Vita Gazette

News from Italy

A fairy tale Orient Express 

di Andira Vitale

We are traveling to the past of the Eastern Express, which brought the tales of 1001 nights to its lucky guests. Are you ready? Here we go…

Once upon a time

Once upon a time, there was a fairyland in motion called the Orient Express. Its borders stretched from Paris to Vienna, from Budapest to Milan, Istanbul and other capitals, telling a different tale at every stop. The curtains are made of silk of this land of fairy tales; dominated by cobalt-coloured furniture dark wood; the sofas are made of velvet and silk; the tall glasses are made of crystal; the tables are made of silver. In the bar of this fairy tale country, which set off slowly like an elegant bride, when the sound of the grand piano in the dim light rose, the curved bottles would start to open, the train would start flying onto the rails and approaching the mountains to be climbed. And memories that will never be erased, written together with insatiable pleasures, are lined up one after the other.And every moment turns into a fairy tale like a postcard.

The first of these postcards reached land on October 4, 1841. On that historic day, the whistle of luxury, comfort and dreamland blew, and the locomotive began to glide slowly along the tracks. The “Grand Hotel on rails” was a perfectly heated luxury train, which allows you to go up to Paris and reach Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) in 77 hours of travel. Initially, the Orient Express consisted of two service carriages (luggage and staff cabins), two sleeping carriages that could accommodate up to 40 passengers and a restaurant carriage with a first-rate chef who varied the menu according to the countries crossed.

For the first time a fast train (for the time) connected Western Europe with Eastern Europe, shortening distances and bringing peoples closer together. The Orient Express became famous for luxury, comfort and fine cuisine. It was frequented by royalty, nobles, diplomats and wealthy businessmen. The train only accommodated the first class, expressing the essence of the Belle Époque with the idea of ​​trust in continuous progress, technology and financial solidity.

The first train’s departure was, as we would expect, very spectacular. It was announced to the world as “The Magic Carpet to the Orient”. Nagelmackers has truly created a fairy tale. Mahogany and teak panels, carved walls, doors and compartments, sofas covered in soft Spanish leather with embroidered gold embossed patterns, curtains fastened with silk cords with gold thread tassels dangling, silk sheets, woollen blankets, down pillows, porcelain sinks in Italian marble, each toilet that is cleaned after use, thin crystal goblets, elegant porcelain, silver dinnerware, extremely well-trained, stylish and cleanly dressed employees, menus prepared by the best chefs of the period, and the best quality wines were all on this train.

Thomas Edward Lawrence

In 1909, Thomas Edward Lawrence, a British student, made his first voyage on the Orient Express en route to the Middle East to complete his thesis on crusader castles. This will be just the first in a long series of stays in the Arabian peninsula that will transform Thomas Edward Lawrence into Lawrence of Arabia.

Agent dancer Mata Hari

In the same years, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, a Dutch dancer and secret agent, better known as Mata Hari, was also travelling on the Orient Express and was sentenced to death for her espionage activities during the First World War.

Collector agent Robert Baden-Powell

Known as the founder of the Scout Movement, Robert Baden-Powell was also a spy for the British Secret Service. He often travelled on the Orient Express disguised as a butterfly collector, which allowed him to go to otherwise inaccessible places and hide in the wings of butterflies, drawing maps of enemy fortifications that proved vital during the First World War.

Magical atmosphere

And this magical train, from one border to the other, reduced the time from 2’5 months to 80 hours with a spring car. The train was crossing the Alps, arriving in Istanbul after an 80-hour journey via Budapest and Bucharest. Diplomats, civil servants and journalists of French, German, Austrian and Ottoman origin were travelling on the first expedition of the Orient Express, which started from Paris in 1883. Edmond About, a reporter for The Times Newspaper, who was among the passengers, published his journey memories in his book “De Ponteise à Stamboul” in 1884. Who is not among the famous passengers who travel by train from Paris to Varna Port and then arrive in Istanbul by ship? Members of all European dynasties, the wealthiest businessmen, movie and television stars, and the upper class, whose every move the media loves to talk about and whose lives are enticed, have come. Our train saw two world wars, so politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats, high-ranking soldiers and spies were also found on the train. King George V of the United Kingdom, King Ferdinand I of Bulgaria, and King George II of Belgium. Leopold, French President Paul Dechanel, Spy Mata Hari, Spy Lawrens of Arabia, US President Theodore Roosevelt, US President Harry Truman, Indian Independence Movement leader Mahatma Gandhi are among these names. Let’s not forget the writers and filmmakers, of course. Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, Edward Stirling, Maurice Chevalier, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Strauss, Maria Callas, Greta Garbo are just a few of them. Scientist Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, were among those who preferred to live in this fairy tale land.

