So, who’s the murderer?” I whisper to the dapper Irishman sitting next to my husband, Terry, and me in the elegant waiting room of the Budapest train station.
Under most circumstances this odd question would rouse the police. But since we’re about to board the Orient Express, the setting for Agatha Christie’s famed murder mystery, he spontaneously whispers a la Inspector Hercule Poirot. “It’s got to be that woman in black, the one with her much younger companion,” he says with a wink, looking over to the platform.
Like a scene straight out of a movie, posing there is an intriguing Norma Desmond-ish character, an aging film star-type, along with her doting, handsome escort. They have to know people are staring— despite the fact that it is stifling (around 80 degrees), she is dressed in a heavy long-sleeve, black outfit, complete with black leather gloves, black cloche and 5-inch stilettos. Her companion is meticulously dressed in a dark suit and tie.
We can’t help but wonder: Is this an ordinary couple who decided to have a little fun and dress in this mysterious fashion to pay tribute to this legendary transport of spies and murderers? Or is there a real bono fide mystery surrounding them? Either way, they provide perfect waiting room conjecture.
We are about to travel from Budapest to London on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, a privately run train of beautifully restored early to mid-20th-century coaches that offers luxury transport to several European cities. We’ll actually be traveling on two separate trains— the Orient Express from Budapest to Calais, and the British Pullman from Folkestone to London. While our own journey will be a little less than two days, other travelers have signed on for multi-day journeys to Venice, Rome or Istanbul.
Promptly at 8:40 a.m., Jacques, our steward (we share him with passengers in the eight other compartments in our car), leads us onto one of 12 shiny, navy-and-gold passenger cars and into our cozy compartment. It’s no secret that cozy means small, and that is true of this intimate but elegant space.
A handsome, flame-stitched tapestry banquette sofa flanks one wall, accented with two headrests covered with snow white VSOE-monogrammed linen. Behind two lustrous curved wooden mahogany doors inlaid with art deco floral and leaf marquetry, we discover our sink, its diameter no bigger than a large head of lettuce. Attached to the wall directly under our window is a narrow table holding a tiny lamp and bud vase and opposite the window is a teensy fan.
These rail cars are authentic vintage Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the world’s premier provider and operator of sleeper and dining cars, and are accurately restored to the grandeur of the Jazz Age. Such accurate restoration unfortunately means no private toilets (there is one at the end of each car), no showers and no air conditioning or heat (the train doesn’t operate in winter months).
“Champagne and canapés,” announces Jacques as he deposits a tray of goodies into our compartment shortly after departure. Who cares that it’s just after 9 a.m.? On the Orient Express, champagne is the drink of the hour— any hour. Before we take the first sip, the maitre’d appears, notepad in hand, to schedule dinner reservations— there are two seatings at 7:15 (our choice) or 9:30 p.m.— then hurriedly recites all sorts of details about breakfast, brunch, lunch and afternoon tea. We wish we had a notepad, too.
Forget reading, we don’t want to miss the passing scenery as the train slices through the countryside. From drab cement block housing, probably holdovers from Hungary’s sad past, to charming Austrian alpine chalets and expansive fields sprinkled with wildflowers, we’re glued to our window, diverting our eyes only to read about this train once dubbed “the train of kings, the king of trains.”
The Orient Express dates to 1883 when Belgian Georges Nagelmackers, founder of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, organized several extravagant rail cars to transport upper crust society from Paris to Romania. Though it carried only 40 passengers, it was the pinnacle of luxury for the aristocratic and the powerful. With the help of his wealthy banker father, Nagelmackers expanded, studying the sleeping cars in America. When the 12-mile Simplon Tunnel under the Alps, linking Switzerland and Italy, was completed in 1906 (the longest tunnel in the world at that time) a new Simplon-Orient-Express began.
Over the years, this luxury train became the star of six films, 19 books and the name of one early-1970s band, Liz Damon’s Orient Express. In 1934, Agatha Christie published her most famous mystery novel, “Murder on the Orient Express,” which was released in the United States under the title, “Murder on the Calais Coach.” The book’s plot was at least partially influenced by an incident that occurred in 1929 when the Orient Express was snowbound in Turkey for six days.
