Introduced at a time when restaurant cars were still a novelty, the Orient Express – or King of Trains – impressed travellers and became known as the Train of Kings.
Brainchild of Belgian businessman Georges Nagelmackers, the Orient Express first ran from Paris to Constantinople (Istanbul) in October 1883. Sleeping and restaurant cars were still a novelty in Europe and the luxurious upholstery and decor delighted travellers.
The Orient Express soon became known as the King of Trains and Train of Kings. Leopold II of Belgium and Carol II of Romania were famed as on-board seducers.
Tsar Nicholas II demanded custom-built carriages, while Ferdinand I of Bulgaria even insisted on driving the train through his own kingdom at breakneck speed.
Other famous passengers included Tolstoy, Trotsky, Diaghilev, Marlene Dietrich, Lawrence of Arabia and the spy Mata Hari – as well as fictional characters such as Hercule Poirot and James Bond.
The train was nicknamed the Spies’ Express, so popular was it with secret agents. One was Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell, who disguised his clandestine sketches of Dalmatian coastal fortifications as drawings of butterfly wings.
One night in 1920, a pyjama-clad man stumbled up to a signal box claiming to be French president Paul Deschanel; he had accidentally fallen from the train. “And I’m Napoleon Bonaparte,” scoffed the signalman. But the man really was the president, a job then so obscure that his own citizens didn’t recognise him.
Early journeys could be perilous. In 1891 five passengers were kidnapped and held to ransom, and the following year the train was quarantined after cholera broke out on board.
In 1901 the brakes failed and the locomotive came to rest in Frankfurt’s station restaurant, while three decades later Hungarian terrorists caused a derailment that cost the lives of 20 passengers: cabaret singer Josephine Baker helped tend to the injured.
Pensioned-off sleeping cars have been re-used as gazebos, racing pigeon transporters and even a Limoges brothel. But the most famous was the coach in which Germany signed the armistice with the Allies in November 1918. In June 1940 Hitler forced the French to sign their own surrender in the same coach.
By the golden age of the Thirties there were several Orient Expresses. The original route ran from Paris to Istanbul via Vienna. But Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is set on the Simplon Orient Express (named after the Alpine tunnel) which ran via Venice and Belgrade, while Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train is the Oostende Vienna Orient Express via Brussels and Frankfurt. Another branch ran to Athens.
The original Orient Express operated until 2009, although using modern rolling stock and only between Strasbourg and Vienna. It last served Istanbul in 1977 and Paris in 2007.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express was launched in 1982, complete with expertly restored period coaches; it is now a legend in its own right.
The Orient Express