Step back in history on the Orient Express

by Errington

Everyone is welcome on the famous Orient Express; experience luxury train travel of the 1920s

This was, and I am sure still is, the most luxurious train journey in the world, which had its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. Inspired by Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, a passion for art nouveau design and a chance to step back into history, we celebrated our retirement with the journey of a lifetime on The Orient Express.

All passengers entered into the spirit of the occasion, and most were ordinary couples celebrating some special event. At a cost of about £1600 one way with a flight back it has to be very special! The staff were friendly and helpful, not at all pretentious, the accommodation luxurious and interesting, the food fantastic, and the scenery wonderful. The holiday lived up to all our expectations.

Travelling from the north of England we stayed over-night at the Grosvenor Hotel, as I expect many provincial travellers did in Victorian times. This is one of London’s great railway hotels which retains period features and ambience in its public areas,  is a perfect precursor for the journey ahead , and yet was reasonably priced. The hotel adjoins Victoria Station, and it is possible to walk directly out of the hotel’s back door and onto the station platform.

On checking in at the Orient Express lounge, your luggage is spirited away. Hand luggage must contain all you need for the journey to Calais, and overnight luggage everything you need until Venice. There is only room for two small suitcases/suit carriers on the overhead luggage rack, though bath robes and slippers are provided. One gentleman dined in DJ and trainers; socks and shoes having been packed with his through luggage.

The journey

The initial journey in Pullman coaches included an elaborate brunch with champagne and wine included. Then, in the only departure from the original journey, a luxury coach takes you thorough the channel tunnel, instead of a ferry, to embark on the continental train at Calais.

The ride takes just over 31 hours, leaving Victoria late morning and arriving in the late afternoon the next day. The first stop was the Gar de L’Est in Paris to pick up provisions and passengers. The train travels through France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy, calling at Paris, Strasbourg, Zurich, Innsbrook and Verona before crossing the lagoon into Sant Lucia Station. At each frontier your cabin steward takes care of any passport and customs formalities, and a new locomotive, operated by the national rail company, is attached to the train. Thus you go to sleep in France, and in the morning pull up the blinds to see beautiful Swiss valleys. For most of the remainder of the journey the 18 coach train meanders through mountainous areas with stunning views.

The accommodation

Single, double, and interconnecting compartments are available, and travelling in your own compartment is extremely relaxing. The train retains the facilities of the period, a sink in a vanity unit and a plug for electric razors. Each coach has a log burning stove for heating, and the toilet is at the end of the corridor. Our coach had a huge toilet compartment, apparently installed for Queen Victoria. How many ladies-in-waiting did she need? Bunk beds are assembled while you dine, and though I expected the rhythm of the train would lull me to sleep, the sound of air rushing past the coach was unexpected.

For entertainment there is a bar car for a relaxed drink accompanied by music from a baby grand piano. Unexpectedly, drinks and any other extras, together with purchases from an on-board shop, have to be paid for in cash as there are no credit card facilities on the train.

Food

The maître d' visits your compartment to take lunch and dinner reservations. You can choose to sit in groups of four, or in couples, and there are normally two sittings. The three dining carriages have their own distinctive styles, and each meal is taken in a different carriage if you wish.

For lunch and dinner the dining tables are exquisitely laid out with high quality cutlery and glassware, and the food and service are outstanding.  The food was of a Michelin star standard to satisfy the most exacting gourmet. For example, a starter of cold lobster in its shell, with a filling of avocado and horse-radish relish, and ice plant leaves, followed by roasted duck and sautéed foie gras with rosemary and a most unusual but delicious selection of vegetables . Staff are happy to provide an alternative or modification for any item that is not to your taste. The a la carte menu seemed superfluous.

Continental breakfast is served in your compartment, at a time of your choosing, and in the afternoon tea and cakes are also served in your compartment. On the journey back, the final meal is a most elaborate afternoon tea served on the Pullman train.

Venice

To continue the pampering we stayed at the Bauer Hotel, close to St Mark’s Square. The food was on a par with the Orient Express, and the dining room and terrace to the front overlooked the Grand Canal and the imposing Basilica of Santa Maria. On the roof was a Jacuzzi with fantastic views, occupied by a couple enjoying a bottle of champagne. A drinks terrace to the side of the hotel was particularly romantic at night as the gondoliers floated by, serenading their passengers.

Another hotel popular with our fellow Orient Express travellers was the Hotel Danieli. The main building is an original 14th century palace lavishly appointed with pink marble and stained glass, and ceilings decorated with gold leaf. Its other outstanding feature is a rooftop restaurant with panoramic views over Venice.

Journey back

It is possible to either travel to Venice on the Orient Express, and then fly back, or alternatively fly to Venice and travel back by train. However, we felt that the journey had to start in London, and to fly back would be an anti-climax to a romantic holiday, and so after five days in Venice we returned on the Orient Express and enjoyed its undiminished pleasures once more.