Not only essential names lived in Orient Express; While offering a magical atmosphere to its guests with its leather-covered ceiling, silk and velvet curtains and soft carpets, it has been the subject of movies and novels.

The encounter of people who did not know each other before in the magnificent background of the train, in an environment where they could not escape temporarily, created a very striking resource for the writers.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, H.D. Lawrence’s famous novel, which was banned in England for over thirty years, Lady Chatterley told her father on the Orient Express that she was pregnant. Of course, it matters: because she got pregnant not from her husband but from her lover.

The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars

Maurice Dekobra, who sold best during, before and after the Second World War, also passed through our train. Her best-known book is called The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars. Published in 1927, it sold so much that it ran print-on-print for the next thirty years. The characters of Dekobra, which are not very common in real life, were created to build more melodrama.

Stamboul Train

It was Graham Greene’s job in 1932 to write the story of a real-life man and woman meeting on a train and making an exciting journey. Istanbul Train (Stamboul Train) made Greene one of the most influential writers.

Murder on the Orient Express

Two years after the Istanbul Train, Agatha Christie’s famous Murder on the Orient Express, described as the best detective novel of all time, came. Agatha Christie was also a regular on our train. Her husband, Colonel Archibald Christie, whom he was married to at the time, worked for the British intelligentsia for many years, travelled to the Middle East a lot due to this duty, and Agatha accompanied him. Thus, she could use many of the conspiracies she witnessed in his fiction. The novel, filmed in 1974, has been shot as a movie many times.

James Bond: From Russia, With Love

After Agatha Christie, after the Second World War, Ian Fleming’s famous James Bond series From Russia, With Love was published. The novel comes in 1956, four years after the first book in the series came out. Fleming’s book, in which the train is depicted very realistically in the last chapters, has also been described as the best of the series; In 1965, it had sold twenty-nine million units in just one year. In addition, millions of people have watched James Bond movies, which are considered better than books.

Of course, other novels have also been written. Published in 1937, Cecil Roberts’ Victoria Four-Thirty got its name from the train departure time that provides transportation to the Orient Express by connecting the ferry. Dutch writer A. Den Doolard published a historical novel called Orient Express with Macedonian background in the same years.

Lawrence Durrell, famous for the Alexandria Quartet, is one of those who cannot resist the charm of our train. He stopped by our train in his humorous book Esprit de Corps- Sketches from Diplomatic Life, which he wrote based on the memories of a diplomat friend. Eric Ambler, whom his contemporary Graham Greene described as “our best thriller writer without question”, also got his share of the brilliance of the Orient Express. The thriller novel The Mask of Dimitrios, which he wrote, started with the fire that broke out during the liberation of Izmir and passed through the train, reaching all the way to the Balkans and Paris.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Lady Vanishes

Ethel Lina White’s The Wheels Spin, an Orient Express-themed novel, did not become a bestseller but was the first to be adapted into the best film. So much so that Alfred Hitchcock bought the film rights and shot his famous masterpiece The Lady Vanishes, based on the book.

Around the world in 80 days

Another world-famous production of the Orient Express is “Around the World in 80 Days”. Making a bet that he will tour the world in 80 days on a claim, Mr The film, in which Fogg gets on the train in Istanbul, has been adapted into movies and TV series many times in various years. As a matter of fact, ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, made in 1919, is the first movie of the Orient Express to be screened. However, since the basis of the script is not based on the Orient Express, the first movie about the famous train is considered “The Disappearing Woman”.

