How to travel on the Orient Express

If you’ve just watched the trailer for the new Kenneth Branagh remake of the Murder on the Orient Express, or have enjoyed one of the many stories set on the train, and if you’re the sort of person who enjoys train journeys as much as we at Window Seater do, you might be thinking about what you’re going to wear in the dining car of the Orient Express.

But when it comes to questions of the existence and whereabouts of the real Orient Express, facts have mysteriously evaporated into a cloud of online opinion — kind of like the nutrition of chia seeds, or safety of shale gas.

The good news is, if you want to take the Orient Express, you can – after a fashion. You can either pay lots of money for a cabin on a luxuriously restored tourist line bearing its name or you can pay a lot less to patch together an itinerary on Europe’s modern timetabled trains that don’t share the name, but which will grant you many of the same views and windowseater experiences.

(Scroll to the bottom for a list of cities to include in your itinerary when booking, and keep reading for a quick description on what the windowseater experience is like).

But for those who value authenticity, lets see if WindowSeater can get to the bottom of it:

There were many Orient Expresses

Firstly its worth asking what exactly is, or was, the “Orient Express”? Its not a specific locomotive, because many an engine chugged and carriage tugged under the Orient Express moniker. It wasn’t a specific line, because over the decades the Orient Express’ path — while maintaining a general east-west trajectory and trans-European location — has changed an awful lot.

You could think of Orient Express as being more like a river: always changing its substance and path, and sprouting various tributaries, yet a name is assigned by us mortals to distinguish it from all others like it, and this name is passed down through the ages.

But we can rename rivers and re-purpose names too. In our research for the Window Seater guide for Thailand’s infamous Death Railway, we uncovered that Thailand’s Mae Khlong River was once mislabeled in a book about one of its bridges.

The book (and the later Alec Guinness movie) was so excellent and popular that the local inhabitants, then government, and eventually cartographers renamed it the River Kwai. The famed bridge was not over the River Kwai, but now that it is, visitors seem more satisfied and plentiful in an otherwise impoverished part of Thailand. So what’s the harm in that?

Similarly, more passengers will likely flock to the Belmond Group’s Venice-Simplon-Orient Express once they see Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer looking so debonaire as they swan amidst classy decor and majestic Alpine views in the new filmIt ranks highly in the Google searches after all.

That train follows similar routes, and goes through commendable efforts to emulate   the bygone refinement of early train travel illustrated by Christie, Branagh, and Ian Fleming (scroll to the bottom for a list of notable books and films featuring the Orient Express).

So, again, what’s the harm in that? If you have the cash to spare (it will cost you thousands of dollars for a cabin), go and enjoy the heck out of yourself!

The Venice-Simplon-Orient Express in Brussels, 2014.

The Orient Express that likely springs to mind when you read the words is the one depicted in The Murder. You perhaps imagine it as a cross between a speakeasy bar and the palace of Versailles on rails.

But that never really existed in the first place as a regular timetabled rail service. In Paul Theroux’s 1975 The Great Railway Bazaar, he described an Orient Express of limited charm:

“In the end I stopped wondering why so many writers had used this train as a setting for criminal intrigues, since in most respects the Orient Express really is murder. My compartment was a cramped two-berth closet with an intruding ladder. I swung my suitcase in and, when I had done this, there was no room for me. The conductor showed me how to kick my suitcase under the lower berth. He hesitated, hoping to be tipped.”

So, what were the Orient Expresses, and what happened to them?

In 1882, a wealthy Belgian playboy named Georges Nagelmackers decided to take his best buddies on a bit of a jolly from Paris to Vienna and back just to show how quick and how fun it was by train. He went on to found le Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) — which owned and operated sleeper wagons for train services across the world, and was eventually absorbed into today’s ACCOR SA.

The original Orient Express was launched the next year with a service from Paris eastward, and north of the Alps to Vienna, and on to Varna on the Black Sea coast, with a ferry connection to Istanbul (connected by rail 6 years later). That original route ran until 1962, with interludes during the two great wars — actually, the 1918 Armistice was signed in a CIWL dining car parked in a forest outside of Paris.

