The Orient Express line is a byword for luxury, romance, history, and excitement. As the train wends it way through some of Europe’s most romantic cities, it evokes the passions of a long gone era. The “Orient Express” proper runs from Calais and Paris to Bucharest, in Romania. It passes through France Germany Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania. The Simplon Orient Express travels further south through Switzerland, Italy and Yugoslavia, to Istanbul, formerly Constantinople.
The Orient Express was the first great and truly International train, running from Paris to Constantinople. The service, which began in 1886, was the first to connect Europe with one train. The route was serviced before this time but not by one direct train. The journey was a tortuously slow tedious and dirty trail through the different countries. The passengers were required to disembark and walk across all national borders.
Then one man, a Belgium, Georges Nagelmackers had a grandiose vision, to run one train and uncouple the engine at the border, change that, and allow the passengers’ luxurious sojourn to continue. He persuaded the border guards to embark on the train and carry out the formalities in the comfort of the train.
The original swish compartments were not like a train the whole concept was a rolling luxury hotel. The standard of service and luxury available far exceeded anything that the finest five star hotels in Europe could offer. The Orient Express was viewed not as mode of travel, but a rolling adventure shrouded in mystery. All the train compartments were totally private which meant that you could have a secret assignation and no one could have been any the wiser. The stewards catered to your every whim, in your compartment fully equipped with a bathroom facilities and comfortable beds.
The dining cars supplied extraordinary cuisine, the finest foods for the most discerning epicure. However should you have required privacy then the steward would bring to you whatever your heart desired in the cabin. During the first twenty or thirty years of the train the route was not static, it varied according to the season, which added an extra frisson to the journey as you were never certain quite what you would see. Only in the mid nineteenth century did the journey evolve and stabilise into today’s route.
At the end of the railway track towers Istanbul, Asia Minor. The enormously wealthy city at the heart of the spice trade in the Ottoman Empire. The difficulty was that in those days Istanbul had a level of sophistication and glamour, but no style. Nagelmacker had to construct the Pera Palace Hotel, which even today stands for a fantasy retreat in Istanbul.
Even before the Great War 1914 -1918 the train had become the most famous in Europe. The war itself stopped the train in its tracks for four years, as the journey out of Paris and through Belgium would have traversed the Western Front. The Balkans was less than stable and Austro Hungary was at odds with Russia, and then Turkey became involved as well.
Bizarrely it was to be the conflict in Europe that ensured the train route survived. The cessation of the war did not bring harmony to Western Europe and continuing administrative niggles with Germany and the Austro Hungarian Empire forced the company to revise its route and schedule.
Out of necessity the Simplon Orient Express was born, in April 1919. It was called the Simplon partly to differentiate it from the “old” Orient express, and partly because it ran through the Simplon Tunnel. Instead of running through Central Europe it ran through Switzerland and through Italy. It comes down the Northern slopes of Italy, to Venice, Trieste, Zagreb, at Belgrade it rejoins the old route through to Istanbul.
During the twenties the train was to begin the “old” route once more, alongside the Simplon. Sadly the old route became too expensive to maintain, but the Simplon Orient Express still survives today as the representative of the final word in luxury in Europe.
Today the Simplon Orient Express is not so much as getting from A to B, it is an experience, one to be savoured and rolled around the tongue. It is still the easiest way to travel from Paris to Vienna.
1876 – A Belgian, Georges Nagelmackers, founded La Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. His vision was to provide luxury sleeping and dining cars across Europe. The national railways of the countries concerned provided the rolling stock, as in the trains, the tracks and the stations. The Wagons-Lits Company provided the sleeping and dining cars, and they also staffed them. The passenger paid one fare for the journey, but that was the price of a first class railway ticket, which went to the national railways and a supplement for sleeping and dining, which went to Nagelmacker to maintain the luxury of the mode of travel
1883 – The Orient Express begins a biweekly service. Originally a through service was not possible the original route crossed the Danube in Bulgaria, and had to travel seven hours on an extra train to Varna, on the Black Sea. A Steamer then took the passengers across the Bosphorous to Istanbul.
1885 – The service became daily on the section of track connecting Paris, Munich and Vienna.
Beyond Vienna, The Orient Express continues to operate on two days a week to Giurgiu for the ferry to Ruse, the connecting train to Varna and the onward steamer to Istanbul.
