Lorraine Worsley-Carter takes a once-in-a-lifetime trip on the
As a railway man’s daughter, train travel has always been a big part of my life, as has my love of all things Art Deco. So, to be treated to a trip, nay, the once-in-a-lifetime experience, of travelling on the famous Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE), will forever be a special moment for me.
My husband presented me with the itinerary: first, a flight from Manchester to Venice, followed by a private water taxi to a gorgeous hotel on the Grand Canal, and then, after two nights, off to Santa Lucia station where we’d board the VSOE on her inaugural journey of the year all the way to Calais. At Calais we would go via the Channel Tunnel to Folkestone and, soon after, board the Belmond British Pullman for yet more delights.
The Orient Express train does not operate between December to March each year because the carriages are taken to the workshop in Clemont-Ferrand where everything from the Chinese lacquer work to the mechanical components are pampered, cleaned, restored and skilfully spruced. So we were excited to be amongst the first travellers of the year to board the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
Venice, magical as ever, decided to smile upon us and provide spring sunshine whilst we worked through some of our checklist of attractions we had been unable to enjoy during our last visit. The Doge’s Palace did not disappoint and, while I may have felt like the only person deciding to take an arty photo from inside the Bridge of Sighs, looking out on the Lagoon, I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am just one of many!
Although we loved the Palace, I am also grateful to be one of the many people to leave as, sadly, many of the prisoners across the centuries who saw that view weren’t quite so fortunate. We found an American bar that my friend, Lynne, had recommended for the great ambiance – although she hadn’t noticed that the ceiling was adorned with hundreds of ladies’ bras!
We dined by candlelight under heaters at the water’s edge along the Grand Canal and, after reading all the restaurant guides, decided, following a hunch, to choose our own restaurant. We chose well. The restaurant, Antico Pignolo, turned out to have been the setting for David Lean’s 1955 film ‘Summertime’, starring Katharine Hepburn. We promised ourselves that next time we visit Venice it will be during the summer months and that we shall dance as the lovely KH did within the garden of the restaurant.
At last, the morning of our train adventure arrived and, although usually I could never imagine wanting to leave Venice, we were both keen to begin our return journey because it would be on the Orient Express!
A water taxi picked us up from the Hotel L’Orlogio and we were soon joined by some fellow travellers. Feeling as though we were actors from a scene in Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, we were joined first by two females – an elderly aunt and her pretty young niece. Further along the Grand Canal, two more of our party, a mother and her adult son… would there be romance here between the young man and pretty young woman, I mused, as they both shyly nodded a greeting to each other… or worse… would there be a murder? OK, the thought didn’t last long, but I do have a vivid imagination.
We disembarked at the railway station and looked for our platform – and there was the train! Oh my!
At 11am the barriers were removed and my husband and I, along with the rest of the excited throng, all dressed in our best clothes, moved forward with a spring in our step, mainly due to the band playing on the platform. We hurried to climb aboard this time capsule, delighted to become even a small part of the train’s incredible history, and to find the carriage that would be our home for the next 24 hours or so.
Each carriage has a glamourous history dating back to the 19th century. I am forever thankful that, in 1977 when we were all enjoying disco fever, the American entrepreneur, James B Sherwood, embarked on a mission to bring the train, launched in 1893, back to life. He started by purchasing two original carriages at auction in Monte Carlo and did not rest until he tracked down the lost ones. What a day that must have been in 1982 when the train was relaunched to global applause. How wonderful that the first guests that day, like myself years later, could marvel at the Art Deco marquetery restored by Bob Dunn, whose grandfather had worked on the originals.
Back to our arrival on board. We were met by our personal steward, resplendent in the train’s blue and gold livery, and shown to our private cabin. We sipped sparkling wine from crystal glasses amidst the polished wood panelling as the train moved off and chugged over the Venetian Lagoon.
