The Orient Express! The very mention of its name brings images of eastern cities, romantic trysts, exotic costumes, shining spires and minarets—and, of course, that's why it was given that name. It began its run from Paris to Istanbul in 1883, at a time when a growing number of people had the means (or business need) for travel, and when Europe was fascinated with aspects of "the East," whether Japan or the "Near East."
The original Orient Express, 1883, above; a late-days engine below
As time went on, and Europe's political events and borders shifted or convulsed in wars, the routes shifted, extended and occasionally halted—and the Orient Express took on its other great image as the scene of intrigue, espionage, secrets and crimes. It appears in dozens of movies, some based on books such as Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express" and Graham Greene's "Stamboul Train." That's his seat below, with his portable typewriter.
We had a chance last week to visit some of the classic cars of the Orient Express as well as an exhibition about its social origins and impact at the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris recently; if you hurry you can see it through August 31st. The exhibit goes under the title "Once There Was the Orient Express" (Il Etait Une Fois l'Orient Express). The exhibit uses cars from the 1920s and 30s; seats and compartments are made up to reflect famous travelers and incidents from its history (including a compartment with a shrouded corpse bearing 12 bloody knife wounds.)
The original Orient Express was a project of George Nagelmackers, a Belgian businessman who had visited the U.S. and been impressed with the Pullman sleeping cars he found; they were luxurious and well-equipped and staffed for long-distance travel. Working from that model, he founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagon Lits, and convinced European railroads to include his cars in their trains and include Wagon Lits fees in the ticket prices for sleeper passengers.
In the 1880s, trains took nearly 30 hours from Paris to Vienna, so the appeal of the sleeping car is obvious. Even at its height, when the main Paris to Istanbul route had been extended by connections to a London-Baghdad route, it was advertised as an 8-day trip, as seen on the poster. Further extensions, under the name Taurus Express, followed the development of track to Damascus, Jerusalem and ultimately Cairo.
Until well after World War II, The Orient Express was always run as a luxury train, with lots of service and fine dining, albeit with price distinctions among types of compartments or private compartments; at times there was a second-class service, but it was well above the ordinary second class. Here are some samples of the different room arrangements, laid out with period baggage. You can see how the day-time arrangements were made up for night.
Of course, all those sleeping passengers had to be awakened when they wanted, refreshed as they wished and cared for generally. The Wagon Lits conductor, like his Pullman equivalent, was highly skilled at this, and worked out of service spaces like this, in the cars. The conductor also held passports for border crossings so the passengers would not have to be awakened, at least in normal times.
The basic Paris to Istanbul route had quite a few variants, some based on success (the opening of the Simplon Tunnel through the Alps made for shorter times and fewer weather disruptions; more demand for seats and beds added sections running through different cities). Other variants reflected political difficulties with crossing certain borders. During both World Wars, the train stopped running.
Dining cars and lounge cars were another focus of the trains; elegant service for elegant passengers. Keeping up with the times, Wagon Lits had most of its between-the-wars fleet done up by well-known artists and designers such as Renee Lalique. Amenities included not only the comfortable chairs, but elaborate bars and even a piano.
Ultimately, the modern fate of the Orient Express illustrates changes in modern travel. The longer distances of its old route have been taken over by air, especially in the days of super-budgets such as EasyJet, and many shorter sections of a few hundred miles are served by high-speed trains such as the TGVs. Sleeping cars live, but almost only as overnighters between city pairs for travelers who can save a hotel cost by traveling overnight and using the day for business or touring.
The Orient Express as a separate train ended in 1977. After that, the name persisted in European timetables until 2001, but it referred to Wagon Lits cars following the Orient route by being attached to other trains for different parts of the journey. In 1988, for example, we went by train from Munich to Vienna; I took a picture of my daughter waving from the train window and was later surprised to see on the car's signboard that it was part of the Orient Express...although it was an ordinary day car.
You can still ride the Orient Express, although not on its full old route. A company called Belmond is running excursion trains on various routes using restored Orient Express rolling stock, and it appears that the French national rail operator, SNCF, made a major contribution to this exhibit in part because they are considering doing so also. PS: If you can get to Paris in time, one of the dining cars on exhibit is serving dinner daily, with menus at the equivalent of about $160 and $215 a plate.
That's the car below...you can just catch a glimpse of the waiter setting the table.
A few more pictures in the thumbnail slideshow below. All aboard!