For most of us, the name Orient Express conjures up images of romance, intrigue, adventure and even murder. Used as a setting by authors like Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming, it’s become arguably the most famous trainline in Western culture. Nevertheless, despite the train’s fame and ubiquity, there’s actually a lot of confusion about where exactly it traveled and when.
Officially running from 1883 to 1977 and traveling 2,740 kilometers, or 1,700 miles, between Paris and Istanbul—or Constantinople as the city was known for much of the train’s service—the Orient Express was the first transcontinental express in Europe. However, over its history, its route evolved and added additional routes connecting other distant cities like London and Athens. Plus, the name was used or leased by various companies over the years, making the title of the “real Orient Express” a subject of debate among enthusiasts.
In 1876, a Belgian businessman named Georges Nagelmackers founded La Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, Wagons-Lits being the French term for sleeper cars. The plan was for the company to produce and operate first-class sleeper and dining cars on European trains.
His idea was that these cars would be attached to trains operated by other national railway companies using their own engines, tracks and stations. Passengers would pay for a ticket on the train as well as an extra fee for the Wagons-Lits car.
Wagons-Lits then officially began operating the Orient Express in 1883. Well, it was technically called Express d’Orient at the time, but I think that means the same thing in French.
This original route ran twice a week starting in Paris and passed through major cities including Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. At the time, it didn’t make it all the way to Istanbul but instead ended at Varna, Bulgaria, on the Black Sea. From there, passengers who wanted to continue on to Istanbul, which was Constantinople at the time, had to catch a steamship operated by the Austrian Lloyd company and take the 14-hour trip across the western edge of the Black Sea.
During its first years, the Orient Express pushed the limits of Europe’s railroad infrastructure. The decline of the Ottoman Empire and political strife in the Balkans delayed railroad construction, and in addition to the necessity of steamship travel along the last leg of the journey to Constantinople, there were other hiccups at the beginning.
For example, the train had to stop in Giurgiu, Romania, on the Danube river. There passengers had to take a ferry to Ruse, Bulgaria, on the other side where they could continue on to Varna. Similarly, once a week the Wagons-Lits company began operating a route that diverged at Vienna to reach Constantinople via Belgrade and Nis in Serbia instead of Bucharest and Varna, but the track wasn’t quite finished. In Nis passengers had to take horse-drawn carriages over 300 kilometers, or 190 miles, to Plovdiv, Bulgaria, where train service resumed for Constantinople.
LA BELLE ÉPOQUE
Despite the initial problems with infrastructure, the Orient Express became increasingly popular, especially over the Paris-Vienna stretch, for which Wagons-Lits increased service to daily in 1885. By 1889, the track was completed from Paris to Constantinople.
The Orient Express left Paris’s Gare de Strasbourg, now known as Gare de l’Est, for Vienna every evening at 6:25 PM. On Sundays and Wednesdays, the train then continued on to Constantinople where it arrived three nights after leaving Paris at 4 in the afternoon. In 1891, the line was officially named “the Orient Express.”
The development of this transcontinental rail line coincided with the era known as La Belle Époque in French, which means “the Beautiful Age,” and refers to the time period starting at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and going until the start of World War I in 1914. Similarly referred to as “the Gilded Age” in the United States, this period saw dramatic economic growth, technological innovation, cultural development and social optimism. For example, in the United States, real wages rose 60% from 1860 to 1890 and a further 37% from 1890-1914.
Along with this prosperity came the development of travel and tourism as a leisure activity and the thirst for romantic adventure in exotic lands. Constantinople was an attractive destination because its location right in between Europe and the Ottoman Empire and Middle Eastern cultures made it a melting pot ripe for new and diverse experiences.
Nevertheless, the Orient Express wasn’t exactly the go-to vacation for your average 19th Century working class family. A ticket on the inaugural journey in 1883 cost 700 Francs while the average wage for a French man at the time was under 4 Francs a day. Indeed, it’s estimated that a ticket on the Orient Express in the 1890s cost roughly 1,750 Euros or 2,000 US Dollars in today’s currency, a quarter of an average Frenchman’s yearly income during the same period.
