The Orient Express made its maiden voyage on June 5, 1883, traveling from Paris, France, to Vienna, Austria. It was a luxury to take a ride on the train during an era when travel was often difficult and dangerous.
A Dream Come To Life
In his book, Orient Express: The Life and Times of the World’s Most Famous Train, E. H. Cookridge explains that Georges Nagelmackers, the son of a well-known Belgian banker, had a vision to build “a train that would span a continent, running on a continuous ribbon of metal for more than 1,500 miles.” Nagelmackers was inspired after traveling to the United States and seeing firsthand advanced train travel, particularly George Pullman’s amazing and luxurious sleeper cars. In 1882, Nagelmackers made his dream a reality and invited passengers to travel 1,243 miles on his “Train Eclair de luxe” meaning the “lightning luxury train”.
The train was originally called Express d’Orient until 1891 when it was officially renamed the Orient Express. The train traveled from Paris, Gare de l’Est, to Giurgiu, Romania, via Munich, Germany, and Vienna, Austria. Passengers got off at Giurgiu and took a ferry across the Danube to Rose, Bulgaria, where they transferred to another train to Varna, Bulgaria. They finished their journey to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) by ferry. Another route was developed in 1885, carrying passengers via rail from Vienna, Austria, to Belgrade, Serbia, and Niš, Serbia. Then they were transferred to Plovdiv, Bulgaria, before taking a train to Istanbul.
Passengers Were Enthralled
Nagelmackers invited journalists and others to take the first official journey from Paris to Istanbul and to witness the train’s luxurious accommodations. To prove that his train was the best, Nagelmackers placed old, worn-out Pullman trains cars on an adjacent track at Paris’s Gare de Strasbourg, demonstrating the stark difference between the two locomotives. Once the passengers got on board, they were delighted by the decadence, feeling as though they had entered a ritzy hotel. They found the cars decorated with detailed wooden paneling, beautiful leather armchairs and silk sheets for their beds. The trip took around 80 hours to complete.
Passengers on the Orient Express stayed in 10 wood paneled compartments containing either a single bed or double beds stacked on top of one another. The compartments were used as sitting rooms during the day with a sofa and table. At night, they were transformed into sleeping areas. Unfortunately, the train did not have any baths or showers, so passengers had to make due with washbasins. Passengers were also well fed. One of the train’s early menus included oysters, soup with Italian pasta, chicken a la chasseur, fillet of beef with chateau potatoes, game animals, chocolate pudding, and a plethora of desserts.
Glittering Glasses & Sophisticated Menus
Henri Opper de Blowitz, a guest on the inaugural trip, wrote about the dining car: “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.” He noted of the food: “It must be said, during the entire trip from Paris to Bucharest the menus vie with each other in variety and sophistication—even if they are prepared in the microscopic galley at one end of the dining car.”
Crazy Behavior By Royalty
Several kings and people in power traveled on the train during its early days and left behind some memorable stories. King Ferdinand of Bulgaria was so afraid of being assassinated that he locked himself in the bathroom. King Leopold II of Belgium took the train to Istanbul to gain access to a Turkish man’s harem. A Bulgarian king, who was also an amateur engineer, demanded that he drive the train through his country, and he did so at a very high speed. When Czar Nicholas II traveled on the train he insisted that special cars were made when he visited France.
Tragedy On Board
While the Orient Express was more luxurious and safe than other modes of transportation at the time, it still had its dangers. In 1891, five passengers were kidnapped and held for ransom. In 1892, a cholera epidemic broke out on board, forcing it to be quarantined. The brakes failed in 1901, and the train came to a stop in Frankfurt, Germany. Thirty years later, 20 passengers died after Hungarian terrorists destroyed a viaduct near Budapest and caused a derailment. Cabaret singer Josephine Baker helped take care of the injured passengers and gave a spur-of-the-moment concert to soothe the survivors.
The Spies’ Express
At one point, the train was referred to as the “Spies’ Express.” According to author E.H. Cookridge, secret agents were big fans of the train because it “made their jobs so much easier and their travels much more comfortable.” One notable story involves English agent Robert Baden-Powell, who pretended to be a lepidopterist (one who collections butterflies and moths), by gathering samples in the Balkans. While it appeared he was sketching butterfly wings, he was actually depicting coded drawings of fortifications on the Dalmatian Coast during World War I. Baden-Powell’s depictions greatly helped British and Italian navies. He was also the founder of the Boy Scouts.
A French President’s Demise
French President Paul Deschanel’s behavior on the Orient Express contributed to his resignation in 1920. On the night of May 24, the president, known for his eccentric and erratic actions, fell out of his window near Montargis after consuming some sleeping pills. Wearing his pajamas, he walked to a signal box, declared his identity, and claimed he had fallen from the train. The signalman didn’t believe his story and responded, “And I’m Napoleon Bonaparte.” Not long afterward, Deschanel was spotted leaving a meeting and walking into a lake while still wearing all his clothes. The President resigned on Sept. 21, 1920, and was committed to an institution.
The Train’s Golden Age
The Orient Express defined luxury, and the peak of its elegance and decadence started in the 1920s following World War I. During the war, the Orient Express was suspended. It picked up where it left off after the end of the war in 1918. It didn’t take long for wealthy passengers to once again take interest in the long-distance passenger train service, and by the 1930s its popularity surged. At the time, three train services ran simultaneously: the Orient Express, the Arlberg Orient Express, and the Simplon Orient Express. The lines represented luxury at its finest.
