Oh, I see! moments
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The Magic and Mystery of The Orient Express

by Meredith Mullins on May 5, 2014

The dining car of the Orient Express, which offered life-changing experiences as it linked two worlds. (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

The elegance of The Orient Express
© Meredith Mullins

Life-Changing Experiences Riding the Rails

Trains have always held a certain fascination for those with a traveler heart. But when the words “Orient Express” are uttered, an evocative world of myth and mystery, luxury and intrigue inevitably comes to mind. Such a journey often offered life-changing experiences.

What images emerge for you?

  • Diamonds and seduction
  • Cigars and whiskey
  • Dressing for dinner served in a dining car of white linened tables
  • Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express
  • Bond. James Bond on the Orient Express in From Russia with Love
  • Phineas Fogg riding to Istanbul on the Orient Express in Around the World in 80 Days
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles taking to the train in the episode Turtles on the Orient Express
  • Graham Greene’s two novels with scenes on the train: Stamboul Train and Travels with my Aunt.
A table set with elegant details on The Orient Express, a place where life-changing experiences came often (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

Mystery and intrigue: the ultimate everything
© Meredith Mullins

The Ultimate Train

The “Oh, I see” moments will be unique for each person, but few people are indifferent on the subject of this unique train. The Orient Express was many things.

It was the ultimate in luxury. It was bourbon and playing cards, cigarette holders and pearls. It was a theatrical set where strangers could play whatever part they wanted.

It was a real-life venue for smugglers and a haven for celebrities (Marlene Dietrich, Lawrence of Arabia, Isadora Duncan, Leo Tolstoy, Sergei Diaghilev). It attracted its share of spies and detectives, from Mata Hari to Sherlock Holmes.

Private compartment in The Orient Express, a train that offered life-changing experiences for travelers between two worlds. (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

All the comforts of home . . . and more
© Meredith Mullins

A Railway Dream

The founder, George Nagelmackers overcame political, technical, and financial obstacles to make this long-distance train a reality.

He started in 1882 with an international express train from Paris to Vienna. In 1883, he launched The Orient Express, from Paris to Istanbul (with just a brief part of the journey—Varna, Bulgaria to Istanbul— covered by boat).

Finally, in 1889, the entire journey was offered in one three-day train journey. This route was expanded even further when voyages were offered to Tripoli, Baghdad, and Cairo (the extended route was called the Taurus Express).

Table set with playing cards in The Orient Express, a train that offered life-changing experiences to travelers crossing two worlds. (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

The old-world charm of train travel
© Meredith Mullins

Five Things You May Not Know about The Orient Express

 

#1

French jewelry and glass designer, René Lalique, decorated the walls of the cars with glass panels inlaid in Cuban mahogany in his own innovative Art Nouveau style.

The tapestries were by Gobelins and the velvet curtains were from Italy. Every detail delivered luxury, from the crystal champagne glasses to the silk bedsheets.

Floral design by Lalique on the walls of The Orient Express, a train that offered life-changing experiences to travelers crossing two worlds. (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

Art Nouveau designs by René Lalique
Photo © Meredith Mullins

#2

The Orient Express was called “the train of kings and the king of trains” for good reason. King Leopold II of Belgium was a major stakeholder in the project and traveled often for private getaways with his mistress. He even allowed a version of the royal crest to be used on the side of the train cars.

King Ferdinand I of Bulgaria has a passion for trains and speed and often climbed aboard when the train crossed into his country. He pulled on railway overalls and took over the controls.

He was a wildman, refusing to slow down on curves, blowing the whistle at every turn to heighten the thrill.

Royal crest on the side of a car of The Orient Express, a train that offered life-changing experiences as it linked two worlds. (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

King Leopold II offered the Belgian royal crest for the trademark of The Orient Express.
© Meredith Mullins

#3

Man overboard!

In 1920, a French presidential convoy was on the Orient Express toward eastern France. As President Paul Deschanel prepared for bed in his elegant sleeping car, he fell out the window.

Hours later, he was found wandering the countryside in his pajamas, decidedly dazed and confused.

#4

In 1929, a snowstorm halted the train for days near the border of Turkey. Temperatures dropped. Food supplies dwindled, but the staff did their best to make the food last and to continue their pledge of service. They even hunted for wolves to cook up for dinner.

When the train was finally rescued, the passengers weren’t bitter or annoyed (not at all like today’s airline travelers). In fact, they applauded the courage and dedication of the staff.

The train, noted for its adherence to schedule, was five days late arriving in Istanbul—for the first and only time.

#5

American singer Joséphine Baker was a frequent traveler on the Orient Express. On one of her trips, in 1931, a bomb exploded as the train passed over the Biatorbágy Viaduct in Hungary, planted by a demented “serial-blaster.”

The locomotive and several cars plunged into the ravine. There were many deaths and injuries, as well as general panic. Ms. Baker survived and was one of the most active in giving aid to the wounded.

A typewriter in the club car of The Orient Express, a train that offered life-changing experiences to travelers crossing two worlds. (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

A place where writers could create a world of adventure, seduction, and intrigue
© Meredith Mullins

A Dream Becomes a Legend

The original Orient Express made its last voyage in 1977, but it will be remembered—both in fact and myth. The “palace on wheels” was about the journey and the destination.

The train was a look into history in the making, a link between cultures, a tribute to the industrial revolution, an expansion of the world of the traveler. It offered life-changing experiences for many people.

The entrepreneurial vision of George Nagelmackers confirmed what was destined to become a more global approach to travel—a world with fewer and fewer borders.

Voyage designation in the window of The Orient Express, a train that offered life-changing experiences to travelers crossing two worlds. (Photo © Meredith Mullins)

Paris to Istanbul . . . and beyond
© Meredith Mullins

To see an excellent exhibit celebrating the 125th anniversary of the first Orient Express (Paris to Istanbul) service, visit the Institut de Monde Arabe in Paris. The exhibit is open until August 31, 2014.

And for the luxury oriented, while the original train cars are at the Institut de Monde Arabe, you can make a reservation for dinner in the dining car, under the supervision of chef Yannick Alléno.

Even though the original Orient Express is no longer running, you can take a journey in the replica Simplon-Venice Orient Express, definitely for luxury travelers.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.  

 
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