Before the Great War, with CIWL doing great business and expanding their network, the Orient Express brand sprung spin-offs. One was a line connecting the Channel port of Ostende in Belgium, forking the original Orient Express near Passau, Germany. It is this line that was the subject of in Graham Green’s Stamboul Train (although this pragmatic writer did his research by reading the books rather than take the actual train).

Forking the tracks

Yet another line sold as “Orient Express” forked north from the original at Galanta in modern day Slovakia to terminate in Berlin. This line continued to be run by the Germans during the Great War to connect Berlin to the Ottoman capital, but the line had a knack of getting bombed.

Shortly after the Great War, CIWL began running a full sequel, The Simplon-Orient Express, which also ran from Paris to Istanbul, but through southwest Switzerland and connecting to the Italian Alps at the Simplon Pass, and onwards through Northern Italy and the Balkans. The Murder on the Orient Express was set on this version of the train, coming East to West, but starting on the Taurus Express from Aleppo in modern day Syria.

Original poster of the Simplon-Orient Express

After the Great Depression, a third in the series, the Alberg-Orient Express, was launched to skewer the Alps from East to West, hitting Zurich and Innsbruck on its way to Vienna, and then onwards to Istanbul, but with a tributary forking south at Budapest all the way down to Athens. This edition also came with the addition of a connection from Paris to Calais and an onward ferry & train service on to London.

So at its greatest extent, in the pre- and post-WWII years, the Orient Express titled trains had at least least three paths that met and diverged on its east-west-east progression across Europe. It stretched from London in the West, forking with with three different paths from Paris (North, Middle, and South of the Alps), and three paths through eastern Europe and the Balkans to terminate either in Istanbul or Athens (scroll to the bottom for a list of cities visited in each route).

Travelling on to Cairo and Kabul

From Istanbul, at certain times, you could even make onward connections down to Cairo or across to Kabul, but although these lines may have been serviced by CIWL, they held different names from Istanbul.

Earlier map of the Simplon-Orient Express, and the Taurus Express

The arrival of air travel

But by the 60’s, the jet engine was commercialised and air travel entered its renaissance. The original (northern) and Alberg- (middle) routes were pulled from schedules. The Simplon-Orient Express was economised with a slower train in 1962 and rebranded as the more austere-sounding Direct-Orient Express, which is the one Paul Theroux took in The Great Railway Bazaar.

European rail travel approached the 80’s as hard and tragically as did its music. From 1977, the Direct-Orient Express ended services, and the Orient Express brand found its final purpose with a route, once more north of the Alps, from Paris to only Budapest — the sad-sounding OBB EN 262/263 (Orient Express). From 2001, it was cut even shorter to terminate in Vienna.

In 2007, it went only from Strasbourg to Vienna after the French leg was replaced with a high-speed TGV service. And in 2009, the Orient Express name disappeared from timetabled services entirely, leaving us only with Belmond’s service.

The Belmond Group began running their Venice-Simplon-Orient Express luxury service in 1982, a respectable five year wait after CIWL stopped servicing the Simplon-Orient Express route to Venice. These days, for half the year, Belmond plays mixologist with all three of the CIWL routes depending on what it feels its customers would like most. It seems that most of its routes go from Paris to Strasbourg and then heads south into the Alps to stop in Innsbruck, Austria. From there it goes south to Venice, or east to Vienna, and only sometimes on to Istanbul.

“Reality” and the Orient Express

There seems to be debate online about whether Belmond’s Venice-Simplon-Orient Express should or should not be considered the Orient Express, or whether it had the right to inherit the title in the first place. But of course, people would debate just about anything online.

Sure, Belmond no doubt used the name to evoke images in the minds of potential customers of classy, intriguing, and picturesque rail travel. Its creator — James Sherwood — seems to have been a genuine rail enthusiast who went to commendable lengths to create a service that allows other rail enthusiasts to relive and celebrate the earlier charms of trans-European rail travel.

Original CIWL glassware schematics.

The original Orient Express was created at a time when the alternative was a boat, and when people likely to want to make the journey were merchants, diplomats, or very wealthy tourists. In modern train travel, the age of specially designed low-centre-of-gravity crystal brandy dispensers has long given way to the age of the plastic knife and fork wrapped in a tissue.