1889 – The direct line is completed, the Paris-Constantinople operation starts in June 1889, for the journey, which then took 67 hours
1909 – The Orient Express is refurbished to an even more luxurious standard.
1914 – The Orient Express is suspended in July as a result of the Great War. The Germans try to run a competing Berlin-Constantinople train, the ‘Balkanzug’.
1919 – In February the Orient Express is reinstated, twice a week from Paris to Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest, but via Zurich and the Arlberg Pass into Austria to avoid Germany. It resumes operation through Germany in 1920, although it was again suspended in 1923-24 with the occupation of the Ruhr.
On 11 April 1919 the Simplon Orient Express starts running in addition to the Orient Express, this uses the Southerly route from Paris to Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Trieste, Belgrade, and (from 1920) Istanbul. This route has the advantage of avoiding Germany and it rapidly becomes the main route from Calais and Paris to Istanbul. The Treaty of Versailles had a specific clause requiring Austria to accept this train. At the time Trieste that is now in Italy, was part of Austrian territory, and to maintain the glory of Vienna, they tried unsuccessfully to force every train to stop in the capital.
1922 – The new cars are painted blue with gold lining and lettering, replacing the varnished teak of the earlier Wagons-Lits cars. Blue and gold all-steel dining cars replace the older restaurant cars from 1925 onwards. Those same blue and gold colours are used today.
1929 – The westbound Orient Express becomes firmly embedded in snow for 5 days at Tcherkesskeuy, which is just outside Istanbul. This incident, the stopping of the train inspired Agatha Christie’s plot in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. Agatha Christie needed a ‘Pullman’ salon car to enhance the story. However there was never one on the Orient Express. So a certain amount of literary license was employed when she wrote one in to the story so that Hercule Poirrot could stop and ponder the identity of the murderer.
1939-42 – Most of the great European trains are suspended for the Second World War. Again the Germans tried to muscle in on the action. The German Mitropa Company, ran its own equivalent, but was eventually forced to discontinue the service. It never became an economically viable proposition as the partisan continually de-railed it.
1945 – The Simplon Orient resumes running in November 1945, three times a week Calais, Paris, Milan, Venice, to Sofia.
1947 – The route was once again extended to Istanbul. Post war conditions were very different for this great line. It was in its heyday, the line, and the only direct line, from Calais to Istanbul. The separate national railway lines started to compete at least for parts of the journey, and also less people traveled the route for pure pleasure. There had been a decline in the number of rich undertaking what had been known as the “GRAND tour”.
Additional political problems still beset the line despite the fact that the sleeper cars had resumed, a through sleeper was not possible because of problems on the Greek Yugoslavian border. One of the final nails in the coffin was the ascendancy of Communism in Eastern Europe. As the national railways supplied the rolling stock the distinctive blue and gold carriages, and needless to say the drab cars, which replaced the old stock, had little to do with luxury and everything to do with functionality. The company simply could not maintain the luxury on all the fronts
1951 – The Greek border reopens and the Athens portion of the Simplon Orient Express resumes running. Unfortunately, the Bulgarian, Turkish border then closed, temporarily halting the Istanbul portion until 1952.
1960 – The through sleeping cars to Calais are withdrawn, and they will never resume and all the trains begin and terminate the journey from Gare De Lyon In Paris.
1962 – The Simplon Orient Express is withdrawn and replaced by a slower train called the Direct Orient Express. The Direct Orient Express conveys a daily sleeping car and seats cars Calais, Paris, Milan and Venice.
1967 – The Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits drops the suffix ‘et des grands express Européens’ from its title and adds ‘et du tourisme’ instead.
1971 – The Wagons-Lits company can no longer maintain the service with the sleeping and dining supplement alone. They are forced to lease the sleeping cars to the national railway companies. Today the cars are either owned or leased by all the national companies, however the Wagons-Lits company still provides the sleeping attendants, the bed linen, and the catering.
1977 – The Direct-Orient Express is withdrawn completely, ending all direct service from Paris to Istanbul. The last run left Paris Gare de Lyon at 23:56 on 19 May 1977 (actually, a few minutes late, on 20th May!).
Despite its chequered history the train still goes on and is still a luxury more reminiscent of bygone times. Today it is considered a day trip – an experience of a lifetime. One that should be savoured and enjoyed, though with modern high-speed trains it is as to how far into the Twenty First Century it can exist. For now the blue and gold lives on.