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The Everlasting Appeal of the Orient Express

Pierre Fix-Masseau Orient Express poster

The Train Company
In 1882, Georges Nagelmackers, a Belgian banker’s son, invited several guests to a railway trip of 2,000 km (1,243 mi) on what has been described as his “Train Eclair de luxe” (lightning luxury train). Unless he was very far-sighted, he couldn’t possibly have imagined what he had started.


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1888 Poster Advertising the Orient Express
Jules Chéret, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Page URL:

The train left Paris Gare de l’Est on Tuesday, 10th October 1882, just after 18:30 and arrived in Vienna the next day at 23:20. The return trip left Vienna on Friday, 13th October (oblivious to the superstition of bad luck attributed to that date) at 16:40 and, right on cue, re-entered the Gare de Strasbourg at 20:00 the next day. Fast forward one year – Georges Nagelmackers founds Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL), which expanded its luxury trains, travel agencies and hotels all over Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Its most famous train remains the Orient Express – a long-distance passenger train service that operated until December 2009. Its routes then disappeared from European railway timetables, reportedly a victim of high-speed trains and cut-rate airlines.

The Venice-Simplon Orient Express train, a private venture by Belmond, using original CIWL carriages from the 1920s and 1930s, continues to run from London to Venice and other destinations in Europe, including the original route from Paris to Istanbul.

Although the original Orient Express was simply a regular international railway service, the name became synonymous with intrigue and luxury rail travel.

Fine Dining and Sleeping in Luxury
The first menu on board (10th October 1882) was: oysters, soup with Italian pasta, turbot with green sauce, chicken ‘à la chasseur’, fillet of beef with ‘château’ potatoes, ‘chaud-froid’ of game animals, lettuce, chocolate pudding, buffet of desserts, and, of course, the very best wines.

Composed of sleepers, a dining car and a baggage car, the train featured Lalique chandeliers, a piano and the finest crockery and cutlery. The maiden journey started on October 10th 1882 in Paris and reached Istanbul the next day.[1]

On 5 June 1883, the first Express d’Orient left Paris for Vienna, which remained the terminus until 4th October 1883. The train was officially renamed the Orient Express in 1891.

The original route was from Paris, Gare de l’Est, to Giurgiu in Romania via Munich and Vienna. At Giurgiu, passengers were ferried across the Danube to Ruse, Bulgaria, to pick up another train to Varna. They then completed their journey to Constantinople by ferry. In 1885, another route began operations, this time reaching Constantinople via rail from Vienna to Belgrade and Niš, carriage to Plovdiv, and rail again to Istanbul.

Today, the Venice Simplon Orient Express webite[2] says:
“It all started on 4th October 1883, the most luxurious train in the world left the Gare de l’Est. It linked Paris to Constantinople in less than 76 hours, marking the success of an incredible technological challenge. A veritable “rolling palace”, the Orient-Express showed travelers the splendor of its decor: precious wood marquetry, glass panels, fabrics, refined leather and pillows and bedding that guaranteed a good night’s rest. Not to mention a visit to the restaurant for an incredible gastronomic experience.

Today, on board seven fully restored historic cars, Orient Express has brought its legend to life. From tea-time in the lounge car to the grand luxury of the restaurant car, from the refined cuisine to the cocktail piano in the bar car, each on-board evokes all the wonder of the past. Nothing has changed.”

The Train that launched a Literary Genre
The glamour and rich history of the Orient Express has frequently lent itself to the plot of books, films and television documentaries. Some of the books featuring the famous train, before and after Agatha Christie’s 1934 masterpiece Murder on the Orient Orient Express, are:

  • Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker: the narrative is related through letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles. It has no single protagonist but opens with solicitor Jonathan Harker taking a business trip to stay at the Bulgarian castle of Count Dracula. Harker escapes the castle after discovering that Dracula is a vampire, and the Count moves to England and plagues the seaside town of Whitby. A small group, led by Abraham Van Helsing, hunt Dracula and, in the end, kill him.
  • Stamboul Train (1932) by Graham Greene: the book was renamed Orient Express when published in the United States. It focuses on the lives of individuals aboard a luxury express train making a three-day journey from Ostend to Istanbul. Mabel Warren and Janet Pardoe join the train later in Cologne. Josef Grünlich joins it in Vienna. Although these characters are travelling for different purposes, their lives are intertwined in the journey.
  • Have You Got Everything You Want? (1933) a short story by Agatha Christie: A young, attractive woman named Elsie Jeffries boards the Orient Express at the Gare de Lyon. She is shown to her compartment but is obviously in something of a quandary. On the journey, she makes her way to the restaurant car. She spots that the suitcase in the adjoining carriage is labelled “Parker Pyne”, which triggers a memory of something. She returns to the restaurant car and is placed on the same table as Parker Pyne and speaks to him. He finds she is unhappy. The cause is her husband of 18 months. He has worked in Constantinople for two weeks – she is on her way to join him. One week ago, in his study, she found a piece of blotting paper on which was part of a message, which referred to her. It used the words, “just before Venice would be the best time.” She cannot imagine what is going to happen to her when the train reaches this point. Pyne checks when they will arrive at Venice and promises to help.
  • Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie: After taking the Taurus Express from Aleppo to Istanbul, Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot arrives at the Tokatlian Hotel, where he receives a telegram prompting him to return to London. Through the concierge, he books a compartment on the Simplon-route Orient Express service leaving that night. Other passengers include opinionated American matron Caroline Hubbard; Russian Princess Natalia Dragomiroff and her German maid Hildegarde Schmidt; Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson; vulgar American businessman Samuel Ratchett, with his secretary/translator Hector McQueen, and his English butler Edward Henry Masterman; Hungarian Count Rudolph Andrenyi and his wife Elena; talkative Italian-American car salesman Antonio Foscarelli; English Colonel John Arbuthnot; American salesman Cyrus B. Hardman; English governess Mary Debenham; and Greek medical doctor Stavros Constantine. Early next morning, he is awakened by a cry from Ratchett’s compartment next door. Pierre Michel, the train’s conductor, knocks on Ratchett’s door, but a voice from inside responds, “It is nothing. I was mistaken”. When Poirot rings his bell for water, Michel tells him that the train is stuck in a snowbank. Bouc tells Poirot that Ratchett has been murdered. The murderer must still be on board, having no way to escape in the snow. As no police are on board, Poirot takes up the case.
  • From Russia, with Love (1957), a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming: The story centres on a plot by SMERSH, the Soviet counter-intelligence agency, to assassinate Bond. SMERSH plans to commit a grand act of terrorism in the intelligence field. It targets the British secret service agent James Bond who has been listed as an enemy of the Soviet state, and a “death warrant” is issued for him. His death is planned to precipitate a major sex scandal, which will run in the world press for months and leave Bond’s and MI6 reputations in tatters. Bond’s intended killer is Donovan “Red” Grant, a British Army deserter and psychopath whose homicidal urges coincide with the full moon. Much of the action takes place in Istanbul and on the Orient Express.
  • Travels with My Aunt (1969) by Graham Greene: The novel’s narrator is Henry Pulling, a conventional and uncharming bank manager. He has taken early retirement in a suburban home with little to look forward to. He is faced with the of remaining a bachelor or marrying a Miss Keene. His life suddenly changes when he meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta for the first time in over 50 years at his mother’s funeral. Despite having little in common, they form a bond. On their first meeting, Augusta tells Henry that his mother was not truly his mother, and we learn that Henry’s father has been dead for more than 40 years. He travels with his aunt to Brighton, where he gains an insight into one of her many past lives. Their voyages take them from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express, and as the journey unfolds, so do the stories of Aunt Augusta.
  • Flashman and the Tiger (1999) by George MacDonald Fraser: the story begins with Flashman going to Berlin with Henri Blowitz to help him get a copy of the Treaty of Berlin and publish it before anyone else has it. He also meets Caprice, a beautiful member of the French secret service. Five years later, he is looking for an excuse to leave London and avoid being sent to Sudan with Charles George Gordon. Luckily, a letter from Blowitz arrives inviting him to Paris. He takes the maiden journey of the Orient Express and makes the acquaintance of a princess, Kralta, supposedly so that she can sleep with him. This turns out to be a ruse by the princess and Otto von Bismarck, and Flashman is forced to join with Rupert Willem von Starnberg, son of the villain from Royal Flash, and save Emperor Franz Josef from death by Magyar nationalists. It turns out that Starnberg has plans of his own, and Flashman must save the Emperor and himself.

Orient Express Museum
It’s only one room, but the museum documents the history of the Orient Express and the train station in detail. Old log books are displayed as are conductors’ uniforms, the piano, a table laid with the original cutlery and crockery, tickets and many more memorabilia. Photographs adorn the walls and examples of the technology of the time are on display too. There’s a newspaper clipping of when the train got stuck in a snow storm in Bulgaria, very reminiscent of the plot of Agatha’s novel – Murder on the Orient Express. Admission is free and you are allowed to take as many photographs as you want.

There is just one single guard watching over the treasures and he is happy to answer any questions you may have[3], however at the date of publication of this paper, it appears as if the museum is closed – permanently[4].

It understood that the Orient Express museum is located at the Railway Museum of Thessaloniki (Greece), which houses an original Orient Express train.

Sourced/Excerpted from and for Further Reading

Pierre Fix-Masseau Orient Express poster
Image Credit: “Pierre Fix-Masseau Orient Express poster” by kitchener.lord is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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