Rather, the Orient Express was a luxury line for aristocrats, diplomats, successful artists and Europe’s increasingly wealthy bourgeoisie. Take, for example, the first menu served on the train. It had seven courses featuring oysters, turbot, and fine wines and champagne.
Overall, the train was well-known for its amenities including Lalique chandeliers, a piano and high-class dining. For instance, famous French journalist Henri Opper de Blowitz remarked on the “variety and sophistication” of the train’s food and described the elaborate detail of the dining cars saying:
“The 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.”
De Blowitz was actually born in the Bohemia region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but he was naturalized in France in 1870. He was connected with many important European diplomats and government officials, and his journalism often bordered on espionage. For instance, in 1875 he obtained and published German plans to attack France, thereby thwarting them, and in both 1877 and 1888, he exposed conspiracies within the French government.
De Blowitz wasn’t the only spy to take the Orient Express, though. In fact, the train was sometimes referred to as the “Spies’ Express” because of the access it gave intelligence operators to both ends of Europe.
A famous example was Robert Baden-Powell, the British spy who started the Boy Scouts and rode the Orient Express during his operations in the Balkans prior to World War I. Posing as a lepidopterist—someone who studies butterflies—he claimed to be sketching butterfly wings when he was really drawing enemy fortifications on the Dalmatian Coast. Who wouldn’t believe that cover?
APRÈS LA GUERRE
World War I only proved a minor hangup for the Orient Express. Though service was suspended during the war, the train began running again in 1919. However, it changed its route to avoid Germany by traveling to Zurich and then through the Arlberg Pass in Austria to reach Vienna.
It was during this time period between the world wars that the Orient Express really expanded. Also in 1919, the Simplon Orient Express opened as an alternate route to the main line. This line took a more southerly route to Constantinople, traveling through Milan, Venice, Belgrade and Sofia, and also connected the line past Paris in the west to Calais.
This route was facilitated by the Simplon Tunnel which connects Brig, Switzerland, to Iselle, Italy, by cutting through the Alps. Opened in 1906, it’s almost 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, long and was the longest railway tunnel in the world from its construction until 1988 when the Seikan Tunnel opened in Japan.
Additionally, the tunnel lies only 705 meters, or about 2,300 feet, above sea level meaning that there are over 2 kilometers, around 1.3 miles, of rock on top of it. As a result, temperatures of 56 degrees celsius or 133 Fahrenheit have been recorded inside it.
The Simplon Orient Express ended up becoming a more attractive route to Constantinople because the Western Allied nations were still suspicious of Germany and liked the fact that they could avoid it entirely. In fact, the Treaty of Versailles that followed World War I gave the Simplon Orient Express a 10-year monopoly on the Paris-Constantinople route and forced Austria to accept the train.
As a result, the Simplon Orient Express became even more popular than the original route and is often the line portrayed in literature and film. For example, it’s actually the Simplon Orient Express that Detective Hercule Poirot takes in Agatha Christie’s famous mystery Murder on the Orient Express.
In the book, Poirot is trying to return to London from Istanbul, which had been renamed as such in 1930, when a snowstorm strands the train between Vinkovci and Brod in what is now Croatia along the route of the Simplon Orient Express. Poirot must then solve a murder that occurs on the train.
By the time Murder on the Orient Express was published in 1934, the Orient Express had reached its peak. In 1922, Wagons-Lits began replacing the old wooden R-class sleeper cars with steel S-type cars designed in the Art Deco style, painted blue with old lining and lettering. These were manufactured in England by Leeds Forge.
The network expanded and different routes reached numerous cities throughout Europe. The Orient Express became a popular means of travel for diplomats, artists and writers, as well as the wealthy.
The first murder on the Orient Express actually didn’t occur until a year after the fictional Detective Hercule Poirot solved his. In 1935, a wealthy Romanian woman named Maria Farcasanu was robbed and thrown out the window of the train by 23-year-old student Karl Strasser.
