The first Orient Express service was launched some 128
years ago in Meiji 16 (1883) when Japan had yet to complete the Tokkaido main line between Tokyo and Kobe.
On 4 October 1883, a cheering crowd of thousands
gathered at Strasbourg Station (Paris Gare de l’Est today) to
catch a glimpse of the first departure of the Orient Express.
At 19:30, as spotlights glared and an orchestra played a
march, the brilliantly polished trained pulled out on her
historic maiden journey bound for Constantinople (Istanbul)
in the far-off ‘Orient’ and the gateway to Asia.
What captured people’s imaginations about the Orient Express was not just that it was the first direct service
from Paris to Istanbul (earlier train passengers arrived in
Constantinople having come south by ferry across the
Black Sea from Varna in Bulgaria), but also that it was
the most luxurious train they had ever seen. Wagons-Lits
(an international sleeper train company) had new sleeper
and restaurant carriages built in the height of style, with
furnishings including wall-to-wall Turkish carpets, full-silk-finished
walls, and mahogany interior. It was undoubtedly the launch of the world’s first distinguished luxury train.
Records show that, excluding the lead steam locomotive,
the first Orient Express was comprised of five carriages
coupled as a baggage car, two sleeping cars, a restaurant
car, and another baggage car. The front and rear baggage
cars carried passengers’ luggage, mail, food and drink, and were also the rest quarters for the crew.
The glory days continued as the Orient Express achieved massive popularity, with sister trains being launched in quick
succession as the 20th century started. In particular, the
end of World War I marked the beginning of a golden era.
The list of regular passengers was headed by royalty like
Queen Marie of Romania, King George of Greece and King
Boris III of Bulgaria, as well as the world’s aristocrats, high-ranking
bureaucrats, diplomats, multi-millionaires, authors
and, on some occasions, spies, turning the Orient Express into a European society hotspot.
Agatha Christie’s famous story Murder on the Orient Express was published right at the highpoint in 1934
when there were three more Orient Express services—the Simplon-Orient Express, Arlberg Orient Express, and Oostende-Wien Orient Express.
However, passengers started to dwindle at the end
of World War II, spurred by the advances in civil aviation
due to the rapid development of
aircraft during the war. Major cities
of Europe could now be reached
by commercial aircraft for the first
time in hours. When you realize that
Paris to Istanbul took 56 hours by
Orient Express, while a propeller
aeroplane could make the journey
in just 6 hours, competition between
train and plane became no contest.
Naturally, Orient Express regulars no
longer alighted at the station but at the aerodrome.
Thus, a gloriously historic final
curtain came down on the Orient Express in May 1977 after 94 years of service.
However, like a phoenix and after
just 5 years in retirement, the Orient Express rose again in May 1982 as the
Venice Simplon-Orient Express (VSOE). The route reverted to
the former Simplon-Orient Express from Paris to Venice withGolden Arrow trains starting from London connecting to Paris,
making a route starting in London and ending in Venice!
So, what are we waiting for, all aboard the VSOE for
a 1750-km, 30-hour, one-night-and-two-days jaunt from London to Venice!
Victoria Station, London at 10:40 as the top VSOE relay
runner slips away from Platform 2 on time on the first leg of
our trip to Venice. The British Pullmans are superb vintage
carriages built in the 1920s and 30s; they have even been
used on royal trains to transport HRH Queen Elizabeth II and HRH Prince Charles, giving the train even more gravitas.
‘Welcome, sir. Mr Sakurai!’ were the cordial words I
heard the moment we pulled out of the station. They came
from a steward dressed smartly in black trousers with gold
stripe and gold-braid decorated white jacket. Each dining
table was topped by welcoming VSOE Reserve champagne.
With the steward’s greeting came canapés of shrimp, roast
beef, caviar, and other delights. A mixture of euphoria
from travelling on the world’s most luxurious train and the
surge of excitement that came with departure prevented me
staying completely calm, so I raised my glass to toast the forthcoming trip.
