The train trip from London to Venice aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE), one of the most storied train services in the world, transports you, not just across Europe, but back in time when travel itself was a luxurious experience. With its polished wood, sumptuous upholstery, and antique fixtures, the train epitomizes the glamor and elegance of the Golden Age of travel. This instant dose of nostalgia made me feel like I was transcending a time zone reminiscent of the 1902s or 1930s.
This type of service aboard many luxury trains collectively known as the “Orient Express” still operates today despite the fact that many assume this type of travel vanished decades ago along with old-school luxury cruises and PanAm clipper flights across the Atlantic. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, as it is officially known (called the Simplon because it once utilized the Simplon Tunnel to transverse the Alps) carries on the tradition of the original train service. It continues to run the route from London to Paris, Zurich, Innsbruck, Verona (through the Brenner Pass) and on to Venice. Travelers revel in the train’s ambience, gourmet meals, and superior service all the while seeing some of Europe’s most beautiful and historic scenery. This iteration of the “Orient Express” began in 1982 when James Sherwood of Kentucky bought and restored carriages when the original Orient Express service was passed on to the national railways of France, Germany, and Austria. He spent 16 million dollars refurbishing 35 sleeper, restaurant, and Pullman carriages mostly dating from the 1920s and 1930s.
For lovers of history, romance, skullduggery, and mystery, there is no better train in the world. The legendary Orient Express calls to mind films like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” (1938), Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974; remake 2017), and many, many more. Television, too, has chosen this train for some of its programming, like the syndicated TV series, “Orient Express,” that ran in the early 1950s, and “Mystery on the Orient Express,” a television special featuring illusionist David Copperfield who at the end of the show made the dining car seemingly disappear!
Several years ago I booked passage on the journey from London to Venice. This overnight trip departs from London’s Victoria Station where there is a designated waiting area for Orient Express passengers. Like the train itself, this restricted area is lavishly decorated and furnished. Exotic foods and refreshment were readily available until boarding time which is just before 11 a.m.
When I finally boarded the gleaming carriages of the British Pullman train, my steward showed me to my reserved seat at a meticulously arranged table in one of the dining cars. In fact, this train, for the UK leg of the journey, is actually a dining train and so there are no cabins as such. This short journey to the coast takes only a few hours during which I enjoyed a delicious meal beside a wide window affording a panoramic view of the Kentish countryside. The three-course meal was billed as a “brunch” and was served with Bellini (a cocktail of Prosecco sparkling wine and nectar that originated in Venice) together with all the expected accouterments.
The train rumbled out of Victoria slowly across the Thames past Battersea Power Station, then quickened its pace towards the Folkestone station which is very near the channel. At Folkestone I transferred onto a luxury coach which would be my vehicle for crossing the English Channel. Previously my crossings of the channel had been by ship. This time I transversed these waters utilizing one of the greatest engineering feats of the modern period, the Chunnel Tunnel. This joint British-French marvel now carries more people across the channel each day than all other methods combined including the airlines. Cars are not permitted to drive through, but rather all vehicles, including buses and trucks, must be driven into one of the oversized transport carriages and ride the Eurostar train.
The Channel crossing itself took less than 30 minutes, although from the U.K. train to the European train required over two hours. Hostesses escorted me every step of the way and assisted with the paperwork and exit/entry formalities. Upon arrival in France, the coach dropped me at the station where I boarded one of the blue and gold carriages of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. This would be my home for the next 24 hours or so. As I boarded, once again, perfectly polished wood greeted me like walls of rippled caramel as I was escorted to my cabin which would serve as both my bed during the night and easily Europe’s finest window-seat during the day.
Throughout my journey, I was attended by my own personal cabin steward who welcomed me on board with a glass of sparkling wine. He then led me to my private compartment where I settled in. While there are no showers aboard this train, each compartment has a small bathroom containing a sink and toilet. Like the rest of this train, it is impeccably equipped and furnished. Soon it was time to dress for dinner so I donned my tuxedo and strolled to one of the three magnificent restaurant cars. Here I was served a delicious four-course dinner, prepared by the train’s skilled French chefs. After dinner I retired to the bar car where I enjoyed the sound of the baby grand piano. When I later returned to my compartment, it had been transformed into a cosy bedroom by my cabin steward.
I awoke stunned by the magnificent scenery of the Swiss Alps. I immediately opened the door to my compartment so that I could see the scenery from both sides of the train, as well as chat with other passengers who like me were taking pictures in rapid succession. Even though I was a bit hungry, the scenery was so overwhelming that I was hesitant to ask my cabin steward to bring my breakfast! I finally relented and reviewed my photos while enjoying a fantastic breakfast. Then I spent an hour in the Bar Car chatting with fellow guests while comparing spectacular photos of the Alps. Then I walked to the onboard Boutique to buy a few souvenirs to help me remember this exceptional, one-of-a-kind journey.
Around 12:30 I enjoyed a leisurely three-course lunch served in another of the beautiful restaurant cars while continuing to admire passing scenery as the train traveled through the Italian Dolomites. During lunch the train stopped for a few minutes as it prepared to cross the border into Italy. Still later the PA system informed me that the train was approaching the Brenner Pass. This mountain pass through the Alps forms the border between Italy and Austria. It is one of the principal passes of the Eastern Alpine range and has the lowest altitude among Alpine passes in this area. The central section of Brenner Pass covers a four-lane motorway and railway tracks connecting Bolzano in the south to Innsbruck to the north.
Later, afternoon tea was served in my compartment as I traveled through the Italian countryside. Soon I saw ahead the Venetian Lagoon and I reluctantly set about to pack my suitcase for departure. The Venetian Lagoon, stunning in its own right, occupies about 212 square miles and encircles many small islands including Venice. Only about 10 percent of this area is permanently covered by water, or canals (network of dredged channels), while around 80 percent consists of mud flats and salt marshes. The lagoon is the largest wetland in the Mediterranean Basin and is connected to the Adriatic Sea by several inlets. I found myself snapping off digital photos until the train slowed to a crawl. All too soon it pulled into Santa Lucia station in Venice.
I bid farewell to my exceptionally attentive cabin steward and walked along the platform, still admiring the detail of the carriages that make up this train. Heading for the exit to the water-taxi pier in front of the station, I turned for a fleeting glimpse of this marvelous train having just completed a train journey of a lifetime.
Next time: “Antarctica: The Frozen Continent”