The legendary five-star train lives again today at its maximum glory with routes that go from Paris to London or Venice, and once a year it retraces the original route from Paris to Istanbul.
A cinematic dream, a literary masterpiece, a living museum, a page (many pages) of history books, a border between two worlds, a symbol of an era, the icon of a timeless style… There would be millions of ways to define it, as it’s easy to say its name and evoke different images and mental links. The Orient Express is all of this.
Its history is long and engaging: among the travellers there were monarchs, artists, informers, politicians and businessmen. It inspired cinema and literature for ages, alongside the creative genius of Agatha Christie. It has been the symbol of the Belle Epoque era and the aspiration of peace after the World Wars.
The Orient Express, with its very elegant carriages, was born from the idea of a Belgian banker, Georges Nagelmackers, who worked on this train that became iconic, after a trip to America on a train with carriages fitted as they were travelling hotels. The train began its journey on October 4, 1883. It was the first time that a train could connect Western Europe to its Eastern side. The train crossed almost the whole Old World following the winding path traced by the Danube river, and it stopped at cities such as Strasbourg, Vienna, Budapest and Varna, on the Black Sea. The success of the train was so great that in 1889 the line reached Istanbul, an exclusive destination for nobles, wealthy Europeans attracted by the Middle East, a symbol of Belle Epoque, and lovers of luxury travel.
The train survived through the following decades and kept racking up kilometres, stopping only during the two World Wars. It’s exactly over the peace time between the two conflicts that the train reaches its maximum glory (it’s when Agatha Christie’s book “Murder on the Orient Express” was published). That’s why two additional trains were added: the Simplon Orient Express that went to Lausanne, Milan, Venice and Trieste, and the Arlberg Orient Express that was on the Zurich, Innsbruck and Budapest line.
The train’s race stopped in 1977 due to the ruthless competition of high-speed trains and air transport, and also because of the rigidity of the boundaries sanctioned by the Iron Curtain. All the luxurious carriages were sold until the British entrepreneur James B. Sherwood – the future founder of the Belmond Ltd – bought two original sleeping cars during an auction in Monte Carlo. Then he developed a serious interest for buying all the lost carriages in the world. Sherwood got them from museums and restaurants (but also from unique brothels), restoring precious Art Decò decorations first in Venice, Paris and London.