Soup was served next—it was a vegetable soup in a
tomato base. Simultaneously, the champagne glass was
removed and replaced by a wine glass, full to the brim
with a white Chardonnay. The
steward set the table, changed
plates and glasses, leaving no
fingerprint on cutlery—for sure, this was a rolling three-star restaurant.
The main course arrived with
smoke salmon complemented by roast chicken and an asparagus and pine
nut salad, served with Domaine Mont
Grenier red wine. This main course
was loyal to the natural flavour of the
ingredients, and with a simple finish, just right for the Japanese palate.
Meanwhile, we had passed
through London and with the arrival of
the main course, were now breaking
into the countryside of Kent. Sunlight
splashed the gently rolling fields.
Chubby round sheep and black-and white
dairy cows chewed the cud—
what a heartwarming vista to see from a train.
Having just enjoyed the dessert of apple pie, cinnamon
and cream and drained my after-meal coffee, the Pullman
eased into Folkestone, passing beautiful neat rows of brick houses and coming to rest in Folkestone Station at 12:45.
Stepping off the train, we were welcomed by a small
ensemble of trumpet, euphonium, banjo, and drum. Having
listened to some lilting melodies on the platform, we
hopped onto a waiting bus, which then slipped effortlessly
onto the Le Shuttle car ferry train for the 49.2-km trip
through the Channel Tunnel and then onto a parking spot
next to the platform at Calais-Ville Train Station, a run of close to 40 minutes.
There stood the 17blue-and-gold striped carriages of
the Wagons-Lit sleeper train, seeming impatient to leave for Paris and onto Venice.
Closing in on the train, the beautiful lacquered navy
blue livery and mid-section sparkled with brilliantly polished
face-to-face lions—the same emblem as the first Wagons-Lits crest.
Wagons-Lits, founded by the young Belgian
entrepreneur Georges Nagelmackers in 1872, is properly called Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits
(International Sleeping Car Company), but just the French
for sleeping car—Wagons-Lits—stuck as the common
name. Nagelmackers’ dream was for his company to
provide comfortable sleeping cars for international trains crisscrossing Europe.
1872 was the fifth year of the Meiji Era in Japan when
the Tokyo Shimbashi-to-Yokohama railway opened—a
striking piece of westernization. However, close the countries
of Europe seemed, Nagelmacker’s vision to establish a
structure for international rail travel, while rail was still in its
infancy in Japan, is nothing short of amazing. Within just
11 years of setting up the company, he achieved his goal
in the shape of the Orient Express travelling from Paris to Constantinople.
Avoiding the flames of both world wars, the undoing of
the Orient Express was not war but the rapid development of aeroplanes following World War II.
Finally, in 1971, in its 99th year, Wagons-Lits withdrew
from the sleeper car business and the Paris–Istanbul Orient Express followed suit in 1977, closing an era.
Nonetheless, right before my very eyes stood the blue
prima donna—neither a dream nor an illusion or replica—none other than the real Orient Express, without a spot of dirt
or dust to be seen, waiting for me to board. It was as if that Orient Express had somehow risen like a phoenix.
The central player in that rise is the American, British-based
shipping magnate James B. Sherwood, the
current chairman of Orient Express Hotels. In October
1977, Wagons-Lits put the Orient Express carriages up
for auction in Monte Carlo. Sherwood, an enthusiast from
childhood and an especially big fan of the good old days,
purchased two 1929 Wagons-Lits carriages at Monte Carlo.
This triggered a desire to visit Europe’s marshalling yards
and sidings in search of discarded original Wagons-Lits
sleeper and Pullman cars. In time, he managed to acquire
35 cars. Nevertheless, at more than 50 years of age, most were half decayed and no longer in a state to be called
the Orient Express. Thus, Sherwood spent 5 years and US
$3000 million of his private funds to restore the carriages to
the condition of their heyday in the 1920s. Thus, once again,
we can enjoy journeys on the Orient Express in original Wagons-Lits carriages.
