More than just a 'mystery' train, the Orient Express whisked the elite across Europe in luxury and style

The celebrities were hot, and the champagne was cold aboard the Orient Express, the posh railway line that became synonymous with glamour and intrigue.

By María Pilar Queralt del Hierro
Published 24 Nov 2021, 11:58 GMT
Mountain pass
Under the dark of night, the Orient Express chugs through Switzerland in this oil painting by Terence Cuneo. The service’s route was altered after 1919 when a new tunnel allowed the train to cross the Alps and avoid passing through Germany.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

On October 4, 1883, in the Gare de l’Est train station, Paris was brimming with anticipation. Around two dozen intrepid passengers were preparing to board a luxury train that would expand the frontiers of travel. The train’s destination: Constantinople (now Istanbul). Its name: the Orient Express—an intercontinental rail service that would soon become a global legend. The idea of a railway linking Europe from west to east emerged from a project led by the Belgian engineer Georges Nagelmackers, and soon came to symbolise the belle epoque—a golden age in Europe spanning the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the start of the First World War in 1914. It was a period when artistic culture flourished, “globe-trotting tourism” blossomed, and the middle and upper classes enjoyed a newfound prosperity and cosmopolitanism.

CIWL founder Georges Nagelmackers is photographed by Nadar, or Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, in 1898.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

Luxury on the rails

By the late 19th century, most European countries were connected by rail, yet train travel was a largely unpleasant experience—rough and dirty, unreliable and sometimes dangerous, with complicated, time-consuming border crossings. Unfortunately, there was scant incentive to improve things: Business was booming, and rail owners viewed innovations with suspicion.

In the 1860s, however, with rail lines vining their way across the Continent, luxury hotels started to take root along the routes. Which is where Nagelmackers—the scion of a prominent Belgian banking family—came in. While on a long holiday in the United States, Nagelmackers fell under the spell of the popular Pullman “sleeper cars”—clean, comfortable, hotel-like passenger cars designed for long trips.

Nagelmackers was so enamoured of this opulent mode of transport that he asked its creator, the American engineer and industrialist George Mortimer Pullman, to become his partner in a venture that would bring splendor and convenience to European railways. With the belle epoque about to bloom, Nagelmackers sensed an untapped demand for a new kind of travel—one that would combine glamour and luxury. Pullman declined, so Nagelmackers returned to Europe and, using the Pullman blueprint, set about designing a sumptuous sleeper train. 

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 briefly delayed Nagelmackers’s plan, but by 1873 he had formed his own company, initially called Georges Nagelmackers & Company, then the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL; wagons-lits being French for “sleeper cars”). His ambitious vision—one that would sweep passengers from Paris to Constantinople in luxurious sleeper cars, without having to stop at borders— required a powerful patron.

A share certificate from the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits from the Archives CIWL and PLM.
Photograph by Wagons-lits Diffusion, Paris

Nagelmackers found the ally he needed in King Leopold II of Belgium. The monarch was widely known as both a savvy financier and a railroad enthusiast. Leopold II saw the business potential of Nagelmackers’s idea and helped him secure the necessary contracts with railway administrations in the eight different countries for what would become the CIWL’s flagship railway line.

Soon after its founding, the CIWL began providing catering and accommodation services to various European railway companies in the form of sleeper carriages, saloon carriages, and dining cars. After the creation of the Orient Express, the CIWL adopted a rather cumbersome new name: the International Company of Sleeper Carriages and Great European Expresses. It would establish a network of luxury trains—including the Blue Train, the Golden Arrow, and the Taurus Express—all over Europe. In time, it became the first multinational corporation dedicated to opulent transport and hospitality, with trains and other holdings eventually spreading from Europe to Asia and Africa.

Maiden voyage

A year before the inaugural departure of the Orient Express, on October 10, 1882, Nagelmackers invited guests on a trial run of his Train Éclair de luxe (luxury Lightning Train) on a round trip from Paris to Vienna. The lavish menu served on that test run—oysters, soup with Italian pasta, turbot in green sauce, chicken chasseur, beef tenderloin, venison, salad, and a variety of pastries, plus Bordeaux and Burgundy wines and, of course, French champagne—offered a taste of things to come. 

