- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

Conveyance is the essence of travel. We fly in giant metal tubes at 600 mph from continent to continent. We ride fast trains across Europe or Japan or take Amtrak to New York, stacked in seats that are utilitarian but functional, or cram ourselves into subways to careen through midtown.

We have come to see the act of travel as a means to an end, not an end in itself. There was a time when it was different, when Pullman cars and night trains took us coast to coast in hotel-like comfort. Luxury liners crossed the Atlantic in a casual week to 10 days. In Europe, there was a class of train service that excelled in the standards the times demanded.

The legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express traveled from Paris to Istanbul in a journey through time and national cultures with such panache that it created a mythology of its own, spawned a culture of travel that exuded class and style, and even inspired an Agatha Christie mystery.

Although that era may be gone, the Orient Express is still with us. Today it runs from London to Istanbul, Budapest to Venice, Paris to Vienna, Prague to Rome and a number of other routes, keeping alive a legend that exists not only in the back of our mind, but is there for indulgence in its glory and splendor.

We are riding the Orient Express from Venice to London, a two-day journey that revives the sleeping car, the four-course dining-car dinner, the polished wood and paneled chambers of inlaid art deco, the deep-cushioned bar car, and the aura of exotic luxury that says relax, lay back.

Let time slip away and be replaced with the calm of never being in too much of a hurry to forget to sip your martini as the Alps glide slowly by. We are turning back the clock and suspending time for a journey into the living symbol of luxury train service. All aboard.

We began in Venice, where the gentle sway of travel has remained unchanged for a thousand years or more with the exception of motors added to boats. There are no cars in Venice. Walking the narrow alleys and streets is de rigueur; the gentle glide of gondola (or motoscafi or vaporetti, the water buses) move at a pace that recalls a different time.

We take a water taxi from our hotel, the legendary Cipriani, through the canals of Santa Croce to the Venice train station in Cannaregio. A canal-side porter takes our bags, and we make our way inside. The Orient Express has its own check-in area where smartly dressed receptionists take our tickets, assign us our cabins and check our bags. Here, on Track 2, sits the regal blue antique coaches of the Orient Express, gold lettering spelling out the name on each car, emblazoned with the company crest. If Venice is a step back into the 14th or 16th centuries, then the Orient Express is a step back into the 19th. The 16 cars gleam like a Victorian antique in the Venetian sunlight, standing out among the Eurostar Italia and other modern trains berthed nearby. The excitement builds as we walk past several cars to our own.

Bruno Ongoro, our conductor and steward, wearing a powder-blue uniform and bell cap, greets us at the door and helps us into the carriage and our private compartment. The polished interiors, dating from the 1890s, gleam like a fashionable courtesan. Our cabin is a sumptuous compartment with a comfortable sofa, wash basin, reading table and elegant racks above for baggage and briefcases. Inlaid wood adorns the mahogany panels. The effect is very art deco, down to the reading lamp in the window. In the evening, the compartment converts into upper and lower bunks.


The train begins to move and the adventure begins. Within minutes we are on the bridge over the green waters of the lagoon separating Venice from the mainland. The lagoon is wide and we cross the water at accelerating speed, and then we are on the mainland of Veneto. So long, Venice. Soon we are rolling through farmland and the autumnal splendor of vineyards turned gold and brown after the harvest. We are a rolling piece of history, taking a journey across the continent.

Our route will go through Verona and then turn up into the Dolomite Mountains and the Italian Alps, a scenic wonderland of sharp peaks and snowcapped wonders, on to Innsbruck, Austria, and through the edges of Lichtenstein before crossing into Switzerland. The journey continues through Zurich, Basel and into France near Strasbourg before descending into the hills and along the vineyards of Champagne and Epernay before arriving in Paris.

From the City of Light, we will continue north to Calais, through verdant fields and farmlands before disembarking the classic sleeper train for a shuttle through the Chunnel, where we will board a timeless Victorian Pullman Porter for the final journey through the English countryside into London’s Victoria Station. It will be six countries in two days and one altered state of mind that exists on an Orient Express train.