The 17-car train is hauled by a pair of SNCF BB67000
diesel locomotives (commonly known as nez cassés or
‘broken nose’ because of their flattish fronts), with 11
sleepers, three restaurant coaches, a bar car and two
service cars used by the crew. A smartly dressed steward
in blue uniform and white gloves was waiting to guide me to
Car F, which was third from the locomotives and a double-cabin
sleeper with body number 3555 built in 1929 as a first class
sleeper by Entreprises Industrielles Charentaises (EIC)
in La Rochelle, France, with interior by Nelson. It has had a
varied career, being used on the Pyrénées-Côte d’Argent Express and the Sud Express lines and then from 1949 to
1961 on the Simplon-Orient Express line, having previously been part of a stationary hotel in Lyons during WWII.
I settled down with the assistance of the steward, the
suitcase I had handed over in the morning at Victoria already
stowed in the compartment for me. And, there, on the small
window table, stood a bottle of champagne nestled in a
silver ice bucket. In fact, when making my reservation in
Tokyo, I had requested this, so I could pop the cork as
soon as the train pulled out. The compartment interior was
in the usual teak-like pattern, the walls in fine marquetry,
elegantly curved brass door knobs, coat hangers dressed in
fabric to stop them rattling on the journey, a washbasin with
triple mirror and more. As to be expected on a train, there is
not much space, but, even so, I had this gorgeous private
compartment for my own until reaching Venice next evening.
Unrestrained joy welled up—a joy that only passengers on the Orient Express can know.
In the midst of my reverie, there was a knock and the door opened with the greeting, ‘Bon soir, monsieur’ from the
steward in blue who had greeted me earlier, the restaurant
manager in black uniform with gold braid, and the chief
waiter. As soon as I told them that I spoke almost no French,
they switched to English, with the effortlessness of good
bilinguals. ‘Welcome aboard. I am the restaurant manager.
Dinner will be served in two sittings, the first from 18:30 and the second from 21:00. Which would you prefer?’
I wavered slightly, but opted for the first sitting and the
restaurant manager handed me a small slip of paper printed
with ‘Oriental, 1st, No. 7’ as he said, ‘We look forward to serving you.’
Next, the steward gave me a rundown on the
compartment, asking me when I would like my bed made
and at what time I would like breakfast the following morning.
The steward was the person I would rely on most until I
arrived in Venice the following evening.
After we pulled out from the station, it was clear that the
scenery had changed since we had crossed the Channel.
Both provide vistas of green countryside, but on the British
side, the farms looked like miniature gardens with farm
houses dotted here and there, whereas, on the French side, I
could not see an individual farm but just an endless expanse
of pasture—for sure, this brought the realization that I was on ‘The Continent.’
The time for dinner approached, so I changed into a
dinner jacket. There is a dress code on the VSOE from dinner
onward, with ladies expected to be attired in fine clothes
such as evening dresses, and gentlemen properly dressed
in dinner jackets or dark suits. All the fuss of carrying a
dinner jacket for just one night was a little tiresome, but if
that is a condition for riding the Orient Express, who was I to
complain. Rather, it was better to enjoy the chance to dress
up, because, when all is said and done, there is only one
train in the world that requires formal dress for dinner!
As I walked into the dining car, the smiling face of the restaurant manager was there to greet me with, ‘Welcome, sir!
Mr Sakurai.’ And, without even the chance to show my table reservation, I was escorted to ‘Oriental’ table number seven.
Oriental is not the formal name of the restaurant car. It is
the nickname for this particular restaurant car, which is one
of three coupled together. To help passengers distinguish
each car, all have nicknames (Oriental, Côte d’azur and
Étoile du Nord) according to their interiors. The Oriental
was built as a first-class diner by the Birmingham Railway
Carriage & Wagon Company in England back in 1927 and
has a long history of being used on famous expresses in Europe, such as the Étoile du Nord Express, the Edelweiss Express, and the Fleche d’or Express. In later years, the
interior was refurbished in an oriental style similar to that of
restaurant car 3583 built by EIC and hence the nickname.