Favored By The Rich & Famous
In the 1930s, celebrities, diplomats, royalty and other rich and famous people flocked to the Orient Express. It was known for its restaurant cars, which served exotic meals to the passengers. Service was once again suspended during World War II and did not pick up until the war ended in 1945. The route to Athens did not resume until 1951 because the border between Yugoslavia and Greece was closed. The route to Istanbul was stalled from 1951 to 1952 when the Bulgarian-Turkish border was closed. Communist countries also began to increasingly use their own railway services to travel across Europe.
An Inspiration For Alfred Hitchcock & Agatha Christie
Life magazine described the Orient Express in one of its 1950 issues: “To mystery lovers, there is no more romantic train in the world than the Orient Express, which runs between Paris and Eastern Europe. The white-haired lady spy of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes rode the Orient Express, and the crime of Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Calais Coach took place on it.” The Lady Vanishes centers around an English tourist traveling by train who discovers one of her elderly companions has disappeared. Other passengers don’t recall seeing the woman at all, but she finds an ally in a musicologist, who helps her search for the truth.
Murder On The Orient Express
Christie’s detective novel Murder on the Orient Express, also known asMurder in the Calais Coach, featured the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. While traveling on the Simplon-Orient Express, an elderly American named Samuel Ratchett is murdered the night after expressing his fear to Poirot that someone was trying to kill him. Poirot is asked to investigate the murder before the arrival of the Yugoslav police. The detective determines that Ratchett was living under an assumed identity and on the run after killing a 3-year-old child. He learns that everyone in the coach knew Ratchett and had a motive to kill him.
Actual Murder On The Orient Express
A rich Romanian woman named Maria Farcasanu was killed on the train in 1935. The individual she was sharing a compartment with robbed her and then pushed her out of a window. Maria was the director of a Bucharest fashion school and traveling to visit her husband, who was the Romanian military attaché in France. Authorities found Maria’s body on the railway in central Austria. They also located all of her belongings, except for a silver-fox scarf. A Swiss policeman spotted a woman wearing the scarf and revealed it from a student named Karl Strasser. Strasser, who was 23, spent the rest of his life in an Austrian prison for the crime.
Another Unexplained Death
The 1950 Times article continued, “Legend has built the train into a vehicle for skullduggery. But there is, in fact, good basis for its reputation. Only last February, on the Orient Express near Salzburg, Austria, Eugene Karpe, the U.S. naval attaché friend of [prominent American businessman later jailed for espionage in Hungary] Robert Vogeler, fell or was pushed to his death under mysterious circumstances.” Austrian police believed the death was accidental, while American officials did not. U.S. Army investigators eventually conceded Karpe was possibly thrown “accidentally” from the Arlberg Express in the darkness of a Salzburg tunnel, but the case was never officially solved.
One Historically Significant Train Car
One particular car from the Orient Express played a very special role during both world wars. An Allied commander used one of the Wagons-Lits cars for a mobile conference room. On Nov. 11, 1918, German officers signed a surrender document in the car. Since the event was so significant, it was proudly displayed in Paris, France, until 1940. Hitler was so irritated by the train car, he ordered it to be moved to the place where the Germans had been forced to surrender in 1918. That is where Hitler announced the terms for the French surrender. In 1944, when Hitler realized he was losing the war, he ordered the destruction of the car so it would no longer be a symbol for the Allies.
Steadily Declining Ridership
Only the Simplon Orient Express was still running by 1962. The Orient Express and Alberg Orient Express had ceased operations, leaving the Simplon as the last remaining train on the line. The Simplon was eventually replaced by a slower-running service named the Direct Orient Express. It took passengers from Paris, France, to Belgrade, Serbia, daily. It also featured twice-weekly runs from Paris to Istanbul, Turkey, and Athens, Greece. In 1976, direct service from Paris to Athens ceased. After decades of steadily declining passengers, the Direct Orient Express was discontinued. The final ride from Paris to Istanbul took place on May 19, 1977.
Orient Express Knock-Offs
Over the years, train companies have tried to capitalize on the romanticized luxury of the original Orient Express by attempting to recreate the experience for modern travelers—but the results haven’t quite lived up to the past. One was the Nostalgic Orient Express. Another was the complete opposite of the original and was cheap, overcrowded and shabby. For some trips, passengers were encouraged to wear 1920s clothing to recreate the feel of the era. One train journey featured a murder mystery game onboard. If you have $2,300, you can take the Venice-Simplon Orient Express (VSOE), which features restored Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits cars.
The End Of An Era
The VSOE was launched by an American-British entrepreneur in 1982. The EuroNight Orient Express used modern cars and ran at night between Paris, Vienna, and Budapest but was discontinued in 2009. Over 125 years after its inception, the reign of the original Orient Express was officially over. British journalist Robin McKie was present at one of the train’s final arrivals in Vienna. He wrote: “A small group of disconsolate wanderers emerged from the Orient Express and trudged off into the gray morning, by now utterly uninterested in the fate of the historic train on which they had just traveled.”
Photographer Finds Abandoned Orient Express Train
Not long ago, Dutch photographer Brian Romeijn discovered an abandoned 1930s-era Orient Express train in Belgium. Romeijn, who lives in Rotterdam and hunts for abandoned projects in his spare time, did some research on the train and learned it had been abandoned in 2009 after it was no longer needed. He told Country Living in 2016: “Sorry to see that nobody wants to restore it to its original state because it is a beautiful train! The smell of cigarettes is still there. I can imagine businessmen inside sitting next to ladies with beautiful long dresses. It’s like stepping into a time machine.”