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.