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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Onboard the Orient Express

Tenth in a series from Europe…


[Paris] – I understand perfectly what Proust meant when he referred to ‘‘the most intoxicating of romance novels, the railway timetable.’’

And what more exotic destination than Istanbul or, better yet, Constantinople. From the 1880’s until the 1970’s you could head for the exotic city that straddles Europe and Asia onboard a train, perhaps the most famous train of all, the Orient Express.

From its earliest days until after World War II the Orient Express was a gleaming luxury train, all cut glass and mahogany. For a few weeks this summer the Orient Express, at least four cars and one of the original locomotives, is back on rails in Paris. Because I love trains and figuring this might be my one chance to actually be onboard the train that sparked a thousand stories I trotted down to the World Arab Institute in Paris one recent rainy day to have a look. It was stunning.

In an age when travel has been reduced to walking around in your socks in an airport security line and jockeying for half the arm rest in a packed Boeing 737, the beautifully restored lounge, sleeper and restaurant cars of the Orient Express offer a envious reminder of what luxury travel once looked like.

A hundred or so curious history and train buffs stood with me in a pouring rain to get a glimpse inside. The exhibit and a fascinating

companion display of Orient Express artifacts and curiosities, including some spectacular travel posters of the era, has proven to be one of the hit shows of the summer in Paris. The gorgeous blue and cream colored rail cars and the shiny black locomotive are displayed in the vast courtyard of the Arab Institute just steps from the Seine in downtown Paris. The exhibit is the brainchild of former French Culture Minister Jack Lang, who now heads the Institut du Monde Arabe, and the French national railway system that owns the name of the fabled train.

As CNN reported in one “compartment identical to the one in scenes from the 1963 Bond film From Russia with Love, the movie is projected onto a screen. With wall panels in precious wood and door handles in gilded brass, each compartment had a matching washbasin and a built-in toiletries cabinet.” To visit the train in Paris is to imagine that it has stopped on a 1930’s journey from London to Istanbul and all the passengers have stepped off to stretch their legs leaving behind newspapers, passports, cigarettes, books and, of course, drinks.

Writing in the most recent issue of Harper’s, Kevin Baker reminds us that once-upon-a-time the 20th Century Limited, a great U.S. passenger train, “rivaled Europe’s Orient Express in extravagance. At five o’clock every evening, porters used to roll a red carpet to the train across the platform of Grand Central Terminal’s Track 34. The women passengers were given bouquets of flowers and bottles of perfume; the men, carnations for their buttonholes. The train had its own barbershop, post office, manicurists and masseuses, secretaries, typists, and stenographers. In 1938, its beautiful blue-gray-and-aluminum-edged cars and its “streamline” locomotives — finned, bullet-nosed, Art Deco masterpieces of fluted steel — took just sixteen hours to reach Chicago, faster than any train running today.

“The 20th Century Limited became a cultural icon,” Baker wrote. “It was a luxury train, but middle-class people rode it, too. In the heyday of American train travel after World War II, they also rode the Broadway Limited, the Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles, and the California Zephyr, which were nearly as celebrated and beloved.”


By 1970 all those great trains and all that travel pleasure had vanished and now, even as high-speed intercity train travel is expanding in most of the world, the United States can’t – or won’t – summon the political will to build a world-class rail passenger system. Heck, I’d settle for restoring Amtrak service between Salt Lake City and Portland.

As I stood in the bar car of the Orient Express recently it was impossible not to think of Agatha Christie’s most popular novel – Murder on the Orient Express – or smile at the memory of James Bond romancing Tatiana Romanova in an Orient Express sleeper car in the film From Russia With Love. It was also impossible not to think of a very dry martini and whether that handsome woman over there wasn’t a Countess.

When the original Orient Express eventually extended its run from Istanbul to Baghdad and ultimately all the way to Egypt, you could make the entire trip in early 20th Century luxury. The restaurant car, the Train Bleu, offered extraordinary food and the railroad featured its own French wine label. The visionary Belgian businessman George Nagelmackers – yes, that was his name – who “invented” the Orient Express came to the United States in the 1870’s to study train travel here. Although rebuffed when he suggested to American railroad sleeping car inventor George Pullman that they jointly develop luxury trains in Europe, Nagelmackers came home and built his own wagon-lits – sleeping cars – and adopted one of Pullman’s innovations, the sleeping car attendant, as one of the features on his trains. The rest, they say, is history and romance and, sadly, only memory now in an exhibit.

I have to be careful how I say it since I haven’t exactly traveled on the Orient Express, but I can say I have been onboard the Orient Express and, like the real journey a hundred years ago, the memories are very pleasant. On second thought, make mine a double.

Georges Nagelmackers

Georges Nagelmackers

Georges Nagelmackers

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