Strasser was captured and sentenced to life in prison in Austria, but the incident can be seen as a kind of beginning of the end for the Orient Express’s heyday. Soon thereafter, World War II began, and the line was suspended.
Operations resumed in late 1945, but the war had destroyed many of the Wagons-Lits carriages, not to mention a great deal of Europe’s railway infrastructure. The US Marshall Plan helped rebuild much of this, but the Cold War still created mostly insurmountable obstacles for the train line.
The communist countries of the Eastern Bloc controlled immigration heavily and forbade their citizens from emigrating. As a result, people from those countries were often unable to travel west on the Orient Express, and people from the Western Bloc were often prevented from entering Eastern Europe.
The exception was diplomats, something that added to the Orient Express’s mystique of espionage. In fact, in 1950, Captain Eugene Simon Karpe, a US naval officer in Romania, fell off the train in Austria. The US government was suspicious of the circumstances and spent a decade investigating the death. Although a Romanian student confessed in 1952 to murdering Karpe at the behest of a “foreign organization,” no official conclusion was ever reached. The incident ultimately inspired Ian Fleming’s 1957 James Bond novel From Russia With Love.
By the 70s, though, the Orient Express was a shadow of its former glory. It had few passengers, and the train no longer even had a dining car. People had to bring their own food for the length of the journey.
In 1971, the Wagons-Lits company decided operating their sleeper-car services was no longer financially viable, so they started selling them or leasing them out to other operators. The Orient Express survived for a while, but in 1977, direct service from Paris to Istanbul stopped altogether.
For many, the last train to arrive in Istanbul was considered the end of the Orient Express. However, services actually still ran using the Orient Express name and the cars and staff from Wagons-Lits. They were attached to trains operated by companies like Austrian Federal Railways, French Railways and Hungarian Railways.
Initially, service reached as far as Bucharest, but by 2001, it was cut down to just Paris-Vienna. In 2007, due to the introduction of a high-speed train between Paris and Strasbourg, it was further reduced to Strasbourg-Vienna. This was an ordinary EuroNight sleeper train operated by ÖBB, or Austrian Federal Railways, but even that made its last trip on 12 December 2009, after which Orient Express disappeared from the Europe-wide timetable.
There is, however, a way you can still get the Orient Express experience. In 1977, James Sherwood, an American entrepreneur living in the UK, started buying classic train coaches at auctions, including vintage 1929 Wagons-Lits sleeper cars.
He restored them and in 1982 began operating a service called the “Venice Simplon Orient Express,” running from London and Paris to Venice. This was eventually extended to reach Istanbul like the original Orient Express, taking five days and traveling through Budapest and Bucharest.
This train is less of a practical means of transportation and more a luxury travel experience. While few train enthusiasts would consider it the “real” Orient Express, it does get you from Paris to Istanbul in style. Departing just once a year in August, it includes five nights aboard the train, 24-hour steward service, hotel stays, meals and city tours in both Budapest and Bucharest, a Danube river cruise, and of course, multiple-course meals to rival those of the original.
A twin cabin on the Venice Simplon Orient Express will cost you £17,250 per passenger, which is about €20,000 or $23,000. A suite is double that price. Considering that in 2019, the average annual wage in France was about €39,000, even the cheapest ticket is, relatively speaking, more than twice as much as passage on the original Orient Express.
So what was the “real” Orient Express? The original train of la Belle Époque that chauffeured Europe’s growing wealthy class across the continent, the post-World War I Simplon Orient Express that inspired artists and writers, or the failing Cold War line that took spies and diplomats to and from enemy territory? Did it end in 1977 with its last run to Istanbul, or in 2009 when the last cars of its name rolled into the Vienna Westbahnhof on a gray winter morning?
Perhaps the Orient Express is more than any one train and instead a cultural symbol of Europe’s history and thirst for adventure. In this way, it’s sure to live on in novels, films and the zeitgeist for years to come.
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