The first official journey of the Orient Express— a name bestowed on the train by newspapers (despite the fact that Constantinople, a city straddling two continents and multiple cultures, wasn’t really part of “the Orient”) and subsequently embraced by Nagelmackers—was a grand affair attended by many of the leading lights of Paris’s diplomatic, financial, and journalistic circles. The train consisted of three carriages, two sleeper cars, a dining car, and two luggage wagons. Each wagon—built of teak wood, heated by steam, lit by gaslight—was about 57 feet long.

On October 4, 1883, the Orient Express left Paris from the Gare de l’Est, shown here in a mid-19th-century photograph. The station opened in 1849 to connect the French capital with Strasbourg.
Photograph by Beaux-arts de Paris, RMN Grand Palais

The summer and fall of 1883 was a politically restive time in the Balkans, which the train would have to traverse, so some travellers packed pistols for self-defense. Among them were two people whose testimonies became invaluable sources for the atmosphere on the train: Edmond About, a novelist and correspondent for the French daily newspaper Le Figaro, and Henri Opper de Blowitz, a correspondent for the Times of London.

Both produced rich, detailed chronicles that captured the magnificence of the train. Blowitz revelled in describing the dining car’s “bright-white tablecloths and napkins, artistically and coquettishly folded by the sommeliers, the glittering glasses, the ruby red and topaz white wine, the crystal-clear water decanters and the silver capsules of the champagne bottles—they blind the eyes of the public both inside and outside.” About, meanwhile, was delighted to find that “the sheets are changed every day, a refinement unknown even in the finest mansions.” Each compartment naturally had the most modern amenities of the day—central heating, hot water, and private bathrooms.

The decor of the Orient Express was, undoubtedly, luxurious and exquisite. Inspired by the best hotels in the world, the train cars boasted embossed leather ceilings, velvet curtains, silk sheets, mahogany furniture, silver cutlery, crystal glassware, marble fixtures, and bronze taps. The train was lit by lamps from the factory of renowned art nouveau glassmaker Émile Gallé, and its walls were adorned with tapestries woven by Gobelin, the Parisian design house that had been supplying the French court since the time of Louis XIV.

Restored dining cars from the Orient Express, like the one shown here, showcase the art deco features installed after the First World War, including Lalique glass, marquetry, and lacquered paneling.
Photograph by John Frumm, Gtres

Dining on the Orient Express was another major attraction. On the excellent, expensive menu during that first official journey, dinner cost six francs, lunch four francs, and half a bottle of Moët & Chandon, seven francs (the champagne alone cost about two days’ wages for a French coal miner at the time). The menu, in French and German, was laden with delicacies: the finest French cheeses, foie gras, roast beef, caviar, and soufflé. 

The Orient Express arrived every day at Budapest’s Keleti Station. Several times a week, a train would leave to make the eastern leg of the journey to Constantinople (now Istanbul).
Photograph by Yury Kirillov, Alamy, ACI

Initially, the train left twice a week from Paris’s Gare de l’Est, passing through Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest en route to the Romanian city of Giurgiu. In Giurgiu, passengers would cross the Danube River by ferry to neighbouring Ruse in Bulgaria. From there, another train took them to the Bulgarian port of Varna on the Black Sea, where they then were ferried by steamship to Constantinople. Passengers on the first Orient Express took a total of 81.5 hours to cross Europe.

The first journey concluded with a lavish reception at the Topkapi Palace, organized by the Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II. The next day, the travellers turned around and returned to Paris, arriving on October 16. As About wrote in his diary: “Until now, when you had days off and wanted to travel, you went to Fontainebleau or the ports of the English Channel. Today you can travel to Constantinople.” And he was right.

Monarchs and millionaires

The Orient Express was revolutionary for the cosmopolitans at the heart of the belle epoque. A trip on the Orient Express soon became a must for anyone who wanted to be anyone in European high society.

An 1895 Orient Express poster shows a destination and train schedules.
Photograph by Album

On June 1, 1889, nearly six years after its inauguration, the Orient Express made its first direct journey, covering the distance from Paris to Constantinople in 67 hours and 35 minutes. In many ways this was the start of the train’s golden age. Yet convenient intercontinental transport remained secondary to luxury and romance. Direct route or no, the express’s carriages were the setting for business deals, diplomacy, and exclusive soirees. Elegance was the order of the day, with a rigid protocol observed on board in dress and behaviour. Evening attire was required for dinner: women in gowns and men in tuxedos or tailcoats.