We go to lunch for our first meal as the train pulls out of Verona. The dining car is a vision of dark wood and Lalique glass. Waiters in white uniforms with gold braid attend the fully set linen-covered tables.

A three-course lunch commences with pumpkin soup, creamless, but adorned with cannelloni stuffed with oxtail. It is fantastic.

The Dolomites begin to appear on each side of the train as we begin to climb into the Italian Alps in the brilliant sun. A crisp John Dory is served with shrimp, mussels, clams, purple potatoes and green peas in a light cream sauce. Hilltop monasteries and old churches clinging to steep cliffs seem to appear every four minutes, each unique and startling in how it holds the high ground.

Desert is served as we enter Trento: a candied-chestnut charlotte with quince marmalade. We sit back in our plush dining chairs and savor coffee as the tiny hill towns of the Alps begin to roll by. The towering peaks of the Dolomites surround us on either side as our carriages kick into high gear. The entire meal is served on fine china laced with cobalt blue design and the crest of the Venice Simplon Orient Express.

As the afternoon turns the sky a golden hue, we reach the Austrian border at Brenner. While locomotives are changed, we get out and breathe the crisp mountain air. We are between Innsbruck and St. Moritz. The snowy peaks of the Austrian Alps lie ahead. A sense of excitement grips the passengers.

Border crossings are not the dramatic scenario they were in the last century, with Nazi custom inspectors, neutral Swiss, Russian occupiers, and Cold War suspicions, but it is still a rite of passage that conjures images more fitting to our imagination and the history of our vintage train than the quiet stop between hills on the doorstep of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s home country.

The porter serves green tea and biscuits, and it all seems rather British. Passengers mingle in the hallway, trading hometowns and destinations. We are on this journey together, and a sense of camaraderie informs our shared experience. The whistle sounds. Humphrey Bogart gets onboard in a cloud of steam, and we are off into the Austrian Alps on the high road to Switzerland.

We ride a steep downward grade as the sun sets, jagged snow-covered peaks bathed in red; chalet-style houses are set into the hillsides; meadows climb to the tree line; mountains towering over them; a steep canyon cuts a valley. A highway suspended hundreds of feet over the valley floor frames the opposite side of the downgrade. We round curves, descending into darkness, plummeting onward, coming to a stop in Innsbruck, a center of winter sports. Getting off the train to take in the night air, we see the towering ski jump at the edge of town.


The Orient Express has a dress code, in keeping with its past and reputation. Jacket and tie are required in the dining car, and proper dress is expected at all times. I have worn a suit all day, and we have dinner clothes ready for the evening. As dinner approaches there is a collective flurry of activity as passengers get themselves done up in their finery. Black tie is not out of the ordinary, and it lends an extra air of elegance to the affair, like a dinner party on a great ocean liner, a special occasion worth dressing for. So we dress, happy to do so as we anticipate the evening ahead.

Then it begins. Dinner on the Orient Express. We are in the first dining car, with gold and amber curtains, dark-green velvet chairs, inlaid wood on the wall panels with flower patterns in blond wood. The dining cars are different and passenger take a meal in each car during the journey. More than half of the passengers are in black tie. There is an air of elegant celebration.

Langoustines, with filet of sole and woodland mushrooms, starts the evening with a brilliant flash of taste, the mushrooms pungent and aggressive, the langoustines crunchy and flavorful, the sole understated and regal. It’s fair to say that food like this on a modern train is unprecedented. The main course is duck breast and foie gras with stuffed brussels sprouts. The car hums like a fine restaurant in Paris. The foie gras is perfect, the duck tender and rare, the slightly bitter riposte of the brussels sprouts is a sumptuous counterpoint.

I cannot remember a cheese course served on a train, in this case an irresistible choice of fine cheeses. The wines are terrific. Coffee and desert follow, and we linger in the dining car until the second seating is announced. Dinner has been a memorable 21/2 hours.

