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The secret of the Orient Express

by Yardena Malka

Is it possible to design a luxury cabin that suits the wants and needs of every passenger? Several entrepreneurs sought to answer that question during what the National Geographic refers to as “The golden age of the train”. Luxury interior designers still take inspiration from the ­legendary Orient Express. The majestic train has inspired countless legends. It has transported heads of state into exile, housed the writer Agatha Christie and helped James Bond flee to Yugoslavia. To this day, people continue to flock to stations all over Europe to welcome the “King of Trains” – so what is the long lasting secret of its success?

1883 The birth of a King

It is an early grey winter evening in Paris. The sound of a man’s polished shoes clicks along the train platform as he draws nearer to a group of prestigious looking people. They are gathered at the Gare de Strasbourg (now called the Gare de l'Est) for a special event. This man is the notorious French writer Edmond About and he has been invited to write about the Orient Express. The Parisian newspapers call him the new Voltaire. A sharp whistle and the sound of a steam engine announce that the Orient Express is ready to board. Its railcars of blue-painted teakwood shine by the lamp lights and the polished logo of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) stands in front of him. The round gold icon features two lions holding the initials CIWL between their paws. This famous symbol will represent the King of Trains for many years to come.

Paris_Orient_Express The secret of the Orient Express

Orient Express vintage luxury dining carriage. Paris, France. (Photo: alamy)

“The adventure I’m about to tell you is on the menu of every man’s dream.”

Edmond boards the train and strolls through the railcars, admiring the floral inlays painted by Albert Dunn on the luxury wood paneling. He runs his hand over the soft seats made from the finest of Spanish leather. Four-arm gas chandeliers, Lalique glass panels and Italian marble complete the train’s exquisite charm. He catches sight of the head chef in the kitchen car issuing instructions to his assistant. The assistant carefully writes a menu of twelve meals to be served before they reach Constantinople.

Edmond would begin his story, “The adventure I’m about to tell you is on the menu of every man’s dream.” He stows his wide-brimmed hat and long coat in the closet. Diplomats, railway officials and other members of the press wave farewell to friends and family members standing on the platform. Georges Nagelmackers is the founder of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, and personally invited the gentlemen on board for the trip. For years, Nagelmackers has firmly pursued his vision of a European Pullman car. He had endured extremely long negotiations with European rail companies and took a number of chances on unreliable stockholders. And now, on this day of October 4, 1883, the Orient Express is finally leaving Paris behind and heading to the East.

1919 New Lines

As time progressed new passes opened. The Orient Express could now pass through the Simplon tunnel connecting Switzerland to Italy. A new line emerged and was named the Simplon Orient Express. In later years other lines would emerge such as the Arlberg Orient Express.

1929 Westbound on the Orient Express

A steward greets a lady at her compartment door. She answers with a small smile and a little bitterness. Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie is fleeing a failed marriage and hoping for a new life. Her destination is Constantinople, and then Cairo. The further she leaves her problems behind her, the more exotic the scenery becomes, and the bigger her smile. “Only the gods should be permitted to travel in such style,” she notes in her diary. She observes how borders blend together and how the train transcends all attempts at political separation. Each compartment has its own washbasin, elegantly cast in enamel with a hinged teak lid that allows it to double as a salon table when closed. It is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. 5 o’clock in the afternoon is teatime. Agatha Christie sits down on her hand embroidered sofa to enjoy her tea. The porcelain teaware is adorned with beautiful engraving. At night her sofa converts to a bed dressed with the finest crisp damask bed linen.

Venice_Simplon_Orient_Express The secret of the Orient Express

Dining carriage aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. The VSOE is a private luxury train service from London to Venice and other European cities.

Stranded in the Snow

With 130 kilometers still to go until Constantinople, the Orient Express came to the first ever unexpected halt. The silver coal stove – always lit punctually by the steward at five in the morning – stood cold. The passengers were completely cut off from the outside world for days. They were snowed in and temperatures inside the train were dropping to minus 10 degrees Celsius. Agatha Christie however saw an adventure in it. Turning over ideas in her head and drawing inspiration from the grim circumstances, she dreamed up a murder in a sleeping compartment. She gave the victim a criminal past, and cheekily placed the master detective in the neighboring compartment.


Meanwhile, after a few days, a team of helpers managed to clear the snow and rescue the train and a few years later Agatha put her story down on paper. Her crime novel Murder on the Orient Express became a worldwide bestseller and the Orient Express became an icon of popular culture. There are many stories that recount how the rich and famous lived on the train. Actress Marlene Dietrich was said to saunter out of her compartment and sit next to the pianist in the restaurant as finely dressed men and women watched and sipped red wine from elegant crystal glasses. The Orient Express was a cozy living room and also a stage for impromptu performances.

Movie_set_Orient_Express The secret of the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express movie set in 1974. (Photo: alamy)

The Struggle

Its route through Europe often left it at the mercy of the continent’s politics, and yet it somehow survived the Great War. Unfortunately, a few years later, the second World War forced many of the great trains to halt as the conflict closed down borders and forced the grand hotel to take on shorter routes and new services. Many of the lines in eastern Europe became the possession of eastern European railway companies' sleeping-car and dining car subsidiaries. In western Europe the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits continued to develop different types of cabins from the luxurious to the more simple. They struggled to keep the company alive for many years to come but continued to find innovative ways to stay alive.

1982 Reinvention

Faded beauty was exactly what appealed to James Sherwood. Fueled by nostalgia, he bought two sleeping cars at an auction in 1977, the pitiful remains of the Orient Express. From there he embarked on a grand search throughout Europe, eventually rescuing another 25 original cars from their unhappy fate as pigsties, henhouses, garden sheds and one had even become a brothel. Next, he went about restoring them together with artist Albert Dunn’s grandson. Together they restored every last inlay to its former glory. By 1982, the King of Trains was back on track, shrouded in myth and once again tantalizing audiences with its unique and captivating charm. Its tapestry-lined walls have witnessed state secrets, intrigue and affairs of the heart – and stoically guarded them all throughout the years.


The Orient Express is inextricably linked to a life of luxury, independence and innovation. It has enjoyed the golden years, survived war torn years and lived on to inspire new generations of traveling. To linger at a station and watch the ­Simplon-Orient-Express steam down the track is to experience a genuine piece of history. Just as he guards his secrets, he guards his passengers. The king himself, the Orient Express, makes you feel home, even far away from home – this is the secret of his long lasting success.

Steward_Orient_Express The secret of the Orient Express

Steward aboard the Orient Express at the Altona railway station in Hamburg, Germany on Saturday 2, 2012. This was the first time the Orient Express ran from Berlin to Hamburg to Venice since 1930.

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