Royals, too, succumbed to the charms of the express. Edward VII of England took a trip while still Prince of Wales, and Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria used it more than once to travel to his territories in the Balkans. Original patron Leopold II of Belgium was a regular passenger. Ferdinand I of Bulgaria, a railway enthusiast, was sometimes allowed by the engine driver to take over the controls. 

Over the years, the monarchs and aristocrats were joined by politicians, adventurers such as T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), and figures from the world of the arts. The creator of the Ballets Russes, Sergey Diaghilev; dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova; and the spy Mata Hari all were passengers on the Orient Express. Later in the 20th century, the actress Marlene Dietrich and the soprano Maria Callas also joined the passenger list. 

Greta Garbo, photographed circa 1925, was one of the many early movie stars who holidayed on the Orient Express.
Photograph by Picturelux, the Hollywood Archive, Alamy

So many VIPs arrived in Constantinople on the Orient Express that the sumptuous Pera Palace Hotel, overlooking the Golden Horn, was opened in 1892 to accommodate them. Special horse-drawn coaches were laid on to take passengers directly from Sirkeci Station to the hotel. Among its famous guests were performer Josephine Baker, statesmen Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, King George V, and actress Greta Garbo. After the Swedish-American icon of the late silent era and golden age of Hollywood stayed there in 1924, the hotel created a suite of “spacious and stylish” Greta Garbo Corner Rooms in her honor.

Triumphs and travails

Despite the array of comforts and technical advances that the Orient Express boasted, it experienced plenty of mishaps too—some of them serious. Snow blocked the convoy on several occasions, with the passengers experiencing temperatures so low that they were forced to sleep fully clothed. Crew members had to trek several miles through the snow in order to get provisions for the kitchen.

In 1914 the onset of the First World War up-ended travel. Europe’s rail lines were now used for moving troops, rations, and supplies, not well-heeled cosmopolitans. Nagelmackers’s ideal had been a railway that crossed borders and served to connect a united Europe. During the war, the Orient Express had to stop operating; service would not resume until 1918.

The Simplon Tunnel, which was built in 1906 and linked Switzerland with Italy, made it possible to create an alternate route—the Simplon Orient Express—in 1919. The Simplon route—which followed tracks from Paris through Lausanne, Milan, Venice, and Trieste, and then connected with the original route in Belgrade—traversed the Alps and managed to avoid Germany altogether.

Thanks to the Simplon Tunnel, inaugurated in 1906, an alternate Orient Express route opened in 1919 that avoided crossing Germany.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

As the 1920s raced by, the Orient Express bounced back and the railway cars were upgraded. The line became, once again, a symbol of luxury ridden by celebrities, aristocrats, and a host of other famous, wealthy people. The train’s glory was further burnished in 1930, when a third route, the Arlberg Orient Express, was opened.

The renaissance would not last, as the Second World War shut down the Orient Express again. Service returned after the war, but the train’s glory days were behind it. The luxe sleeper and dining cars were now interspersed with ordinary passenger cars. Closed borders complicated the route, leaving the famous sleeping cars empty. Yugoslavia and Greece, for instance, did not re-open their border until 1951; between 1952 and 1953, the route between Bulgaria and Turkey was closed, too, which prevented the train from reaching Istanbul during that time. Ridership declined, which some experts attribute to the rise of commercial air travel.

As the 20th century wore on, the Simplon Orient Express remained in operation, but it was a shell of its former self. In 1959 the French writer Paul Morand, who had been an unconditional admirer of the train, wrote: “The Orient Express has become a ghost train whose passengers reflect bitterly on the human condition. Our frivolity, perhaps excessive, has been succeeded by anguish.” In 1977 nearly all services ended, including the last holdout of the original service, the Direct Orient Express. The last run from Paris to Istanbul left the station on May 20, 1977.

Various operations would continue to run train service under the name Orient Express in the coming years, but the full original route with its luxurious cars would be no more. In 1982 American businessman James Sherwood launched a luxury train service featuring restored cars from the original Orient Express with several routes from London and Paris to Venice. For those on a budget, original cars can be viewed today in the Thessaloniki Railway Museum in Greece—relics of romance and luxury from the most legendary train in history.

Sirkeci Station, shown here in a present-day photograph, was completed in 1890 in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). It was the final stop on the Orient Express.
Photograph by Steven May, Alamy

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