Our waiter, Franco, who is from Lucca, Italy, and has been with Orient Express for 19 years, regales us with stories of some of the celebrities who have graced the train experience in recent years. John Travolta famously took out an entire carriage for his family, friends, entourage and bodyguards. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward traveled as simple passengers, trying to pass unnoticed, just the two of them.

Not unnoticed, of course, according to Franco, but certainly unhassled, blending into the environment as just two more strangers on a train. Rolling Stone Keith Richards with his wife, daughters and drummer Charlie Watts, repeatedly found inspiration in the experience, repairing to his compartment after each meal with his guitar.

After dinner, we go to the bar car where things are in full swing. The well-dressed guests crowd around the grand piano as Cole Porter, Dean Martin, English singalong favorites (yes, it is a long, long way to Tipperary), love songs, Broadway, Beatles and even Pink Floyd are performed by the in-house pianist, Pierino Rossi.

The crowd is loose and happy, the regalia goes on for several hours, with singalongs and longing glances between spouses in their finery. It is a magical evening’s end.


When we go back to our compartment, Mr. Ongoro, our steward, has transformed it into a bed chamber. Double-decker bunk beds with sumptuous mattresses and fine linens under warm blankets are a remarkable accommodation. The upper bunk is hung from the ceiling with tapestried ropes. The ladder, similarly upholstered, is ingenious. It is cozy and romantic. This is like the most luxurious camping trip or bunkhouse imaginable. The train hurtles on through the night, through Switzerland, down into France, and on toward Paris, the gentle rocking lulling us into a slumber, the hours passing with comforting sleep, the night train of our dreams.

As the Sun rises, Mr. Ongoro waits with coffee and breakfast. He has been with the Orient Express for 20 years and is still captivated by it, like most of the train’s staff. We have slept like pampered children, deep and rapturous, riding the rails in sartorial splendor. With the morning comes a new day, Paris, Calais and the English Channel.

SINCE 1887

Orient Express began as a simple route from Paris to Constantinople, now Istanbul, in 1887. It reached its heyday between the world wars and was decimated by the latter. It gradually declined before ceasing service in 1977. Revived in 1982, all cars on the line are from the original stock, lovingly restored down to the last detail. Today, Venice Simplon Orient Express runs trains all over Europe, including the original route, now Paris to Istanbul, stopping in Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest, Romania.

We leave Paris and head north just as the sun emerges. It is a glorious day in the French countryside as we are having brunch in the third dining car, oriental in decor, with black enameled panels. Rich fabric in red and orange covers the chairs. This is our last meal before Calais. Scrambled eggs and salmon, broiled lobster and apple tart for desert.

The food never ceases to amaze. Chef de cuisine Christian Bodiguel is a marvel, designing menus and serving his cuisine for the Orient Express for the last 19 years. The broiled lobster, served in the shell in a cream sauce, bursts with flavor. The service is impeccable, the attention to detail exquisite. The rolling fields and farms of the French countryside glide by in a pastiche of color. Farmhouses and an occasional chateau rise out of the hilltops, billowing clouds fill an azure sky.

Soon it is journey’s end for the sleeper cars of the classic Orient Express train and the continental leg of the trip. It has been amazing, but it is not over. In Calais we get off and board buses, and, after passport control, the bus drives onto a transport train that carries it through the Chunnel — under the English Channel — to England, where the buses drive off the transit train and take us to a vintage Pullman Porter at Folkstone harbor.

Equally antique to the train we have just ridden from Venice, these trains are restaurant carriages with a narrower gauge. The service is very English: high tea with scones and finger sandwiches. The carriages are plush and immaculate, restored to perfection, and the feel is less Continental, more English, less sleeping car than a day trip though the country. It is a fitting end to our journey, a way station to our destination, a storied conveyance on the way to London.

It is worth noting at this point that London has become, with the Chunnel, a gateway to Continental Europe by train. The Eurostar goes from Waterloo Station to Paris in three hours, and with the Eurotunnel Transport, as we have seen, cars, buses and trucks can cross through the Chunnel, as well. London as a gateway to Europe is made more important by the significance of London as a destination. We arrive at Victoria Station, one of the great railway stations of Europe. We hail the ever distinctive London cab that conveys us to the hip-chic Metropolitan hotel.

