In Travel

Aboard Europe’s Most Breathtaking Train Journey

It’s easy to find the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express office at London’s Victoria railway station: a cluster of people at Platform 2 are dressed 1920s-style – cloche hats, fur wraps, some men in tweed suits – as they check-in for their departure on the world’s most famous train journey.

Inaugurated in 1883, the original Orient Express ran between Paris and Istanbul, and more routes were soon added, including London.

Today the train’s primary routes link three of Europe’s great cities – London, Paris and Venice. And we are off to La Serenissima – once known as The Most Serene Republic of Venice.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Image: Belmond / supplied

The first leg of our journey is aboard the British Pullman. Originally conceived as “Palaces on Wheels”, these luxury railway carriages date from the 1920s and 30s.

Our sumptuously-appointed Pullman carriage, Cygnus, features walnut panelling and intricate mosaics, and has often been used by British royalty.

As the train glides towards Kent and Folkestone we relax in armchair-like seats as stewards serve Champagne with a lavish three-course brunch of fruits, featherlight pastries, and smoked salmon.

At Folkstone, a luxury coach awaits us for the Channel crossing via the Eurotunnel Shuttle, travelling up to 75-metres beneath the English Channel on the 40-minute journey to France.

From here we’re transported to Calais-Ville Station, where Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) awaits in all her magnificence.

I feel like royalty myself as we step onto the platform: the shiny royal-blue train is lined by uniformed attendants including Ralph, our steward for the journey to Venice.

VSOE carriages are like time capsules, beautifully-restored former Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits restaurant and sleeping cars – the pinnacle of luxury travel in their day.

In pre-aeroplane days, our deluxe sleeping car carried royalty, diplomats, the well-to-do, and probably spies, from Paris to the Russian border.

Other carriages have equally interesting histories: one was used as a wartime brothel, and King Carol of Romania and his mistress cuddled-up in another when they escaped from Romania in 1940.

Ralph escorts us to our cabin which, while compact, features comfortable seating upholstered in tapestry and a cleverly designed washbasin area stocked with upmarket toiletries (there are no ensuites in original cabins).

The train pulls out of Calais-Ville as, settled back in the laps of luxury, we set off across the verdant French countryside on the 296km journey to Paris.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Image: Belmond / supplied

We stop briefly at Gare de l’Est station in Paris, the same station from which the first Orient Express departed in 1883.

While the VSOE is on the wish-list of train aficionados worldwide, it’s also popular for celebrating life’s major milestones and celebrations: on board, our journey are honeymooners and people celebrating anything from anniversaries to graduations.

One couple in their 30s are indulging in their passion for 1920s fashions amid authentic Art Deco surrounds.

Other passengers dress to the nines for dinner too – glittering gowns and jewellery, many men in tuxedos, one splendid in a kilt.

As the train trundles through France, we enjoy pre-dinner drinks and canapes at the Bar Lounge carriage, where a pianist plays ragtime tunes on a baby grand piano.

Dinner is served in the circa 1929 Côte d’Azur dining car where everything gleams – silver, wood panelling, crystal goblets – and is a grand affair.

On the four-course table d’hote menu is a luscious starter of Brittany lobster with Venetian caviar, followed by Wellington beef fillet with duck foie gras and truffle sauce, chocolate mille-feuille, French cheeses.

The train’s Chef de Cuisine, Christian Bodiguel and his team somehow produce Michelin-quality dishes from tiny galley kitchens. Like the stellar service though, it’s something they have perfected.

While we’ve been dining, Ralph has transformed our cabin into a bedroom, the lounge converted into upper and lower berths. Dressed in fine linens, they are very comfortable.

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Image: Belmond / supplied

Ralph is on call at any time, and serves tea and exquisite little cakes before we retire. As the train gently rocks, I read Murder on the Orient Express. Just to sink further into the 1920s ambience.

Passengers slumber as the train travels through eastern France and northern Switzerland.

We wake early so as not to miss the spectacular Swiss countryside: travelling in autumn we pass snow-capped mountains, sparkling lakes, and villages with tall church spires.

Ralph transforms our bedroom back into a comfortable little lounge before serving a continental breakfast.

Luncheon in the dining car is, again, first-class: duck confit with hibiscus flower sauce; Kaffir lime cheesecake.

Ralph serves afternoon tea in our cabin as the train crosses the picturesque rural landscapes of Italy’s northern Veneto region before the train pulls into Venice’s Santa Lucia Station, and for us upcoming days exploring La Serenissima.

For a few short days we have been transported to a more refined time of train travel. And I’ve decided that first-class travel is something you can really get used to.

(Lead images: Belmond / supplied)

Published 13 May, 2019