restaurant car, CIWL, 1920s

The wagon lit with the bathroom sink. "Once upon a time the Orient Express", Paris, 2014

Toilet cabinet on a very first wagon-lit.

Warning plates onboard of the Orient Express.

Moynat wardrobe trunk combined functional with aesthetic, 1920. Original trunk showed at the exhibit. Moynat was one of the first trunk producer together with Louis Vuitton.

The malle de beauté by Moynat made in collaboration with Guerlain for the Orient Express exhibit in Paris, 2014. As all the drawers fan out, they reveal a vintage Baccarat bottle of Shalimar perfume from the Roaring Twenties. The malle de beauté required 250 hours of meticulous precision and is available between €4,000 ($5,539) and €40,000 ($55,385).

The service was temporary suspended during World War I and it was resumed in 1919, when the opening of the Simplon tunnel allowed the introduction of a more southerly path via Lausanne, Milan, Venice and Trieste. The train, which name was Simplon Orient Express, was an addition to the old way at the beginning but as time passed it became the most important rail route between Paris and Istanbul. Via northern Italy and the Balkans, Constantinople was reached.

Symbolizing the luxury of a bygone age, when the Simplon Tunnel opened that year, royalty, diplomats and the bourgeoisie would flock to Europe on the iconic trains.

Art Déco style poster of the Simplon Orient Express by llustrator Roger Broders, 1921

Simplon Orient Express, 1926

Simplon Orient Express, 1927

The 1930s represented the “Golden Age” of this luxury train with three services running: the Orient Express, the Simplon Orient Express, and the Arlberg Orient Express, which ran to Budapest via Zürich and Innsbruck. It was during this time that the wagon-lit train reached the peak of its success, becoming famous among celebrieties and important personalities for the luxury it delivered, with comfortable sleeping cars and restaurant cars offering top level cuisine.

Simplon Orient Express brochure, 1930

Simplon Orient Express, 1931

Alberg Orient Express, 1931, ran to Budapest via Zürich and Innsbruck

Simplon Orient Express, 1947

The wagon of the Armistice: the Allied and Germany representatives at the signing of the armistice. Outside the railway carriage n. 2419 D in the forest of Campiègne. November, 11 1918.

The fame of Orient Express, that made it conquer a place into the annals of history forever, could not probably be reached if it wasn't for celebrities who slept in its cozy berths and the important historical events occured on it. Celebs of the time such as King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, Leo Tolstoy, actress Marlene Dietrich, British officer Lawrence of Arabia , American dancer Josephine Baker and German WWI spy Mata Hari. And again Mahatma Gandhi, President Theodore Roosevelt, founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, Princesse Grace of Monaco, Brigitte Bardot and many more. The Orient Express has been the place where in 1918 the Armistice of Compiègne between the Allies and Germany was signed, officially ending the fighting of the WWI.

President Theodore Roosvelt, 1909 (CIWL archive)

Mahatma Gandhi, 1931 (CIWL archive)

Sigmund Freud, 1938 (CIWL archive)

Albert Einstein, Wien Insbruck route, 1924 (CIWL archive)

Marlene Dietrich

Ingrid Bergman (CIWL archive)

Président Harry Truman (CIWL archive)

The service was interrupted again in the 1939, at the start of the Second World War and did resume in 1945. Though, it was not restored completely as the Greek and Turkish borders were still closed and this prevented the service from running until the reopening of the 1952.

The reconstruction of a battered and bombed Europe after the WWII, thanks of the European Recovery Plan by Secretary of State George Marschall, created new jobs as well as a newfound positivity towards the future that led to the Economic Boom of 1950. The automotive industry experienced an unprecedented growth, with Germany as the manufacturer leader of the European market in 1960s. It’s not hard to understand why in 1962 the Orient Express and Arlberg Orient Express stopped running, with just the Simplon Orient Express delivering trips across Europe. This one, in turn, was replaced in 1962 by a slower service called the Direct Orient Express, connecting daily Paris to Belgrade and twice weekly Paris to Istanbul and Athens. Also this line was withdrawn in 1977 as the Wagons-Lits company sold or leased all its carriages to the various national railway companies. The cancellation of the Direct Orient Express can be seen as the signal of the end of the glorious Orient Express, though some kind of short-distance services continued their activity under its name until 2009.

During the past decades, attempts to maintain the old glamour of the Orient Express have been made by private companies that, exploiting the fame of its name, offer a true luxury travel experience for few lucky passengers. The Venice Simplon Orient Express, found on 1982, boasts of being the “temple of elegance”, featuring the sumptuous and fine interiors of the original “King of trains”. Two days (one night), route from Venice to Paris, costs 1'990,00 EUR for the standard berth or 4’000,00 EUR for the suite cabin, per person.

The Orient Express still remain a fairy-tale universe related to travel, culture and gastronomy. It was the train of choice for Europe's wealthy and high-born, a rolling symbol of the economic disparities of its age.  

If I close my eyes I am there for a moment ... transported by an invisible time machine back to the 1930s, I revive the atmosphere of those glorious bygone days. I can even smell a mixture scent of cigar and cognac, while walking through the corridor coach, and see people chatting in the bar car sit on Cordoba leather coaches surrounded by inlaid wooden panels. The green landscapes, barely kissed by the mild light of sunset, flow slowly under my watchful eyes.

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