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ALL ABOARD THE ORIENT EXPRESS! A JOURNEY OF A LIFETIME
 
(2013 - Spring Issue)

Writer: CYNTHIA WAMWAYI



The sound of bells ringing rouses me gently from my sleep.

The rays of sunlight struggle to make their way inside the darkened cabin heralding the beginning of a new day.

I slowly sit upright on my bed, before crawling along the narrow frame to the window of my private cabin. The sight that meets me when I throw back the curtains is singularly beautiful.

When I was a teenager growing up in Oslo, a place I then found unremarkable in many ways, I’d travel vicariously through the Travel Channel’s Swiss Railway Journeys show and marvel at the romance and intrigue of train travel. I would visually feast on the verdant Swiss countryside landscapes and dream of the day I too would be able to explore the continent by train. Without knowing it, I had already adopted to heart Agatha Christie’s adage that “to travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns, churches and rivers, in fact, to see life.”

On this warm summer morning, waking from a great but unusual night’s sleep—I had never spent the night in a moving train before—and taking in the fresh Alpine air of the Swiss alps, I felt both the dream I had dreamt some 15 or so years ago and myself came alive. Bell-clad sheep dotted the lush green landscapes, competing with a pristine lake reflecting the gentle morning sun and majestic alpine mountains for attention. It all felt a bit surreal.

The Adventure Begins

My Orient Express journey from London to Venice had started the previous day, when I had boarded the 11:45 a.m. British Pullman train—the Venice Simplon-Orient’s sister train on the British leg of the journey—at London’s Victoria Station. Consisting of unique carriages, each one of them heaving under the weight of history, the British Pullman’s task that morning was to transfer my fellow passengers and me from London to Folkestone via sleepy English villages and soothing scenery, as if whetting our appetites for what was to come.

The carriage I had stepped onto was Vera, a first-class kitchen car, which originally saw the light of day in 1932. Seating 20, it was always paired with Audrey as a two-car unit, which then plied the London to Brighton route. Together, both endured direct hits in an air raid at Victoria Station in 1940 before being repaired and restored. Vera then went on to transport Prince Charles and Princess Anne on their first trip on an electric train in 1954, while Audrey carried the Queen, the Queen Mother and H.R.H. Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh in 1953.

These days, Vera, Audrey and the other carriages that comprise the British Pullman are usually the first point of contact for travellers about to embark on the journey of a lifetime. At Folkestone, where we arrived after journeying about three hours, we all disembarked the train to the sound of a brass band before being directed to a fleet of luxury buses, which ferried us across the English Channel via the Eurotunnel to Calais. 

It was here, I felt, my adventure truly began. Uniformed staff lined the entire length of the train, smiling brightly as they welcomed us aboard the 17 navy blue and golden continental Wagons-Lits carriages that make up the Venice Simplon-Orient Express trains. Drunk with expectation, I gingerly stretched out a hand to the steward and stepped into what was to be my mobile home for the next 26 hours.

I felt teleported into another time and age. Brass plates, polished wood, marquetry, art deco floral patterns and geometric designs carved into wooden panels all converged in a row of snug cabins that doubled both as rooms for the night and very comfortable window seats by day. Here was a world unencumbered by Wi-Fi, air conditioning and, surprisingly, ensuite bathrooms. Each carriage, it turns out, had a small toilet at the end of it that was to be shared by all of the carriage’s passengers. Washing and other matters of personal hygiene in the cabins were to be done in a small fold-up basin that doubled up as a table. This, I must admit took some getting used to.

En Route to Venice

But as the train set off for Paris, I sat back and began enjoying the journey—one which royalty, diplomats, spies, business people and even Agatha Christie—who drew inspiration for the plot of Murder on the Orient Express from her many trips aboard the train—have taken. As the French countryside rolled by, I marvelled at how the esteemed train ride first saw the light of day in 1883, thanks to a Belgian civil engineer by the name of Georges Nagelmackers, and how many times it rose and fell, only to rise again in new and improved outfits. The Venice Simplon-Orient Express is the latest version.

It wasn’t long before it was time to make my way to one of the Orient Express’ three restaurants cars. There, I thoroughly enjoyed a starter of Alaska crab with avocado tartare mayonnaise, beef tournedos with sun-dried tomatoes and béarnaise sauce, peppers filled with ratatouille, and fondant potato for the main course. For dessert cheeses and iced strawberry sorbet flavoured with pistachios hit the spot before I made my way to the cocktail bar, where I had a chance to get more acquainted with my fellow travellers.

At 29, there were admittedly not many people my age on this journey. There were people celebrating milestone birthdays and landmark anniversaries. A couple, with whom I struck up a conversation, were celebrating 10 years of marriage and a long weekend away from the children. In Paris, they held hands and walked up and down the platform as we waited for new passengers to board the train, before we set off for Switzerland under the cover of night.

It was the second day however, that packed a punch when it came to picturesque scenery. Having awoken to natural sounds instead of the alarm clock for a change, I had breakfast in my cabin while watching quaint Swiss villages roll by, before spending the hours between morning and lunchtime observing the varying landscapes of the Italian Dolomites. Italy in the summer is a hot affair, so I was grateful for the natural air conditioning that blew through the windows on both sides of the carriage.

It was with mixed emotions that I watched as the Orient Express sidled into Venice’s Santa Lucia Train Station 31 hours later. I was happy to have made this once-in-a-lifetime trip and enjoyed all it had to offer, sad to say goodbye to some of my new acquaintances, but most of all, glad that the adventure had in no way ended. A weekend in lagoon city, with all its canals and gondolas beckoned.

Trave Planner

Railbookers.com offers a four-night holiday on board the Venice-Simplon Orient Express from London to Venice, a three-night stay in the four-star Ai Mori D’Oriente hotel with breakfast daily, and a British Airways flight from Venice to London. Prices based on two people travelling and sharing a twin or double start from $3,563 per person.

 
 
 
 
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