The people who would now choose the towering levels of luxury the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express deals in — which overshoots what was offered on a timetabled Orient Express train — are the nostalgic tourists that would plan their vacations around it, and who can afford it. So if nobody else is using the Orient Express name anymore, Belmond might as well; they’re putting it to good use, and have probably earned it.

Its understandable to miss the more classic and considered decor and services of luxury trains of days gone by. Perhaps you have memories of how things were before the world sped up and we raced to the bottom. And, there really issomething about a tangle of strangers pressed together for days with nothing in common but the need to go from one place to another and never see each other again.

But European train travel today is actually pretty fantastic: for roughly a day’s minimum-wage, you can now get in a comfortable train after breakfast in Vienna and be in London for supper. And, you will still be enjoying the Orient Express’ very same soul-quenching luxury of watching Europe just float by your window…

How to plan an Orient Express route?

If you would like to enjoy the windowseat experience of the Orient Express but can’t see yourself paying the Belmond prices, here are the cities to string together when you book:

The (Original) Orient Express:

Paris <> Strasbourg <> Munich <> Vienna <> Budapest <> Belgrade <> Sophia <> Istanbul

The Simplon-Orient Express:

Paris <> Dijon <> Lausanne <> Milan <> Venice <> Trieste <> Ljubljana <> Zagreb <> Belgrade <> Sophia <> Istanbul

The Alberg-Orient Express:

London <> Calais <> Paris <> Zurich <> Innsbruck <> Vienna <> Budapest <> Belgrade <> Athens (or from Budapest or Belgrade to Istanbul as per the above two routes).

The Belgian tributary:

Ostende <> Brussels <> Cologne <> Frankfurt <> Nurenberg <> Passau <> Vienna (then connecting as per the Original or Alberg routes)

The German tributary:

Berlin <> Wrocław <> Ostrava <> Žilina <> Budapest (then connecting as per the original and Alberg routes)

The Direct Orient Express timetable

Books featuring the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie (1934) — The definitive Orient Express story, which has painted our popular notion of the Orient Express as decadent, classic, and intriguing.

Stamboul Train, Graham Greene (1932) (published as “Orient Express” in the US) — Following the intertwining and ill-fated lives of passengers in pre-WWII Europe.

From Russia, with Love, Ian Fleming (1957) — Fleming wrote the book after returning to London from an Interpol conference in Istanbul on the Orient Express. Inspired by the real life assassination of Eugene Karp by Soviet goons on the train, Bond fights off his goons amidst heightened East-West tensions, and with a beautiful Russian spy, of course.

Travels with My Aunt, Graham Greene (1969) — An aunt drags an estranged nephew into her world of adventure and intrigue, via the Simplon-Orient Express.

The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux (1975) — An early chapter of a real and epic train journey from London back to London via Istanbul, Calcutta, Singapore, Hanoi, Tokyo, and Moscow. He repeats the journey in a follow up book 30 years later.

Note: Arguably the first literary mention of the Orient Express is in Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula (1897).

Films featuring the Orient Express

Orient Express, Paul Martin (1934) — An adaptation of Greene’s book starring Heather Angel, Norman Foster, and Ralph Morgan

Orient-Express, Viktor Tourjansky (1945) — Probably the last film produced in Nazi Germany, with opening night taking place on 8 March 1945

Orient Express, Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia (1954) — An Italian language film

From Russia with Love, Terence Young (1963) — Sean Connery’s bond judo chops bad guys and seduces a Russian spy played by Daniela Bianchi between stops and in cramped quarters.

Travels with My Aunt, George Cukor (1972) — An attempt at Greene’s lesser-known Orient Express books starring Maggie Smith.

Murder on the Orient Express, Sidney Lumet (1974) — seeing Sean Connery return to the train alongside many notable actors such as Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, and a young Albert Finney.

Murder on the Orient Express, Philip Martin (2010) — The Agatha Christie’s Poirot series finally deals with the Murder in the 3rd episode of season 12, with credits featuring Jessica Chastain and Toby Jones.

Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh (2017) — The latest revamp. The cast is heavy-hitting: Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi, and Branagh himself as Poirot. Should be excellent.

Note: Other notable films featuring the line include Disney’s 101 Dalmatians (2000) starring Glenn Close, and Around the World in 80 Days (2004) starring Jackie Chan.

~ For the travellers ~