Orient Express also wrote stories!

The secret of wagon number 2419: The Orient Express’s voyages were stopped during the First World War. The Orient Express, which was withdrawn from the expedition to the Compiegne Forest in France until the war’s end, witnessed its first historical event. One of the treaties that ended World War I was signed on train number 2419 of the Orient Express. The wagon, which is seen as the symbol of the victory of the French against the Germans, went down in history as a monument of victory.

Simplon Orient Express: The Orient Express, off the rails during the First World War, started its voyages again in 1919. This time, he was in the presence of his passengers with two innovations. The Simplon Tunnel, which opened in 1905 with a small addition to its original name, became known as the “Simplon Orient Express”. The route of the train was another innovation. Germany and Austria’s stations, the war’s losers, were removed from the route. In this way, the train started to reach Istanbul in 58 hours via Paris, Lausanne, Milan and Venice.

A legend under the snow: In January 1929, snow trapped the Orient Express near Constantinople (Istanbul) for days. Passengers willing to die of hunger and cold escaped the train by digging a tunnel in the snow. This incident inspired author Agatha Christie’s 1934 mystery novel, Murder on the Orient Express.

In 1930, the Toros Express was put into service, which runs from Istanbul to Aleppo and Beirut and connects to Jerusalem, Cairo or Baghdad. In 1932 the connection with Central Europe was restored and the Arlberg-Orient Express departed, reaching Vienna via Tyrol.

Josephine Baker’s pep concerts: In 1930 the Taurus Express was inaugurated which went from Constantinople to Aleppo and Beirut, with connections to Jerusalem, Cairo or Baghdad. In 1932 the connection with central Europe was restored and the Arlberg-Orient Express departed which reached Vienna through the Tyrol.

In 1931 the Orient Express was bombed when, near Budapest, a bomb caused it to fall 30 meters off a viaduct. The singer Josephine Baker was traveling on the train and to calm the survivors she improvised a concert among the wounded.

The sad end of wagon 2419: When it came to World War II, train services were interrupted again. During World War II, which started with Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, when Germany entered France on June 14, 1940, Adolf Hitler found wagon number 2419. The Nazis had the French sign the surrender treaty of France on the 2419 carriage of the Orient Express to get a rematch from 22 years ago. The wagon was later taken to Germany, where the French put it on display. In the spring of 1945, when the Nazis realized they would succumb to the war, they worried that Germany’s surrender would be signed on the 2419 carriage of the Orient Express. Thereupon, on Hitler’s orders, the SS unit destroyed the wagon.

Rumours of the Orient Express

Since there were kings, princes, princesses, politicians, writers and agents among the guests of the fairy tale train, their gossip was present!

It was among the rumors that the Bulgarian King Ferdinand locked himself in the bathroom for fear of being assassinated during his trip, and that the Belgian King Leopold II boarded the train with the desire to infiltrate a Turkish harem in Istanbul.

While another Bulgarian King, Boris I, used the train on Bulgarian territory and speeding at excessive speed, it was reported that one of the French presidents, Paul Deschanel, fell from the Orient Express at night and was rescued with a minor abrasion.

Although Orient Express resumed its expeditions after the war, it lost its importance over time due to various restrictions. In 1977, due to the competition arising from air transportation and the fact that there were many countries on the route where the Cold War was experienced, the demand decreased, and the flights stopped. The expedition dated 27 May 1977 was the last expedition of the famous Orient Express between Paris and Istanbul. Its removal from the campaign further increased the value of Orient Express. Orient Express has become a collector’s area of ​​interest as it hosted historical events in the two world wars and many celebrities traveled. Wanting to turn this interest into cash, the company put the wagons up for auction in Monte Carlo. Some of the train’s wagons were purchased by a British collector, while the Royal Palace Museum of Morocco purchased others.

In 1983, the 100th anniversary of the Orient Express’s first voyage, 100 famous people from various countries participated in its special voyage. The Orient Express remained a Paris-Vienna daily service until the route was shortened in 2007 and finally cancelled on 14 December 2009.