The Metropolitan, in the heart of Mayfair, is as sleek, modern and stylish as the train was regal and antique. Our room has a glorious view of Hyde Park, and the contrast between Victorian England and Swinging London existing side by side is part of the city’s appeal. The Met, as it is called, has a Nobu restaurant on the premises and, of course, the Met Bar, a nighttime hot spot. Our room has a very modern interior, white sofas, blond wood, a platform bed with a cream suede comforter. Add the steam room in the gym and the very fashionable clientele, and the Met is a perfect base for a quick exploration of London. We sleep like babies and get up early the next day.

We wander down Piccadilly, stopping at Pret a Manger, a terrific chain of food outlets, for coffee and yogurt. At Old Bond Street we duck into Alexander McQueen to admire the season’s fashion collection. Fantastic pieces for women, inspired by “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” but not out of place on the Orient Express, and wonderful men’s suits, although sized a little small.

Continuing on to New Bond Street, we check out the photography auction at Sotheby’s. Outstanding prints from Bresson, Avedon, Maplethorpe, Arbus, Irving Penn and a host of others are a time capsule of the last 80 years. On Saville Row, we are compelled to stop at Richard James, immaculate suits for men, done with flair and a modern flash.


Then it is lunchtime and we are off to Pied a Terre, 34 Charlotte St., a bastion of exquisite cuisine holding two Michelin stars and Zagat’s highest food rating in London. Chef Shane Osborne has created a masterpiece of cooking with just 13 tables. Pan-fried Scottish scallops with squash and vanilla puree and toasted pumpkin seeds are tantalizing. Curry-poached oysters with cauliflower cream have a delicate burst of taste.

Pan-fried plaice with ravioli of prawn is fabulous, but mid-Devon fallow venison with a quince puree is not only incredible, but is served with sausages of the same venison that nearly upstages the meal it is meant to complement. Each dish is paired with a wine recommended by master sommelier Mathieu Germond. A black fig carpaccio with cinnamon ice cream gives new meaning to desert.

Pied a Terre is a restaurant at the top of its game, and this is only lunch. Moreover, Mr. Osborne is in the kitchen, lunch and dinner; he is no celebrity chef in name only but a working master of the kitchen (and an affable Australian) who has made Pied a Terre an outpost of fine dining the way Orient Express has captured the luxury of train travel.

Our day is winding down as we wander through the West End past Victorian theaters holding the latest modern productions of Tom Stoppard, Monty Python’s “Spamalot,” and Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap.” She’s the same lady known for “Murder on the Orient Express.” We spend time at the National Portrait Gallery, the history of England from Tudor to modern times told through portraiture and photographs.

Dinner is at Michelin-starred Lindsay House in a Soho town house, where Irish chef Richard Corrigan prepares sweetbreads, pigeon, trotters, frog legs and rabbit with a flair and panache that cannot be understated. Satiated, we return to the Metropolitan and pack for our return home.

We take a cab to Victoria Station and the Gatwick Express, the ultimate in utilitarian efficiency, whisking us to the airport in 30 minutes. Onboard our Delta Air Lines flight home, lying back in sleeper seats, we think of our train compartment as we look back at our amazing journey on the Orient Express. The sleeper seats in Delta’s Business Elite are its modern equivalent, linking the joy of the train with our comfort in the air. Conveyance may be the essence of travel, but the luxury of getting somewhere is a distinctive component.

• • •

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, 800/524-2420, www.orient-express.com

Delta Air Lines, 800/221-1212, www.delta.com

Hotel Cipriani, Venice, 39/041-520-7744, www.hotelcipriani.com; or Orient Express Hotels, 800/237-1236, www.orient-express.com

Metropolitan, London, 44/20-7447-1000, www.metropolitan.co.uk

Pied a Terre, London, 44/20-7419-9788, www.pied-a-terre.co.uk

Lindsay House, 44/20-7439-0450, www.lindsayhouse.co.uk

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