Steeped in tradition and elegance, the Venice Simplon Orient-Express epitomises the grandeur of rail travel. Nick Walton climbs aboard the world’s most famous train to experience a more intimate affair with Europe.
Text by Nicholas Walton. Photos courtesy of Orient-Express.
A crowd has gathered at Venice’s Santa Lucia railway station to welcome a celebrity. Cameras flash, parents carry children on their shoulders so that they can get a better look and a host of languages and dialects mingle with the sound of trains, conductor’s whistles and boarding announcements. The ambience is that of a movie premiere or A-lister party.
Everyone is here to welcome the Venice Simplon Orient-Express, a train synonymous with the romance and mystery of European train travel. She finally pulls to a stop, the early morning sun already gleaming off royal blue paint work, stewards in matching tunics and caps quick to reach the platform, a host of duties ahead of them as they welcome another batch of travellers looking to capture rail travel’s age-old elegance.
The seduction of train travel lingers still, despite an age dominated by ocean-jumping jets. If anything, as we whiz our way around the world, spy cities from 40,000 feet and learn more about other cultures from Wikipedia and the Discovery channel than actual interaction, rail travel offers a decidedly slower, more intimate experience, one that invites you not to take a sleeping pill in the hopes of being productive in some far-off time zone, but to dress for dinner, enjoy lingering afternoon teas to an ever-changing backdrop and to feel the road (or in this case tracks) beneath you.
In Europe especially, train travel has retained its pedigree, rather like the martini. At first it was restricted to the nobility and royalty, with ever-expanding rail lines a means for European nations to display their power and prowess. But as airports and air travel developed, those esteemed trains of old became points of national pride. While you can jump on one of the continent’s high-speed rail services and see entire cities flash by, for many travellers, train travel remains a chance to step into a time warp, to an era when tuxedos were the norm, not the exception, when lunch came with no less than three courses and when your wine would be decanted to perfection by a rock-steady sommelier, despite the incessant swaying of the carriage.