The Orient Express brought a whole new light to the world of luxury trains. The test journey of the so-called “lightning train” departed from Paris to Vienna in 1882, and it was successfully completed. It left for its first real journey from Paris to Istanbul a year later, connecting Eastern and Western Europe, which were under the influence of disorderly political conditions. The idea came from a Belgian banker, Georges Nagelmackers, who had a definite plan and organized the first European sleeping and dining car company based on the American model, following George Mortimer Pullman, and in 1872 founded the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits - International Railway Sleeping Car Company. He did not have a financial disadvantage due to his family's wealth, and in addition to the chunky family wallet, they also had a great influence. Among other things, they were happy to support businesses involved in the construction of railway lines. Based on these facts, it is not surprising that he managed to acquire the King of Belgium as a major shareholder, which meant the consent to the use of the royal emblem lion on the side of the railway carriages. Great attention was also paid to the design of the carriages, so the dining and sleeping carriages were formed with a bogie, based on the American pattern. In contrast, the interiors did not follow the pioneer in terms of furniture, they were given a different design.
Splendour and glamour
The Orient Express had nothing to do with the rail transport conditions of its time; it completely reformed transport. However, it was not available to everyone. On the king of trains, according to its name, only first-class wagons ran. Thus, those who wanted to have this unique experience had to reach deep into their pockets. The first passengers had to pay exactly 457 gold francs for the “ticket” and there was a 20% surcharge if they also required catering. So for a total of 548.5 gold francs, they were able to take full advantage of the conveniences offered by the Orient Express, and they were not disappointed, in line with their expectations. The interior design of the luxury train reflected the vision of the nobility of the age. The Art Deco-style cabins, made of quality materials, impressed the passengers. All this was enhanced by the glittering tableware, immaculate interior settings and monogrammed leather suite of furniture. The perfect and quality travel experience was actually perfected by the staff. From kitchen boys to loader workers, to waiters and guards wearing peaked caps and gilded uniforms, everyone knew exactly what their job was. Keeping the entire staff together, the chef de train controlled the train.
Inspired by the Orient Express
When most people hear the name, Agatha Christie’s crime novel Murder on the Orient Express comes to their minds first. The English writer did travel by the luxury train, so she drew inspiration from her own experience. She was travelling to Istanbul when a major snowstorm caused a snow slide to stand in the way of the train, so they had to wait for a long time. This event served as the basis for her most famous crime story eventually. Sidney Lumet filmed the story in 1974, and later several adaptations were made, such as in 2010 and the most recent one in 2017. In addition to Hercules Poirot, James Bond also travelled on the Orient Express among others, in the film From Russia with Love.
Initially, the cities of Paris – Strasbourg – Stuttgart – Munich – Vienna – Bratislava – Budapest – Szeged – Timisoara – Orsova – Bucharest – Ruschuk – Varna were accessible by the express route. In order to extend the railway line, shortly after the first years, it headed in two directions, towards Belgrade and Bucharest after leaving Budapest. In 1889, it was no longer necessary to complete the trip with a ship journey, because by touching Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Nis, Sofia, it was possible to get directly to Constantinople, now called Istanbul. Unfortunately, after World War I, the losing countries were avoided by the train, so the heyday of the train was the period between 1889 and 1914. Between the two world wars it ran again in full line, but after World War II, second-class wagons were also attached to it, and lost its luxury atmosphere. It last ran on the entire line in 1977, until 2001 to Budapest and Bucharest, and in 2009 it was completely terminated.
To avoid despair, one of the railway carriages can be seen in the Hungarian Railway History Park, but it is even more exciting that the Venice Simplon Orient Express still operates as a nostalgia line, which runs on several routes and sometimes arrives at the Eastern Railway Station in Budapest.
student of ELTE BTK Library- and Information Science Institute
Translated by Zita Aknai