Just enough time to change for our three-course lunch, served in one of the three dining cars. The restaurant cars were added in the 1920s, although these too had been lost until found by the aforementioned saviour. Our dining car, the Cote d’Azur, with its Lalique glass, was instantly my personal favourite, the famous panels depicting Bacchanalian maidens. René Lalique had originally created this masterpiece, along with numerous pieces on board, and the master glassmakers at Lalique had loving restored them all. I was still keen to dine in the other two famous dining cars and was reassured that we would also be dining in each during our bygone-age journey.
The menus for our forthcoming gourmet dining were each more enticing than last. Many of the fresh ingredients for certain dishes would be picked up along the route. Melt-in-the-mouth steak, foie gras, Mont-St-Michel salt marsh lamb and then roasted gilthead bream, carpaccio of sea scallops, caviar and blue lobster for the fish eaters amongst our throng. As for me, who has a fish allergy, I was cared for in the most exemplary culinary way, with gorgeous meat dishes with a French twist. Being a dessert lover, the raspberry macarons and Sichuan-peppercorn ice cream have lingered in my memory long after the flavours vanished. I am personally grateful and honoured to have met Head Chef, Christian Bodiguel, the most self-effacing chef I have ever had the privilege to meet. He has worked for VSOE for over 30 years and his sublime cuisine is an unforgettable part of the journey.
The senses were hit from all sides as we ate a heavenly meal and watched through the restaurant car windows as the spectacular scenery of the valleys, dotted with chalets, led on to the soaring mountains of the breath-taking Italian Dolomites. Back in our cabin, we drew back the oak panel to reveal a washbasin with monogrammed towels and lovely toiletries. We eagerly read about some of the illustrious Orient Express travellers of the past. The adventure we were part of had also been embraced by film stars, royalty and even spies. The magnificent Orient Express has taken passengers such as King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, Marlene Dietrich, Mata Hari and Grace Kelly across Europe in unsurpassed style. Reading then stopped for afternoon tea, with sparkling wine, served in our cabin.
On we travelled, through the snowy Brenner Pass, and, after a stop-off to stretch our legs along the platform at Innsbruck station, it was time for us and our fellow travellers to ‘dress to impress’ and head to the Champagne Bar, where the strains of the baby grand piano accompanied our champagne cocktails. An exquisite four-course gourmet dinner followed our aperitif, this time in the gorgeous Etoile du Nord Restaurant Car, resplendent in its delicate marquetery. Obviously, more champagne was required to toast such perfection.
On returning to our carriage we found that our steward had transformed our seating into upper and lower berths with crisp damask sheets, blankets, chocolates and two kimonos, to save blushes on nipping to the elegant mosaic toilets available at the end of each carriage. We awoke to find ourselves in France and soon a delicious breakfast was brought to us, then off to the bar car for coffee and the writing of postcards, as well as a trip to the onboard boutique, followed by… a three-course lunch, of course. This time we were in the L’Oriental Restaurant Car with its exotic black lacquer walls, bearing fabulous designs in vibrant hues.
All too soon we were in Calais, and our glamourous journey through Venice, Verona, Lichtenstein, Austria, Germany and France came to an end. After teary goodbyes to the wonderfully devoted onboard team, we were taken by coach to Folkestone and were soon, once again, back in the age of elegance, aboard the Belmond British Pullman with legendary 1920s carriages from the Brighton Bell and Golden Arrow.
As on the VSOE, we were treated to exquisite marquetery, plush seating, elegant glasses, crisp linen and beautiful flowers. Each British Pullman carriage exhibits its own history; for example, Minerva has Edwardian-type marquetery, Zena was used in the film ‘Agatha’, whilst Purseus was reserved for Royalty – indeed, HM the Queen has been a passenger and the carriage was used as Winston Churchill’s funeral train in 1965.
While travelling through the Kent countryside in our private carriage, we feasted on an afternoon tea featuring the crumbliest tartlets, gorgeous sandwiches, scones and seasonal cakes, with more champagne, and peppermint tea to follow.
We disembarked in London from this icon of luxury train travel, an experience of pure theatre – the end of our journey of a lifetime.