In 2014, my partner and I were standing on platform 2 at Venice’s Santa Lucia railway station, along with 178 other people, admiring the shiny blue and white carriages of the Orient Express (or, more correctly, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express). The journey back to London on this iconic train was the culmination of a remarkable holiday to celebrate a rather special birthday.
Our allocated cabin was right at the end of the 17-coach train, in the very last cabin. It did mean that we were very well placed for the loo – there is a shared toilet at each end of each coach but no showers anywhere on the train. However, worry not! There’s a washbasin with hot and cold running water in each cabin and it’s amazing what you can do with a flannel (and where it will reach!).
The cabins are a bit on the small side, consisting of a couch, fold-down table, the aforementioned washbasin and some coat hangers, and it’s true that experience of caravanning would come in handy. Fortunately, most of our luggage was stored in the baggage car and on taking our seats we could really appreciate the beauty of our surroundings. Lovingly and painstaking restored, with highly lacquered woods and polished brass fittings, this art deco masterpiece is redolent of an entirely different age when great craftsmanship and service were synonymous with luxury.
A discreet knock on our cabin door signalled the arrival of our liveried cabin steward, Claudio, who offered us complimentary cocktails as the train pulled out of the station, bang on time at exactly 11.01 am.
Our next visitor was the maȋtre d’ who came to ask what time we would like lunch – with 180 passengers, they operate two-sittings for each meal. We chose the later sitting of 2.00 pm and were given a ticket with our restaurant car and table number. We then made ourselves comfortable to enjoy the passing scenery.
At around 1.50 pm, an announcement was made to summon us to lunch with the polite reminder to dress appropriately, which during that day meant smart casual (no jeans allowed). The restaurant cars and bar car are located in the centre of the train, so we only had half a train length to travel but even then, it’s around an eighth of a mile from the back of the train to the middle! The walk did, however, give us chance to inspect the other parts of the train. No two carriages are exactly the same having been built by different manufacturers in different countries (including England!) at different times. Similarly, each of the three restaurant cars is unique, with different colour schemes that extend to the matching china used in each car.
Lunch followed a set 3-course menu (including a set vegetarian menu), followed by coffee and petits fours. You can go à la carte if you wish but will need to be prepared to pay a supplement. Wine is not what you’d call cheap – we paid 50 euros for half a bottle and that was at the lower end of the price range. The food and presentation, I have to say, were exquisite and the service exemplary.
After lunch, it was back to our cabin where Claudio served us our afternoon tea. The maȋtre d’ whom we were getting to know quite well by now, made another appearance to see what time we would like dinner. We chose the later sitting at 9.30 pm, which gave us time to relax before changing into our tuxedos (there’s an art to this in a confined space, but we managed). By now, the train was moving through the spectacular snow-capped mountains of Austria.
Rigged out in our very best, we headed to the bar car. There is one bar car for all 180 passengers so it’s a bit of a crush, ameliorated to some extent by having two sittings for dinner. Fortunately, we were right next to the bar so I was able to order my Cosmopolitan.
By the time we made it back to our cabin after dinner, it had been transformed into our rather cosy bedroom with two bunk beds. The train was travelling at full tilt (the maximum speed is around 90 mph), so I was glad of the straps to grab hold of as I climbed the ladder into bed. Sleep is possible although it rather eluded me for a good while. Sometimes, it felt as if the train had taken wings, and the next thing we would be stopped somewhere while locomotives were changed. The blinds had been drawn shut and we left them that way, so it was pure guesswork as to where we were.
I awoke early, noticing that the train had stopped, washed (making good use of that flannel!), dressed and then stepped into the corridor to allow my partner to do likewise. Although it was only around 7am, Claudio was there to convert the cabin back to day use. Then he brought us our continental style breakfast. A tap on the door and it was our old friend the maȋtre d’ again, this time asking what time we’d like brunch, 10.30 am or 12 noon? We chose the later one again.
On arrival at Calais, we climbed aboard luxury motor coaches to be offered drinks. A large glass of red wine? Well, it would have been rude to refuse. We drove onto the Euroshuttle and, once through the Channel Tunnel, it was on to Folkestone station where we boarded the British Pullman for the last leg of the journey to London.
The British train is also made up of individually designed and decorated 1920s art deco coaches, this time in a livery of brown and cream. Each passenger has an allocated carriage and seat number. No sooner had we taken our seats than a waiter asked if we would like a glass of sparkling Rosé to accompany our afternoon tea of finger sandwiches, scones, cakes and lashings of tea. By the time that had been consumed, we were approaching London’s Victoria station. On arrival, we were reunited with our luggage and then it was into a taxi for an overnight stay in a London hotel. Reader, we slept well that night! The following morning, we checked out and caught a train back to Wakefield, the holiday truly over.
Was it worth it? Definitely! Having seen the train on TV and in films so many times, there was a slight sense of unreality about the whole expedition. I couldn’t help but expect to see David Suchet around every corner and even though he failed to make an appearance, the spirit of Poirot and Agatha Christie was almost tangible.
There was no murder on the Orient Express while we were aboard, but it was murder to leave it!