Of course, World War II wrought havoc on the railways of Europe. A less luxurious Simplon-Orient-Express was brought back into service in 1945 but it wasn’t until 1977 when the Sea Containers Group Ltd. acquired two sleepers at a Sotheby’s auction in Monte Carlo that the process of bringing back the great train began. Since then, the company has acquired and restored some 35 historic restaurant cars, Pullmans and sleepers originally built in the 1920s and early ’30s. In 1982 the current Venice Simplon-Orient-Express made its debut.
Our time is marked by brief, resupply stops in Vienna, Munich and Paris, but mostly, by meals— gastronomic, elaborate, beautiful meals. Fresh salmon marinated with juniper berries, savory herb blinis and salmon eggs. Rib of milk-fed veal simmered with cream, morels and Tokay wine. Pike-perch and soft-water crayfish on a nest of spinach and bacon with smoked sweet peppers and steamed durum wheat. Such complex creations are part of four-course meals meticulously prepared from scratch by on-board French chefs.
The food is only topped by the ambience of the three dining cars. Each one is different, but all are adorned with thick brocade draperies or shades, massive dining chairs covered in sumptuous French cut moquette velvet, soft romantic lighting from tulip wall sconces based on the original Lalique design and silent white fans whirring overhead. The VSOE logo is subtly blended into everything on the table— the seriously starched white damask table linens, the Limoges china based on an 1820s English design, the Gérard Gallet crystal and the silverware based on a pattern originally designed for Wagons-Lits in 1903. Only the simple brass lamp and yellow tea roses escape the ornate calligraphy letters.
Waiters clad in crisp white jackets trimmed in miles of fancy gold braids buzz about pouring wines, fetching hot bread or guiding guests dressed in black tie and long dresses to tables with no less efficiency than if they were floating about Le Cirque. With a staff of 40 tending to 150 passengers, no one waits for anything.
While we dine, Jacques transforms our compartment into a bedroom— an upper and lower bunk wrapped in white sheets and cream wool blankets woven with the famous logo. But before retiring, we head to the Bar Car for a nightcap. It’s like walking into a movie set from the 1930s. In one corner a head-turning Asian woman in a sexy black lace strapless dress is holding court. A rowdy group of well-dressed Americans congregate in another. People are mingling, talking, laughing; glasses are clinking left and right as waiters maneuver trays of champagne with amazing precision. We lean on the black baby grand piano and clink our own champagne glasses as the piano player begins a Frank Sinatra tune.
Tap. Tap. Tap. After a reasonable night’s sleep in which we were occasionally awakened by the rocking of the rails, Jacques has appeared with a continental breakfast, an assortment of warm, freshly made croissants and breads plus cheese, orange juice and coffee. We only nibble because a few hours later we will gorge on brunch in the dining car— a feast of lobster, crab and salmon and all sorts of meats and vegetables plus decadent desserts.
Since the Orient Express doesn’t leave the continent, we disembark at Calais, where motor coaches transport us through the Chunnel to Folkestone, England, where we board equally stunning British Pullman parlor cars. As we wind our way through the genteel Kent countryside seated in enormous cut-velvet wing chairs, stewards pour more champagne and serve tea with hot scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam. The glorious experience ends at Victoria Station promptly at 5:30 p.m.
If the Orient Express is your dream trip, you should know it is not without inconveniences. Remember, there are no private toilets, no showers and no air conditioning. We hit a hot spell in June and it was steamy. And fulfilling this dream isn’t cheap. The per person cost one way from Budapest to London is more than $2,600, which includes all meals but no alcoholic beverages. Still, despite these less-than-ideal realities, whenever I think about my greatest travel memories I recall my time aboard the Orient Express, the ultimate transport of the early 20th century.
As for that mysterious couple on the platform that day in Budapest, they remain just that: a mystery. We learned from another equally curious passenger that the couple had two adjoining compartments (the train’s version of a suite) and they dined alone at the 9:30 dinner seating. We never learned any more. Fortunately, no one was murdered on board— at least not that we know of.
The Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express operates between March and November. Travelers can choose between 10 different routes and itineraries. Rates range from $800 to $8,450 and include all meals and accommodations. 800-524-2420, http://www.orient-express.com