The evening menu was headed by an entrée of scallops
accompanied by olive oil and lemon dressing as well as
tuna fish with herb-flavoured tartar sauce. Yet, it was difficult
to think of this as dinner because I was in Europe in early
summer when the days are long. The hands on the clock
said 19:00, but the sun was still sat in a daytime sky, say
about 15:00 in Japan. On occasions, sunlight blitzed the
dining table in strong flashes. So much so, that I felt like I
was taking a late lunch. Yet, a glance round the restaurant
car showed that everyone was in formal evening attire—no mistaking it, this really is a gorgeous world of dining.
Next up was the main dish, roast lamb topped with
artichokes, rosemary and gravy and accompanied by
vegetable mousse and roast potatoes. I ate with relish,
admiring the French flavour, which was as wonderful as
expected. After the main dish, a large tray of cheeses
appeared, to be followed by a dessert of chocolate and
coffee mousse, and finally individual chocolates.
I woke at 07:00 next morning with the train travelling through eastern Switzerland.
With a knock and opening of the door, came ‘Good morning, sir. Did you sleep well?’ from the smiling steward.
‘Breakfast is ready. Shall I bring it? ’ What arrived was
a continental breakfast of orange juice, croissants, raisin
pastries, butter and a selection of three jams together with
strong coffee. At a glance, it looked simple, but with freshly
baked pastries having been picked up in Zurich and heated
on the train’s coal stove, the aroma was truly one of freshly baked delights.
Just after 08:00, the train stopped in the last Swiss
station of Buchs. The Swiss locomotives were changed to
Austrian, and, just on 09:00, we set off again to cross the
long railway bridge over the Rhine into Liechtenstein. The
tracks bisect this small country but there are no stations.
Moreover, in just 8 km we passed out of the principality. I
was still gazing about as the train entered Austria. So, here
we were, about to enter the Tyrolean section of the Arlberg
Orient Express, celebrated as the most picturesque part of the journey.
The Tyrol landscape had me glued to the window taking
in fresh sparkling meadows with grazing sheep and cattle,
delta-roofed farmhouses dotted here and there, church
steeples, ancient medieval castles and more. The backdrop
was the unbroken vista of the Austrian Alps, 3,000-m peaks
with shimmering glaciers. As to be expected, the view was
number one in scenic splendour. With my forehead pressed
to the window appreciating the landscape rolling by, an
onboard announcement rang out: ‘Ladies and gentlemen,
lunch will be served in the restaurant cars. Passengers with first sitting reservations please come to the restaurant cars.’
My seat is number 12 in the Étoile du Nord car, a first-class
diner built by the Birmingham Railway Carriage & Wagon Company in 1926. Of course, just like the other
Wagons-Lits carriages, this too was used for dining on
famous express trains, such as the Étoile du Nord and Danube Express. Its interior finished in beautiful marquetry in
the style of the Étoile du Nord trains. Yesterday, the Oriental, today the Étoile du Nord—it is a wonderful touch to change
the restaurant for each meal, so passengers can enjoy dining in different decors.
The lunch menu was an hors d’oeuvre of steamed
sea bass and asparagus accompanied by sour cream
dressed with caviar followed by a main dish of chicken
breasts and small lobster as well as ravioli and green-bean stuffed
aubergine. With ravioli on the menu, I was reminded of our destination—Italy.
Pictured in the train window were the uninterrupted
silvery white peaks of the Alps.
Meanwhile, opening my eyes to the dining tables, I saw
delicious dish upon delicious dish. Dining while watching
the changing scenery from the window is a delight to the eye and tongue.
Just as I was finishing off with sorbet, the head chef
Christian Bodiguel came into the restaurant car.
‘Is everything to your liking, sir?’ Of course, my reply was, ‘Excellent!’
The 1750-km trip was coming to an end. This was
my final meal on the train and soon we were crossing the
Brenner Pass into the dazzling sunshine of Italy. Sadly, as
my afternoon tea provided by room service came to an
end, we pulled into Venice Santa Lucia Station and I would
have to leave this lovely train with all my fond memories of a wonderful and historic trip.