The Orient Express returned to Italy

And back to Italy, the legendary and romantic vintage train on which the story of slow travel par excellence flows and is told, seeing the world from the window. The train, which is a work of art in itself, an art deco masterpiece expertly preserved by Belmond (joined its portfolio of luxury hotels and travel Belmond Train, Europe), finally, in 2023 (on April 27 first departure ) returned to the Eternal City of the Grand Tour with the new itinerary that connects Paris crossing Italy with stops for embarkation also in Florence and Venice.

The carriages are originals from the 1920s adorned with marquetry by the art deco master René Prou ​​and etched glass panels by René Lalique. The train comprises sleeping cars dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, along with four elegant day cars, including the three sumptuous dining cars L’Oriental, Etoile Du Nord, Côte d’Azur and the boutique corner. Passengers can choose between twin cabins or a suite cabin, consisting of two connecting twin cabins that can be used as a living area and the other as a sleeping area. Almost dazzling is the impact of one of the six “large suites” with an interior inspired by the cities of Paris, Venice, Istanbul, Vienna, Budapest and Prague with large spaces, double beds, living rooms and private bathrooms. A kind of time machine on rails allows you to go back in time and live a truly incredible experience.

The luxury and relaxation are constantly bathed in sips of champagne, from the breakfast served in the cabin, to the afternoon tea, to the elegant canapés offered during the aperitif in the bar carriage 3674, the warm heart of the train, while the French chef Jean Imbert, of all the culinary offer of the train, offers every day gastronomic experiences and itineraries that combine the grandeur of the golden age of rail travel with seasonality and the use of excellent products from local artisans present along all the routes for always different tastings inspired by the moment. Furthermore, in the 3674 bar carriage, fun and conviviality are complemented by signature cocktails and the live notes of the pianist that resonate until late at night. Part of the charm of a trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is the atmosphere that echoes the glories of other times when the passengers themselves contribute to the creation, almost as if it were a show in which a scene is played out every hour. For example, wear an evening dress (it is mandatory) for the refined dinner. Returning in the evening, the cabin was prepared and “reconditioned” to spend an unforgettable night on the tracks towards the destination city. Just like when in those silk and velvet-lined carriages, bejewelled ladies in long dresses paraded by, and tuxedo-clad gentlemen played cards until dawn.

The train of dreams Venice Simplon-Express is in the dream town of Portofino

Vita gazette – In June, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, a Belmond Train, will commence its annual journey to the Ligurian coast for the first time in its 42-year history. The giugno 2024 collegherà Parigi e Portofino.

The train of dreams, Venice Simplon-Express, begins to tour the Ligurian coast as of June. Among its stops here is Portofino, one of Italy’s most valuable jewels on the Ligurian Riviera. From June 2024, the lucky passengers of the train of dreams will connect Paris and Portofino, which was once an Express route, from June 2024 onwards.

The legendary train will first take its passengers through the French countryside, a living environment that it has transformed into islands of luxury and comfort. Then, the dream of the Mediterranean coast will begin. 

When the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express enters Italian soil, guests can admire cities such as Ventimiglia, Savona, and Genoa, the former capital of one of the most powerful maritime republics in the world. In this last stretch of the journey, a delicious brunch will be served before arriving in Santa Margherita Ligure, where the train experience will end, but not the Italian stay, which will continue, as mentioned, at the Splendido.

And this dream tour will end in beautiful Portofino, which is romantic and tranquil.   Splendido, A Belmond Hotel where guests can stay for 2 days, is a historic hotel representing a true haven with a unique view of the hills overlooking Portofino. Here, Jean Imbert, the famous star chef of the legendary train, will organize a special dinner with an exceptional tasting menu: a gastronomic tribute to this new journey. To best conclude this three-night experience, guests will discover the essence of Portofino on the big screen with a private screening under the stars in the iconic “Piazzetta”, the heart of the small Ligurian town, with the bright colours of the fishermen’s houses.

Do you also have a dream? There is room for every dream in this carriage… Have a good trip!

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