Romancing the Rails

Travel consultant Catherine Addé found herself on the journey of a lifetime aboard the legendary Orient Express.

BY: Catherine Addé

Unpacking my suitcase on the bed, I pulled out several souvenirs from my latest jaunt including a dressing gown and slippers emblazoned with the stylized logo “VSOE.” Sinking onto the bed, I shut my eyes, conjuring up the trip and savoring memories in a slide show of images flickering like movie scenes. While researching this trip, I soaked up the glossy photographs in the travel literature, but nothing prepared me to be swept away by the sheer luxury, opulence and romantic atmosphere of this rail journey aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

I love trains, so on this trip I thought it would be fun to embark first on an overnight train (on Halloween!) from Paris’ Bercy Station to Venice, Italy, where the Orient Express would depart a few days later. The atmosphere on the night train seemed to have an air of otherworldliness: The lights flickered and the electricity went out during dinner, my fork poised midair as I froze, not wanting to drop anything. A couple of jovial Spaniards beamed at me, whizzed past the dining car wearing their ‘Dia de los Muertos’ costumes, jostling past others who were swaying in time with the train’s motion.

The following morning, our train crept along as we chugged into Santa Lucia Station, arriving at 8 a.m. There is something magical about arriving into Venice by rail instead of airplane—the glimmer of water from the canals and the incredible light and sky beckon (Canaletto knew a good thing when he saw fit to paint big Venetian landscapes!). A young lady holding a sign with my name on it greeted me, collected my luggage and together we boarded a water taxi to the hotel. My Orient Express package included two nights in Venice at the Bauer Il Palazzo, a boutique hotel. The Palazzo is owned by a countess whose specialty is interior design, and also had a hand in crafting unique toiletries made with organic herbs from her garden. Bauer Il Palazzo is aptly described: “Sitting on the Grand Canal, is the quintessential Venetian fantasy.” It would be an ideal honeymoon spot, seemingly decorated for love—the silk wallpaper in my bedroom suite a rich rose color and on the ceiling a painting, trompe-l’oeil style, reminiscent of the Medici era.

After touring Venice, we (a group of six) excitedly boarded one of the most iconic trains in the world, the fabled Orient Express. Though originally built in the 1880s, the Venice to Paris sector of this service hit their zenith during the 1920s and ‘30s, but by the 1950s air travel increased, decreasing the demand for luxury trains as well as ocean liner voyages.

Thankfully, the rail cars themselves have been fully restored to their former glory with royal blue paint and gold lettering gleaming. At Santa Lucia, it was no wonder that curious onlookers swarmed about the station craning their necks for a peep in the windows of the sleeper and parlor cars.

A smiling Frenchman in a crisp bellhop uniform and cap handed me a glass of champagne in a crystal flute. He escorted me down the corridor, its wood paneled walls highly polished, proudly pointing out the amenities of my private compartment. It was cozy with bunk beds, although one could book two interconnecting cabins for more room. During the day, the cabin is made up as a sitting room and at night for sleep, with comfy mattress, crisp Frette linens and warm duvet, dimmed lights with robe and slippers handy. The cabins are also equipped with a wash basin closeted behind a wood panel, which reveals beautifully packaged toiletries adorned with the VSOE logo. However, true to its ‘old world European’ design, the lavatories are at the end of each sleeping car, i.e., down the hall (I was glad to see they thoughtfully provided dressing gown as luggage was stored in another car, and I had a fear of bumping into a fellow traveler in the hallway in my nightie in case I had to make a night time visit.).

The train left Santa Lucia at 11 a.m. in time for an early luncheon in the plush dining car. Lavish cuisine, prepared by French chefs served on gleaming china, also with the VSOE logo, is artfully arranged, almost too pretty to eat. I saved the menu for my scrapbook—noting we dined on braised duck covered with a potato and apple puree. At our table, we met a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary and the other couple may have been honeymooning based on the amorous glances they exchanged.

Heading back to the cabin, I decided to read and watch the scenery, which changed from Italian towns and villages with red roofs and campaniles to Austrian alpine type architecture as we approached Innsbruck. Afternoon Tea was served at 4 p.m. in each cabin—sandwiches, scones, clotted cream and the like—to hold us over until dinner time. And though dinner was also a memorable gastronomic experience, the scene in my mind that stands out the most was the post dinner gathering in the parlor car. Opening that door, haze in the air, one could imagine ladies in beaded flapper dresses holding long cigarettes—and though smoking is not allowed today—the ambience of the car held me in a trance. Ice tinkled in glasses, lights were low, enhancing the artistry of the exquisite inlaid marquetry walls, to top it off, a handsome Italian man was playing a baby grand piano. Some couples, dressed in black tie attire, canoodled on sofas in the corner. The piano man, clad in a smoking jacket gazed at me. Apparently he noticed that I entered unescorted; so he patted the bench beckoning me to sit beside him. Which, of course, one does if a handsome Italian piano player on the Orient Express asks one to sit with him—I mean, I didn’t want to be rude after all. When in Rome you know.

Overnight, the clackity-clack of the rails lull some to sleep —or not, if you’re a light sleeper, but this was a journey of a lifetime, so lack of sleep hardly mattered. Dawn broke and we were served continental breakfast in our cabins, followed by a sumptuous brunch of scrambled eggs with truffles and fresh lobster in the dining car. Our waiter informed us that local produce and provisions are loaded on board during one of the nighttime stops.

Finally, it was time to get ready for our arrival in Paris. Some couples would be disembarking there and some continuing on to Calais for a motor coach crossing in the Eurotunnel, where, once in England, they would board a British Pullman train from Folkstone to Victoria station in London. This restored British train is also a component of the Orient Express brand, along with hotels and a riverboat. Recently the company name changed from Orient Express to Belmond—derived from the French phrase “Belle Monde,” or, beautiful world. Oh yes, I agree, it is a very beautiful world indeed. Returning to the present, I opened my eyes on my bed amid the souvenirs, a tiny Limoges box, chocolates, fragrant soaps. I thought what a great thing it is that the romance of travel during its golden era can be relived today thanks to the investment of a painstaking restoration of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train, for it is a classic, altogether splendid and marvelous.

         Catherine Addé, is a native of Pasadena, a Certified Travel Counselor affiliated with TravelStore and Signature Travel Network. She has a Master’s Degree in Tourism Management and has held executive positions with Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Windstar and Cunard Line Ltd.

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