March 1 1989 by Loyd Grossman
The list of great trains is short: The Flying Scotsman, Le Train Bleu, The Twentieth Century Limited, The Trans-Siberian. But none are as thrilling or as glamorous as the Venice Simplon Orient Express-known to most as just simply, The Orient Express.
The first Orient Express left Paris on October 4, 1883, with a load of VIPs bound for Romania where they could transfer to a connecting ferry and rail service for Constantinople. By 1889, the journey to Constantinople was a direct one-67 hours of luxury travel that was as much a symbol of expansive, optimistic, late 19th century European society as the Eiffel Tower which opened the same year.
The service constantly expanded with Paris to London link-ups and improved with the opening of the Simplon Tunnel, (one of the world’s longest at 12 miles) which slashed journey times. Sadly, though, even the world’s greatest train wasn’t immune to the social and economic changes that cheap and frequent air transport brought to post-war Europe. Luxury service stopped in 1962, and for the next 15 years the Express shuttled students and guest workers across Europe. The train made its last run, with much media attention, in 1977. Later that year, when two dilapidated carriages came up for sale at a Monte Carlo auction, they were purchased by James Sherwood, president of Sea Containers, Ltd. Sherwood went on to buy several more carriages with the aim of reintroducing luxury train travel across Europe. After five years of enormous efforts by hundreds of craftsmen and at the expense of some 11 million British pounds, the newly christened Venice Simplon Orient Express was ready to roll, traveling along the London-Paris-Venice route.
Today the train travels to Salzburg and Vienna, as well. Traveling from London to Venice, or vice versa, takes about a day and a half each way. I chose to travel from Venice to London. As I arrived at Venice’s Santa Lucia Station, I found the train standing in its blue and gold livery amidst clouds of rising steam-just like in the movies. Upon boarding, VSOE staff took my ticket, passport and baggage separatingwhat I needed on the journey from what I didn’t. The whole process was as smooth as first class check-in at any major airport. I was shown to my cabin by an Italian cabin steward who attended to me throughout the rest of the journey.
The coaches and cabins are each individually adorned, and all are beautiful. I was amazed at the skill, attention to detail and Padua and the Roman city of Verona (home of Romeo and Juliet), and turns North to begin its climb through the Alpine foothills of the provinces of Trentino and the Alto Aldige. As the train speeds uphill, alongside
the Aldige river, the countryside assumes a Germanic cast and bilingual signs mark the stationsBolzano/Bozen, Bressanone/Brixen and so on.
One can lunch while journeying through the Italian alps and reach Innsbruck just after tea time. There are three dining cars on the train; one is particularly interesting: restaurant 4905 is a 1927-built coach with chinoiserie-lacquered panels, crisp white linen covering the tables and heavy cutlery. Service is by a formally dressed staff. One can choose from a cannily constructed set menu or a more extensive a la carte. And there’s a first-class wine list.
The first sitting for dinner is at 6:30 p.m., but many travelers choose to enjoy a cocktail in the art nouveau bar car instead. (There is a talented piano player and many passengers unsurprisingly spend a large part of the journey here.)
Dress for dinner tends to be formal; most men wear dinner jackets and ladies wear cocktail dresses to sometimes more formal attire. After dinner, many passengers return to the bar car for more music and socializing, retiring to their cabins in the wee hours of the morning.
One can spend most of the journey eating and drinking, and indeed there are few more pampering experiences than having a top-notch lunch or afternoon tea whilst some of the most dramatic and beautiful scenery in the world slips by the window.
On the other hand, the sheer comfort of the cabins, the smoothness of the ride and the sheer absence of telephones, all mean that you can finally settle down and read that novel you’ve been meaning to get to for so long.
Cabins are as compact as you would expect, but very luxurious. Each evening your bed is made up for sleeping. The beds are exceptionally comfortable and
the reading lights are the best I’ve ever used.
You are served a continental breakfast in bed the following morning after you left Venice, and then you reach Paris (just after the next morning). Then it’s across the north of France, lunch, and a transfer to the channel ferry at Boulogne. A short, but sometimes rough channel crossing later, and you’re onto the British train at Folkestone; tea and scones ease your way to London’s Victoria station where you arrive in the early evening.
The Venice Simplon Orient Express is a dream of a journey and a rare chance to sample a way of luxury train travel that rarely exists today.
PARDON ME, RAGAllO. IS THAT THE VENETIAN CHOO-CHOO?
Venice has been one of the world’s V top tourist destinations since tourism was invented in the 18th century. Its watery streets, profusion of historic buildings, art treasures and unique way of life have remained unsullied by the pressures of visitors.
Some of Europe’s best and most famous hotels are in Venice-The Cipriani, The Gritti Palace, The Danielli. But even the more modest hotels and pensiones-the Flora and the Academia, to name two favorites of savvy travelers-have much to offer.
Venice is both tiny and complex-one could see most of the key sights in a long weekend or happily spend a month walking around. Although most of the major European boutiques-Gucci, Fendi and the like-have shops in Venice, it is not one of the better shopping cities in Italy. However, one can buy wonderful paper goods, picture frames and Venetian glass, as well as specialties like velvet slippers or the elaborate masks made to be worn at Carnival.
While a gondola ride is de rigueur, transport around town is by the cheap and frequent waterbus service or on foot. Venetian food has an undeservedly bad reputation, but like any tourist center, Venice has its share of clip joints. Worth a visit are the original Harry’s Bar, Montin with its beautiful garden, the bustling fish restaurant Madonna (for the food as well as the view) and the terrace at the Hotel Monaco. And lunch at the Locanda Cipriani, followed by a tour of the Romanesque basilica of Torcello, are well worth the boat trip across the lagoon.