Orient Express

The Orient Express was the name of a long-distance passenger train originally operated by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Although the original Orient Express was simply a regular international railway service, the name has become synonymous with intrigue and luxury travel.

To most people the Orient Express is more an idea than a tangible entity. We are most familiar with its life in fiction and cinema: Hercule Poirot solved his most famous case on it, Alfred Hitchock’s lady vanished from it and James Bond rode it from Istanbul to London. But what was the real Orient Express like, how did it first attain its aura of mystery and intrigue and what was the famous train’s ultimate fate?

A Continental Vision

In 1865, a prominent Belgian banker’s son named Georges Nagelmackers first envisioned "a train that would span a continent, running on a continuous ribbon of metal for more than 1,500 miles". During a trip to America, Nagelmackers witnessed the many innovations in railway travel there—chief among them George Pullman’s unprecedented, luxurious "sleeper cars"—and he returned determined to realize his vision.

On October 4, 1883 the Orient Express set out on its first formal journey, with many journalists aboard to publicly marvel at the train’s luxury and beauty. (Nagelmackers, a clever showman, even arranged to have shoddy, decaying old Pullman cars stand in contrast on the tracks adjacent to the Express as it left Paris‘s Gare de Strasbourg.) Aboard the train, the delighted passengers felt as though they’d entered one of Europe‘s finest hotels; they marveled at the intricate wooden paneling, deluxe leather armchairs, silk sheets and wool blankets for the beds. The journey from Paris to Istanbul lasted a little over 80 hours.

The King of Trains

The Orient Express became the train of choice for Europe‘s wealthy and high-born, a rolling symbol of the economic disparities of its age. "Peasants in half a dozen countries would pause in their work in the fields and gape at the glittering cars and the supercilious faces behind the windows," It came to be called "the King of Trains and the Train of Kings."

Some of these kings exhibited very odd behavior on the train. Ferdinand of Bulgaria was observed locking himself in the bathroom, scared to death of assassins. Belgium‘s King Leopold II rode the train to Istanbul after making elaborate arrangements to infiltrate a Turkish man’s harem. The king of Bulgaria, an amateur engineer, insisted that he be allowed to drive the train through his country, which he did at perilous speeds. Czar Nicholas II demanded that special cars be built for his visit to France, and some decades later the French President Paul Deschanel clumsily tumbled from one of these cars in the dead of night, an event that prompted such ridicule that he eventually resigned.

In its heyday, the train duly earned another nickname: "Spies’ Express." Continent-hopping secret agents loved the train, since it simply "made their jobs so much easier and their travels much more comfortable."

Though the two World Wars severely limited Orient Express service, a single car played a fascinating symbolic role in both. On November 11, 1918, German officers signed a surrender document in an Allied commander’s Wagons-Lits car, which he used as a mobile conference room. The French proudly exhibited the car in Paris until June 1940, when Hitler ordered that it be hauled to the precise spot where the Germans had been forced to surrender 22 years before; there he dictated the terms of French surrender. Four years later, when Hitler’s loss seemed imminent, he ordered that the car be blown up, lest it "become a trophy of the Allies once more.

The current Orient Express runs from Paris to Vienna. It is expected to be discontinued on June 09, 2007, with the inauguration of the LGV Est

 

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